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Performer burned in opera fire-breathing stunt recovering in hospital

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 9:42 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Having trained in theater and circus skills at Roosevelt University, Wesley Daniel is known as a jack-of-all-trades type among his theater community colleagues. One role may require you to wear a dress and lift the leading man in the air. One role may require you to play a soldier and execute tricky fight choreography.

And one may require you, newly cast in a Lyric Opera production, to walk on stilts and to spit fire.

The 24-year-old actor was attempting the last of those stunts during a dress rehearsal Monday afternoon when his face erupted in flames, and he wound up in critical condition at Loyola University Medical Center. The news was brighter by Tuesday afternoon, with Daniel diagnosed to have sustained second-degree burns but no damage to his lungs or airway.

But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration nonetheless has opened an investigation into the incident — the second involving fire-spitting at the Lyric in the past two weeks — and Lyric officials are working to determine what went wrong with a stunt that’s a staple of carnivals and circuses yet now has been cut from its production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” which opens Friday.

Daniel’s father, Clifton Truman Daniel, was at Monday’s dress rehearsal and watched in horror as his son, on stilts, picked up a torch and a little jar of fluid, blew a couple of fireballs and suddenly was engulfed in flames. Wesley Daniel was able to cross the stage before falling in the wings and being attended by stagehands with fire extinguishers.

“You don’t believe it,” the 55-year-old father said. “At first everything’s fine. You’re proud of him. You’re amazed at what he’s learned to do, and suddenly he’s in trouble.”

Speaking from the hospital Tuesday afternoon, Clifton Daniel said he was not concerned about the Lyric’s role in the accident.

“At this point I don’t see any reason to be upset with them,” he said. “At this point we don’t know. They have to look into it, and whoever’s going to investigate it is going to look into it, but I’m not concerned, no.”

Clifton Daniel said his son wasn’t talking much Tuesday, but the throat soreness was due to irritation from a tube that had been inserted and eventually removed Monday, not damage caused by the accident itself.

“He did not inhale any of the burning liquid, which is fortunate,” Clifton Daniel said, adding that doctors now were saying that the actor might be discharged Wednesday rather than Thursday, as had been predicted earlier in the day.

“Doctors likened (the burns) to a severe sunburn, and he will heal,” his father said. “He shouldn’t have any scarring.”

David Kersnar, who directed Daniel in Lookingglass and Next Theatre productions last year, said the actor had emailed him a photo Tuesday. “He’s all bandaged up but he’s got this funny look in his eyes like, ‘Look at the mess I’ve got myself into,’” Kersnar said.

Kersnar described the young actor as an experienced physical performer with circus training who had executed various stunts for him, such as dressing as an ingenue and lifting the title character of “Pulcinella” at the Lookingglass performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“(‘Die Meistersinger’) was the first time he was on the Lyric stage, but this is what he does,” said Kersnar, also a Roosevelt adjunct professor who knew Daniel as a student. “He’s very funny, very strong, very skilled and smart. He doesn’t do stupid stuff. I was very surprised to hear this went wrong.”

Daniel wasn’t even the first person to have this stunt backfire during this production. He had been the understudy for Matt Roben, who set his massive mustache ablaze while demonstrating the stunt for fire marshals a couple of weeks ago.

“Handlebar mustaches and fire-spitting don’t go well together,” said Drew Landmesser, the Lyric’s deputy general director who focuses on backstage activities.

Noting that he had been fire-spitting over the previous 23 years without incident, the 35-year-old Roben said Tuesday that he wasn’t injured beyond a blister on his nose and some singed facial hair, and he promptly headed backstage, shaved off the mustache and returned to execute the stunt flawlessly. He added that Daniel replaced him not because of the mustache mishap but because Roben missed a subsequent rehearsal that concentrated on the fire work.

“(Daniel) was there to do it with everybody, so it made sense to leave him in doing it,” said Roben, who remained in the production.

Now Roben is back in his original role, minus the fire-spitting, at least until Daniel returns.

Landmesser said the fire stunt has been removed from the production mostly so audience members won’t become distracted during one of the opera’s climatic scenes. “I think that frankly the press made something hysterical that was a rather calm event,” he said.

He added that the company is still trying to determine what happened. “We don’t exactly know the cause of the accident, just that it was a terrible accident and he seems to be doing well,” Landmesser said, noting that although photos made it appear that Daniel’s mask was aflame, neither it nor the costume were what caught fire. “The fuel he was spitting was the only thing that was on fire.”

Roben, who witnessed Monday’s accident from the stage, agreed, saying he couldn’t tell what caused it, but “I would assume some of the fuel had dripped down his chin and caught fire.”

He added that short of having someone with a fire extinguisher standing on stage instead of in the wings, he wasn’t sure what other safety measures could have been taken.

“I don’t know how you could have done things any differently and kept the production value of the show,” Roben said. “You’re trying to make things look as real as possible and keep the danger element in there.”

Clifton Daniel said as upsetting as Monday’s accident was to witness, “I was actually proud of him and impressed. Even when I realized what was happening to him, he was moving purposefully. He wasn’t flailing. He seemed to know exactly where to go and what do to.”

———

(Tribune reporters Liam Ford, Ellen Jean Hirst, Nina Metz and Carlos Sadovi contributed to this story.)

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