[...] are an important, trusted group. Dressed from head to foot in black, with blacked out faces, their hair covered, they are protected from fire and other elements.
They are keepers of the boundary between ordinary space and that of the procession. The role of the torchbearers is both to light the action and, with the Blue Men, to manage the spectators.
Similarly, the Stewards:
[...] occupy an important role, and are a vital link between the performers and the audience. They help to manage the crowds, protect the procession and ensure that a good time is had by all. Stewards liaise with performers, the production team and the audience, and ensure that everything runs smoothly, while still enjoying a fantastic view of the procession themselves.
This is mostly true. Stewards and torchbearers are occasionally considered not to be "proper" performers, but rather a lot of the performance would be invisible without torchbearers, and can't go ahead at all without stewards. Trust is indeed important: performers need to be sure that the person beside them won't accidentally set them on fire. Torchbearers don't always wear black, but the costume we chose usually tends to be something that will easily fade into the background, so dark colours have been preferred. This year's costume is basically the one from last Beltane, and is described here.
Torchbearers do indeed act as a moving boundary between the procession and the audience, and some may occasionally be detached from the procession to clear space elsewhere on the route. The "spectator management" role we share with the Stewards, and while a large flaming torch does lend a certain authority, we rely more on training in crowd control skills (primarily a matter of attitude and body language).
© Steve Glover for torchbearers.org.uk, 2006