First Night Tacoma is stepping up its game.
The family-friendly arts-based celebration on New Year’s Eve known for its wacky outdoor spectacles is bringing in some big guns to produce those effects: Martha Enson and Kevin Joyce of the Vashon-based EnJoy Productions. Combined with the music-booking skills of The Warehouse — a Tacoma organization that last year became First Night directors — a bevy of food trucks, and a smaller footprint, the event promises plenty of entertainment for downtown Tacoma, from fire to ice and more.
“We’re really, really excited that we could snag EnJoy Productions,” said Warehouse spokesperson Katie Lowery. “They’re an incredible duo in street art.”
Enson and Joyce, circus and theater performers themselves, have an impressive client list in entertainment production: the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Art Museum, Bumbershoot and the Seattle Center, to name a few. In addition to producing the centerpiece of the evening’s outdoor spectacle — 25 giant puppets acting out “Alice in Wonderland” in the intersection of South Ninth Street and Broadway — they’re taking over management of both First Night’s signature fire dancing and midnight countdown and the short street parade that opens the evening, turning it from ad hoc to a well-prepared cast-of-hundreds event.
“In all my 25 years of experience (in entertainment), I’ve never worked an event where so many people show up so joyously,” said Enson, who also performed in First Night many years ago with the UMO circus. “It’s a beloved event in Tacoma. ... That’s what First Night is about — reclaiming the idea of ‘party’ away from a drunken brawl and back to people joyously having fun.”
This year, those people having fun will appear to be a whole lot more than in the past because of the organizers’ decision to shrink the space the festival takes up. Once spread from the Theater District down to the Museum District, the event will now cluster indoor and outdoor performances along Broadway between South Seventh and 11th streets, plus the Rialto Theater half a block up the hill.
“First Night attracts between 15,000 and 20,000 people,” said Lowery. “We felt it was so spread out that it didn’t feel like that many. We think (the shrinking) will make it more impactful.”
Practically, this means more events are planned in the Broadway Center’s theaters and studios, plus other indoor venues from last year (the Pythian Temple and Tully’s, for example) and three outdoor stages. An app on the website helps festivalgoers plan their evening on the go.
Pricewise, things remain unchanged from last year, despite a spending budget of $130,000. First Night is supported by grants and donations as well as button sales, and buttons this year are still $10 in advance, free for kids younger than 10. They’ll entitle you to enter the Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass during the day as well, plus free skate rental at Polar Plaza outdoor rink in Tollefson Plaza.
Here are the highlights of this year’s First Night.
Burning things has always been a big component of First Night, and a fine way of both entertaining and warming up. This year is no different, with braziers outside the Broadway theaters, fire dancing at 4 p.m. at the Museum of Glass, a fire-blowing stagecoach in the parade, and a countdown event from 11:30 p.m. in the Theatre on the Square plaza that includes fire dancers, burning “2014” numbers, and an organ that shoots fireballs into the air when played.
“Fire is beautiful and passionate, and I’ve always loved dance,” said L. Lisa Lawrence (aka Phoenix), a fire dancer who’ll perform with Cathy Marcotte, Daniella Moalem and Tabitha Andrew at the countdown event. “Combining the two seems to be magic.”
This will be Lawrence’s fifth First Night event, and in all that time she’s had no untoward incidents. Safety is her first priority, she said, and fire marshals are always on hand at the event, as well as someone standing by with towels to put out unwanted fires.
Practicing, though, is another matter.
“We learn with the tools before we light them on fire,” said Lawrence, who performs with fiery spinning poi, hoops and fans. “Then when we light up we start with very simple moves, and always have a mentor nearby with a towel to call out if a body part catches on fire. Bouncing flaming poi off your head is interesting. ... I’ve burned a lot of hair over the years!”
Lawrence also chooses her outfit carefully, making or buying easy-fitting clothes out of less-flammable fabrics like cotton or leather. For First Night, though, she also chooses clothes and makeup that will sparkle in the darkness.
