Playing Harry Houdini
Dennis Watkins was born to play the master illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini.
"I’m lucky in that I’m a third generation magician," the Chicago actor explains. "My granddad ran a magic shop for 30 years. I grew up and learned magic from him."
In fact, Watkins’ grandfather met the infamous magician and regaled his grandson with the tale many times as the two attended annual conventions of the Texas Association of Magicians that would draw as many as 1,200 participants for a week of magic shows, lectures and workshops.
"I was 8 years old the first time (he took me), and it was like going to Disney World for the first time," recalls Watkins. "It was awesome."
Years later while a student at Southern Methodist University, his skills would be put to work on stage when Watkins met writer and director Nathan Allen. Along with 10 ensemble members who formed the House Theatre of Chicago, the duo created Death and Harry Houdini.
Allen had seen Watkins perform magic tricks and had a really strong interest in magic, himself. After reading a book about Houdini, Allen selected the subject of his first play.
"It was 2001 and I had just graduated from college. We did the show in a 40-seat, teeny-weeny black box theater on the north side of Chicago. It was really just an ounce of the spectacle," he says of the play that was resurrected in 2003 with a bigger budget and again this year for the 10th anniversary of the company.
Each night, Watkins not only must master his lines, he must also successfully execute the tricks that drew thousands of people to Houdini’s shows, including the infamous water torture cell.
Watkins enthusiastically offers, "I never get tired of it. It’s such a fun show to do with all the magic and the richness of Harry’s story and life. I get lifted upside down in a straightjacket, locked in a box, dunked in a tank of water."
Houdini was incredibly driven, smart and determined, says Watkins. At the height of his career (1900-26), few performers were doing the intense escape work and "Handcuff Harry" continued to push the envelope, introducing the Chinese water torture cell in 1912.
"He was a master of his destiny....a huge megalomanic with worldwide fame and wealth that were unprecedented for the time...and even his relationships were planned and plotted," says Watkins, noting that Houdini also served as his own publicist, "a great one."
He adds, "I think it’s fun to play a character who is that complex and allowed to be as big and grandiose as he is in our play."
But Watkins also warns audiences that they will not be seeing a biography that traces Houdini’s life, describing the show more as "a sort of ride through the timeline of his life" that is accentuated with song and dance, clever stagecraft and vivid storytelling.
The show opened at Miami’s Arsht Center last weekend to critical acclaim and sold out performances, but audiences still have plenty of opportunities to get swept up in the magical story that has mesmerized Watkins since he was a boy.
"Death and Harry Houdini"
Through May 20
Carnival Studio Theater, Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami
Tickets start at $40 at ArshtCenter.org