Monday, September 17, 2012

The March Eighteenth Rhapsody

On March 18, 2012, I performed an underwater handcuff escape at the New York Aquarium out in Coney Island Brooklyn. This event, which was almost six months in the making was sponsored by the New York Aquarium and the New York Police Department (NYPD). The NYPD would provide the handcuffs and the police officers who would handcuff me securely before I leaped into one of the outdoor tanks at the Aqua Theatre. The producer of the event, Gary Dreifus, did a masterful job in getting all the parties on board with this event.  He handled all of the publicity for the event, negotiated with all of the officials, those at the Aquarium and elsewhere and was the go-between between the NYPD and myself.
An excellent poster to promote the event was designed by my very good friend, George Allison whose talents are beyond compare.
Back in January of 2012, Gary and I took a Friday afternoon jaunt out to Coney Island to meet with officials of the Aquarium. It was a cold day only in the upper 40s and after taking the Q train from Manhattan to the New York Aquarium stop, almost the end of the line, I walked over the pedestrian bridge linking the Coney Island Boardwalk with the New York Aquarium where I met Gary and Patrick and several officials including the dive captain, the marketing manager and a few of her assistants, some other corporate types and several dive assistants. After shaking hands all around, we were ushered into a back room where we all took seats around a large rectangular table. The marketing manager first, with the help of Gary gave an overview of the event; the who, what, where, why and to some extent, the how of the event.
It was then the dive captain's turn. An older gentlemen, he gave the appearance of being extremely knowledgeable in every aspect of safety. He carefully explained all the potential dangers of the event starting first with the temperature of the water and how, if not carefully monitored could lead to hypothermia and death. The water that morning was topping out at about 44 degrees. All of the tanks were salt water, which would be a first for me in any kind of stunt. I've swam in the ocean before, but never did a stunt in salt water. Most of  my escapes were (are) in rivers and, as we know, they are fresh water. Nevertheless, it would be salt water since the occupant of this tank, a 400 pound harbor seal, named Duke would be moved out of this enclosure for my performance on March 18.
As for today, Duke was already out of his enclosure, so it would be possible for me to take several dry runs (wet runs?) in the water. The Aqua Theatre seats roughly 500 people and is essentially theatre in the round with the spectators having a view of the tank through the glass below. The picture below (taken during the actual performance on March 18) gives an exact look of what the audience would see. It was taken by photographer Dennis Galante who was seated in the audience and captured a moment in the escape as I struggled with the handcuffs.

As for our pre-meeting happening now, the dive captain then deferred to one of his assistants who explained what his role would be. Afterwards, it was off to the Aqua Theatre for a few run throughs in the water. I changed into my bathing suit. One of the divers went all out, completely suiting up in a wet suit. He would be joining me in the water should I run into trouble and need help. I climbed the stairs to the top of the tank and dove in. It was cold, very cold and at first my body recoiled from the shock. Even after years of doing winter escapes in the Hudson and other rivers you never really get used to it. Something else I was not used too, was the salt water. I swam in the water for several minutes, with the crew standing up on the ledge shouting instructions to me. I would then get out and then would dive in again. I was testing out the depth and the best possible vantage point for the audience. I was at the Aquarium for about four hours that day, dove in the water more than a dozen times. Afterwards, I changed and we met again in one of the executive's offices and I was informed that a local paper, The Brooklyn Daily, had just come out that day and did a big spread on the upcoming event. 
After our meeting, I was eagar to get home and take a shower. I had a thick coating of salt on my body and I could taste it. It started to harden on my sking and it felt like a layer of crust over my body. Our meetings ended aabout 4pm and I caught the Q back to Manhattan.

