“More To Death Than Meets The Eye” – Cynthia Von Buhler On The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini Live Event

by Hannah Means Shannon

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the immersive theater production of The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, an event based on the graphic novel Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, published by Titan Comics’ Hard Case Crime imprint. Cynthia Von Buhler is both the book’s creator and the creator of the live event, and she brings to both projects a wealth of experience in storytelling. This time around, we’re dealing with a great deal of historical truth and detail surrounding the last days of the famous performer and escape artist Harry Houdini, a man with unusual connections to the world of the popular spiritualists of his day who may have wanted him dead. The theater event takes you into the world of seances, private investigators, and international travel in the 1920’s, and was intentionally staged during the season that Houdini actually died, including Halloween, his death-date itself.
The immense work that goes into a production like this is hard to convey in simple summary, but the magic that it produces is very much in evidence at the show, which is currently running through its final week, meaning it’s your last chance to become part of this mysterious world. We’re delighted to have Cynthia Von Buhler on the site today to talk about the production.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I noticed that the play was originally a project on Kickstarter and attracted plenty of support. What did that support enable you to do in terms of planning, finding a space, and getting the production in motion?
Cynthia Von Buhler: The venue required payment upfront and we needed to pay for props, rehearsals, PR and insurance beforehand. Our shows are entirely ticket-driven so I needed cash upfront and the Kickstarter provided that. We had planned on using money from our summer Illuminati Ball shows, but we had unexpected expenses on that and we were coming up short. I really appreciate the support of those who chipped in. Keep in mind that the money we made from the Kickstarter was only a tiny portion of our expenses for the show. A show like this costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. It’s mind boggling. We covered all of this through ticket sales.
HMS: How difficult was it to find a space that would work well for an immersive theater experience with such a specific time and place setting, as well as a world that was already set forth in your graphic novel? How did you choose the locations for the play and how do you feel about the end results?
CVB: It was hard as hell. I had another space booked that led me on for 6 months before telling me I couldn’t do it there because of the adult themes in the book. It was a gorgeous venue with many rooms and an ornate proscenium owned by a church. I was terribly disappointed, but Theatre 80 was possibly a better bet, because I didn’t have to create my own speakeasy — and they allow nudity. This show has a great deal of nudity. Even I am nude in it every night as a stunt double for the spiritualist Margery.
I love finding amazing, rare venues in New York City. In fact, I even run a location business, CVB Spaces, as a hobby.
Theatre 80 worked well for the show. They have a lovely theater, lobby, dressing rooms and a speakeasy, but I needed more space for a hotel, office and seance room, so I rented rooms upstairs and there were plumbing problems that held up my work. I had to labor day and night to get it done in time and it nearly killed me. I am incredibly proud of the transformation. I was given rooms full of trash and debris to work with and I turned them into a masterpiece.

Photo ©Doug Ross 2018

HMS: It seems like you naturally create larger than life characters, in your previous work, as well as in Minky Woodcock, who now stars in the play. Did the ideas behind the characters inspire you to create the graphic novel and to take it into dramatic format?
CVB: I like to root my characters in realism in order to believably send people through a surreal portal to meet them. Other than Minky Woodcock, all of the characters are all based on real people and actual facts. I was drawn to these characters because they were unique and bizarre. I couldn’t believe that a woman in 1926 was doing seances in the nude and pulling “ectoplasm” out of her orifices during her seances. Most people think I made that up, but I did not. Houdini even printed a pamphlet debunking her tricks. I made an evidence section on my website which documents all of this and I highly recommend people checking it out.
My actors really brought the characters to life in the play. They are over the top in a way that really mimics the retro comic book style and period. Many of the actors modeled for the book.
HMS: Creating the art behind a graphic novel must be very different from creating these sets and costumes for an immersive experience. Do you see any commonalities, though?
CVB: I really love to create in all kinds of mediums. The biggest difference is that performance requires collaboration and books are solitary creations. I’ve been creating performance art for years and I miss the excitement when I’m alone drawing or writing for too long. When I’m steeped in performance, I miss being a hermit. I can’t win. If I had to choose I would always prefer to make books because they are more lasting – and I’m agoraphobic.

Photo ©Mark Shelby Perry 2018

HMS: What are you happiest with about the way the play has turned out and gone so far? What do you most want an audience to remember about the event?
CVB: The play has turned out to be magical thanks to the actors and crew. They have taken my words and pictures and fleshed them out more fully than I could have imagined. They added nuance, dimension, sexuality and humor. Pearls Daily is a force of nature. I don’t know how she gets through the show and is still standing (and gorgeous) afterwards. It must be exhausting for her. At times, she is incredibly sexy and others she is hilarious. She is the perfect Minky. Vincent Cinque, the actor playing Harry Houdini, is such an amazing actor. He’s only 25, but he blows my mind with his skill. I make him the star of every show I do now. I added him on as the director, too.
I usually direct the shows myself with PJ Mead, my producing partner, and it’s too much for us with everything else we need to do. This freed me up to work on the sets, scripts, promotion and all of the problems that occur when running something so massive. I would have been lost without him and it was interesting to see him realize how much work goes into one of these shows. Most actors don’t see all of the behind the scenes work, and I think it really blew his mind. I’m also really pleased with the lighting and sound on the main stage and I have Robyn Sky, our stage manager, to thank for that. He came in last minute as a plan B after I fired our first stage manager, and he saved the day.
The part of the show that makes me the happiest is the opening stage scenes (especially the one done in slow motion with the incredible Robyn Adele Anderson singing). The trains sounds, the curtain, the music, the water tank, the acting, and the lights all perfectly blend to create the mood I was after. All my shows have a portal, and the train sounds in the dark do the job here. It’s exciting! I have a passport, I hear the train whistle and I feel like I’m actually traveling. When the curtain opens, it starts out innocently sweet and becomes very dark by the end.
I also love the little moments when the actors are really connecting with the audience. The pure joy in Nurse La Chatte’s (Delysia La Chatte) face after she has killed Houdini, the confident sexuality of Margery (Veronica Varlow) during the seances, the juvenile jokes told by Sam (Ryan Salvato) and Jack (Will Davis), the creepiness of Gordon Whitehead’s (E. James Ford) eyes, the happiness on the faces of people when they dance with Lady Marler (Celeste Hudson) and Bennie Woodcock (Luka Fric), the innocent wonder of Lady Doyle (Tess Ritchie) after she comes out of her trance, the sarcasm of the doctor (Rolls Andre), the unbridled excitement in Jim Collins (Mat Leonard) during the stage announcements and the adorable way the bellhop (Anna Stefanic) says “Welcome to the Prince of Wales Hotel” every time someone rings her bell. There is a perfect balance of humor and darkness.
I want the audience to question history as they may have heard it. There is always so much more to a death than meets the eye. By immersing themselves in the characters they come away with another person’s point of view which they can use to form their own.

Photo ©Mark Shelby Perry 2018

The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini is in its last week of performance, and tickets are still available for Wednesday, November 7th through Friday, November 9th! See the show while you can, and check out our review right here.

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