Just east of the West Grand freeway entrance lies a tantalizing plot of land: acres of dirt, pavement, and shrubbery waiting to be put to use. The Port of Oakland once used it as a parking lot for Subaru vehicles that were offloaded from container ships (hence its nickname, "the Subaru lot"). When the cars left, it was desolate. A few months ago it caught the eye of Crucible founder Michael Sturtz, who was looking for a new place to put his annual Fire Arts Festival — a huge, dazzling celebration of all things pyrotechnic. Sturz and company normally use the BART lot across the street from their foundry, but this year BART displaced them in order to do some construction staging. Sturtz had to lobby several different entities to rent the new lot (it's owned by East Bay MUD, the Port of Oakland, and the Army Base), but he emerged with a prime piece of real estate: ten acres of paved land, big enough to fit a giant stage, 35 installations, and a huge outdoor "skill-building" area. Crucible artists rechristened it "the Fire Arts Arena." They hope the name sticks.
When patrons first enter this year's festival, they'll walk into "Crucible Main Street," a nexus of industrial arts workshops (welding, glass-melting, jewelry-making, ceramics, wood-working, and blacksmithing among them) plus food and merchandise vendors. This leads to a neverland of sculptures and installations. A huge mousetrap by Mark Perez looks like a Rube Goldberg machine, said Crucible spokeswoman Jan Schlesinger. In other words, it's a series of gears and levers that create a complex chain reaction. (A lever trips a hammer, so the hammer falls down on something, causing a ball to go through a zigzag thing so that it creates another action, eventually causing a cage to drop down and catch something — "something," in this case, might be a stick of dynamite). Another piece by Oakland artist Michael Christian looks like the Eiffel Tower (and will probably have flame at the top). Such eye candy isn't even the main draw, said Schlesinger.
In fact, this year's highlight is Dan Cantrell's The Rootabaga Opera, a gypsy-jazz musical based on folk tales by Carl Sandburg. Combining a score and libretto by Cantrell with puppetry by the Balinese theater group, Shadow Light Productions, Rootabaga Opera will center on Depression-era stories about people leaving the Great Plains to settle out West. Cantrell's band will join forces with the women's vocal group Kitka to create a sonic backdrop. Afterward, another music group will get onstage to wrench everyone back into the present (the big draw is Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, who performs on Saturday). This year's Fire Arts Festival will dwarf all its predecessors, with higher production values and more things aflame. Naturally, the Crucible artists are stoked. The Crucible's 9th Annual Fire Arts Festival runs Wednesday through Saturday, July 15-18, at the Fire Arts Arena (Wake Ave. at Engineer Rd., Oakland). 8 p.m., $35-$95. TheCrucible.org