Tending the Flame: WaterFire Adapts in its 25th Year

The pandemic doused WaterFire events this summer, but the iconic organization is finding new ways to carry the torch

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It’s almost impossible to imagine Providence without WaterFire. Those levitating flames over the Woonasquatucket River are as iconic to our city as johnny cakes and the Superman Building. Where else in the world can you find such a thing – an ephemeral experience, neither landmark nor performance, formal holiday nor religious rite, but an installation art piece that invites you to relax by the water and gaze into fire?

Which is why, back in March, the staff of the WaterFire Arts Center was so worried. The pandemic threatened one of the most visceral civic events in the world. You can’t really do WaterFire without actual water or fire. Or can you?

“We felt it was critically important that we not just disappear,” says Peter A. Mello, WaterFire’s managing director and co-CEO. “It was, and continues to be, a scary position we find ourselves in. But we’re a scrappy nonprofit. We punch way above our weight. We pride ourselves on being creative.”

Despite the pandemic’s constraints, the WaterFire Arts Center has continued to develop programming and raise emergency funds. The WaterFire lightings are integral to the organization’s image, but much of its income derives from hosting events in its expansive facility near Olneyville. Instead of booking in-person parties and cultural functions at the center, the WaterFire staff developed virtual events to engage the community.

The most immediate example was #StayHomeWaterFire, a video event that was live-streamed from participants’ houses. Using Twitch – a platform best known for videogames – viewers were able to see different flames burning in Rhode Island yards, along with performances by local artists. The first event, on May 1, attracted 15,000 viewers from 16 countries, and the organization raised $7,500 in the first hour.

Another project was the Beacon of Hope, a light-based memorial for the victims of COVID-19 that was live-streamed 24 hours per day. A daily lighting took place for more than 100 consecutive days, and visitors could make a pilgrimage to the physical site.

Such events were especially welcome during the darkest days of the quarantine, but as Rhode Island has opened up, so has WaterFire. The organization partnered with the Wilbury Theatre – a close neighbor – to help produce Decameron, a live performance inspired by the medieval stories of Giovanni Boccaccio. As Mello notes, Decameron is set in Florence during the worst years of Bubonic Plague, and the characters weather the deadly event by telling stories. In this case, 10 performance spaces were set up so that small audiences could migrate safely from one to the next, witnessing different skits at each site. Decameron was a rare example of live performance in 2020, when most theater venues have been forced to go dark.

Meanwhile, the WaterFire Arts Center has started hosting the “Art Mart” pop-up market in its parking lot, so that artists and craftspeople can display their wares in the open air. Like all WaterFire programming, the Art Mart is carefully curated to ensure health standards; shoppers follow a one-way path through the bazaar, and masks are required to attend.

Even if life does not soon return to its pre-COVID normalcy, Mello is hopeful that WaterFire lightings will take place as early as next summer. After all, WaterFire is more than an annual tradition; the event has commanded $114 million in economic output and generates $9 million in tax revenue each year. Mello stresses that safety comes first, but he feels that some kind of event may still be in the cards, vaccine or no.

“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to move it to another location,” says Mello, such as farther down the river, or to a larger body of water, where social distancing is easier. “It’s not the same WaterFire, but nothing is the same as it used to be. It’ll just be rich in a different way.” 

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