“It’s a great excuse to wear glitter!” she said.
Outdoor spectacle has been a pillar of First Night celebrations around the world, where they serve to bring communities together with free, slightly wacky artistic and often participatory entertainment. In the past, Tacoma’s spectacles have been organized by a mishmash of local artists, but this year EnJoy productions will call on their network of Seattle-area performers and artists to bring some fresh faces and organization.
The first change will be in the World’s Shortest Parade, the traditional start to First Night. Going from the former Graffiti Garages at Seventh Street, the parade runs just two blocks down Broadway to Ninth Street, ending up at the main outdoor stage near TOTS park. Some elements will stay the same: a new giant ram luminary puppet (for Lunar Year of the Ram) by Annett Matteo joining the other animal puppets from previous parades; fire dancers spinning LED hoops and poi; a stagecoach from Burning Man; marching bands and anyone else who wants to join in.
This year, though, there’ll be about 300 participants, organizers say, including skateboarders from Alchemy Indoor, pushcarts with mountains and “sheep” made by Metro Parks students, and a giant “Pan” character who’ll lead the parade.
At 8:30 p.m., spectacles continue at the intersection of Ninth and Broadway, where the First Night team encourages anyone who wants to show up in bridal gear to make an attempt on a Guinness world record for “brides blowing bubbles.” In case you forget your gown, volunteers at a table near Subway will help you make a veil and hand out bubble-blowing equipment — a follow-up to last year’s Guinness attempt at people imitating horses with coconut shells.
Then at 9 p.m. some serious spectacle happens: 25 giant puppets will act out the Mad Hatter’s tea party from “Alice in Wonderland.” Made by Seattle artist Kristi Maxim for this year’s Fremont Solstice Parade, the wearable puppets and masks combine “Alice” with a Day of the Dead style, Enson said, and the actors will hold a debate between the Red and White Queens, with the Mad Hatter as adjudicator in a silly, absurdist reference to current political events.
“They’re super-fun costumes, and participants will be all ages,” she said of the 30-minute theater piece.
Other First Night outdoor elements will return, like the Ice Walk (where participants take off their shoes and socks to brave a 6-foot stretch of ice in return for hot cocoa) and miscellaneous street performers. Finally, at 11:30 p.m., the countdown to midnight begins with fire elements and a “surprise.”
One expanded element this year is the food, with the presence of food trucks in the upper Broadway (Antique Row) area. The trucks — which include House of Donuts, Athena’s, Buddha Bear Bagel, Lumpia World, Caveman Eats, The Galley, Eggroll Hut and Kettle Corn — make it easier for festivalgoers to recharge without long lines at the few indoor eating options in the area. The trucks will operate from 6 p.m. to midnight, or until they run out of food.
When the streets get too cold or wet, that’s when the indoor part of First Night comes into its own. As in past years, The Warehouse has booked a solid selection of indoor entertainment, from music to theater, with old and new faces.
New this year is Minion Theater, offering acrobatic, slapstick comedy at 7:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. in Studio III (913 Broadway); Tacoma Musical Playhouse at 6:45 p.m. in Theatre on the Square; and various music, theater and dance offerings from Metro Parks students, also in Theatre on the Square this year. Bands range from the indie rock of Owl Parliament and Ben Union to the alt-folk of Baby Gramps, Rusty Cleavers and Uncle Bonsai, from the old-time bluegrass of the Tallboys to jazz by Pearl Django and Stephanie Anne Johnson, plus the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Ohana Ukelele, flutist Gary Stroutsos, Vamola and more.
Three outdoor stages round out the music this year: the main stage near Theatre on the Square plaza, a new First Night stage outside the Graffiti Garages programmed by Mountain House records, and the Nine Lives stage run independently by a collection of businesses along upper Broadway. Storytelling group The Drunken Telegraph will be telling stories outside the Pantages near the Christmas tree.