Burn to Learn
The Crucible industrial arts school’s
community of practice.
By David Pescovitz
Photography by Steve Double
THE STORY UNFOLDING ON THE STAGE COULD every available rag. Meanwhile, the Oakland Fire
only be described as Romeo and Juliet go to hell. Department kindly reset the sprinkler system to a
In January, California industrial arts school The standing ovation. Finally, after more than an hour,
Crucible reinvented Shakespeare’s classic as a the show went on.
spectacular fire ballet danced against a backdrop Romeo & Juliet: A Fire Ballet was The Crucible’s
of burning scenery. 8th anniversary fundraiser. And in some ways, the
Inside a huge Oakland warehouse studio, Romeo opening night performance, including the watery
and Tybalt dueled with flaming swords on a multi- interlude, embodied the essence of The Crucible.
level stage set. A dervish spun across the stage with “The word crucible has three definitions and all
his skirt hem spewing fire. The performance, driven of them fit what we do here,” Sturtz says. “A crucible
by classically trained ballet dancers, breakdancers, is a vessel used for melting substances at high
aerialists, and even martial artists, was white-hot. temperature; the second definition is ‘a test of
During the Capulets’ ball, all eyes were on the belief or patience’; and the third is a place where
daring acrobats twirling overhead from a massive, concentrated forces come together to cause
flaming chandelier. Suddenly, a spray of water burst change or development.”
from the ceiling. Illuminated by the ghostly blue Founded in 1999, The Crucible is a nonprofit
stage lights, the mist created a gorgeous magical oasis of industrial arts education located in the
glow above the ball below. Then, a scream from one tough waterfront neighborhood of West Oakland.
of the acrobats revealed that this watery climax The vast 56,000-square-foot studio hosts 500
was not planned: “Get me down!” the dancer yelled. classes each year on arts and crafts as eclectic as
It turned out that the propane-fueled chandelier welding, jewelry, neon, blacksmithing, woodwork-had triggered the industrial-strength sprinkler system, ing, kinetics, and, yes, fire performance.
unleashing a flood of water across the stage and the Last year, more than 5,000 students got their
first three rows of the audience. After the dancers hands dirty at The Crucible, learning how to express
were safely lowered to the drenched stage, a figure in their creativity by shaping, pounding, cutting, and
a leather cowboy hat and long black coat walked onto molding steel, ceramics, fabric, enamel, and dozens
the stage. This was Michael Sturtz, executive director of other media. Another 3,000 schoolchildren, the
of The Crucible, who had charmingly but awkwardly majority from the surrounding community, partici-delivered the play’s prologue. The audience burst into pated in The Crucible’s mostly free youth programs.
applause and with a flourish of his coat Sturtz bowed, “The Crucible is all about accessibility,” Sturtz
seemingly to both the unexpected chaos and also the says. “Anyone can take a class here and almost
acclaim of his capacity crowd. anyone can teach here too. You don’t need a master’s
There were no boos. No angry patrons demanded degree. You don’t need anything other than a passion
their money back. Dozens of volunteers scrambled for teaching, experience doing something, and the
into action, mopping up the stage with each and desire to share what you know.”
42 Make: Volume 10