By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“What I love about magic as an art form,” declares magician Carisa Hendrix at a non-magical hour of the morning earlier this week, “what magic is really about, is the feeling that anything is possible.…”
The apparently impossible is Hendrix’s theatre and her métier — and the playground for her retro-glam magician persona Lucy Darling. “We are amazing and rationalizing creatures,” says Calgary-based/ Edmonton-quarantined Hendrix cheerfully, musing on her favourite subject. “Our brains are constantly looking for meaning in a world that’s pretty random and full of entropy.” Magic, she thinks, is validation for the liberating proposition that “I don’t need to know everything!”
“I’m a well respected, well established magician, and I get fooled all the time!”
You will, therefore, be in good company this weekend when you’re baffled by the magical mysteries in the online bilingual magic/ improv comedy live-streamed by L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s francophone theatre.
Mes amis, préparez vous: Lucy Darling revient, along with her two Edmonton collaborators, actor/escapologist Miranda Allen and actor/dancer Richard Lee Hsi.
With Une Soirée Avec Lucy Darling/ An Evening With Lucy Darling, the quick-witted Lucy, a vintage diva with a golden age party frock and shellacked red bouffant coiffure, has acquired a third assistant for the occasion: actor/improviser Vincent Forcier, L’UniThéâtre’s artistic director. And what started with “a fun weird challenge” — “let’s do our show in French!” — has evolved into “a comedy about language, about misunderstanding and miscommunication,” says Hendrix.
Each of the four characters has “a different level of understanding…. Miranda’s character is under the impression that ‘bilingual’ means German. Richard’s character believes he speaks better French than he does. Lucy’s French (flamboyantly accented à la Piaf, and peppered with English) is OK, but she’s struggling.” So she’s hired a new butler (Forcier) who constantly corrects her. “And you can imagine how that goes!” laughs Hendrix, whose français, which hasn’t been exercised for five or six years till now, has charted its own unique course. French Immersion in school, check. A French grandmother with whom she corresponded in French, check. Circus training in French in Montreal, check. Circus school (“mostly fire-related, and choreography”) in the Dominican Republic living in a condo “with all French speakers,” check.
“The feeling that anything is possible” seems to weave through Hendrix’s own story — long before she set the Guinness world record for holding a lit torch in her mouth in 2014, and long before the 2016 SuperChannel documentary Girl On Fire.
As Hendrix explains, her Calgary childhood was spent juggling, doing magic tricks, walking on stilts — and volunteering with organizations that supported disabled or disadvantaged children. Her entry point into showbiz wasn’t theatre per se, or acting. “That felt fancy to me, and inaccessible. And somehow subjective. How do you know if you’re a good actor? I don’t know. How do you know if you’re a good juggler? Easy. You juggle.”
Childhood in a dysfunctional family ended abruptly. “I got kicked out of the house at 16 and needed to make money.” Hendrix worked two jobs, one at London Drugs before school, the other making smoothies at Jugo Juice after school, “eight dollars an hour, and it wasn’t enough.” When the manager of a haunted house offered her an entertainment job for 50 bucks a night, four shows a night for 30 nights,” Hendrix jumped at it. “The $1500 was more money than I’d ever seen. … I had no big ambition to be famous; it was how I survived.”
She landed a job at the Boys and Girls Club. “I loved teaching and I loved the kids, but I kept performing on the side because the money was good.” Bookings kept coming, and Hendrix found herself “juggling two lives,” a day life and a night-time life. When the ultimatum came to choose, and Hendrix picked “the noble option,” teaching, she knew it was wrong. “I burst into wet sobbing and disgusting tears, faced with the realization that somewhere along the way (showbiz) had become my calling….”
