Paul Addis, playwright and Burning Man arsonist, dies

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Paul Addis, shown here during a 2010 interview with the Guardian, died on Saturday night.
Steven T. Jones

UPDATED Paul Addis – the San Francisco playwright and performer best known for igniting Burning Man's eponymous central symbol early in the 2007 event, a crime for which he served two years in a Nevada prison – died Saturday night after jumping in front of a BART train in Embarcadero station. He was 42.

His friend Amacker Bullwinkle told us she was shocked and saddened by the news, first reported by the SF Appeal and confirmed to us by the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, which contacted Addis' mother. Bullwinkle said she wasn't sure if there was a suicide note, but given his prolific writings, “I can't imagine he wouldn't want to write something.”

After Addis was released from prison in 2010, he came to the Guardian for a three-hour interview to discuss how and why he torched the Man during a Monday night lunar eclipse, another pair of bizarre arrests that followed, and the San Francisco debut of latest one-man play, Dystopian Veneer, which he wrote in prison. That interview was the basis of two Guardian articles and an extended telling of his story in my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, which also draws from an earlier interview with Addis.

“It’s a brand new life and I’ve got all this potential and I want to make the most out of it,” Addis told me in a hopeful moment. But he was also clearly a troubled soul, deeply unhappy with what Burning Man and San Francisco had become and resentful of the role that Burning Man organizers played in supporting his prosecution.

But his frustrations seemed to stem from a desire shake up the city and Burning Man, an event that was personally transformative for him, “to bring back that level of unpredictable excitement, that verve, that 'what's going to happen next?' feeling, because it had gotten orchestrated and scripted.”

Services for Addis are pending.

UPDATE 11/2: Sup. John Avalos adjourned this week's Board of Supervisors meeting in the memory of Paul Addis and made the following comments about him:

·        Addis was a San Francisco performance artist and playwright who was best known from 2007’s Burning Man when he lit the Man on fire.
·        Addis wrote and performed several one-man plays, including Dystopian Veneerand Gonzo, A Brutal Chrysalis.
·        After years of struggling with mental health issues, Addis took his own life the past weekend. He was forty-two.
·        Addis’ controversial act was viewed by some as a dangerous act of arson and by others as a subversive protest of how Burning Man had strayed from its core principles.
·        Addis served two years in a Nevada prison for burning the Man.
·        On this day when we’re commemorating Mental Health Awareness month, I think it’s appropriate to recognize the loss of Paul Addis, and recognize how our mental health and criminal justice systems failed him, and how they fail so many others who struggle with mental health issues.