The Journal Gazette
Thursday, September 10, 2020 1:00 am

Local troupe plays with fire

Pyroscope set to perform at RiverDrums

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

Maybe it's because her father, uncles and grandfather have all been volunteer firefighters in her hometown of Knox, but Amy Corey has always been intrigued by fire.

“It's fascinating, it's beautiful and unique and it blows people's minds,” she said.

Well, actually, Corey and her Pyroscope Entertainment fire performance troupe do a great job of blowing people's minds. Their imaginative tricks include juggling, Hula-Hoops, batons or props they have created that will burn. However, the key is making sure the performers don't, though that hint of danger is what draws the eye and produces the awe.

“People just love what we do because it's something they have never seen before and it's unique,” said Brent Helmkamp, Pyroscope coordinator and performer. “There's an illusion of danger and it is dangerous, but not as dangerous as it looks.”

If only it was simple to describe the artistry of the street performers who have been around about 10 years. As an example, they are working on a routine spinning fireballs using a chain apparatus – and they do it in pairs.

Their skill has to be experienced firsthand to fully appreciate and the next opportunity will be at the sixth RiverDrums festival Monday at Promenade Park. With the river and the moonlight in the background and combining with the Doug Laughlin drum circle, the Pyroscope performance will be the event's grand finale starting about 9:30 p.m.

“Ultimately, if you break it down and take it back to its farthest point, fire is where we evolved,” said Pyroscope co-founder Nick Shifley, 35. “It's a core to us as sentient beings, and taking it back to its primal state is kind of cool. One of the old members said to me, it's in its whole nature to destroy itself, and being able to control that even for a little bit is kind of what adds to the mysticism and magic of it. What if fire could dance, what if it could move?”

It also gives the performers an immediate connection to the audience who can't wait to see what happens. Just like an evening bonfire, the light draws the eye and leads to the wonder.

Pyroscope performs about 15 events a year and includes main members Jesse and Jackie Barnes, Julia Hyndman and Mason Price along with Corey, Helmkamp and Shifley. Along with parades and festivals, they've performed at weddings, birthday parties, graduations and for private companies in 15- to-30-minute presentations.

They practice every other week at Knox and Barnes Custom Shop, 5223 Decatur Road, where there are plenty of open sheds to work out new routines. A normal practice session lasts two hours and provides a good workout. Everything is perfected, sometimes practicing for at least two years, before fire is added then choreographed to music.

“You need to be very, very comfortable with what you do,” said Helmkamp, who does most of the choreography. “You have to be totally synchronized and have trust in what you do.”

After the troupe was formed, Corey, 40, set up a limited corporation to help secure the necessary licenses, insurance and permits. There are always fire safety personnel working performances, but each participant wears fire-retardant clothing and takes other precautions such as making sure any exposed hair is damp. Usually, no more than seven people are performing at once.

“You can't be afraid of the fire, you have to get over that hump, and once you get past that you are usually pretty good to go,” Corey said. “The thing that kind of freaks you out sometimes is the sound because it sounds like jet engines which is awesome. It's just dangerous when you think of fire.”

Shifley, 35, said if a performer suffers a minor burn, it's usually from the heat coming off the props they use and not the actual flame.

“As you are learning, you are learning your limitations with the equipment you are using,” he said. “There is a little bit of stuntsmanship involved, but it's absolutely dangerous because it's fire. While we can manipulate it, we don't control it.”


The RiverDrums festival starts at 5:30 p.m. Monday with a proclamation from Mayor Tom Henry honoring the memory of Virginia Schrantz, founder of Miss Virginia's Food Pantry, 1312 S. Hanna St.

She opened Miss Virginia's Mission House in the 1960s and helped everyone she could until she died in 1998. More than 5,000 people continue to use the pantry's services every year.

RiverDrums founder Terry Doran is hoping Miss Virginia Day can become an annual city event, possibly centered around his event, which is designed as a celebration of the human spirit, diversity through art and Fort Wayne's history with its rivers.

“RiverDrums is about people helping each other, coming together and that's what Miss Virginia exemplified with her whole life,” Doran says. “This year, because of the pandemic, I really wanted to emphasize helping each other and that's how she fits in, as an example of that.

“My theme is this event shows all those different skin colors and languages that originally came together around the rivers to form Fort Wayne, and that we're all different but we're all one people and to celebrate these differences rather than see anyone who is different as a threat and an enemy. This is a showcase that all these people can get along.”

Performances include dancers, instrumentalists, poem readings, singers, bands and drummers. The schedule and more information is available at

– Blake Sebring, For The Journal Gazette

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required