There comes a time, when learning the art of fire-breathing, when theory doesn’t help you anymore. There comes a time when you have to light the torch and blow!
From the time I got the call to join New York City Opera’s production of Pagliacci to the time I had to actually become an expert at fire-breathing was about 24 hours. Luckily, I had worked with fire before. I’ve eaten fire for years (I learned inside my parent’s wooden A-frame house – much to their joy!). I’ve juggled torches before. But fire-breathing is a different animal. It was never a skill that interested me much. I have several friends who do it. Several friends who, not incidentally, have set their faces on fire. That interested me even less.
But, as I say, when Lincoln Center asks if you breathe fire, you say yes.
After a bit of online research and a quick call to a friend for support, fire balls lit up the Colfax sky for one night. Then it was time to pack my fuel can and head off to the Big Apple.
Technically, I am being hired as an understudy for the Fire-breather/Juggler. I’m guaranteed to go on stage twice during the run. Twice is a great number when you don’t really know what you are doing.
When I got to NY, there is some talk with the Fire Marshall about what fuel we will be using in the show. Most fire workers use camping fuel or lantern oil. The regular Fire-breather in this production wants to use 190-proof alcohol. It is less toxic than the other stuff, but it has its drawbacks.
To breathe fire, I have to take the fuel into my mouth and then spray it out quickly. After a couple of rounds of this with the grain alcohol, a couple of things happen:
1). I begin to feel a bit light-headed. The 95% pure alcohol is absorbed into my tongue and gums. Because I don’t drink alcohol in real life, I feel the dizzying effects immediately.
2). It burns! Oh, how it burns. My lips curl and start to shed a layer of skin. The roof of my mouth likewise begins to peel away much as it would if it were a burn from a hot pizza. As the liquid trickles down my throat, it feels remarkably like the bad case of strep I used to get in high school.
The Fire Marshall approves and we are on our way.
Privately, the regular fire breather pulls me aside. “Would you like to switch positions?” he asks. “You can be the regular fire breather and I will be your sub.”
“But why?”, I ask.
“Well, to be honest, I’ve never really breathed fire before. I learned how to do it for this production and I’m not sure I can do it well enough.”
So, I wasn’t the only one making it by faking it.
I convinced him to keep the gig. He would be fine, I told him. I had confidence in him, I said. Truth is, I just was more comfortable with him in the literal hot seat.
With the preliminaries over and the stage (literally) set, it was time to get to the business at hand. It was time to set fire to the clown.
(Continue to Part Three)