An Interview with St. Lou Fringe Festival Executive Director Matthew Kerns
About 70 years ago, while the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland was in its planning process, the producers had deemed a cast of artists unworthy of participating. Unbeknownst to them at the time, that group of artists would plan their own festival—aptly titled the Edinburgh Festival Fringe—and begin a spirited movement which eventually made its way to the United States and to St. Louis. “Our grandfather is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe,” says Matthew Kerns, executive director of the St. Lou Fringe Festival. It’s an artistic space that’s something like the wild, wild west of theatre, with headlining acts including a stage adaptation of “Snow White” directed by Lucy Cashion, the Ashleyliane Dance Company, and a new musical adaptation of an Anton Chekhov play called “A Song For Vanya.”
The festival’s performance lineup also includes a number of acts that toe the line between bizarre and genius. There’s a one-man show based on the board game Life; a woman who tells the story of her infertility with conversations between two vagina sock puppets; a one-man folk opera, and more. “I can’t even imagine what a one-man folk opera looks like,” says Kerns, laughing. “But I’m excited about it.”
Keep reading for our Q&A with Kerns—who directed “A Song For Vanya”—about his background in theatre, developing his own work and the time he saw Debbie Reynolds accidentally swallow a moth during a performance at The Muny.
How do you develop a program for this specific festival?
It’s part curated and part decided through a lottery system—so like uncurated festivals, we’re still pulling names out of a hat. We have 27 acts and over 100 performances in nine days, with discussion panels during the week—it’s completely action-packed with so much art.
For our mainstage series, we’re looking to give our local artists a large-scale platform that they can use to really develop a major piece of work—like what Lucy Cashion is doing with “Snow White.” She can be in the beautiful Grandel Theatre with a large stage, gorgeous lighting and sound all at her disposal to create a piece of work.
“A Song For Vanya” is a modern-day musical retelling of Chekhov’s play, “Uncle Vanya.” It’s about a family with all of these love triangles. There’s comedy, tragedy—everything you want in theatre. And for the participating performers, each one really becomes a trusted artist in our theatre community.
What makes great theatre?
A fire in your belly and a reason to say something. If you have that and need to unleash your voice, that’s what makes great theatre to me. I have a background in new and experimental work, developing work from scratch, and I love giving that voice to people.
The most magical night of theatre I ever had to date happened back when I was in high school. I was very amped up on musical theatre, and I had a ticket to see Debbie Reynolds play Molly Brown in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at The Muny. She was in the middle of doing one of those big, ballad-y numbers, and a giant moth flew in her mouth. She stopped and said, “I think I’ve swallowed a bug.” This little page brought her a glass of water and a napkin, and she looked at the crowd and said, “Well, that’s live theatre.” Then she clicked right back into it, like a champ.
It was a night of theatre that changed my life. A shared experience like that—how none of us will forget the night she almost choked on that bug, that we were worried and then laughed with her. You never get that from a movie or television. It was an amazing night.
Tell me about your background in theatre.
I have an undergraduate degree in performance, and then I moved to Chicago, where I was a teacher of theatre for a long time, as well as an actor, producer and director. I was there for 14 years and then decided to go to grad school.
I wanted to find a program that would teach me how to create work from scratch. I found it at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. They have a specific program about making original work, where all the celebrities of original work-making and performance art were. I wanted to learn from them. I was a member of a class of 10, and we spent time rolling around on the floor making work from scratch in a room with a few windows and fluorescent lighting. We’d ask the instructors, “What are we supposed to do?” They’d say, “I don’t know. That’s up to you.”
It’s greatly intimidating to work in an empty space, without someone else’s play or music to rely on. Having to turn towards my own words, music and writing gave me the skills, confidence and belief in myself to make my own original work. I love doing it, and I love supporting people who do the same thing.
What is your work about?
A lot of my work is about telling the stories of the gay movement. As a gay man, I feel like it’s my plight. During the Reagan era, it wasn’t until AIDS started affecting straight people and children that people cared. The gay community didn’t matter.
One piece I wrote, called “Chicken,” is about how I was misdiagnosed with HIV and was led to live with that diagnosis for over a year. I was working in the yard at my flat in Chicago, and I had broken out in what I thought was poison ivy. I went to the doctor and as soon as they saw it, the nurse practitioner didn’t even do a test. She said, “That’s shingles. If you have shingles you must be HIV+.” That moment set off a year-long journey.
In an attempt to get a real answer, I saw one of the top HIV doctors in Chicago. It was just when the rapid test was coming out. He told me, “This test costs a lot of money, but it’ll be over and done with in 20 minutes.” We did the test, and he made me a human again. It was the question of not knowing as it stopped my life.