Lorain’s Annual FireFish Festival Brings Fire and Fun to Broadway Avenue

Fri 9/21-Sat 9/22

Perhaps there’s nothing more primal than celebrating humanity around a large fire. Add in roughly 10,000 people and you have the annual FireFish Festival, which this year takes place September 21 and 22 in downtown Lorain.

All aspects of the art world will be represented in the nooks and crannies of Broadway Avenue, which features alleyways, fire escapes, vacant lots and storefronts serving as the stages and venues for art, music, dance and performances.

While opening night is billed as kind of a teaser affair, including a performance by headliner Carlos Jones and the P.L.U.S. Band, the Saturday event has a five-ring circus feel complete with parade and the popular burning of the fish.

CoolCleveland talked to FireFish Festival Executive Director James Levin about this year’s fourth annual Lorain County event.

CoolCleveland: Considering the FireFish Festival is still in its infancy, what did you learn about last year’s affair?

James Levin: I think I learned a few important things: Like not to schedule a festival night when the Yankees are in town for the playoffs and when there are homecoming football games all over the county. The festival is still relatively young, so we’re still mastering the calendar. A Friday in early October? Not so good. I couldn’t imagine when I was growing up as a Cleveland Indians fan I’d have to schedule something assuming they’d be in the playoffs. It’s a great problem to have. Last year, Friday night was not as well attended as I had hoped. It wasn’t until late afternoon on Saturday that the throng came and I realized people really want to see the parade. They really want to see the burning of the fish.

CC: So how did that realization affect this year’s FireFish Festival?

JL: My background as a festival artist, I love to activate undiscovered urban spaces. I like to put opera in an alley and Shakespeare on a fire escape and art in unused storefronts and installations in odd places. I see them as being a very interesting events, but it was kind of an eye opener. Actually some people love opera in the alley, but what they really want to see is the fish burn. So this year we’re putting more resources into the parade and the pageantry and the drama of the burning of the fish.

CC: Can you elaborate on this year’s festival theme “Release”?

JL: We’re trying to figure out how we can make the burning of the fish more interactive. Obviously, you don’t want people getting too close to the fire, with safety being the highest priority. But we’re thinking how can people feel something invested in this burning of the firefish. It became sort of obvious. The theme had been pre-established, but it’s obviously very broad and in a way intentionally vague. It could be so many different things. What we’re hoping is people can identify something in their life that is inhibiting or limiting that they would want to be released from. It could be a bad memory, a bad relationship, an addiction, an affliction. Whatever. We all have something in our lives that limits us in some way. So the idea is to either write it down, write a poem to it, write a note or make a picture of it and then affix it to a stick prior to the parade. When you see the fish light up, and all of the appendages also burning, maybe people can have an emotional connection in the sense of release.

CC: So what you’re doing is adding a cathartic moment for festivalgoers?

JL: Yeah, At least availing that as a possibility. If people want to come down and watch the spectacle with all of the drumming and dancing, the excitement will still be there. We’re not trying to get into a somber, religious event.

CC: What else is brand new this year?

JL: There are a lot of musicians and artists and spaces that have never been used before. That’s very exciting. We’re still happily situated in what we think is a transformation of downtown Lorain. There are definitely new businesses. For us, it’s the buildings. A developer in Lorain bought this incredible bank at 4thStreet and Broadway Avenue. He’s transforming that into a brewery and restaurant. So we’ve been involved in his transformation. We’re turning that space into a gallery, installation hall.

CC: It would seem as though that kind of economic development of downtown Lorain speaks to the heart of the FireFish Festival mission.

JL: Yeah, that really is our mission. I’ve stated that all along it’s not just to do an event. Our mission is really to invite people to rediscover their city with an eye towards transforming it. I was the founding the director of the Gordon Square Arts District at 55thand Detroit. That took 10 to 15 years for it to really flesh out with all of the different businesses, restaurants, boutiques, bars. It’s not a magic wand where you just hit Broadway and in like the The Wizard of Oz it goes from black and white to color. So at the root, it’s art: theater, music, dance, visual art galleries. I think FireFish is a stepping stone and hopefully a trigger to make that happen. We provide a glimpse of what the city could look like once transformed.

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