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‘Fire on the Water’ Inspired By Cuyahoga River Fire 50 Years Ago

Mary-Francis R. Miller and the arms of ensemble members in "Fire on the Water" [Steve Wagner/CPT]

Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Fire on the Water” reflects on the infamous Cuyahoga River fire and considers how people relate to the environment 50 years later.  

Through a series of short plays, “Fire on the Water” revisits the past, celebrates progress and explores present day issues. It is a refresh of a 2015 production, which was part of a cycle of plays aiming to change how people feel about the environment.

The goal was not just “advertising” for the environment, but to challenge how people relate to the environment, said Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre and co-director of the production.  

One of the ways “Fire on the Water” addresses that is by referring to parts of nature with gender-specific pronouns, like "her" for river. 

“Our amazing invention of science, that has given us so many things, has also led to a forgetting that we have a personal and a powerful internal relationship with our environment that is a two-way street,” Bobgan said.

Clockwise from left: Terah McGowan, Michael Levin, Luka Blackhill, Brinden Harvey [Steve Wagner/CPT]

It is a non-traditional production with actors immersing in water and flying at times while audience members watch from rolling office chairs.

While some in the audience may not have been alive in 1969 when debris caught fire on the Cuyahoga River (and caught national attention), the production includes history on past river fires, the pollution and the environmental advocacy of Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes and his brother, Louis Stokes, a U.S. representative.

The show is one of many arts and cultural commemorations taking place around the 50th anniversary of the river burning.

"Fire on the Water" runs through March 2 at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Test your knowledge with our river fire quiz.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.