CPT’s “Fire on the Water” Rethinks Cuyahoga River Fire on the 50th Anniversary

Thu 2/14-Sat 3/2

Throughout history there are numerous examples of the downtrodden or marginalized taking ownership of what is meant as a pejorative. For the past half century, Cleveland’s “Mistake on the Lake” label has been tied to the infamous 1969 incident when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire.

In an effort to not only exorcise those demons but also offer some valuable perspective on what was a nationally embarrassing black eye not to mention environmental nightmare, Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) is reimagining its celebrated Cleveland-original production Fire on the Water, which first appeared five years noting the 45thanniversary of the Cuyahoga River burning.

The eclectic and multifaceted production returns for the event’s 50th anniversary appearing Thu 2/14 through Sat 3/2 in the historic Gordon Square Theatre.

Fire on the Water is a collective of stories from local playwrights and local artists about the burning of the Cuyahoga River,” said CPT 2018-2019 National New Play Network producer in residence India Nicole Burton, who is co-directing Fire on the Water with CPT executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan.

“I’m really excited about it. It’s telling Cleveland’s history. The diversity of the show is going to be something people don’t see very often in Cleveland theater. The spectacle is also what I’m excited about.”

Fire on the Water weaves together multiple short works created by Northeast Ohio theater makers, including John Dayo-Aliya, Alison Garrigan (Talespinner Children’s Theatre), Cathleen O’Malley, Jeremy Paul (Maelstrom Collaborative Arts), Darius J. Stubbs and Dr. Mary E. Weems. In addition, the show features original music composed by CPT’s 2018-2019 Kulas Theatre composer fellow Buck McDaniel.

What’s somewhat lost in the burning river legend is how the fire could have happened in any one of the heavily industrialized towns throughout the midwest and east coast. Also, what’s forgotten is how the fire awoke the country’s environmental consciousness with momentum provided by local leaders Carl and Louis Stokes that eventually led to the formation of the Clean Water Act.

“The burning of the river was negative, but out of that came the EPA, which was something that helped the environment,” Burton said. “So we want to bring light on that with stories that are about water and fire.”

The production taps into comedy, satire, original mythology, dramatic monologue, puppetry and movement, all of which is layered with live music.

“There are going to be art installations, flying from the rig in the theater, live fire on stage and women swimming in water,” Burton said. “We’re going to use the entire space.

“There’s also going to be a lot of projection to elevate the spectacle of it and to help tell the story. I hope people take away from this essentially how we need to make sure to keep our water clean. We need to be more conscious about the environment. We need to know how we can affect the environment positively and negatively.”


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One Response to “CPT’s “Fire on the Water” Rethinks Cuyahoga River Fire on the 50th Anniversary”

  1. Ed Kelly

    Real Story of the last fire
    My father kept a dairy after his death I started to read them and found out how the last fire on the cuyahoga river happened because he was there when it happen. The ns railraod was blamed but it was caused by a brakeman on an other railroad how had a new fuse that was able to burn under water and he wanted to see if it worked and it did. The story goes that a spark from a NS locamotive crossing the NS bride I beleive it was called 450 started the fire. This bridge is now gone at the time of the fire three bridge lined up over the river all in a roll. The NS bridge 450 N&SS bridge 455 and B&O bridge 460 the only bridge still in use today. All members of the 5 man crew have passed away. The fuse came off of the caboose as it crossed over the river. The brakeman who dropped the fuse in the river had a long history of starting fires along the railroad right away usually old rail ties. In may fathers diary have all the newspaper articles about the event and a comment by my father “if they only knew”

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