Paul Addis is a playwright and performance artist best known for prematurely igniting Burning Man's eponymous central effigy during a Monday night lunar eclipse at the event in 2007, a crime for which he served two years in a Nevada prison. He was recently released and returned to San Francisco, where his new one-man show debuts at The Dark Room on April 30.
Last week, Addis sat down for an extended interview with the Guardian to discuss that momentous night – when he grabbed the Holy Grail of burner malcontents, lighting the Man early, and paid a heavy price for it – and its aftermath, including developing his play, “Dystopian Veneer,” while in a prison work camp near Las Vegas.
“It’s a brand new life and I’ve got all this potential and I want to make the most out of it,” said Addis, an intense guy who exhibited a wide range of emotions during the three-hour interview, from easy laughter to frustrations with what he sees as the lack of risk-taking in San Francisco to excitement over his future to flashes of real menace when discussing those who have done him wrong.
Addis is a lightning rod whose torching of the Man still elicits strong reactions from those who attend Burning Man. Some angrily condemn an act they see as destructive and dangerous, while others appreciate the ultimate symbolic assault on an event that they think had become too orderly and calcified.
Addis's post-burn mug shot.
“Everybody knew it needed to be done for lots of reasons,” Addis said of an action that was his sole purpose in attending Burning Man that year. “I felt like Burning Man as an event was starting to coddle people way too much.”
But the event’s leaders certainly didn’t coddle Addis, instead testifying at his 2008 sentencing hearing about the high cost of replacing the Man (high enough to bump the destruction of property charge up to a felony) and the early burn’s negative impact on the event. “They didn’t have to do this,” Addis said of Burning Man board member Will Roger’s testimony at the hearing. “Instead, they decided to deliberately take action they knew would send me to prison.”
Marian Goodell, the director of business and communications for Burning Man, declined to discuss the accusation, or Addis’ complaint that she and others have publicly misrepresented the role of Burning Man brass in sending him to prison, including statements in the film “Dust & Illusions” that the sentencing was beyond their control. “It doesn’t do us or him any good to open that wound again,” Goodell told the Guardian. “We’re not going to discuss it.”
Starting the fire wasn’t Addis’s only crime of that era. Within weeks of returning to Burning Man, he was arrested in Washington for carrying guns in public (he says they were props for the one-man play about Hunter S. Thompson he was doing at the time) and for possession of fireworks and an air gun near Grace Cathedral (which police said at the time was a plot to burn down the stone church, a notion that Addis calls preposterous). Addis has innocent narratives for each incident, blaming others for overreacting.
Yet Addis now says that he’s let go of his old grudges, describing a moment of clarity and peace that came over him while driving his motorcycle through the Nevada desert on his way back to San Francisco. He said that he feels most happy and alive when he’s on stage, a passion that he said sustained him while in prison, “so it’s imperative for me to get back to what I love doing.”
Addis posted a promotional video for his new show on Laughing Squid (whose owner, Scott Beale, Addis has known for many years). It opens with Addis looking up at the camera, his mouth covered in duct tape that he slowly rips off and begins speaking. “In a society whose foundation is free expression under the First Amendment and liberty under the Constitution, this is probably the most desperate, despicable and disgusting thing that can be done to an outspoken and risk-taking performance artist,” he says, indicating the tape in his fingers, before tossing it aside and saying, “Well, that’s over now.”
He goes on to criticize how sanitized San Francisco has become, singling out the police crackdown on SoMa parties and nightclubs that we’ve been covering in the Guardian and calling for people to join him in pushing the edge. But just how San Franciscans will greet this controversial figure is still an open question.
I’ll have more from my interview with Addis, along with reactions from other figures in the Burning Man world, in the Guardian in coming weeks; and even more in my upcoming book, “The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture,” due out later this year from CCC Publishing.