Struggling to escape handcuffs, locks and chains whilst dangling from a helicopter isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but it’s all in a day’s work for the impressively flexible performers who practice escapology.
Escapology – the art of escaping from restraints and confined spaces – has been performed for a long time and was originally a skill used by illusionists as part of a routine, rather than being an overt act in itself. In the mid-19th century the Davenport brothers used escapology techniques whilst demonstrating supposed psychic powers – escaping was not central to the routine but merely helped them to perform other illusions.
It was not until the 1890s that escapology became a performance in itself, when an illusionist called Harry Houdini found global fame with a repertoire of amazing escape acts. Houdini was a pioneer who made escapology a recognised entertainment, and his performances – which included escaping from straitjackets, padlocks, handcuffs, prison cells and even sealed milk cans – have inspired generations of escape artists.
We asked three of today’s leading escapologists about Houdini’s legacy, and to tell us more about their own fantastic performances.
Rob Roy Collins
Who are your inspirations from the world of escapology, Rob?
It’s quite obvious – Houdini. The fact that he is still so famous a century on says so much about him. What I love most about him is not just his ability to perform escapology stunts, but his ability to sell himself. His ability to rouse such excitement about his stunts wherever he went. He was the best PR guru I’ve ever come across!
You recently made it into the Guinness Book of Records – how was that?
It was fun. I was supposed to be setting a record for a stunt I have already done but without Guinness adjudication – an upside down escape from a straitjacket hanging from a helicopter. We were stopped by red tape at the eleventh hour so had to come up with an alternative very quickly. So hanging from a crane 20 metres above water I set a new world record for the fastest escape from cling film. My record also made it into this year’s book.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in taking up escapology?
Practice and safety. The world of escapology is littered with horror stories of escapes going wrong and people being injured, or worse. If the person has practiced enough and has all safety precautions thoroughly in place then this should not happen. And don’t be afraid of failure.
How did you get started in escapology, Chris?
When I was in jail…not really! I learnt escapology as an allied art to magic. It was magic that first captivated me and being able to watch the reactions of others to what I did was great. I of course practiced like all budding young magicians and left school at 16 to perform full time – only to realise that in my local area there were already lots of magicians scratching around for a living. Being a natural contortionist, escapology went hand in hand with magic and I found a gap in the market to which I could apply my showmanship.
I have the unique ability to dislocate my scapular bones (shoulder blades) whenever I wish, which is the perfect tool for an escapologist! Since changing the show I’ve never looked back…until now, because my shoulders HURT! I’m 24 with arthritis! I’ve had a great time all over the world but it’s got to stop now. I’m not saying I’m hanging up my straitjacket – no, no – just a lot less dislocating and fewer performances. I’m back to the magic and loving it all over again!
Who are your inspirations in the world of escapology?
Obviously the late, great Harry Houdini. Not just for his escapology pioneering and tremendous showmanship but also for his marketing skills and his ability to create hype. He got people’s attention and was a master crowd-puller. My other heroes from the world of show business are Evel Knievel, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali, who are all fantastic.
What’s the most dangerous escapology routine you’ve performed?
I’m not so much about the danger. There are two words in ‘show business’ and people often neglect one word or the other. I treat them both in equal measure and now that I have the show, I might even lean more towards the business of it all and make money from what I do. I have done lots of the usual upside down straitjacket escapology stunts, hanging from bridges over rivers by my ankles and so on, though nothing really ‘out there’.
I’m more about entertaining the crowd. I want them to have an experience with me and to have a good time. I’m all about the entertainment – and the business…
How important was Houdini to the development of escapology, Roslyn?
History has always been massively important to me and my work. If you don’t know and understand what’s come before it’s impossible to move forward. Houdini obviously influenced me – it’s difficult for him not to have. He took a very old art form and transformed it into a massively successful performance piece. Before him magicians would use the ability to escape from cuffs and other restraints in order to perform pseudo psychic demonstrations. He was the first to see the potential of using the escape itself to entertain.
I try not to focus on Houdini too much though. The time in which he worked was vastly different to now. He could get away with escaping a single pair of cuffs out of sight inside a cabinet and take an hour or more to do it. His audience wouldn’t get bored – try and do the same thing today and you’ll emerge to an empty theatre.
You have recreated some of Houdini’s tricks –how did it go?
With the above in mind, I decided to attempt to recreate Houdini’s most famous stunts but rework them for a modern audience. One of his most famous stunts was the Mirror Cuff Challenge where a pair of escape-proof cuffs was created. Houdini was locked in and had to escape. It took him over an hour to get out. But he did it and the audience went mental! I often wondered if this was true, or whether Houdini rigged it so it could work in his favour.
Talking to an event organiser about this led to the idea of trying to duplicate Houdini’s stunt. And so the wheels were put in motion for a pair of cuffs, different to Houdini’s or any other that had been made before or since, to be designed and manufactured.
At an event in Llandudno, North Wales I was challenged with the cuffs. The same rules applied to me as they did to Houdini. I wasn’t allowed to see them until they were snapped on my wrists and I wasn’t allowed to have them taken off unless I admitted defeat, or I escaped on my own. The only difference was I did this in full view, so my audience of 3000 could see everything, whereas Houdini did the escape in private. Houdini took over an hour, as I said, but I took just over four minutes to free myself. I was given the cuffs as a souvenir.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in becoming involved in escapology?
Most escape artists get into the art through magic. They train as magicians first and then find escapology. Personally I think it’s an advantage to also have knowledge and experience in other performance arts. My background in circus has really helped me.
Interviews conducted by leading locks retailer, The Safe Shop.