Keepers of the Flame
How the Detroit Fire Guild is igniting Detroit's most anarchic pagan parties
Published: May 4, 2011
For Bingham, whose British parents didn't enforce a parochial upbringing, the camaraderie the group feels isn't rooted in any reaction to religion, but a coming-together of people who simply didn't fit the mold.
"We're like misfits who found one another as a family. We used to get made fun of for being freaks," she says, "and now we get paid for it."
The Pagans of Moran Street
The center of this small community is a faded bungalow on Moran Street in Hamtramck. Surline, Bradish and a few of the other performers have called it home for more than a year now. Others on the street might call it "the freak house," but to them it's jokingly called the "International Sillyfuck Hostel Pancake Paradise and Used Car Parts Emporium." That's where the guild does "weird stuff," such as building a flame-throwing equalizer, for fun.
Why is there an ice cream truck parked out front? Several months ago, when Surline's car died, he had to choose between a car that ran and an ice cream truck that didn't. Naturally, Surline says, he bought the nonfunctioning ice cream truck. Bradish recalls Surline's excited voice on the phone, crying, "This is the most awesome and irresponsible thing I've ever done!"
Now they take a cab to work.
Luckily, they work at Detroit's Traffic Jam, where husband-and-wife owners Scott Lowell and Carolyn Howard are known to give their staff a bit of leeway. Bradish says, "They're supportive, and they actually think we should be doing this stuff. There is a wealth of creative, intelligent people working there."
Bradish jokes about his family of "high-minded lowlifes" living in the city, their meager lifestyles contrasting with how they push their fire performing to consistently higher degrees. But the city, with its cheap rents, do-it-yourself ethos and wealth of unusual performers, is what makes their spectacles possible.
These twentysomethings are satisfied to keep bohemian ways, leaving them free to pour their energy into creating big shows, combining music, visuals, set decoration, dance, pantomime, a kick-ass dance party and, of course, fire. "These art forms are not mutually exclusive," Bradish says. "They can come together for a complete, full, real, immersive, mind-blowing production."
Perhaps that's what makes the DFG formula such a winner. In an age when you can dial up anything on YouTube or Netflix, when video games look as real as a movie, it's possible that the culture can forget the thrill of a 360-degree, live action spectacle that envelops you.
Surline says the goal is to take that Theatre Bizarre, Burning Man sensibility and take it to other venues. "We're nuts about stage aesthetics, this idea of creating almost a lucid dream. Like, one time I saw a photo album on Facebook of a Detroit Fire Guild event, and it was called 'Whoa, where the hell am I?' That's what I want, a total immersion in our vision."
Bradish one-ups Surline, saying, "I think it's nice when people are out there with cellphones or Tweeting or blogging about it before they leave the venue. But the feeling of being in the moment, that this moment is really important, where you can't look away, where even the smells are part of the experience — that's the goal. When we're making people realize we're not just playing: This is a chosen perception of reality.
"I mean, people come to see us to escape, but we get to live it. We don't expect to make money or a solid living, but it's important to wake people up like I've been woken up. The stage doesn't stop at the footlights, but at where individual people are comfortable with it. We want people in the audience to take some ownership of what they're seeing. That's how it becomes bigger."
Taking a cue from Surline, he emphasizes, "We want to change the conversation from, 'You won't believe what I saw last night,' to 'You won't believe what I did last night.' Like, I became a Roman goddess or an alien. That would be the ultimate success."
To learn more about the Detroit Fire Guild, see detroitfireguild.com.
> Email Michael Jackman