Part 1

by Pele


Originally I wrote this for a fire arts website I work for. Word of it had spread to the sideshow and magic communities in a small way and I knew when John approached me to write for Sideshow Central that this would eventually circle around.


Every stunt performer has an accident in their time, something that riles them up and gets under their skin, figuratively and literally. It is a fact we accept every time we step on a stage or rehearse. We know it is not an "if" situation, but a "when."  Then when it does happen, there is a feeling of shame that keeps many performers silent. That silence also keeps others from learning from our mistakes and our lessons. It is viewed as a black spot on our resume.  Yet, I am also finding it is respected as a growing pain. I have had two performers tell me that they felt I was now professional because I handled a crisis and healed my broken wings. That now that I know what can go wrong they felt I was more seasoned and able to really count myself as professional.  I don’t know about that but I do know that I have never performed as well or as cautiously since my accident, and I prior to the accident I never considered the many ways such a thing would effect my life.


July is always a busy month for performing and 2002 was the busiest I had ever faced. When I wasn’t performing, which seemed constant, I was choreographing, rehearsing, in meetings, designing and building. That same month we were suffering from the worst heat wave and drought we had experienced in years. Last minute reconstruction of sets, staging and props to accommodate the dry, hard ground made the lines between day and night blurry.  This was especially true on the night of July 19th.  Prometheus, my crewman at the time, and I were frantically making last minute changes to costumes and sets and the entire time I was filled with dread.


It is no secret I suffer from tremendous stage fright. About an hour before call time I shake, my stomach knots and once I get into character, I am fine.  The anxiety I felt that night was nothing like what I was accustomed to. It was this encompassing feeling of not wanting to do the show that kept me up at night. I buried myself in busy work to suppress the feeling but to no avail. I must have whined to Prometheus at least twice an hour about it, but without a solid explanation, my professional ethics would not allow me to back out from the 4 days and over 30 hours of performing ahead of me.


On Wednesday, July 20th at 3pm I met my call time. Prometheus pushed me to be on time and as we were walking on the fair grounds I was still making last minute adjustments to my costume. I dragged everything out during set up and check. When I finally had to admit set up completion, I took stock of what was around me. A few vendors, some ride jocks and a farm family too interested in their food to see what I was doing.  Dave, one of the producers, came scooting by in his golf cart. As he eyed up everything, he inquired about my start time in that producers have, like a parent telling a child to do something without it seeming like they are actually telling.  As he drove away he told me to be safe, and I smiled and shrugged. I had checked all of my safety gear at least 4 times. In my mind, I was prepared to be safe.


It was a blustery day. Wind reached gusts up to 30 mph. It was so dry that mini-dust devils pelted us with pebbles and dirt each time the wind surged.  I had been gauging the wind all day, and though it was strong it was consistently blowing to the east. I discussed my options with Prometheus and we agreed that while the wind would carry all the spinning fire tools, rendering them nearly uncontrollable, that fire breathing would be my best approach. I had fire breathed in high winds countless times and felt very secure in doing it one more time.


So, with my pride on the line and a “Show must go on” attitude that I swallowed my trepidation, allowing a producer to dictate what I should and shouldn’t do, I prepped my torches when I should have listened to my better judgment and walked away.  The vendors made typical sounds of fear and impression as the plume of flame unfolded before them. Here is where things become hectic. As the last push of fuel left my mouth and I stepped back to wipe and breathe, the wind shifted.  The fire dissipated over my head without igniting the last bit of aspirated fuel in the air, which blew straight into my face as I was inhaling. The fuel went up my nose and into my lungs. It took less than an instant but I knew immediately that I was in trouble.


To Be Continued…


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