Me at Otherwowld 2013
Me at Otherwowld 2013

I perform with fire. More than the average bear. Likely less than others. This is something I’ve been doing for years and I think I’m pretty ok at it. I perform fire fans, fire club spinning, and fire hoop solos as well as use fire poi and staff in group numbers. I spin fans, hoops, mini hoops, clubs, staff, double staff and really anything I can get my hands on and I juggle balls, rings and clubs. I stilt at festivals with my troupe and have put myself out on stage.

My troupe, Vesta Fire, and our more teaching and stilting focused side, Vesta Entertainment, are composed of three-five members at any given time including our kid interns, as well as a number of talented and awesome performers that I wish I could work more with. We have a lead safety on all gigs and every person in the troupe defers to them. That’s how we roll.

I had the dubious pleasure of spinning for someone else at a music festival. I’ll relay portions of the experience hopefully in a classy manner thusly:

You cannot have things ‘both ways’ or ‘all the ways’ and call yourself safe. The person I was working with thought they were doing enough. They were not. I trained their safeties, the ones that would listen to me. I asked to have a safety perimeter if we were spinning in a crowd of drunk/drugged out people, or to spin away from the crowd. I ended up spinning away from the crowd and being told to safety for my ‘friend’ while she endangered people by spinning in a space too small. I had to walk away eventually. I should have walked away after the second night of spinning when I talked with the person I was working for about my worries about safety where we were spinning… because someone got past one of the audience members I enlisted as an extra safety and walked right into the lit staff spinner. I was dismissed, told we ‘had’ to burn, and that it was going to go down exactly the same way it did the night before.

This affected my mental health, this affected the ‘performance’ I was able to give, this affected the audience because they didn’t know how to stay away from me.

So lets talk about audiences:

  • They do not know you can’t see them. They don’t care you are moving around while you can’t see them. They think that because they can see you that you aren’t going to hit them. They will walk into your burning space because the crowd watching you is in the way.
  • The other audience members WON’T STOP THEM. Even if they want to. Bystander affect is so hard to overcome.
  • They WILL NOT see or regard any cones you put up. Even if you put a rope over the cones. They’ll trip and fall into your space. Hopefully making enough noise that you notice them.
  • If you light them on fire instead of yourself let me tell you no amount of righteous indignation about that idiot walking into your space is going to make you feel better. Maybe that’s not true for you. But it is for me.

Crowds come to fire spinners. But more often than not they are super respectful and keep their distance. There’s a HUGE difference between a crowd coming to a fire spinner and a fire spinner coming to a crowd.

What is a safety perimeter even? I say this word. I do not know if you think it means what it actually means. So lets clarify: A safety perimeter is what lets the crowd know to come no closer. There are many different ways to mark out your safety perimeter. Really anything outside of a physical barrier in the form of a fence is not fool proof… and neither are physical barriers though.

My troupe uses rope to mark out our performance space; the space for the fire users no to move out of, and the crowd barrier; the space where the crowd is not to come closer than. This gives us a really awesome thing called no man’s land. When Vesta is performing, depending on what we’re doing we want it between 10-15 feet wide.

A google search turned this up. Look at that sexy doubled up safety perimeter. The crowd is well behind the line. The line is meant for the performers so that they know they won’t ever go into the crowd.

Safety perimeters can be cones. They can be rope. They can be flagging tape walked around the audience and passed out with a smile and a talk about ‘keeping our fellow audience members safe and not letting them cross this flagging tape’. Your audience wants you to feel safe. They want to connect with you too. Safety doesn’t have to be all snarls and growls. If you include your audience in your safety preparations… everyone has a better time.

A safety perimeter is a rather necessary thing if one is performing at an event with lots of people moving around, festival, street fair, public market. Where you cannot control the crowds by being on a stage or other raised platform, you really should be trying to control them to maintain your space.

When I say you, I mean your safeties. You as a performer shouldn’t be worrying about anything but giving the best show you can. Extra safety concerns are something I feel completely detracts from a person’s performance. Safety concerns affect a performance when things go wrong for certain. How wrong they go and how fast your show recovers is up to you and your safeties.

So lets talk now about safeties.

  • Are you sure that your safeties are going to be able to handle a crisis? Have they ever safetied before? No matter how sure you are that nothing is going to happen, you should be working with adults. In my Horrible Experience fire spinning for someone else I witnessed that person giving children fire blankets and trying to enlist them as safeties as if this was a fun learning experience for them. Children who were responding saying fearfully “I don’t want to be on fire!”. The night after someone walked past an adult and right into a lit fire staff spinner. That was their solution to adding safety? Children?
  • Your safety should know what to do if you actually do catch on fire. Have you told them that you can put out most spot fires on yourself without them putting you out if they just tell you where you’re burning? Have you told them that if they DO come in to put you out they have to notify you so that you can stop spinning the firey tools and hold them away from yourself? Do they know NOT to pat the fire out onto your body, but instead to pull the fire away from you and into the fire blanket? That’s how you get burns. These are things people don’t think about. THIS IS NORMAL. Enlisting people as safeties who have no idea what to do should there be a problem is sadly also normal. I went through these things with the safeties for the fire show at my Horrible Experience. And the safeties I trained were nowhere to be found the last night, meaning all new safeties and children got pulled in.

