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St. Lou Fringe Festival Is Back — With Opera, Experimental Works And More

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St. Lou Fringe
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A total of 22 independent productions comprise this year’s St. Lou Fringe Festival, which wraps up Sunday.

Jacqueline Thompson’s St. Louis acting credits run deep. In recent years, she’s portrayed everyone from Esther in New Jewish Theatre's “Intimate Apparel” to Regan in St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s “King Lear.” But this week, she’s taking on an entirely new challenge with “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.”

“It’s exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. I agreed because, I mean, it’s nothing like I’ve ever done,” Thompson told St. Louis on the Air. “And I think there is some magic in not knowing, right? And it’s actually, too, stretching myself as an actor and performer, because I have nothing. I know nothing.”

The whole concept behind Nassim Soleimanpour’s play forbids the actors from seeing the script in advance. So when Thompson takes the stage under the big red top in Grand Center on Saturday in front of a St. Lou Fringe Festival audience, she’ll be coming at the “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” plot completely fresh.

“I’m always looking for inspiration [and] daydreaming of things I’ve never done before or parts I’ve never played or scripts that I have never seen anywhere else that I can create or write. So the unknown, again, is super exciting and also terrifying,” she said. “I cannot stress that enough.”

Matthew Kerns
St. Lou Fringe
Matthew Kerns has been heading up St. Lou Fringe for about five years now.

The production is among 22 independent ones in the spotlight this month during Fringe Festival’s 10th anniversary season, which got underway last Friday and runs through this Sunday. The event is a hybrid affair this year, featuring both virtual and outdoor, in-person presentations. The annual effort prides itself on highlighting original, uncensored and independent work from artists near and far, with Grand Center the geographical focus of the performances.

“There’s been a lot of tragedy in the world, but one of the great things that came of this is the pioneering new space that is the digital performative arts,” Matthew Kerns, St. Lou Fringe’s executive director, told host Sarah Fenske on Tuesday’s show. “And artists are out there really wanting to stay in that space and develop it further. So we’ve started the first part of the festival with those digital works that people are excited about, and we’re moving into real-time events this weekend for the first time in 19 months.”

Among the local connections within this year’s virtual lineup is an in-process opera about the late poet Sara Teasdale, a St. Louis native who in 1918 received the first Columbia Poetry Prize — now known as the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Titled “Flame and Shadow: The Passion and Pain of Sarah Teasdale,” the work is by composer Nika Leoni, a St. Louis resident. It was showcased this past Saturday but will also be available on demand starting early next week, once the festival has ended, at stlouisfringe.com.

“I was hooked on her poetry right away, from the first page,” Leoni said. “And her poetry was an immediate draw of inspiration. Interestingly enough, Sara Teasdale called her poems songs. And what I noticed from the first minute I started reading is that I started hearing music.”

Leoni also became emotionally immersed in Teasdale’s inner life, which was marked by beauty and passion as well as loss and despair.

Inside The 10th Anniversary Season Of The St. Lou Fringe Festival
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with Fringe's executive director, Matthew Kerns.

“It was dramatic and so emotional that one day I was sitting at a lunch date [with a friend], and I guess I was so emotionally involved in the story, that [my friend] immediately said, ‘This is such a dramatic story, it belongs on an opera stage,’” Leoni recalled.

Another Fringe production with St. Louis at its center is “Con College,” a darkly comedic play set in a Washington University dorm room. Playwright Sam Rozier, a Hazelwood, Missouri, native, describes it as a story about brotherhood, loyalty and disillusionment.

“For all intents and purposes, [Davey, the main character, is] a good kid. The catalyst for the story is when his older brother and foil, Jake, escapes prison and hides out in his dorm,” Rozier explained. “So it’s kind of a messed-up version of ‘The Odd Couple.’”

Kerns said the development of “Con College” speaks to his “favorite story” about Fringe and what the festival regularly seeks to do.

“It gives opportunity and space to emerging artists who don’t have opportunity otherwise,” he explained. “This is the world premiere of Sam’s play. … He went out to the woods for a week — he texted me right before and he’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to the woods for a week to rewrite the show.’ … The excitement and the energy that comes with these new, upstart works is just so incredible and powerful.”

Related Event
What: St. Lou Fringe Festival’s 10th anniversary season
When: Friday, August 13, through Sunday, August 22, 2021
Where: Various venues (both virtual and outdoor, in-person venues in Grand Center)
For more information, see stlouisfringe.com. Many of the virtual events that were the focus of last weekend’s portion of the festival will be available to purchase for on-demand viewing beginning Aug. 23.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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