Fire performances can continue as Portland considers how to regulate street artists

Posted July 29, 2013, at 3:24 p.m.
Last modified July 30, 2013, at 1:25 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Joie Grandbois was worried her troupe of street performers, which had become a main attraction during Portland’s First Friday Art Walks since 2008, might be regulated out of existence.

But after some early concerns and what became a collaborative rulemaking effort between Grandbois’ Dark Follies and city leaders, the flame-twirling shows will go on.

For nearly two years, Portland had hosted a simmering debate over the rights of street artists with a long-threatened plan to force street artists to register with the city, vocally opposed by the sidewalk vendors themselves, and finally dropped by city officials in May.

City businesses expressed concerns going back to 2011 about street vendors selling items they didn’t make themselves — called “crafts” by city officials at the time to differentiate the items from “art” made by other vendors — and worried that the sidewalk activity was unfairly competing for shoppers.

But left out of the late May City Council decision — to scrap the registration idea and simply codify rules ensuring that street artists make their own products and don’t block pedestrian traffic, among other things — was language pertaining to performers handling fire.

“That made us really nervous, because fire performance is such a big part of our performance,” said Grandbois, founder of the five-year-old goth-inspired Dark Follies, whose First Friday Art Walk shows in Monument Square have been known to attract as many as 200 onlookers.

The Portland council at the time left it up to city staff, such as lawyer Trish McAllister and codes enforcement officer Chuck Fagone, to flesh out the remainder of the document detailing rules and regulations for street performers.

Grandbois said city regulators had 30 days to report back to City Manager Mark Rees with recommendations, and could have returned to previous notions of a registration process or heavy fees.

While fire dancers like those in the Dark Follies routines aren’t new to Portland, troupe fire safety coordinator Kait Pressey said there hadn’t previously been concrete rules about where, how and who could do the performances. Grandbois said she was initially concerned the city would try to make up for lost time and inflict such heavy or expensive regulations that troupes like hers would be forced to drop the activity entirely.

“I think what they were responding to was previous instances of people doing it on sidewalks where there wasn’t enough room or multiple performers working simultaneously,” Grandbois said.

“I think mixing drunk people [who can be found crowding the Old Port in the evenings] with fire was a frightening proposition and they were really wary of that, not unreasonably so,” Pressey added.

Grandbois and Pressey said they reached out to McAllister and Fagone and found that many safety precautions already taken regularly by Dark Follies could serve as a template for the city’s regulations — keeping performers 25 feet from the closest bystanders and having fire blankets and extinguishers on hand for the performances, for instance.

Added to the list during discussions with city officials was the requirement that fire jugglers also keep a five-gallon bucket of water handy. No new city registries were formed or heavy fees imposed, Grandbois said, allowing her to breathe a sigh of relief.

“They were perfectly willing to listen to us,” Grandbois said. “We all really wanted to make this work.”

The Dark Follies troupe — which also brings live music, juggling and comedy skits to its performances — can next be seen at Monument Square during the First Friday Art Walk this week and on Saturday will perform with mentalist Rory Raven at the Community Television Network studio at 516 Congress St.