Through its 15-year history, one theater company has consistently brought magical themes and techniques to the stage to create inventive, engaging, highly regarded work: The House Theatre of Chicago. The company has earned 60 Joseph Jefferson Award Nominations (Chicago’s equivalent of the Tony Awards) including 19 wins, and recognition from the American Theatre Wing in the form of the National Theatre Grant. And from day one, magic has been part of its distinctive theatrical vocabulary.
While a senior in high school, magician Dennis Watkins visited Southern Methodist University to audition for the Theatre Department scholarship program. As was typical for the program, he stayed on campus in the room of a first-year scholarship student. They hit it off; and when Dennis was accepted into the program and admitted in the fall, that same student would become his sophomore mentor: Nathan Allen.
The two quickly realized they shared a similar artistic perspective. Where the curriculum at SMU was based on classic theater work, Nathan and Dennis were both interested in a less traditional approach: “We wanted to break the fourth wall and involve the audience, and Nate liked how magic accomplished that,” remembers Dennis. When Nathan graduated, he moved to Chicago with two other SMU theater grads and quickly filed paperwork to establish a place where he could make their artistic vision a reality: The House Theatre of Chicago.
Its mission: “to unite Chicago in the spirit of community through amazing feats of storytelling.” And from the start, it was clear that its “amazing feats” would include the element of magic. When Dennis graduated the following spring, the company was already working on its first production, penned by Nathan with Dennis in mind for the lead.
The story is a mythological one based on a biography every conjurer knows: the scrappy young man stricken by the loss of loved ones at the hands of that eternal magician, Death. Spurred on by that pain, he climbs to the topmost rung of the show-business ladder through a series of truly death-defying challenges. He sweats and struggles in the limelight, conquering ropes, shackles, straitjackets, submerged packing crates, and water-filled torture cells. But just when he appears his most larger-than-life to the public, he’s brought down to size by Death in the privacy of his own dressing room.
But is he really? 90 years later, we’re still talking about him (and making plays about him). And in that, there’s a message that resonates with all artists: aside from the compelling irony, it’s a story of hope. After all, if a superhuman like Houdini can die, so can any of us. But like him, we might also sidestep Death by achieving immortality through our art.
That’s an audacious message to come out of a little theater startup, straight out of the gate. But more than being The House’s first story, it’s the one that continues to define the company in production after production. Since its debut in 2001, the material has been revisited and remounted six times, more than any other play in the company’s history.
In every remount, the script has deepened—and the company has acquired richer magical knowledge, so that in the current production, Dennis was able to watch as other company members solved technical problems on their own: “We had a moment where I’m doing a nail roulette (Jon Allen’s “The Pain Game”), and one of the company members was having trouble setting the prop. Another company member immediately chimed in with, ‘We need some misdirection over here,’ and came up with a larger bit of business to pull attention to another part of the house, and it worked beautifully. They figured it out!”
Given the breadth and volume of effects in the show, it’s not surprising that company members have learned to think like magic pros. There are more than a dozen effects, ranging from a crowd-pleasing Cards to Pocket to a gasp-inducing walk on broken glass, all the way up to such large-scale dazzlers as the Wakeling Sawing Illusion, “Metamorphosis,” and the climactic “Water Torture Cell.”
Though filled with magic, the show is also bristling with bravura theatrical touches—including a prizefight-announcing narrator; a startling, dangling-by-his-heels Houdini entrance; and a gas mask-wearing, stilt-walking Death towering over everything—which strike exactly the right balance according to audiences and critics of the current production. Reviews call it “a thrilling ride” (TimeOut Chicago),“ingeniously written and directed”(Chicago Sun-Times), and “a highly polished and visually thrilling show … strikingly well-designed and well-executed … [containing] magic of the very highest order!” (Chicago Tribune).
In Season Four (2007), The House Theatre had another major hit with a new show centered on a magical figure. This time, it was the character of Emily Book, a small-town girl with telekinetic powers in The Sparrow, conceived by Nathan Allen and written by Chris Matthews and Jake Minton.
But rather than fill the play with effects, The House took a different tack from its Houdini success, choosing instead to use choreographed movement as its primary storytelling engine. When people or objects are affected by the powers of the protagonist (played by Carolyn Defrin, Bess in the 2016 production of Houdini), they are visibly manipulated by the other performers on stage in a stylized and lyrical fashion. As praised by the Chicago Sun-Times, which included it in its annual round-up of top 10 dance performances, “Dance is the true medium and message in this coming-of-age tale, which homes in on American small-town life and infuses it with a spark of the supernatural, a grounding of grief and a streak of the transgressive.”
It’s only after the audience has accepted this theatrical convention that the company ventures beyond “a spark of the supernatural” to perform a single piece of magic. As magic consultant for the show, Dennis explains the reason for this restraint: “We wanted to set this one dramatic moment apart by making it feel real.”
Emily’s teacher lies on the ground, felled by a gunshot to the chest. She kneels over him, her hand held a foot above his wound. She focuses intensely. The tension increases. Finally, the bullet is wrenched free by an unseen force and slowly drawn upward through the air, into her grasp.