In the international world of magic, predominantly male, Hendrix is a star on the ascendancy, witness her string of awards, magic magazine cover stories, testimonial blurbs from the likes of Steve Martin and David Copperfield, and residencies in such magic strongholds as the Magic Castle in L.A. and the Chicago Magic Lounge. But Hendrix calls the tricks themselves, no matter how dazzling their execution, “ancillary…. Don’t get me wrong, I am a magician, and passionate about the art form. But as long as the audience is being entertained and is giving in to the experience, it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing. It’s the experience that matters.”
Generating wonder, overcoming human limitations (or maybe lighting them on fire) … that’s what it’s about. Take fire-eating, for example (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence). “Fire is the destroyer,” Hendrix says. So fire-eating is wish fulfillment for the audience: “if she can be on fire and not get burnt, maybe I can, too.”
In a world of improbabilities, making an online magic show might be the trickiest trick of them all. But Hendrix argues that “magic has always valued cutting-edge technologies; magicians have always been very technically savvy…. In the Golden Age, magicians were making automatons.”
“So when there was talk early on in the pandemic about doing virtual shows, the community of magic was one of the first art forms to get on board and really embrace it.” The early shows she saw were “pretty awful,” Hendrix says. “Which the magicians who put them on would happily and graciously admit. But it was a learning curve.”
She admits to having been “trepidatious” about doing an online show with her Lucy Darling character, “mainly because I’ve had a lot of success with her, and I was a bit afraid to ruin it….” But then against the odds the Canada Council came though with a show grant. “Arts funding typically doesn’t go to magic, so I was certain they’d say no!”
Since last March, says Hendrix, “I’ve been lucky enough to be quarantined with Miranda and Richard. They’re not only overwhelmingly talented performers but also writers and designers!” The Edmonton showbiz couple, who’d met Hendrix by chance five years ago during a Nextfest gig, invited her to stay in their spare room. Lately the three artists have just moved 10 floors up in the couple’s apartment building to gain a workable studio space.
They’ve undertaken the digital challenge together. “We weren’t just trying to figure out how to do the tricks, but how to translate the feeling of what we do in traditional performances onstage,” says Hendrix of the audience interaction that seems indispensable to magic. “In a regular show I’d hand you a cup, or a rope, so you could examine it,” and verify that it was for real. “In this environment you’re relying subconsciously on the shine of something or the sound of the glass coming down on the table so your brain can go ‘OK, that’s really a glass’.”
There’s a reason most magic specials onscreen include footage of the live studio audience. “Without that, the magic can seem like a special effect “even if it’s not…. The audience IS the trick,”says Hendrix. She’s “too much of a purist to ever use a laugh track.” Instead, her sound engineer pal Chris Coombs, in a role called “audience manager,” live-mixes the audience sounds, “so we get the live audience feel.”
That sensation is enhanced by the “meet and greet” with audience members in the Zoom gallery at the outset. “Basically, we’re building a cast of characters, and getting to know them a little… we’re helping you forget there’s a screen between you and us!”
Hendrix has a half-dozen other alter-egos for her comedy/magic entertainments. But it’s Lucy Darling, vamping it up in her old-Hollywood ultra-glam way, who’s the people’s choice. Hendrix “adores” Lucy’s era with its ‘30s high-style screwball sass and charm, “Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Zsa Zsa Gabor . I could watch them all day.” And in our own hard-driven hard-edged time — “an era of perfectionism and side hustle and Silicon Valley and optimizing time,” as Hendrix puts it — Lucy is a sort of fizzy antidote. “She walks onstage and you realize all she wants is a bubble bath and a glass of gin and a cupcake and a hug. She gives you permission for that to be OK….”
(12thnight caught An Exceptional Night In With Lucy Darling online in October. Have a peek at my review here).
Une soirée avec Lucy Darling/An Evening With Lucy Darling
Theatre: Ballyhoo Entertainment
Presented by: L’UniThéâtre, in French and English
Starring: Carisa Hendrix, Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi, Vincent Forcier
Where: online, live-streamed from L’UniThéâtre
Running: Friday and Saturday
Tickets: L’UniThéâtre (tickets include a personalized L’UniThéâtre mask)