March 18, 2012 was the scheduled day of the event. It was a Sunday afternoon and that morning, I was featured in the Sunday Metro section of The New York Times with a big spread on that day's event.
I arrived at the New York Aquarium with my photographer about 12 noon and we met the rest of the crew at the entrance. The New York Police Deapartment was already there and we were moved into the location.  There was quite a bit of build-up to this event and we were told by the Aquarium that the event was sold-out. The New York Times article that morning greatly helped in the promotion and the crowds were already lining up at the entrance. reporters from the Daily News and The New York Post as well as several wire services were in attendance. I consulted with Gary who would be the MC of this event who, at this moment was speaking with all of the local officials who had shown up.
I changed into a bathing suit and placed this over this a sweatshirt and sweat pants. Gary would be introducing me and I would need to come out and speak before the escape.

Finally, I was introduced. One police officer stayed on the ground near me and he had two sets of handcuffs. Another police officer, who carried the other three restraints would be standing on top of the tank near where I would dive in. In total, I was to be handcuffed with five sets of NYPD issue Smith & Wesson handcuffs. I would then dive into the tank and free myself while underwater. Since the Salt water proved to be extrememly buoyant in practice, a thirty pound weight belt was attached to my waist along with two ten pound ankle weights. There was fifty pounds of iron, in addition to the restraints, dragging me to the bottom! (I better get out!)  Gary introduced me to the crowd and then introduced each police officer. One set of handcuffs was placed on my wrists and I allowed the audience to come forward and examine them. Then, while Gary narrated, I walked up to the top of the tank, staying in view of the audience the entire time. The second officer placed the remaining three sets of handcuffs on me. The above photogrsaph shows me seconds before diving.
From below, Gary led the audeince in a countdown------- 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . .
2 . . . 1. . . ZERO . . . I dove into the the thirty foot deep tank filled with more than two thousand gallons of 40 degree salt water where I escaped all of the handcuffs underwater in little over a minute and a half.

All in all, it was a fun day at the New York Aquarium. 

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

If you want Cutting-Edge, you must be ready to bleed!

I just finished reading Frederich Nietzche's, Human, All Too Human and while I must say, that this book, published in the late nineteenth century is a difficult read within the prism of twenty-first century thought and ideas, there were several concepts that had me thinking and re-evaluating the misunderstood creative process as it applies to my work everyday.  First, the quote and its not direct, since I don't have the book in front of me, rather I am paraphrasing from what I can remember. Nietzsche says that  (paraphrasing now) -----artists have a vested interest in the believing of the flash of revealation, the so-called flash of inspiration shining down from Heaven. In reality, the imagination of the artist contuinually produces good, mediocre and bad things and it is the work of the artist, the true work of the artist that is trained not only in inventing but in the sifting, re-combining, transforming and rejecting of the "inspiration" that comes to us.----

So, in my life, I have various routines in various stages of development. Some are awaiting a final justification of the prop or have a deep mechanical problem that turns it from magic into a puzzle. Others, I am just not happy with--either from an aesthetic look or from a presentational approach. I have had some effects that have sat "on the shelf'" for years, as it were, because I could not solve some sort of problem to my satisfaction with it. People call me a perfectionist and perhaps I am overthinking some of these illusions, but to my mind, I just can't bring something to market until, at least in my own mind, it is the best it can possibly be.

Case in point, at present I have an illusion that I am working on with a brick, an actual paving brick that one would use to build a house, lay a patio. The effect is that a glass rod penetrates the brick. It sounds cool, amazing, impossible, etc., all of the emotions I strive for when creating and presenting magic or escapes.

Another very "well-respected" creative magician has suggested that the best way to accomplish this is to have the brick sitting on a table top. OK--at first it sounded like a good idea. But, there was something that always bothered me about this. Is this what magic would be? Hmmm. OK, so I aquiesced and spent an inordinate amount of money building a platform on which this brick would sit. All the while, as I am building and designing this, I am thinking that this is the wrong approach, that "if you could really do magic", you would not do it this way. It would be simpler, and within that simplicity, I believed I could conceal the modus operandi. 

