Keepers of the Flame
How the Detroit Fire Guild is igniting Detroit's most anarchic pagan parties
Published: May 4, 2011
"Theater Bizarre provided a completely surreal venue, where you fit in there and it looks natural," Surline says dryly. "It's OK that a guy's dressed like a demon and swinging fire around his face — what else would he be doing?"
Inspired by further trips to Burning Man, Ely says, "I saw all kinds of performance I'd never seen, before, but I wanted to bring it home. And not only to mimic it, but to try to do it better."
After a lot of organizing and practicing, the guild put on its first show one year ago, the Motor City Vaudeville Revue at a space in the Russell Industrial Center. Not only was the show a success, it sold out many nights. A much more ambitious endeavor, the MCVR didn't just showcase a bunch of performers, but used live music, the fire arts, and a story to keep the show moving.
"Without the collective effort, we wouldn't have been able to pull it off," Bradish says. "It just exploded with creative ideas and possibilities."
"We're insane about theatrics, characters, costumes," Surline adds. "Other groups are a bunch of people who look like fire dancers. We have clowns, gypsies, an actual storyline. It's much more than burning stuff."
And the group kept gigging with small cabaret shows at such venues as the Old Miami, the Painted Lady and Hamtramck's now-defunct Trowbridge House of Coffee. Last month, some of the crew performed at a birthday party at a church on Detroit's west side; within a week the group also gigged at Lincoln Park's Hustler Club. Small performances might feature just a fire dancer or two, but their larger productions have live music from the Bride Stripped Bare — a "punk cabaret" band with Surline and drummer-keyboardist Noel Rivard — or perhaps dance-inducing music from Bradish as DJ Intercom.
In January, the guild staged the Winter Ball, a performance environment that drew hundreds to the Eagle Theatre at Pontiac's Crofoot complex. With live music, DJ segments, pagan themes, fire performance, a shattered fourth wall, and a largely out-of-control audience, the guild seems to have hit upon a winning formula.
Ritual and Religion
There's one other surprise: It turns out that Grassa, Bradish and Surline — the nonconformist pyros who've helped create pagan-inspired festivals of fire, music and hedonism — all attended Pentecostal churches as youths.
Though Bradish was baptized and raised Lutheran by his grandparents, and had considered entering the seminary, after confirmation he left the Lutherans and decided to attend Pentecostal church with his mom — "to make her happy."
For those unfamiliar with the faith, sometimes members of a Pentecostal congregation will leap up during a sermon and "speak in tongues," moved to do so, the church believes, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes other parishioners will interpret and translate what is being said. Moved by the spirit, worshippers can jump around and even fall down unconscious.
Though Bradish now says he's somewhere between "a total nihilist and a post-religious fanatic," he says, "I have no belief, but I am obsessed with religion, how people experience it and how it affects them."
In fact, he first met Grassa when they attended the same church camp, at the Michigan Church of God in Fenton, in the late 1990s and early '00s. Astonishingly, Surline was also at the camp when Bradish and Grassa were there, though they don't recall meeting.
"Later on," Surline says, "we'd meet at Burning Man and put it all together. You know: 'Oh, my god!'"
Surline's religious experience was more confrontational. "I was always getting kicked out of Sunday school," he says. "I always felt like an observer, an outsider. I always felt like I was collecting this information for something later on. I never spoke in tongues — I don't think I could have taken myself that seriously."
During one desperate effort to save his soul, he endured the "exorcism" of a "demon" — and to purge him of sin, the church burned all his belongings for good measure.
At this point in the conversation, the metaphor is running way too rich. They all went to a church that believes the Holy Spirit — often symbolized by a flame — moves us to theatrics? And the church set fire to all Surline's worldly goods?
Surline laughs, admitting that no matter how far he runs from religion, some things just never change. "At the Motor City Vaudeville Revue, naturally, I played the pipe organ. And the seating was church pews! We were hauling around these church pews, getting the seating ready, and I had to realize I'd come full-circle. I even called my grandma and said, 'Grandma, I didn't escape it!'"
So are the fun-as-hell shows actually a concerted effort to take fire, formerly a sacred symbol, and celebrate it profanely?
Surline admits, "In creating our own rituals, it's cathartic to the ones we've shed. But most of our rituals are just celebrations of existence."
Fire guild co-owner and fire performer Christine "Majik" Bingham, 21, has dropped by the bar. The Clarkston native helped co-write the Fires of Beltane show, timed to coincide with the pagan holiday, and she is a practicing pagan — even if she admits that often just means going out into nature. Her hair may be a nest of blond dreads, but she is — like the other fire-heads — coherent and professional. She's a serious-minded student working on her psychology degree at U-M Dearborn and helping manage the business of the guild; she has been to the Edinburgh Fire Festival for Beltane, she joins with pagans at the annual Starwood celebration, and she considers Burning Man to be a "sacred place."
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