There is a man suspended upside down in a glass box filled with water. His hands and feet are bound. The man holds his breath. The audience does the same. That’s the popular image of the escape artist right there.
Over a hundred years after it was first performed, the “Water Torture Cell” is still the most iconic trick in the arsenal of escapology. Paul Krendl’s variation of the escape, performed without a curtain, earned him a spot on The Illusionists.
But what is it about the escape that seems to resonate so well with audiences, aside from it being the signature of the most famous escapologist of all time? According to Krendl, it’s the audience’s ability to empathize with the performer. Everyone knows how hard it is to hold their breath, and it’s that understanding that gives the performance its nervous energy.
“Anyone can hold their breath and within 30 to 40 seconds get a glimpse of the pain and struggle your body will feel,” he explained to Magic Africa. “Being in the tank for three minutes makes people become uncomfortable. They want to believe it will be fine but part of them can’t believe it’s happening. This is where it gets interesting. You see for me I am going through my own personal struggle every time I go into that tank. The struggle is real; there is no faking it.”
And in his estimation, it’s the struggle that connects Krendl to his audience. His escape becomes a metaphor for their own.
“This leads to the biggest element… both the audience and I can feel connected yet we are each experiencing our own truth,” he said. “I have had people relate the struggle of me escaping the tank to their difficult divorce they are going through, others telling me it gave them strength to believe in the passion or project they are trying to accomplish, and many others that I would never have thought could connect like this.”
So thus far it’s all very grand and mystical, as befits a masterful stage performer, but holding one’s breath for over three minutes while held upside down underwater? That’s just down and dirty practice, baby. In fact, it’s that physical challenge that drew Krendl to the trick in the first place.
“I started my breath hold time for approximately 30 seconds,” he explained. “From there I had to figure out if it is possible to hold your breath longer and how. I did lots of research reading books, internet searches, talking with others in the know, etc. I learned that it is not only possible but it is something you can train for.”
You may be wondering how much training is involved in that feat. Krendly claims it took him three months of training to get past the two minute mark, but not quite as long to hit three. Unfortunately outside forces, like changing altitudes, time zones food and environments, can make the physical aspect of the escape much harder. The only thing that’ll stop him, however? Not being able to justify using the water to fill up the tank because the city you’re performing in is on the verge of a water shortage.
How is it that we sometimes only realize the value of our most prized resources when we lose them? Water is so critical for any type of life, and parts of the world are painfully feeling its absence. Cape Town, South Africa, for instance, is experiencing a severe drought that has recently been designated a “national disaster.”
Escapologist Krendl has been performing his version of the Houdini water torture escape on tour with The Illusionists, which is currently in South Africa. The team considered options for how to execute the water trick under those extreme conditions, such as shipping in water or using ocean water, but have decided that the most respectful path is to avoid the trick entirely for the Cape Town performance. Krendl explained the rationale in a video, above.
“It wouldn’t matter where the water came from, it’s still something that exists symbolically on stage,” he said. “By my not doing this stunt here in Cape Town, it represents over 45 days of water for one person here.”
Respect to Krendl for the decision.