How did a sword troupe come to work with fire? Someday I will talk about how I ended up in/running a sword troupe but today I want to talk about a much bigger turn that led to a stranger place.
I have a friend who is an idea factory. He seriously churns out things as a side note that I wish I could catch and tuck away for later. We’ve diverged in path significantly but initially we were both interested in working at renaissance faires and had worked together in a troupe. He didn’t want to do sword work any more-he wanted to play with fire. My strength is that I make things pretty and am very good at promoting OTHER people. We made an agreement that we’d put him under our troupe umbrella and handle boring things like promotion, act details and contracts and book shows for him. We did that but unfortunately he became bored with fire and performance. He sold us his props and I found another colleague from the same group that did fire but with different tricks-and he too, was done with swords. I breathed a sigh of relief, same deal, shows covered.
And then, he had to give it up as well. Sadly, we still had shows scheduled. I begged him and he agreed to train me and any interested parties in Phoenix Swords how to use and be safe with fire. Little did I know how many people think fire is sexy and how much it would change the face of the troupe!
I bought some props for me to try-fire fans. They looked a little less intimidating than say, juggling or devilsticks. We had two dancers that took to this immediately and wrote up a set of choreography to do.
Undeterred, I found a bigger set of fans-which then were bought by a member and he took them over as his thing.
In the meantime, two members invested in a set of fire swords and took over that part of the business-my second fire guy was nice and continued to train anyone interested. This led to us starting a division called “Phoenix Fire” because we had to do something about the fire training cutting into the sword training.
The shows we’d booked to that point involved the whole troupe and although we did a little fire work as a gate finisher at some faires or as individual bookings, it became clear that we had a full act on our hands and we needed to get a much more formal stage guide in place.
Stepping back a moment, as soon as I heard fire guy #2 was going to leave, I had to jump into the wonderful world of fire safety and performance with both feet. At that time, the only place anyone heard of doing what we do was with Burning Man or the occasional poi spinner or secret fire gatherings that were world-of-mouth. Like any subculture-first you have to FIND it and then you have to go in full-on invested. The places where I found the best information were at Home of Poi (in Australia) on Tribe.net and I read, read and read. And coming into it as an outsider I asked firefighters, burners, fire lovers, people who liked to grill-anybody and funneled all that into something we could use. Long story short, apparently I went about it the hardest way any human being could. But when I was finished, we had working procedures for safety, stage and tools. MSDS sheets for fuels (we don’t mix) an annual training, training booklet, step-by-step bits for each tool and a checklist with a quiz. And we made mistakes-and apparently had a reputation for being “safety Nazis.” The nicer people were just happy we showed up with tools and I was roped into doing a fair amount of spotting for other fire acts. One subcontractor expressed concerns about our first aid kit so I brought it over. His response was.
“Well, I asked about first aid and it appears we can survive a plane crash with this.”
(Our full first aid kit is bigger than carry-on luggage)
Friends and I have often discussed “the Curse of competence” that is, we inadvertently go so good at something that other folks start taking it for granted. Although I’d been the one to start the big push for fire, I did not get a significant piece of the stage action for nearly three years. I knew how to do most of the tricks and bits and could pinch-hit, some of the performers actively discouraged me from being onstage. We eventually figured out 1) they would have to share stage time (and honestly I don’t begrudge it) and 2) good spotters are hard to find. 3) Because, reasons.
So I developed (with some help from the internet) my own fire tool and we put it together. It had the bonus of being dangerous for men to use. That would be the fire meteors-which we’ve since discovered is the second most dangerous fire tool out there. And for me, I had to use the bigger monkey fists because I wanted the extra weight. (My gorilla arms, so hot)
But honestly, it began to be too much to be a stage manager, a spotter, props person AND help run the sword troupe. I tried delegating with mixed success. One summer we had some really awful interpersonal incidents. And when some barriers were removed (and some people) there was sudden peace and re-arrangement. We stopped doing a certain faire and it eventually disappeared. And now there are three to four troupes in the area that specialize in fire, it’s been an easy transition back to doing historical and stage sword work, with a bit of fire.
Some things we stopped doing were letting people go from practice to performance before a year with us (and fire) We used to have an issue with people staying just long enough to learn the tricks and then become competitors-or that we were not “burners” so they were disappointed. We have learned to ask A LOT of questions of anyone who wants to hire us. One would think inviting someone to come and play with fire in your backyard/venue would lead to concerns but in a number of cases it’s good we were proactive!
Anyway the summary of how I ended up working with fire is that I had to learn to make my bookings. Plenty of others have different reasons (and THAT is another whole blog entry) but it is pretty cool to work with once you realize it’s not an “if” but a “when” you will get burned. My partner teases me about being a little nuts to do it, and it did take two years before I could bring myself to fire-eat. But it does illustrate that you can start by being a certain thing but your business ends up going in a different direction. Some of the troupes I’ve seen ended up doing more marketing and less performance. Others saw how lucrative it was to sell the tools they use and ended up as vendors. Some started with weapons and that became the focus of their show. But by its very nature, fire can consume and not just with physical properties so be sure to be aware of ALL its aspects, even the commercial ones.