With its magic, both imagined and visible, the production caught fire. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called it, “Among the very best original theater pieces I’ve ever seen.” It sold out its run at the small Viaduct Theatre, then moved to the prestigious Steppenwolf Garage Theatre for an extension, where it again sold out.
The Sparrow earned The House Theatre a Jeff Award for Best Ensemble and a Jeff nomination for Best Actor (Carolyn Defrin). It also received the first Emerging Theater Award from Broadway In Chicago, the producing heavyweight responsible for operating five downtown theaters and hosting pre-Broadway and long-running engagements of blockbusters like Wicked and Jersey Boys.
Broadway In Chicago proceeded to take The Sparrow under its wing, bring it to the Apollo Theater, and launch The House into the sights of a wider commercial audience. Word even spread to Miami, where The House was invited to perform a limited run at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, beginning a relationship between the two that continues today.
Magic took center stage again at The House the next season (Season Five, 2008), with Watkins stretching into the role of playwright. His focus in The Magnificents was on an aging magician whose once dazzling troupe of performers has faded along with its audiences, and the legacy he leaves behind when he teaches a young boy about art and life.
It’s a show unabashedly about love, though not of the usual romantic kind portrayed on stage. Love in The Magnificents is the kind one feels when devoting oneself to an art. It’s also the love that flows from mentor to student, and from performer to audience. And the love that connects performers into families more tightly at times than the ones they’re born into.
Not surprisingly, the origin of the show was rooted in love: that of a grandson for his grandfather who was, in fact, a magician. “It’s kind of a tribute to my grandfather [Ed Watkins], who was head demonstrator at Douglas Magicland in Dallas,” Dennis explains. “He was part of that place for over 30 years, and even helped hire Mark Wilson as a demonstrator [who, as Jimmy Wilson, began working there at age 13, laying the foundation for his later success].”
Playing the role of the older magician himself, Dennis worked within the dramatic framework to incorporate a variety of classic effects that a man of his grandfather’s generation would have performed. They ranged from the “Dancing Handkerchief” to “The Magic Square” to a clever, two-person Cups and Balls sequence with The Boy (Tommy Rapley).
The storyline also provided opportunities for the rest of the circus troupe to mesmerize through their own arts. These included the aerialist (Lucy Carapetyan) who performed a graceful adagio suspended in silk, and the strongman (Jeff Trainor) who reclined on a bed of nails while receiving the full force of a sledgehammer to his cinder block-topped chest.
The quality of the magic justifiably attracted praise— TimeOut Chicago’s review announces, ”With mind-boggling, old-school magic tricks, The Magnificents earns its title.” But as in Houdini, it was Nathan Allen’s artistry at keeping the story central that earned top billing from many reviewers: “The story is heartwarming and engaging. The magic will blow you away!” (Chicago Critic); “I laughed, I cried, I wondered.” (The Fourth Walsh). Dennis expresses it more succinctly: “Nate’s a genius!” The show’s initial success was repeated in 2011 with remounts in Chicago and Miami.
Despite the success of The Magnificents, Dennis still had bills to pay. “It was 2008, and the economy dropped out.” Hoping to increase his private bookings as a magician, he asked Nathan if he could use their downstairs space at the Chopin Theatre to film a promo he could show potential clients. That gave Nathan an idea. “He asked if I could do the filming as a ticketed fundraiser. I said ‘sure,’ and we made a handful of cash. A little while later, Nate had another idea: he asked if we could run it weekly. We came up with something that worked financially and squeezed 60 people into the basement every Friday night.”
The plan worked. The Magic Parlour, which starred Dennis doing a straightforward evening of parlour magic (as advertised), became a reliable money-maker for the company. Two years later, the theater company’s board of directors reviewed the books and came back with a recommendation: make the show bigger, look at other venues, and raise the ticket prices.
Though a proven formula elsewhere, Dennis didn’t suggest using a hotel as a venue. “I was sensitive about being seen as copying what Steve Cohen was doing in New York. But when somebody else on the board said, ‘I think we could do it at the Palmer House,’ I couldn’t really fight it. I’m just glad it didn’t come from me.”
The Palmer House is one of the oldest and most gracious hotels in Chicago, with a grand lobby sparkling with fixtures designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The House Theatre was careful to reflect the locale’s elegance in every element, through tickets printed on metallic-gold card stock and programs trimmed into graceful petals closed with a custom wax seal, both from Delicious Design League, complemented by the look of Dennis himself, “resplendent in the requisite tuxedo” (Chicago Theatre Beat).
A polished evening of magic in these surroundings, accompanied by a glass of wine, could reasonably command premium prices. They soon did: tickets, which went for $10 to $25 for an hour’s show at the Chopin, became $75 for 80 minutes at the Palmer House, providing guests with what the would call, “old-fashioned trickery performed very well in an ideal setting … a sophisticated, thoughtful night-cap.”
