Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs: a woman trapped in a man’s world

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Photo: Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“In life you feel you’re trapped in a situation and there’s no out, no gap, no light. Everyone can relate to that feeling of being stuck, in some way…. There’s a real-ness to that.” 

— Miranda Allen, actor and escape artist 

Finding a way to get out of an impossible life impasse, puzzling out that “some crevice, some crack” in the trap … that’s the thrill (and “the theatrical metaphor”) of the fine art of escape, says the star of Ron Pearson’s Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, premiering in the Roxy Performance Series Thursday.

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Miranda Allen plays the turn-of-the-20th century escape artist whose fame in a man’s world in the early days of vaudeville catapulted her into rivalry with Harry Houdini. I feel confident declaring, now and in advance, that the Ghostwriter Theatre production is a shoo-in for hard-to-cast show of the season. Where on earth do you find a star who can escape from a straitjacket, handcuffs, shackles in a water barrel — and act?

Edmonton, as it happens. That’s where the adventurous, exotically multi-talented Allen is based, with her partner and Minerva co-star actor/dancer Richard Lee Hsi. There is, I need hardly add, no understudy, no plan B for casting the play, by magician/ street performer/ illusionist/ playwright/ “magic history buff” Pearson, Ghostwriter’s artistic director and muse. 

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

Minerva, whose signature was the water barrel escape, jumped off bridges in police handcuffs or a straitjacket. She escaped from jails. She could unchain herself from just about anything — except the struggle that women had in a tough, competitive male-dominated world, says Pearson, who came across Minerva and her rivalry with Harry Houdini in his research into one of her five, possibly six, husbands. “Not a lot has changed” in that status quo, Pearson thinks, whose Ghostwriter Theatre is devoted to restoring sideshow and carnival attractions.

Says Allen, an engaging and thoughtful sort, “for me the most exciting part of escapology is how it reflects life, us as people…. Through Minerva’s journeys and escapes, we get a view of where we are and where we were, in the entertainment industry, women’s rights, women in the work force. … Ron has written a play that speaks so strongly to my experience as a female entertainer.”

For the Revelstoke, B.C. native, who grew up with dance and martial arts (and of course skiing), that entertainer experience started with acting — a degree from the University of Windsor and an obligatory period in Toronto theatre. “My first gig was with a giant puppetry company; they taught me to stilt-walk. And that became my day job….”

Nominated for a 2018 Sterling Award for her performance in Beth Graham’s Pretty Goblins, Allen originally came to Edmonton to audition for a Theatre Prospero Shakespeare tour. “I just really liked the people and the theatre community…. Eventually a friend cleared out my storage locker in Toronto, and I haven’t been back.”

Allen and Pearson aren’t entirely sure where they met. Was it perhaps one of Pearson’s signature series of sideshow illusions? “I was the head on the table,” says Allen. “My favourite!” Or was it the Edmonton Street Fest “the year I was stilting?” Pearson thinks “Grande Prairie! I was working on my silent show and Miranda painted me a Show Time sign.” Allen laughs. “We met in true vaudeville fashion. We can’t exactly pinpoint it.”

It was in London en route Down Under, that Allen made her street debut. “The concept was that people like Canadians,” she smiles. “So I did a lumberjack show — with zero actual lumberjack skills! It lasted all of two weeks.”

In Australia — “one of the toughest places in the world to perform on the street,” says Pearson — Allen learned the art of escaping. By night she was onstage in The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear for a Sydney rep company. By day, she performed on the street, “and learned my first straitjacket escape” from a fellow performer, in the time-honoured mentoring way.“I looked at street performers and thought, man, they have so much autonomy.”

Street performing is a showbiz education, Pearson says. “If you can work in that situation you can work anywhere! You’re creating a theatre out nothing! No middleman! And when it works, it’s exhilarating!”

It’s also daunting, gathering an audience that might leave at any moment and not lay down a dime. Lee Hsi tried it only once, as a dance busker when Allen was performing in Bath, England. “And I haven’t since,” he says decisively. “I was freaked out…. Performing is a whole different proposition when you’re out there, no company backing you, making it all by yourself. Intimidating. Really intimidating. It really hit home.”

