Sick burn, bro.

There is a tendency among some in the theatre community to jump on another theatre’s problems in almost a gleeful, childish “Oooooo! You’re in trouble!  Wait ’til mom hears about this!”  This is not intended to be that sort of post.

In the late 90’s, Penn & Teller brought their show to Chicago for a short run at what was then the Shubert Theatre.  The show, as expected, was great.  The major technical requirement for the performances was to add additional structural support to the stage floor, so two forklifts could be used for a giant “Is this your card?” trick.  The show was about 2 hours, give or take.

During the performance, the lights dimmed to shift into the next trick-scene. This time they stayed dim, and the stage bare.  Through the speakers, Penn’s voice announced: “Ladies and gentlemen!  Welcome to the Chicago Fire Marshal’s ‘Theatre of the Imagination!’

Penn then entered from the wings, juggling three unlit torches.  He did the entire act: dropping one to the floor, commenting on yelling fire in a crowded theatre, blasting it repeatedly with a fire extinguisher.  It was obvious that the torches were supposed to be burning.  However, as the act was primarily about Penn’s banter, it was still entertaining.  Once the scene was over, he exited, the stage lights came up, and Penn came back onstage.  To the best of my recollection, this is what he said:

Thank you so much for bearing with us on that.  We honestly had never been anywhere that, no matter how much we begged, promised, or bribed: still would not let us use fire.  And we found out too late to come up with something else to replace that 10 minute portion of the show.

Everyone applauded, and the rest of the show went on.  It was not the main point of the show, it was not an advertised bit of the show.  Heck, it wasn’t even the best trick of the show.  But no one left disappointed.

Last night was Redmoon Theatre‘s first “Great Chicago Fire Festival” on the Chicago River between State Street and Columbus Drive.  The major draw of this one night only event was the burning of three separate floating “houses.”  Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen.

Rain earlier in the week and in the day likely had a lot to do with that.  The word given, once it became obvious that the big fires weren’t coming, was an “electrical problem” with the ignition system.  An estimated 30,000 people had lined both sides of the river to watch, many waiting hours in the cold to do so.  Reports indicate that only one of the houses burned much at all, leaving the 2/3s of the audience at the viewing areas for the other two houses even more frustrated.  After about a 20 minute delay, the decision was made to move on to the fireworks (which by all accounts were quite good), and the rest of the show.

But the damage was done, and the real burns began:

Great Chicago Fire Festival fails to ignite. -Chicago Sun-Times

Some feel burned by Great Chicago Fire Festival. -Chicago Tribune

Talk about a slow burn on the Chicago River” -Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Great Chicago Fire Festival fizzles after electrical problems. -ABC7 News

Chicago Fire Fest fizzles after technical problems. -WGN-TV (with a video titled Chicago Fire Festival Failure)

After much fanfare, last night’s Great Chicago Fire Festival appeared to neither have greatness nor fire nor a particularly festive atmosphere. [For the finale, anyway.]” -Chicagoist

Not to mention the many comments on social media.

This event had a few things going against it from the beginning:

  1. It was outdoors.  Yes, the river aspect added challenges, but being outdoors and exposed to the elements required planning for all conditions.
  2. It was a one-time only performance.  No real rehearsal under likely conditions, no do-over.  This type of performance will always have some problem, it’s just a matter of if the audience will notice.
  3. It was promoted primarily on one thing: a large technical element.  Not the story, not the performers.  A large technical element.  It could have just likely been freezing that portion of the river or having a giant robot walk down State Street, but it was promising a single big thing to happen.  Everything else was just supporting that big thing, which means that big thing needs to happen.

When you are promising a big thing as the main draw, you better have that big thing when the moment comes.  Redmoon had three versions of its “big thing” and says that it had problems with the electrical igniters in all three.

That’s a tech problem. Three independent igniter systems all failing?  Thats’ not a fluke.  That’s a mistake.  And that’s a really big mistake with a $2,000,000 budget.

We’ve all had technical problems on shows.  But we’re normally selling the story, not the effects.

This isn’t a matter of art.  Art wasn’t the selling point: it was the bonus.  The selling point was three floating houses burning for your entertainment.  They didn’t.  The bonus stuff worked, and the main event did not.

You can’t blame the media for jumping all over this.  It was hyped for months, closed down part of the river and surrounding streets in the center of the third largest city in the country, and had $350,000 in tax money help fund it.

You can’t blame the people who were disappointed.  They waited in the cold (and through the reading of the long list of corporate sponsors) for something that didn’t happen.

This wasn’t some all-volunteer thing a la Redbull Flugtag where it was a bunch of barges from multiple groups and they all had different problems with getting theirs to burn but hey we all came together and had fun right?  This was an expensive, professional, single group production.  The criticism of it failing to to deliver on the one thing it had promised is warranted.

I like Redmoon Theatre.  They have done, and will continue to do, great work.  I’m glad the mayor has committed, even after last night’s problem, to making The Great Chicago Fire Festival an annual event.  They will lick their wounds, look over what went wrong, and make it better.  It has a great concept, and a lot of potential.  May I suggest planning for the weather, and not selling the whole thing on a single technical moment next time.

Own this year’s problems next year, and feel free to use the slogan I suggested last night on Twitter:  “The Great Chicago Fire Festival: Ignite your imagination!

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