A note about the child that didn’t want to be on fire: I am absolutely certain his mother took him away soon after the Lead on this gig snatched the fire blanket I took away from said child and gave it back, sending him out to where she was going to take fueled poi into a crowd of people and spin. His mother came up to me and asked what was going on and went to go get her kid when I informed her that my ‘friend’ was enlisting her child to safety her against my better advice. I had to leave soon after she lit up because I wasn’t able to control my anger in that situation that I let myself get into.

If you want to spin without putting the work into making your audience safe, you can certainly do this. Despite being the person ‘in charge of the fire’ at this event, my superior didn’t care that there were other fire spinners who hadn’t checked in with her spinning off away from the crowd safely. With their own crowd of very respectful event goers watching from a respectful distance. I checked in with them in the beginning and then went back to apologize for at all implying that they were not safe because they weren’t checking in with the person ‘running’ the fire’ when the person  ‘running the fire’ was a menace to society in my opinion.

My superior here told me to fuck off when I asked for a safety perimeter. They were supposed to be running the fire portion of this event where on the second day someone in a puffy down jacket walked into a staff spinner who was on fire and on the third day the only thing done differently was fewer safeties.

A note about the staff spinner. He was deeply affected in the moment because he thought he had spun into the crowd. Having appropriate safety measures to what you are doing will prevent this tragic fear from realizing itself.

Nothing tragic happened at that event. This year. This is the second year they operated the fire like that. And I told both the organizers separately that if they allowed this person to run the fire like that every year someone was going to get hurt and it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

Hopefully they heard me.

Why am I upset about this? Why did I lose a friend over their complete disregard and disrespect for my concerns? Why did I consider; on Sunday morning, dumping the fuel so that no fire performance could possibly happen because I was almost sure my safety concerns were going to be ignored? I didn’t… and I wish I had trusted my instinct instead of letting someone say the things I wanted to hear and let myself think they were going to listen to me.

Because I feel implicated. If I see people spinning fire I’m more than likely to go and offer to safety them. Partly because I get to be closer to watch the magic. Partly because I know that in the case something goes up I am more than capable of putting it out with the least damage to the performer.

If I see people performing unsafely around their audiences, I’m aware that my troupe actually suffers when assholes light other people on fire. Because the organizers don’t just blame the individual usually… they blame all fire spinners and never hire a fire performance again.

Because I spin often enough to have had random things happen to me like my tools breaking. Literally breaking. I had a fire hoop that lost a wick right out of it and flung fire into the forest. It was winter and the wick landed in snow thank goodness. But that could have happened in a summer drought and caused a forest fire. That could have happened on stage when I’m surrounded by a crowd full of people wearing synthetic coats.

Shit happens.

I have taken to saying that I can tell an experienced fire spinner by whether or not they’re going to spin fire in a drought. I know an experienced fire spinner by whether they’re going to spin fire in a crowd without any perimeter at all.

Because people that aren’t safe don’t become experienced fire spinners. They become a disaster and usually stop thank goodness.

My good friend Lars doing a spin off with the All Mighty Kevin performing safety during his performance. This is at Grouse Mountain during their New Years Eve celebration to ring in 2015

What are some things that compromise safety? 

  • The thing that is going to compromise your safety most is trying to hold yourself to a specific vision against reality. When the reality of the situation turns out that you don’t have enough safeties to put on exactly the performance you thought you were going to be able to. For what ever reason. Maybe there are more audience members than were anticipated. Maybe they’re drunker. Maybe you had safeties not show up.
    • What do you do? Are you able to move your performance to a less crowded area? Do you have personal friends in the crowd that you can pull out and give a quick safety talk to? Can you defer your performance to a less busy time at the event? Even just putting off fifteen minutes can let crowds settle out.
  • So not having enough people is a problem. What are your performers doing? As I’ve said earlier here and I’ll say again and again. Giving a costumed performer the job of handing out a rope for the crowd to hold in their hands at waist height so that it will physically stop people and get their attention when someone pulls on it… this is an amazing time to connect with the audience and it lets them be an interactive part of the performance. THERE’S NO DOWNSIDE.

In my Horrible Experience what I should have done was walk away on Sunday morning when I was debating dumping the fuel so that no fire performance could happen. I thought I could make it safer by being there. But I wasn’t prepared to be a potential safety concern myself. I left when I realized I was emotionally compromised by the situation.

Remember. “NO” is your friend. Leaving is your helper. Your boundaries are yours and the only one who will respect them for sure is you.

Don’t cross your own boundaries because you think you might be able to save someone else’s ass. Even if you think it will burn you in the end by having an environment where employers are less likely to hire your troupe.

Let them burn.