In the beginning

This week marks 15 years since the premiere of In Case of Fire, my very first production with a City of Austin department. To celebrate this anniversary, here is an excerpt of my recent writing on how the project got started:

Beginnings

“Oh my gosh what have I done…why did I say that? Everyone is going to think I am an idiot.”—Stephen Truesdell

In Case of Fire began with a conversation. Sometime in the summer of 2000 I was having dinner with friends. I was sitting next to Stephen Truesdell, a firefighter, and we started talking about my work. I told him about the dances I had made with maintenance men and groundskeepers. Stephen then proposed, “You should do that with firefighters.” I lit up. “Really?”, I asked him. My choreographer’s brain began to spin.

Coincidentally, I had driven past of group of firefighters sometime during that summer cleaning up after a fire. I remember watching as a dozen or so firefighters rolled up hoses in coordination with each other—walking the long, heavy hoses out and then rolling them up carefully so that all of the water was released. There was a specific way they were doing this task, indeed there was an entire choreography of movement happening right before my eyes which I imagined most people never got to see. It was beautiful, compelling and communicated so much I didn’t realize about this work.

At the end of dinner, Stephen suggested I come by his station, #11, and meet his fellow firefighters. I already knew that this was an idea to pursue, and with Stephen on the inside I thought maybe something could happen. I was optimistic. Stephen, though, had his concerns. He also had some advice. He explains, “I remember that night you were excited about the idea, and I was like…well…but don’t tell them about the idea right away. And then…tell them it’s your idea…don’t tell them it’s my idea.” Stephen elaborates: “I remember being nervous…Oh my gosh what have I done…why did I say that? Everyone is going to think I am an idiot.”

To Stephen, getting any of his fellow firefighters behind the idea of me directing a “dance” with firefighters was going to be tough. “I knew what you were talking about, but I just thought they would think— we are going to be out dancing?” I remember thinking they are going to think it is kind of silly…until they got to know you. I thought once they get to know you and kinda started warming up to you it might go somewhere, but I was pretty skeptical.”

“There are new ideas coming to the fire department everyday, and most of them are really crappy.” —Lt. Mike Sullivan

Truesdell, as Stephen was called by his fellow fighters, was seen as an up and comer. He was new to the Department, but already well liked. It helped my cause that he was the one introducing this strange idea to his fellow crew members. Explains Lt. Mike Sullivan: “I was active with the union and Truesdell, he was interested in the union and all this stuff, and he was obviously gonna be a happening guy. Truesdell said, I have this friend named Allison Orr, she’s a choreographer, and she did something with the groundskeepers, and she thought it turned out good, and she wanted to do something like that with firefighters. I said well, I don’t understand what that means. He said, it was like a dance routine. I said, I don’t know if people are gonna be interested or not, but you gotta call it something different!”     

Lt. Mike Sullivan, or “Sully” was a firefighter who at that time had over 20 years of service with the department. He, like Truedell, had people’s respect, and he also knew how things operated in the department. I immediately liked Sully, who himself is a bit of a legend in South Austin. With his larger than life personality, Sully would leave me laughing visit after visit. As the Lieutenant on duty he ran the shift, and his early support mattered as well. And, as he explains, he did see something in this idea—”One of the rookies pulled me aside and said, man, why are you interested in this? Why do you want to do this? And I said, it’s the oddest thing I’ve done in 30 years here. And it sounds like fun, sounds like good PR, and it’ll be over before you know it.”

The firefighters at 11 were a tight group. Apart from Stephen and Sully, the crew included Randy Pierce, Meg Page, and the engine driver, Don Murdock. Don, or “Doc”, is a self-described introvert. Upon first hearing about my idea, he wanted nothing to do with it. He explains, “We heard it first from Steve Truesdell, he was saying, well I have this friend, and she wants to do this dance. To be honest with you the first time we heard it, myself and a lot of the other guys, it kinda went in one ear and out the other, cause you hear so much stuff, being in the position we’re in as firefighters…we get a lot of stuff thrown at us. But this particular one was like, ehhhh, not really interested.”

In reality, the idea was  pretty terrifying to Don. “Being honest with you, except for the younger guys who may be a bit more open minded, it was real distressing to even think about. I heard one or two guys saying—they’re crazy. They’re nuts. I ain’t dancing. It’s not gonna happen.”

Even though they had their doubts, Doc, Stephen, and Sully let me show up at the their station. At that time, any citizen could ride out on a firetruck by signing a waiver, and after a few visits, Stephen and Sully recommended I go fill out a waiver so I could actually get on a fire truck. I went to HQ, filled out the paperwork, and was officially ok’d to get on the truck. Ride out’s had begun.

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