He can escape from anything – except the hold that South Africa now has on his heart.
US escapologist Krendl recently visited South Africa as one of the performers in The Illusionists, a magic, escapology, and mentalism grand spectacular that toured Cape Town and Johannesburg. His signature routine, which he has performed all over the world to great acclaim, is “Water Torture Cell”. It’s inspired by Harry Houdini‘s “Milk Can Escape” from the early 20th century – but with a twist (or two) because Houdini used to do his escape behind a curtain, while Krendl does not.
In “Water Torture Cell” Krendl is shackled and then suspended upside down in a transparent 850-litre tank, which allows the audience to see him at all times. The escape uses a combination of magic principles and escapology, such as in the lock picking, with specific physical training that he underwent with the help of guidance from free divers in order to be able to survive the escape – he really is under water and he really does hold his breath for three minutes as he works to release himself.
There are additional hazards that the audience isn’t aware of, such as the possibility that Krendl could swallow water or inhale it through his nose while he’s in the tank and that it could go into his lungs, which will cause him to want to vomit. He could also pass out if something goes wrong, which has happened a few times in practices but thankfully not during a live performance.
Unfortunately, Cape Town audiences weren’t able to see Krendl perform the escape because The Illusionists was on tour right as the public was becoming aware of how dire the #DayZero problem, in which Cape Town is likely to run out of potable water unless conservation measures are put in place, actually is. Even though the production team researched other options to replace the potable water, such as sea water and recycled water, ultimately it decided to pull the routine from the show because, as Krendl says, “It wouldn’t matter where the water came from – it’s still something that exists symbolically on stage”.
Johannesburg audiences were luckier, however, as Krendl was able to perform his routine at the Teatro at Monte Casino, where recycled water was used. They got to feel the tension and experience the fear, as well as the ultimate triumph as Krendl emerges from the tank victorious, having demonstrated three perfect minutes of utter mastery over his body.
Magic.Africa spoke to Krendl about his visit to South Africa.
Magic.Africa: You have performed all over the world. I know there are always cultural differences and sometimes oddities – how do South African audiences compare to other audiences?
Krendl: Hahaha, this made me smile right away because of how fun your audiences are. It is true that every country [responds in a different way]. While every country I have performed in has been appreciative and supportive of the show the South African audiences express their joy in our show through their energy. The laughter, the cheers, and the applause seems just louder and a sincere appreciation for what we are doing. The standing ovations have been many through our time here and there is never a better feeling than that. The audience here makes us want to perform better and give more of ourselves because we can feel the audience giving so much to us in return.
Magic.Africa: Similarly, although you didn’t actually get to perform in Cape Town, is there any difference between audiences in Cape Town and Johannesburg?
Krendl: I haven’t felt a difference between the two. I think though with both of our show locations connected to a casino environment you tend to get the same feel of audiences. I will say I liked Johannesburg a little more personally only because, one, I got to perform (LOL) and, two, that we were in a more proper theatre versus an arena style. I like it when it’s more intimate and also the acoustics are better, which results in a more warm and connective environment.
Magic.Africa: The “Water Torture Cell” is an escape that you’ve honed over many years and although it’s not the only escape you can perform I presume it holds a special place in your heart – can you tell us more about that?
Krendl: Yes, it has a special place in my heart but that special place carries with it the hardship, struggle, defeat, success, joy, and personal growth. There is no single routine in my career that can offer that.I was looking for a routine to challenge myself. Additionally, I wanted something different than what I had been doing for the past 10 years. I had no idea that I would find something that not only made me feel more alive but would change the course of my life. This stunt has always represented more than meets the eye. This is why it has been a fascination for people since the early 1900s to present day. To the public, it shows the power of the body and the mind can go beyond what we feel is possible. Additionally, because I do it without a curtain, you know it’s not an illusion or trick and so you are forced, in a way, to accept the reality in front of you.
