Theater artist and playwright Katie Bender finds creative intrigue in women facing impossible circumstances — and also finds inspiration in games, challenges and physical exertion.
“Instructions for a Seance” is Bender’s new one-woman show, running in a fully staged workshop production Sept. 19-29 at the Museum of Human Achievement. Bender describes it as “part DIY seance, part historical cabaret — and attempt to contact and resurrect the spirit of escape artist Harry Houdini.”
Performed cabaret-style (yes, with a bar set-up too), Bender uses the historical context of Houdini, his career and his legacy to conjure her own theatrical rumination on escape, artistic ambition and familial responsibility.
Bender arrived in Austin from New York a few years ago to complete an MFA in playwriting at the University of Texas. Her work has been developed with The New Harmony Project, Kitchen Dog, The Orchard Project, Shrewd Productions, The Hangar, ZACH Theatre and the Playwrights’ Center. She is a co-creator of Underbelly, with whom she’s been a guest artist at New Victory Theatre. As a part of the 2019 Fusebox Festival, Bender, in collaboration with Rachel Mars and Gab Reisman, presented “Next Year People,” a show about three people trying to build a new type of society together on an abandoned island.
We asked Bender a few questions about how a 21st-century female theater artist such as herself found her way to one of history’s greatest escape artists to tell her tale of ambition, creativity and motherhood.
Sightlines: Where does your interest in Houdini come from?
Katie Bender: I discovered the Houdini archives at the Harry Ransom Center while in graduate school at UT for playwriting. I should preface this a bit: four years prior my boyfriend and I found out I was pregnant and though no one else we knew was doing it, we decided to get hitched and become parents. In the ensuing years our lives, assumptions and identity got thrown up in the air. What became very clear was that parenting actually necessitated taking more agency in our creative lives. My husband, Fiore, became a chef. I applied to graduate school for playwriting.
All that to say, when I discovered the Houdini archives I was juggling graduate school and parenting, the expectation of familial stability and my desire to live a sort of wayward art monster existence. I’d have these long fantasies about running away to Mexico. So in the dumbest, most obvious of ways, the images of Houdini struggling against a straight jacket strung up above a crowd resonated. I was drawn to the metaphor of escape he embodied.
S: What were you looking for in the Houdini archive at the Ransom Center, anything in particular? Did you find anything that surprised you?
KB: There was so much that surprised me about the Houdini archive which is just rife with contradictions. He dedicated himself to studying magicians, mystics and spiritualists of the past, but spent his last years lecturing against the danger of false psychics. Houdini’s success was built on gathering crowds to watch him escape, and yet he’d make a point of defraying any of the spiritual power of magic, claiming the secret was always just intense physical control. He publicly shamed mediums — often young woman, whom he labeled “witches” and “frauds” — while working to elevate male magicians through the creation of a magician’s guild. Notoriously difficult to work with, the quintessential “art monster” Houdini diligently wrote his mother every day and insisted on caring for her throughout her life. Taken as a whole, the archive is a contradictory testament to his incredible ambition, hunger and the huge amount of work he dedicated to crafting his legacy.
S: Houdini spent considerable effort publicly challenging Spiritualism and debunking psychics, mediums and the seances they were holding. And yet that sometimes doesn’t get remembered about him.
KB: Yes! This point is central to what troubles me about Houdini’s legacy, and one of the things I grapple with in the show. Initially I thought his lectures against psychics was just another press stunt, a way to keep drawing audiences when his body was no longer up for the extreme escapes he’d become famous for. However as I started diving into the history of mediums and spiritualism in American, particularly in response to Ann Braud’s really excellent book “Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America” Houdini’s lectures were rife with the kind of misogyny that seemed a direct reaction against women getting the right to vote.
It’s interesting the way history shakes out. We don’t remember that the first women in America to speak in the public sphere were Spiritualists, women who supported a wide range of ideals including women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, alternative medicine and environmentalism. We do remember that Houdini was a man who was good at escaping extreme situations. I love the irony that Houdini’s wife, Bess, who had given up performing to take care of his mother while he toured, held a seance every year on the anniversary of his death to contact him beyond the pale. My show “Instructions for a Seance” is as much a nod to Bess’s legacy as it is to Houdini’s.
S: Tell us about the central journey of the show, of how you grapple with motherhood and artistic ambition — and Houdini.
KB: The show is a seance. So to the best of my ability I create a seance to contact Houdini beyond the grave and ask him how to escape. You’ll just have to come out and see how it all shakes out.