The opening of Traces has put circus on the mind here at ArtsEmerson. We are fortunate to be in a city with an impressive community of organizations and performers dedicated to the many arts that make up Circus performance. Here flame artist Ember Flynne talks about the perceptions and legalities around fire performance.
“So what do you do?” It’s a typical date question. He takes a sip of his coffee and waits for me to answer.
“I’m a performance artist.”
“Oh? What kind?”
“I do circus acts with fire.”
“Whoa there,” he chuckles, “you’re not going to light me on fire, are you? Like, burn my house down if we break up or something?”
There it is: the dreaded “burn my house down” joke.
I know that the people who make these sorts of comments are just trying to be funny, but I’ve heard it all before, and frankly, it’s a sore spot for me. Associating fire performance with property damage is neither witty nor particularly polite, and it’s an issue that gets brought up with unnecessary frequency in my professional life.
While it may seem hard to believe, your house is probably safer with me than it is with you. Unlike the average American, fire performers are well aware of the specific hazards involved with working with open flame. We know how different kinds of accelerants behave, have a detailed understanding of environmental risks, and regularly consider a whole host of other factors that can affect the safety of a space at any given moment. We have a deep-seated respect for fire, its dangers, and the people who dedicate their lives to fighting it.
The problem is, those people don’t always trust us. It’s their job to stop fires, so when I tell them that I start fires (no matter how small, safe, and controlled they may be), the first thing they think is “whoa there. You’re not going to, like, burn my house down, right?”
And so, near the end of 2011, I found myself conducting a forum on the issue at a professional conference in Connecticut. At the time, I was part of a responsible college group that had a very good relationship with the local authorities. I wanted to share our experiences with fire performers from all over the country, learn what other communities were like, and ultimately teach responsible fire artists how to make a good first impression when faced with prejudice from local authorities. I wanted to protect my little group of fire performers from any bad impressions others might accidentally create, impressions that could someday keep us from doing what we loved.
Since then, fire performance has become a large part of my livelihood. I’ve conducted numerous forums on fire performance legality, talked to dozens of fire department officials, and learned a lot about how state and local laws affect my ability to do my job. The short version is this: a lot of authorities having jurisdiction don’t know what fire performers do. This isn’t their fault—we’re a pretty rare breed. So they don’t know how we’re different from pyrotechnicians, they don’t know how our process works, and they don’t know what makes a fire performance safe or unsafe. Often they don’t know what regulations exist for fire performers and they don’t know how to apply them. But since it’s their job to keep their communities safe, if something bad happens, they’re the ones taking the heat.
Massachusetts has one of the highest populations of fire artists in the continental US, some of whom work as independent professionals, with businesses like Boston Circus Guild, or practice with college or community groups. Without legal provisions that adequately support the implementation of responsible practices, local fire marshals were left with the responsibility of evaluating fire performances without any standardized guidance. This state of affairs was putting fire departments in a difficult position and occasionally preventing responsible artists from getting work.
Last year my colleague Michael “Mooch” Mucciolo and I reached out to the State Fire Department to open a dialogue. We wanted to educate fire department officials about what we do and discuss the possibility of establishing regulations that would make it easy for fire performers and fire department officials to work together. In April, we were honored with an invitation to speak at the Fire Prevention Association of Massachusetts annual educational conference, where we presented information on fire performance, gave several live demonstrations, and voiced our support for the new Massachusetts fire code (which includes an amended version of NFPA 160, a regulation that applies exclusively to fire art). The evening concluded with a free performance by eight of the state’s top fire performers.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, and with any luck, improving the way we approach fire performers will get Massachusetts one step closer to becoming the haven for the performing arts we all believe it can be.