The other key factor of connection is the human breath. Anyone can hold their breath and within 30 to 40 seconds get a glimpse of the pain and struggle your body will feel. Being in the tank for three minutes makes people become uncomfortable. They want to believe it will be fine but part of them can’t believe it’s happening. This is where it gets interesting. You see for me I am going through my own personal struggle every time I go into that tank. The struggle is real; there is no faking it. My body must be balanced well, my mind must be still, and belief in myself in staying in the tank for three minutes must be without doubt. If anyone of these aspects is off I fail or the amount of pain I go through doubles.
So there is a very personal side of this experience that is hard to relate to or understand: the personal journey I go through for those three minutes inside the tank. They are only able to see what’s in front of them, yet they still find connection in it.
This leads to the biggest element… both the audience and I can feel connected yet we are each experiencing our own truth. I have had people relate the struggle of me escaping the tank to their difficult divorce they are going through, others telling me it gave them strength to believe in the passion or project they are trying to accomplish, and many others that I would never have thought could connect like this. It is much like a singer/songwriter in that they write a song that is personal for them for their own reasons, then this song becomes popular because it connects to so many, but for totally different reasons from the artist’s original intent. That is the true definition of art, in my opinion – to create something personal to yourself that expresses your thoughts to have it connect with others and develop a personal meaning to them. I could only dream of creating another piece of art that has the same impact.
“… the situation in Cape Town not only taught me an important lesson about things I take for granted in my life but has also permanently changed my personal appreciation and usage of water itself.”
Magic.Africa: Tell us about some of the technical and physical skills you’ve had to develop to be able to perform the escape.
Krendl: Well, lockpicking isn’t the fascinating part for me – as I feel it is well documented and can be pursued by most. The physical and mental skills developed to handle the daily and nightly exhaustion of being held upside down under water for three minutes at a time is the true fascination. I started my breath hold time for approximately 30 seconds. From there I had to figure out if it is possible to hold your breath longer and how. I did lots of research reading books, internet searches, talking with others in the know, etc. I learned that it is not only possible but it is something you can train for.
It took me three months of training to get past the two-minute mark consistently. From there I just kept getting better and stronger. I have now reached a point where I have to focus to maintain now. When I’m dealing with up to three shows a day in different countries I am presented with different altitudes, time zones, food, and environments, all of which present their own unique challenges. With all this said my ability to accomplish this all has its foundation in exercise, diet, sleep, and meditation. I have a process that I have developed for myself that helps create consistency in my body and mind despite the constantly changing situations I am faced with.
Magic.Africa: Due to climate change water is increasingly becoming an issue and it was just sheer bad luck that you arrived in Cape Town just as the city was reaching a critical point of awareness of its water crisis. This is going to happen more and more, though, everywhere. What are you now thinking about in terms of how you use water in your personal capacity, as well as adjustments you might have to make to what you perform in future?
Krendl: Once I was made aware of the situation in Cape Town, which for me wasn’t until a week before I left for tour, I started some research to understand what is actually going on and how serious it was. In doing this I also then learned about average water consumption of a person and what it can mean to live without it. All of this hadn’t crossed my mind once until now. The saying, “You don’t realise what you have until you have lost it” really became a clear analogy for the realisation of the situation. Additionally, I remember having buckets in our hotel room to collect the excess water to help conserve. Seeing that even when I take a quick shower I filled up the bucket almost every time was another daily situation that really impacted me. So the situation in Cape Town not only taught me an important lesson about things I take for granted in my life but has also permanently changed my personal appreciation and usage of water itself. This experience has made a profound impact on me without a doubt. Above all, I am more appreciative of what I do and have a more profound gratitude in life for the opportunities given.
Magic.Africa: Will we see you back in South Africa?
Krendl: I hope so! I want to come back and hope I get hired in the near future to be here to share my passion for magic and illusion. I have had such a wonderful experience. I learned so much about a country of which I knew very little. This whole experience has enriched my life and has created more understanding and compassion for people and because of this, I will always carry a part of South Africa in me wherever I go in the world from here.