What’s there to do when it all falls apart?  People often ask if things ever go wrong for me as an illusionist in front of an audience.  Of course it happens but if the illusionist is good at improvising and has thoroughly thought through back-up plans then it can be a life saver.  Also, most of the time the audience doesn’t know what’s supposed to happen so the illusionist can usually work their way out of the pickle through some fancy footwork. But sometimes, it’s worse than that…

The year was 2006 and I had been working frantically for months with my partner in crime Desireé Kongerød to create a brand new illusionist act to debut at London’s Old Billingsgate Market for a month full of in-house illusionist entertainment. It was the seedling that was to become our beloved Norvil & Josephine.  Since then we’ve been fortunate enough to have performed the act on international television and all around the UK including on stages like the Hackney Empire and Leeds City Varieties Theatre (I wrote about that in another post).

Equipment, props and accessories had been trickling in from four continents in what had been, without question, the most hair-raising production schedule I’d ever faced. Opening night loomed and the venue was going to have an audience of one thousand. No pressure.

We had decided early on that the finale of our new London illusionist act would be a legendary number made famous by none other than Harry Houdini himself. It goes like this: everything is examined by the audience, Norvil (who I play) is handcuffed, bagged, and locked in a trunk…

Josephine stands on top, with a flourish she tosses the keys to the stage floor and throws a curtain up…

When it falls down, the audience gasps to discover she’s transformed into Norvil. The illusionist impossibly switches places with his partner in the blink of an eye. He jumps down, plucks up the keys from the stage floor, unlocks the trunk, and inside the tied bag is a wiggling figure who we find to be the handcuffed Josephine herself! We had rehearsed it endlessly in the rehearsal studio. We were as ready as we could be.

At the best of times, production schedules in venues and theatres are down to the second. Due to technical setbacks the stage in this case wasn’t ready on time for our all-important tech rehearsal. This meant our rehearsal was cut short so we couldn’t practice our finale on stage. The first arrivals at the venue were waiting outside so we had to clear. Mental notes to self: “It should be fine, the technicians know their cues up to the end of the show and we know what we’re doing.”

Famous last words!

Performers of all breeds know how crucial those tech rehearsals are for a smooth show, but they never want to be reminded why.

It seemed we were clear.  The show had all gone well. The finale’s triumphant transposition of Norvil & Josephine had been a success, the audience is cheering wildly, we are seconds away from a successful debut show behind us… Norvil jumps off the trunk to get the key… to get … the key… to get… There was no key.  It’s here that we discovered that those harmless few minutes cut from the end of our illusionist tech rehearsal were actually a priceless treasure snatched from our grasp.  The stage floor was high-gloss white, lined by a stainless steel trim and when you add dazzling stage lights to the equation, you get a rabbit-in-the-headlights scenario, with keys being practically invisible.

Excruciating moments passed for Norvil who was ad-libbing with the audience as if it was all part of the show (while hiding the fact he was an illusionist frantically looking for the keys to help him escape from this drama)…

Moments passed, feeling like an eternity.

There was no curtain on stage to draw and rescue us so I decided the only way out was to summon the stage hands to come on  and manhandle the trunk backstage.

Though at that moment, an audience member spotted …the keys! They had slid to a crevice on the stage’s perimeter totally invisible to anyone standing on the stage blinded by the lights. All was saved, and moments later Josephine emerged from the trunk (glistening as if from a sauna) rather relieved to take that applause.

The thrills of a live illusionist performance. When you see the act, during the finale you’ll notice the hot pink sequined ribbon that the keys have been attached to ever since opening night … you’ll know WHY!

2 thoughts on “Houdini gone Haywire

  1. Wonderful story and lesson! Thrilling to hear it firsthand. Yikes and more yikes! And I love that the happy ending was provided by the audience. Audiences are often thought of – and perhaps think of themselves – as being passive, unimportant – but this is a fantastic example of how the relationship between performer and audience can be organic, and all-important.

  2. David Glaser says:

    Wow – what a story! Sounds like you played it pretty cool.

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