The straitjacket is one of the escapes Allen will do live in Minerva, with the audience doing the tying and binding to ensure there’s no trickery. And there are always risks to ventures across the relative safety of the fourth wall, as Pearson points out. “Things can happen; if Miranda can’t get out the show could become very long…. We want to give the audience the experience of watching Minerva perform live in 1905.…”

When a trick goes wrong in a magic show, you can bail out the situation. In a play that’s actually about an escape artist, the stakes are much higher. “You have to make choices” that involve the storytelling. “People want to see what happens. They’re excited to see how we deal with it,” says Allen.

Risk. Unpredictability. Pearson knows something about that. Conjure the moment: it’s  Saskatoon and Pearson has come to the grand finale of the magic show he’s toured to Britain. He gets audience members to tie him up in 75 feet of rope. Two ranchers oblige. “And I literally could not move. I couldn’t budge.” At the outset he’d assured the audience that “if I don’t escape in three minutes I will not pass my hat.” He didn’t, and he didn’t. It took a sweaty half an hour to escape. Interestingly, “I made the same money as I would have if I’d succeeded.”

Allen loves that story. “OK, there are escapes I do where not getting out would horrify me,” she shrugs cheerfully. “You need a lot more assurances you’re going to survive when you add fire or water or falling.”

Miranda Allen and Samantha Jeffery in Whiskey Barrel, Found Festival 2018. Photo supplied.

Last year, at the annual Found Festival, Allen premiered Whiskey Business at the Strathcona Spirits distillery, a live under-water escape from a locked whiskey barrel, an homage to Minerva’s signature escape. “One hundred per cent, the barrel thing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Allen says. The second-hardest? “Building the barrel, learning to do the stunt, writing the show, producing the show — in six weeks!”

Underwater escapes (which Minerva doesn’t include, since the logistics of draining 50 gallons are a small-theatre nightmare) require “a whole risk assessment,” with actual calculations and safety measures, and training regimens. That kind of thinking isn’t foreign: “I was raised by an architect and an avalanche technician,” says Allen. “How do we mitigate the risks in a way we can tell an entertaining story? It’s like stage-fighting but with a higher thrill.…” The lack of certainty “is a reality of life you don’t often get to see reflected on the stage.”  

Allen, who spent a week in the summer training with the Vancouver artist who does all the underwater stunts for film and TV there, started with holding her breath for 35 seconds. And she worked up to four minutes. “You have to be in a super-relaxed state; your muscle and brain are consuming as little oxygen as possible. It’s a mind game.”

You can do this at home — if you’re really single-minded. In their small apartment Allen and Lee Hsi kept a barrel in the middle of their kitchen. “I came to really enjoy it,” Allen laughs. “After a hard day I’d come home and sit in it, empty, in the dark.” As for the rain barrel on their balcony, says Lee Hsi, “in the middle of the day Miranda would get into her bathing suit and climb in.” He’d sit beside it, manning the stopwatch. Allen would emerge in chains and gasping for air, much to the astonishment of neighbours on adjacent balconies.  

With Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs Pearson takes small liberties with chronology, and hypothesizes from historical records. Did Houdini actually come backstage at a Minerva show? Maybe. Houdini, né Erik Weisz, is usually cast as a hero,” with an appealing immigrant story the world knows from Ragtime, as Pearson points out. In Minerva, he’s “very controlling, very territorial,” says Lee Hsi, who plays Houdini, plus all the other men — husbands, managers, a judge — in Minerva’s story. Seventeen quick-changes mean that Minerva is “a magic show backstage,” he laughs. 

“There are very dark aspects to these men,” says Lee Hsi, who teaches movement to actors at MacEwan University (and can hold his breath for two minutes 15 seconds “if I’m lying on the living room floor and not in cold water”). The possible exception is husband #1, Willie, “a lovable scruff and a dreamer.” 

“It’s an exciting time to take this retrospective view,” says Allen of the new play. It has a personal resonance for her. “It’s been a struggle for women in magic, in street performing, in escapology. And women are still less than 10 per cent of the industry.”

“But it’s been gaining momentum! The show is perfectly timed!”


Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Ghostwriter Theatre

Written by: Ron Pearson

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Miranda Allen, Richard Lee Hsi

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca


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