Photograph by Kevin Murray

My favorite way to encounter WaterFire is on my way home from work. I live in Fox Point, and I’m often at Trinity until 11:00 or later in the evening, after a show comes down and notes have been given, work plans made for the morrow, and I’ve faced another in the endless examples of the tension between what a show is and what it could be.

If I know WaterFire is happening, or if I’ve glimpsed the wood logs piled in the braziers as I’ve driven to work, I almost always decide to walk home. I go out of my way, turning left at the Biltmore as I head up Washington Street so that I can be sure to traverse the whole length of WaterFire. I start near the mall, and will often take 45 minutes to make it to Hemenways, where I cut up Main Street and head home.

That walk restores my sense of self like nothing else. The remarkable thing about WaterFire has always been the community it draws together, and in that 45 minutes, I will have met old friends, heard what’s been right and wrong about our last show from subscribers, chatted with Buddy, and spent long minutes without any talking at all: just looking at the fires, smelling that extraordinary burning-pine smell, and remembering where I live, who I serve, and why all this matters.

WaterFire is Providence. The joyous, temporary community brought together around the banks of the river are not drawn by commerce: there’s not much to sell or buy in the vicinity of the flames. They are drawn by the same thing I am drawn by the desire to be together in beauty and peace, the desire to feel one of a group, part of a community. Providence’s fabled renaissance has happened at the same time as WaterFire, and, I believe, partially been caused by WaterFire: this magical place where so many of us come together and remember not just who we are but the dream of who we can be.

– Oskar Eustis

Oskar Eustis was the Artistic Director of Trinity Repertory Company from 1994 -2005. This essay was originally written for Reflections on WaterFire a series of stories and essays written by local thought leaders to mark the 100th lighting of WaterFire on September 1, 2001.