Houdini, House Theatre, and the underwater escape magic of Dennis Watkins

October 12, 2011

“There are a lot of preconceived notions people have of magicians, whether that be bunny rabbits and top hats or incredibly cheesy, campy, bad-jokes, [and] pony-tail-wearing guys.”

Dennis Watkins, a founding House Theatre of Chicago member, is none of the these.

He’s not the doddering gent with the rabbit—and he’s not a humorless punk like TV star Criss Angel.

Watkins, 33, was raised to have a healthy respect for old-style magic: his grandfather was a magician, and so was his uncle. He started going to magicians’ conventions in his home state of Texas as a young kid, and began entering competitions as a teenager.

That immersion shows in his easygoing, witty, and highly entertaining work. The House’s Magic Parlour has been running at the Chopin on Friday nights for more than a year, getting rock-solid houses most every week.

And in January, the House remounts its first show, Death and Harry Houdini, which stars Watkins as the legendary magician. As in the show’s 2003 remount, he’ll be performing Houdini’s famous escape from the water torture cell, first done in 1912.

That feat wasn’t in Houdini's 2001 incarnation. “We didn’t have the money,” says Watkins. “Nor did Live Bait Theatre want a bunch of kids right out of college, performing their first play, to bring in a bunch of water!”

Starting Friday, Watkins’s water-escape trick will also be showcased at Navy Pier through Halloween, at an outdoor stage near the west end.

How’s it been, coming back to a complex trick—he’s totally immersed headfirst in a glass tank of water, his feet shackled outside it—that he hasn’t done in eight years? “It’s a little rough!” Watkins says. “I did that thing last when I was about 25. And everything I’ve been hearing since then, that things aren’t as physically easy when you’re in your 30s—they’re right about that! And we’re using a different water torture cell that’s much, much smaller.”

“It’s roughly two feet wide, so just about shoulder width, and about 5 feet, 10 inches tall. I’m 5’ 10”, so when my feet are locked to the outside and I drop down into it, my head is roughly at the bottom of the tank. It’s much more difficult to do. But I think the smaller tank will have a really cool effect for the audience, because it’s really claustrophobic. In the old tank, the audience could see that I could stretch my arm out to the bottom of the tank, stretch my arms out to the sides. This one, there’s no room for that.”

 

“When you go underwater, you know, people in the audience hold their breath until they can’t anymore.” The trick is “of another time,” Watkins adds. “But I don’t think the theater of it has changed—people watch with the same anticipation, there’s something really visceral about it.”

Watkins often speaks in terms of theater, not magic tricks—and part of the appeal of The Magic Parlour is that he brings audience members onstage a lot.

“It moves the show from an outline of tricks to something more improvisational and alive,” he says.

How does he pick?

“I tend to walk around the space before the show and watch people and pick a handful I think will be good," he points out. "You miss sometimes, though. You get people who are obnoxious or really want a lot of attention, or people who’ve gotten up there and you realize they’ve had a few more glasses of wine than you would have liked them to have. All those things are worth it, though.”

“I guess I do like to fool people,” says Watkins. “But more than that, I like to surprise people. I don’t enjoy frustrating people—I enjoy knocking their imaginations off-track a bit. The reason that the older, classical material still really works is that magic is less about the logic and the science and the puzzle of it and much more about imagination and surprise. If there’s anything magicians should be focused on, it’s creating an atmosphere where people can live in make-believe land and feel like a kid for a couple seconds.”