New Work by Playwright Katie Bender Focuses on Séances, Harry Houdini

The one-woman theatrical production delves into the life of the would-be debunker of spiritualist mediums.

By Jake Cordero


Katie Bender

Here’s a fun bit of news. Theater artist and playwright Katie Bender, a relatively recent implant from New York City,  launches her Instructions for a Seance this week at Austin’s Museum of Human Achievement. The one-woman production delves into the life of that great escapologist and would-be debunker of spiritualist mediums, Harry Houdini.

Albert and I met Katie a few months back, while Instructions for a Séance was still in production. She described her project then as a “a solo-show about Houdini and ambition” — but one she hoped would bring the audience into the performance and get them to imagine the unknown.  “What interests me most, at the moment,” she said, “is (Houdini’s) incredible control over his public image, his dedication to his family — particularly his mother — and the dichotomy between the séances that still happen in his name and his late-in-life desire to publicly uncover the methods of mediums.”

That was in May. In the months since, after writing and rewriting, after the sweat and stress and all the work of theater craft, Instructions for a Séance has come to fruition.  The fully staged workshop production is scheduled for its premiere this week and we can’t be more excited. Bender is a respected playwright, with work supported locally by Theatre Synesthesia, Rude Fusion, ZACH and Shrewd Productions. Nationally she’s worked with The New Harmony Project, Kitchen Dog and The Playwrights’ Center, where she was a 2016-2017 Jerome Fellow.  Bender also holds an MFA degree from the University of Texas.

And it was during her UT grad work that she came upon the idea of focusing on Houdini. For inspiration, she credited her discovery of the Houdini archives at UT’s Harry Ransom Center.  At first only its archival photos attracted her attention — but then, delving deeper, she became troubled by what she perceived as deep-rooted misogyny behind some of Houdini’s work exposing spiritualist mediums.

“He publicly shamed mediums — often young woman, whom he labeled ‘witches’ and ‘frauds’ — while working to elevate male magicians through the creation of a magician’s guild,” Bender said recently, during an interview with journalist Jeanne Claire van Ryzin for Sight Lines magazine.

“It’s interesting the way history shakes out,” Bender continued. “We don’t remember that the first women in America to speak in the public sphere were Spiritualists, women who supported a wide range of ideals including women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, alternative medicine and environmentalism. We do remember that Houdini was a man who was good at escaping extreme situations.”

Katie Bender’s one-woman play, produced cabaret style, runs Sept. 19-29 at The Museum of Human Achievement. For ticket information, go here. And to read van Ryzin’s full Sight Lines magazine interview, here’s the link.

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