Houdini Unlocked

It’s 1999, and The Great Houdini has just hit the boards running at the Stela Adler Theatre in Hollywood, California.  It was my first full-scale production as a playwright, a story of the life-after-death of the master magician.  I made it a high priority to be involved in every step of the production process, with one glaring exception. I refused to attend any rehearsal that included any of the three featured illusions: the Metamorphosis, the Milk Can, and the Straitjacket escape.  Everyone thought I was nuts, of course, but I had my reasons.  I believed in the magic, and I didn’t want it ruined for me.  It would stop being magic the second I knew how it was done.  To this day, I don’t know – nor do I want to know – how they did it.  As odd as it may sound, it turned out to be a good decision.  Being unencumbered with knowledge played a key role in transcribing this very visually dependent production into audio only.

But why do such a thing?

As I mentioned in my first article, the entertainment industry is virtually off limits to those without connections or visibility within it already.  That’s why God invented radio theatre.  The perfect little miracle for a writer to get their work out there and listened to, albeit in a way in which they never thought at first.  Also because The Great Houdini was my introduction into the world of What Could Be, and it will forever hold a very special, intimate place in my heart.

Let’s go back to the beginning – the most important part.  Similar to a screenplay’s hook on the reader at the very beginning, a radio production must sink its fangs into the listener’s ears in just a few words.

The first mistake I made was using the play’s synopsis as my intro.  Cut and pasted directly from the program.  After, shall we say, “cruel to be kind” words of review from the play’s original director, I realized Thou Shalt Not Take Short Cuts?  Setting the audio stage, however, is more than simply stating the where.  I had to flavor the location without a visible atmosphere.  I searched my sleeves up and down for such tricks and found them in Houdini’s original, haunting, musical score.  Composed by Mark Galliher, twenty years ago in a smoke-filled garage. The sweeping strings and eerie echo said more in a few measures than a dozen different camera angles ever could.  Bonus auditory points came from the buttery-smooth baritone of our signature voice, enter Jared Wood.  As only Jared could in his Vincent Prince dialect, the dark and foreboding ambiance of a deserted theatre, this is where our story takes place.

    Now we were off and running until I came to the three illusions.

First on the list was the Metamorphosis, wherein the magician swaps places with his assistant in less than a second.  In the Milk Can Escape, he has to, well, escape from a milk can.  The Strait Jacket escape is self-explanatory – spoiler alert – anyone who remembers Mel Gibson slamming his shoulder into the wall in Lethal Weapon has the inside look on how such escape is possible.  This may come in handy should you ever find yourself in a sanitarium situation, and if you’re a writer your odds are greater than others.  But you knew that.

In any event, there was a very real danger of becoming redundant when it came to the audible description of the illusions.  It couldn’t just be Harry telling his young charge the hows, whats, and where.  YAWN.  This is where writing for such a format gets uniquely interesting.  On the one hand, you have to keep it super simple because you are describing things for one sense only. On the other, you have to delve deep into a scene.  Chasm deep.  You have to dissect it with surgical precision and highlight only the essentials.

Now, not knowing how the illusions are performed, as stated, put me at an advantage.  I had no practical basis for the idea. I was forced to look at it from the perspective of my sightless audience.  In the play, the way Houdini sells himself to his costar was delightfully conducive to my cause.  He describes, with unabridged enthusiasm, what he was seeing as he pitched the Metamorphosis to a kid who had no idea what he was looking at.

The Milk Can Escape was next on the challenge list, and keeping in mind that danger-zone of redundancy, I let Bess Houdini take over.  She addresses an unseen audience in the play, and in doing so, the listener in 2016 shares the same experience with the 1920s theatre-goer.  Not only does she describe in great detail what the Milk Can looks like, but what it must be like inside the thing.

Third, the Strait Jacket.  Thanks to this new-fangled internet thing, I could watch Houdini perform this stunt on YouTube.  I assigned the description of what I was seeing to a hyper-excited news reporter who brings the event to life.  As you listen, you can just see a guy with a press card in his hat, a finger to his ear, and a three-pound microphone in his hand, coming to you live from the crowded streets of Roaring Twenties New York.  Oh, the humanity.

The point is, bringing Harry’s story to life for the radio world was a challenge.  The parallel is a little humbling because he was all about overcoming challenges.  And therein lies the biggest one of all.  Think about our modern culture and how visually dependent we are. Look at the over-the-top athletic prowess of MMA, professional football, or American Ninja Warrior. It’s a visual amphetamine; but why is it so hot today?

One theory is that we as a society have grown so desensitized via over stimulation from the internet and a 24/7 news cycle that it takes the gut-churning spectacle of watching two modern day warriors going at it gladiator style to elicit an emotional reaction.

The idea behind WRCP is that we’re like a sensory detox.  To encourage our listeners to sit back, relax, and enjoy a story told to you in the style of Back in the Day times.  An effort to stop and smell the roses.  Or in this case, stop and hear the roses.

    Wait.  What does a rose sound like?

    Ah – hah.  That’s the idea.

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