Initially, the hotel didn’t quite know what to make of its theatrical partner, but its management gradually warmed up to the show. “It took a couple of years before the hotel asked, ‘Can you be here more?’” During the same time, Dennis grew more comfortable in the new space: he had first honed his craft on the street, where “louder, faster, funnier” is the rule; but at the Palmer House, he learned the power of being more deliberate. He cites the advice given to him by Eugene Burger: “Don’t be a trickster. Be magic.”
The show is organized around the categories allegedly contained in an old magic book of his grandfather’s which Dennis had purportedly read. While effects vary, they have included such favorites as the “Bill in Orange” (performed with the flourish of a butterfly knife), “Sam the Bellhop,” Razor Blade Swallowing, “Tossed Out Deck,” and Blindfolded Psychometry. But the closing number is a Dennis Watkins original.
Here’s how the effect came about: “I watched a friend’s kid climb into a big balloon in a variety-show sketch. I then ordered a bunch of balloons with the thought, ‘There’s gotta be a magic trick in here somewhere …’” The result is a Card Stab unlike anything seen before.
A card is selected from a deck of cards, which is signed, returned to the deck, shuffled, and retained by the participant. Next, Watkins produces a red balloon and inflates it with a leaf blower to its full seven-feet diameter. He climbs inside, encasing first his head, then his shoulders and torso, before finally pulling in his legs and feet. The red balloon rolls, and with its opening now at the top, his head emerges unexpectedly and instructs the participant to throw the deck at his chest. The cards are thrown, and the moment they hit the latex it explodes with a “boom”—revealing amidst the shower of cards and rubber scraps a triumphant Dennis, trusty butterfly knife extending from his hand, the selected card impaled on its blade.
Six years after its opening, The Magic Parlour is still running at the Palmer House to excellent response, five shows a week (except when the lead performer is appearing in a different House production; being two places at once is not yet in the Watkins repertoire).
Even with a show that doesn’t have magic as its central focus, The House Theatre has found places to integrate magical moments. The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz included a dance in which the Wizard danced a tango with the Witch of the West amid cane and feather flower productions; later, the Tin Woodsman threw his ax across the stage to lop off the witch’s hand.
Dave Divinci Saves the Universe, a play involving time travel, required a “time portal.” Here, a “Flash Appearance” enabled actors to apparently penetrate a solid wall.
And then there’s the annual fundraising party, The Secret Soiree. Every year, Dennis whips up a new, one-time-only magic performance specifically designed to entertain the company’s benefactors. Since attendees tend to have seen his other shows and prior Soirees, each year’s fundraiser comes with its own challenge to somehow top the ones that came before.
Through all these avenues, magic has become a trademark for The House Theatre, and an element its audience members have learned to expect and even seek out. This has created some helpful cross-promotional opportunities. As Dennis relates, “All the shows feed on each other. People who come to see The Magic Parlour often say, ‘Oh, I’m here because of The Magnificents or Harry Houdini, and vice versa.’” It also helps set The House apart from other companies. At latest count, League of Chicago Theatres memberships include more than 200 Equity and non-Equity houses and companies; on a recent weekend, 65 plays competed at once for a theater-going audience—and that’s in addition to the city’s many concerts, recitals, and other cultural attractions. But while other companies have staged the occasional magic-themed play (The Tempest co-directed by Teller at Chicago Shakespeare, The Magic Play at the Goodman) no other theater company in Chicago history has shown a more consistent commitment to magical performance.
Although working in the collaborative environment of a theater company might not suit the temperament of every magician, it seems to be a Watkins family trait: his uncle, Jeff Watkins, is also a magician—who went on to found the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. (Adds Dennis with awe, “He’s directed the entire Shakespeare canon two or three times by now.”) Dennis clearly feels The House Theatre has provided him with opportunities for creative growth he might not have found otherwise: “Everybody at House is so talented, with so many different skills, so they let me ‘collaborate up’ in a way. I can be a magician, enjoy the craft of it, and be pushed to be better.”
When asked about the single greatest impact the company has had on his work: “I’m so lucky to be with House because they approach magic with the ethos and art of storytelling, in a way that a lot of magicians don’t. There’s heart. Emotion. Long-form storytelling. We’ve seen magic used this way in vignettes before—by Copperfield especially—but House forces us to ask how magic can carry that for 90 minutes: to tell bigger stories, to see how it could become a more valuable storytelling tool.”
This creative freedom has come with a level of support unknown to most working acts (who spend a large part of their time occupied with the business side of show business), for which he is grateful: “I totally won the lottery. 90 percent of my work is artistic, while 90 percent of the administration is done by others.”
Through his association with The House Theatre and artistic director Nathan Allen, Dennis Watkins may indeed have won the proverbial lottery. But through the 15 years of work the company has done to build an audience for magical theater in Chicago and Miami, it may be our art that’s the big winner.
The Magic Parlour runs every weekend at the Palmer House in Chicago. Tickets: http://www.themagicparlourchicago.com/reservations
To stay up to date on all performances by The House Theatre of Chicago, visit http://www.thehousetheatre.com/
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.