Great Chicago Fire Festival to bring sea of flames to Chicago River Saturday

On Wednesday workers prepared for Saturday’s first-ever Great Chicago Fire Festival, the brainchild of Chicago’s Redmoon Theater.

By Lyndsey McKenna

On Saturday night, fiery caldrons and burning buildings will illuminate a stretch of the Chicago River at the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival.

The event, which will take place on the river between State Street and Columbus Drive, is a collaboration between Redmoon Theater, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District. Founded in 1990, Redmoon is an experimental theater company that specializes in large-scale performance art.

The flashy, high-budget event seeks to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 and celebrate the city’s renewal in its wake. The fire destroyed approximately three and a half city miles and killed an estimated 300 people. It might not seem like something worth building an event around, but Redmoon officials say that Chicago’s comeback is what they’re focused on.

“The Great Chicago Fire Festival is really about celebrating the grit and the greatness of Chicagoans, and the process of emerging from tragedy in a positive way,” said Alex Balestrieri, director of events for Redmoon and the group’s liaison with the city.

But commemorating a fiery disaster may be a risky strategy for the small theater group, given the inherent risks in working with pyrotechnics. The Great Chicago Festival is the company’s largest-scale event to date. And the potential risk of injury looms large in the minds of the Chicago arts community in the wake of last year’s injury at the Lyric Opera. In that incident, an artist suffered second-degree burns while performing a fire-breathing stunt on stilts at a dress rehearsal.

The Chicago Fire Department will have personnel on hand as the fire festival unfolds, said Larry Langford, longtime spokesman for the fire department.

“Anything involving pyrotechnics must be approved well in advance,” said Langford. “Everything happening on Saturday has been approved, and some displays originally called for will not be taking place.”

“The fire department are the experts in this case,” added Redmoon’s Balestrieri. “They are our partners in consultation.”

Nearly all relevant city agencies have been consulted as well as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard, according to Balestrieri. He said the materials used in the display are designed to have the most visual impact with the least amount of fuel.

“The team doing the flame effects has been trained,” said Balestrieri. “There have been several tests, and we feel very confident about the controlled effects. Our eyes are on safety.”

In additional to the possible physical risks, the festival represents a financial bet for Redmoon. The festival, which organizers hope to develop into an annual event, has been in the works for more than a year and has a budget of $2 million. Some $350,000 of that was contributed by the city.

Funding also was secured from a number of nonprofit sources, including a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a $250,000 contribution from the Pritzker Foundation and a $50,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. A number of corporate sponsors also contributed substantial amounts.

Redmoon’s celebrations began earlier this summer with smaller-scale neighborhood events across the city in anticipation of Saturday’s fiery conclusion.

On Saturday afternoon, a bazaar will stretch across Upper Wacker Drive, featuring vendors selling locally produced goods from 15 different neighborhoods across the city. A number of local food trucks will also be on hand. Stages at the American Medical Association Plaza on North Wabash Avenue and Pioneer Court near the Tribune Tower will feature music, dance and spoken-word performances beginning at 5:30 p.m.

The “grand spectacle” begins at 8 p.m., as grand marshals Jesse Spencer and Taylor Kinney, actors on the NBC series “Chicago Fire,” lower a fiery cauldron from the Michigan Avenue Bridge to the river. Three floating buildings positioned between North State Street and North Columbus Drive will be ignited by three miniature steamboats that were designed by Redmoon.

The spectacle will culminate with a fireworks display, and if all goes according to plan, the evening’s events will conclude at Afterburn, an after-party at Redmoon Theater’s headquarters in Pilsen.