Escape Artistry

He stands center stage, head down, hands at his sides. Except for the icy pale beam of a single spotlight, the room is filled with a darkness so thick it’s something almost tangible, like the lustrous black fabric of his tuxedo. His assistant, blond eye-candy in a sequined blue leotard and ultra-short skirt, rolls a glass tank on wheels behind him. The tank is about the size of a telephone booth, as much a relic of bygone days as his act is.

He’d be the first to admit that stage magic isn’t as popular as it once was, the first to refer to himself as hopelessly old-fashioned. In this lightning-paced A.D.D. world of viral videos and text messaging, it’s amazing how something as simple and formulaic as a magic show can still draw crowds. Yet it does. Night after night, he plies his trade for a full house, pulling doves out of the air and initialed cards from decks. Making himself levitate. Making it snow inside the theater.

The pretty assistant exits stage right and returns with another wheeled box, this one a black trunk. She takes his coat and sets it aside while he rolls up his sleeves. Neither of them speaks. There is no need. The soft, menacing drone of a string ensemble communicates imminent peril in a way mere words cannot. Opening the trunk, she reaches in and pulls out a straitjacket.

If anyone asks him to share the secret of his success, he says he simply gives the audience what it wants. We live in an age of substitution, he says. An age of understudies. Internet social networking takes the place of intimate fellowship. Caffeinated energy drinks stand in for a good night’s sleep. Information poses as enlightenment.

What people want, he says, is escape.

He slides his arms into the straitjacket, first the left one, then the right. He turns his back to the audience so they can watch the girl tighten and buckle each leather strap. There are six of them. She secures them all with padlocks, then passes the key ring to a volunteer from the audience.

It isn’t rocket science, he says. People get bogged down with the hustle of day-to-day living. They want a chance to step out of it– not forever, of course, but for an hour or two. They need to get away, to relax, to recharge. They want to see something different, beyond the ordinary, outside of their normal existence. They want to see old truths presented in new ways. They want to be dazzled.

The assistant ties a blindfold around his eyes, a strip of blue cloth that matches her outfit. Then, glittering in the spotlight, she opens a panel on the side of the tank, takes his hand, and leads him to it. He steps up, careful not to trip. She then shackles his feet in chains connected to the bottom of the tank.

This is why people read fiction, go to movies, sit alone and listen to music. This is why the subject matter of so many of these activities has to do with the idea of escape. Why else would someone want to watch someone trying to break out of prison, hear about lovers on the run, read about aliens evacuating a dying planet?

We get away from our own troubles, he says, by watching other people live through theirs.

She shuts the door to the tank. Through the glass, the audience can see him standing inside. From the box, the assistant pulls a length of thick chain. Clipping it on one side of the tank, she begins to wind it around and around, like a tethered dog running in circles around a tree until it is stuck.

People love stories about characters fleeing virtual reality illusions, breaking free from deception and gaining freedom in the real world. It’s ironic that by participating with such a story, by allowing themselves to become emotionally involved with the plot and characters, these same people are fleeing from their own real lives and temporarily immersing ourselves in a fabricated, fictional reality. They want the truth, but they also want the lie. They want to have their cake and eat it, too.

She finishes winding the chain around, and secures it with another padlock.

Maybe, he says, the lie helps us better understand the truth. Maybe seeing things outside of their normal context can bring them into sharper focus. Maybe escape can help people embrace the real world.

A drumroll sounds. The assistant bows to the audience and steps out of the spotlight, exiting stage left. He is now alone in his glass prison. A stream of sand begins to pour from somewhere in the rafters. It pours down into the tank, bouncing off his head and shoulders, burying his shoes.

The audience aren’t the only ones who need to get away from the rat-race of reality from time to time. A painter buries himself in his work just as do those who view it in the art gallery. Perhaps even moreso. A musician gets caught up in his own melodies as he plays. A writer sits on the edge of his seat, typing like a madman, lost in the lives of his own characters. Different strokes for different folks.

The sand continues to pour in; it is now up to his knees, up to his waist. He makes a show of struggling against his bonds, of writhing about inside the tank. The drumroll rises to a fever pitch.

An illusion works on two levels, he says. In one, his audience gets a reprieve from the real world by watching it. They applaud and cheer to show their satisfaction. Their applause is nice, he says, but it’s not the primary reason why he does what he does.

On the stage, he has a control that he doesn’t have elsewhere. When he’s under that light, making water disappear into his top hat or reading the minds of audience volunteers, he’s able to create his own reality. He’s able to get away from the buzz and fury of the real world.

The sand piles higher and higher, to his chest, his shoulders, his neck. At the moment it looks for sure as though he’ll be buried, like this will be his history-making final performance, the lights cut out. The entire theater is so dark, nobody can see the person sitting next to them.

In that moment of inky darkness, when nobody is watching but himself, he escapes.

JOSH STRNAD is a small-town guy from North Carolina, an armchair
theologian, a hardware store grunt, and a huge fan of bad puns. When not
guzzling hot tea and typing stories on his battered desktop computer, he
dabbles in film making, writing music, and drawing cartoons. He’s currently
working his way through graduate studies to become an English teacher,
writing his second novel and illustrating his children’s book in his
copious spare time. Check him out on Facebook, or at www.joshstrnad.com.