Nevertheless, against my better judgement, I began to build someone else's vision. However, that inner voice that sings to you with inspiration, was still nagging at me, with two words, "Wrong way---Wrong Way! My all-time favorite quote from Einstein is that "God does not roll dice with the Universe." That may be true, but I do think He rolls dice with individuals, giving some ideas that are complete from start to finish to some and to others he gives ideas that are sometimes dead-ends, with the hope that we will recognize it, learn from it and instead, be led through circumstance to a solution or idea that was never on our radar or within our consciousness. 
So, I spend alot of time on this brick illusion, buy the raw materials for the prop, saw, plane, sand, and measure it. I make a few mistakes, scrap the materials, head back to Home Depot to re-buy them and start again. I work till two-o-clock in the morning, painting, lacquering, trying to make it just right. I'm still unsure about it, but I push those feeleings aside. Finally, I finish. Its built. I perform it in front of the mirror in front of a FLIP camera. I show it to layman, to magicians, even post a picture of it on Facebook. Finally, I decide to workshop it at an Open Mic Night down in the Bowery in New York City. I will tell you, for an artist, there is nothing like an Open Mic Night to workshop new material. It is the absolute best. You will find out very quickly how far your effect can and will stand on its own.  Things you thought were clever and unique, will fall flat on this audience, they may even boo you, call you out, shout things at you.  You must have very thick-skin because if the stars are not aligned properly, you will bleed. Boy, will you bleed.

Sometimes, you get lucky--what you thought was stupid, sophomoric, tasteless, obvious, "wouldn't fool Stevie Wonder" turns out to be well-liked, cutting edge, magical, mysterious, funny, a surprise and your audience loves you. So, its the proving ground of proving grounds. Nothing like it in the world . . .  that New York City.  I show up with the brick illusion, sign my name on the list at the door and go inside to grab a seat. I grab a drink at the bar and wait to perform. Another check of the list reveals I am number eight out of fifteen people. Seven stand-up comics precede me.

The audience seems a little tepid tonight. Maybe it's because it's a weeknight. Maybe Tuesdays nights are a little better for performers--or maybe this audience is all performers. That would certainly not be the first time. I sit through seven stand-up comic performances. Two women were really funny. The rest . . . OK. But again, this is the woodshed, and here, even seasoned performers may leave with their tail between their legs. I guess I'm ready. I've been through alot worse. As I sit, I push the doubts out of my mind, the thoughts of failure are getting harder and harder to neutralize. More drinks might help--but then I won't be able to perform . . . and besides the drinks here are double the cost on a regular night. I guess that's the price you pay for an audience.

Finally, my name is called. I had no idesa what time it was, guessing about 10:30 or 11pm. I walk to the stage, introduce myself and go right into the illusion. I run through the mechanics, the required motions of this new illusion. The audience, while not hostile, is not exactly dumbfounded either. I hear none of the usual feedback I get when doing a polished performance. Strangely, there is really no response. Go figure. Now, I have no idea what the fuck to do. I complete the illusion and leave the stage. However, its a comment after---that gives me my confirmation. A young guy, sitting on a barstool catches my gaze as I walk toward him. As I pass between him and a waitress, this guy, probably in his mid-twenties says to me in a British accent, "Cool trick, but why the table?"

With that comment, I felt a wave suddenly wash over me, as if I was standing waist deep in the ocean, unaware I was there and suddenly to wake me up, a wave cascaded over me. That was all I needed. In the final analysis, that was the problem and as it turns out, was exactly what I needed to hear. That inner voice kept saying it but I just was not listening. I continued out of the club. As I walked to Broadway-Lafayette, subway station to get the D Uptown, I took the tabletop and threw it into an trash bin at Houston and Sixth Avenue. It was a nice wooden tabletop that I handcrafted out of Maple, stained and put some beautiful moulding on. It might look good in your home, with a Sterling Silver coffee pot sitting on top--but it was out of place in this illusion, in this time and in this place.  Turns out, Nietzsche had it right afterall.