Katie Bender describes the premise behind her new solo show thusly: “I’m hosting a series of séances to communicate [with] and hopefully resurrect the spirit of Harry Houdini.”
The idea for the show – titled Instructions for a Séance– came to Bender after she visited the Houdini archives at UT’s Harry Ransom Center.
“While I was in graduate school, some folks in my program recommended that I check out Houdini’s archives,” she says. “My plays are often quite physical and have magic – theatrical magic – in them. And I checked out Houdini’s archives, which are huge. And I became so taken – I mean, I really became quite obsessed with Houdini.”
Bender was fascinated by Houdini’s stagecraft and by his involvement in mysticism. She says that Houdini was far from alone in his interest in the supernatural.
“You know, electricity had just begun to make the world so much smaller,” she says. “And I think people who were dabbing in spiritualism and mysticism and magic felt like if you could call someone in Germany, then why couldn’t you connect with someone who was passed away?”
At the time, Bender says, it was common for such people to have a shared word, a sort of code that they could use to communicate with loved ones after their deaths.
“And I know certainly the Houdini family did have a shared word that they would try and communicate with to loved ones after they had died,” she says. “And actually after Houdini’s death, his wife, every year on the anniversary of his death, would host a séance in the hopes of him communicating that to her.”
In Instructions for a Séance, Bender’s carrying on the tradition started by Houdini’s widow. “I’m really intrigued about his wife Bess,” Bender says. “Wondering, you know, was that a publicity stunt? Did she really believe? And there’s no answers to it. She did return to performing after he died, so who knows?”
The audience for the séance is kept purposefully small, with around 50 people admitted for each performance.
“I’m basically hosting a séance party,” Bender says. She’s hoping to capture a little of Houdini’s magic for her audience. “I think that the thing that I love so much – have always loved about Houdini, still love about Houdini, and love about magic in general – is the moment when your mind does not understand the trick that you just saw,” Bender says.
“This happens in a good play, but it always happens in a good magic trick. That you’ve just seen something and for a moment you don’t understand how it could have happened and you believe that magic is possible on some level. And so what I hope for the guest, for the audience, is that they get that moment of suspension of disbelief in which they don’t entirely understand how we’ve experienced what we’ve experienced together. That’s what I’m going for.”