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What is an escapologist’s worst occupational hazard?
Trying to control your breathing while you’re immersed in water and trying to undo chains? Being locked in a barrel with handcuffs while the clock ticks down?
As terrifying as they sound, Krendl, the escaplogist with the Illusionists 1903 stage show, assures me that the worst thing is the audience assuming that your act is all a trick.
“It can be frustrating when someone comes up after the show and wants to know how it was done. The truth is the only way out of chains when you’re under water is skill and training,” Krendl says.
Canberra audiences can see that skills for themselves when the show comes to the Canberra Theatre early in December. The Illusionist 1903 transports audiences back to the golden era of stage magic in the 20th century, a time when illusionists were the rock stars of the performing world.
“Harry Houdini is the most famous of the period,” Krendl says, talking about his personal hero, “But there were many others, who were all put up on a pedestal by audiences around the world. They played in the biggest and best theatres and were admired and envied.”
Audience fascination with stage magic continues today, helped along by popular films like Christopher Nolan’s film with The Prestige, pitting Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale against each other.
“It’s funny that films are leading people back to magic performers,” Krendl says, “Their popularity fell away from the 1920s onwards as movies proved more alluring. Today though audiences are coming back to appreciate the skill.”
He says he feels that same awe and fascination.
Krendl is a relative newcomer to the cast and saw the show for the first time in final rehearsals. “I had goose bumps watching all the elements come together.”
Growing up in a small town in Idaho, Krendl discovered magic and illusion as a 10-year old. “I started practising out of boredom to be honest, there wasn’t much to do in my hometown and a friend and I found books on magic I the local library. I was very shy and magic was a crutch, I realised I could do something to make people like me.”
He started with simple, science based tricks and progressed to card tricks, and by the age of 12 he was performing birthday parties at McDonalds for other kids. That started him on the path that has seen him perform over 1,200 shows in 12 years and voted ‘best in show’ for the past three years at the Magic Theater.
Krendl is now the first person since Houdini to perform a particularly dangerous stunt on stage: escaping from a straight jacket while suspended upside down in a tank of water, something that is “incredibly stupid according to my mother,” he jokes.
“The more you move underwater the quicker you burn up oxygen. Getting out of a straight jacket involves contorting and jerking muscles all over your body, so you’re already burning O2 even faster. The faster your heart beats the more dangerous this becomes.”
Performing this dangerous stunt successfully he says relies on staying as calm as possible, and he reveals it takes more than physical training. “You face your demons when you’re in that tank, I’ve learnt more about myself rehearsing this stunt than ever in my life.”
I tell him I’m excited to be seeing the show when it tours but that I will probably have my hands over my face for his act. He laughs and says that’s a common reaction.
“You’re doing the impossible and putting yourself in harm’s way. For all the suspense involved, audiences want to cheer because it relates to their own lives. We all have the ability to take on any challenge, we just have to be willing to try.”
In the week since I spoke to Krendl, his tank has developed some serious problems in Abu Dhabi.
Leakages from the water cell he knows and has rehearsed and performed in has meant he can’t use it for now. While it’s shipped to Australia for a complete overhaul, he’s preparing to go into a tank whose dimensions he doesn’t know, a reminder of just how dangerous his act is.
So apart from adrenalin inducing heart palpitations, what can audiences expect of Illusionists 1903?
Emerging one by one from heavy velvet curtains and into dazzling stage lights are the eight performers, each with their own discipline.
From levitation and sleight of hand to deadly bullet catches and clairvoyants penetrating the hidden recesses of the mind, the stage is set for thrills and heart pounding wonder.
“What’s important is not how the trick is done but how it’s performed,” says Krendl. “The real magic is entertaining people and making them smile.”
What: The Illusionists 1903
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 8-16 December 2015
Tickets: via the website or call the box office on (02) 6275 2700.