By Evan Henerson
Andrew Basso takes the stage during one segment of “The Illusionists: Live from Broadway” and one segment only. And when the man known as The Escapologist performs, expect to hold your breath.
Because that’s what Basso will be doing, and in the breath-holding business, odds are Basso can take all comers.
Recreating the famous and very dangerous water torture chamber act created by Harry Houdini, Basso is dangled upside down into a tank of water, and must release himself from three sets of restraints. He must accomplish this and reach the surface before…well…before time and air run out.
We caught up with the native of Italy and peppered him with questions from which there was no escape.
Hollywood Pantages: How are you enjoying life on the road?
Andrew Basso: It’s good. We have good energy and the audiences are responding very well. I’m seeing countries all over the world and sometimes you don’t get to actually (look around) where you are. The shows are many, and then you have to move to the next city, so sometimes it’s hard, but I’ve been dreaming of doing this all my life, bringing my passion on stage and doing it around the world.
HP: How did your interest in magic develop?
AB: Well, I was a little kid in my little hometown in Northern Italy. I saw a magician and that was the moment where magic became my life. It was a mission first, of course, that I’m still working on, but I was 7 or 8 and there was this magician performing at this event. My mother is very serious like Morticia Addams, and she was completely taken by the magic. She was laughing, and enjoying it, and I remember that moment. I thought, “If he can do that, I want to learn how he does it” knowing my mother and how serious she is. So I think that was a turning point for me.
HP: What kind of magic was this magician performing?
AB: Simple stuff, it was using some cups and balls, some playing cards. It was not a giant Vegas show. It was close up magic. Maybe that was the interesting part because there was a direct interaction, and actually that became my passion first before (I went for) escapes and big shows. I still love to show people magic in their hands. I think you cannot be closer than that as an experience when you touch, when you feel, when things happen in front of your eyes and you don’t believe it. That’s the real power, I think.
HP: So how does an 8 year old start learning the craft of magic?
AB: In the beginning, I was playing with magic, like with magic sets, books here and there and in libraries. Then when I was 12, I met a magician who wanted to be my mentor and he started to teach me like the real secrets of magic and he introduced me to other magicians. Then I started to travel and was meeting other magicians. Even now, I still go and visit the most influential names of magic and I keep learning. I practiced a by myself a lot and tried to learn from other performers as much as I could while at the same time performing a lot because that’s the only way to build up your own persona, your style and your magic. Do as many shows as you can. So when I was 17, I was already a professional.
HP: Tell me about the magician who mentored you.
AB: He was nobody famous. He was a regular working magician not aiming for fame or success, and still today we talk about ideas and what to do. At special events like Broadway, the West End of London, and here at the Pantages, he would always show up and be in the front row. For me that would be the best moment ever. Because taking the bow and in that moment looking him in the eyes, I’m thinking “18 years ago I was coming to your house and taking lessons in magic, and now I’m performing on one of the most prestigious stages in the world.” It’s like sharing a dream that we both had but we never really thought could happen.
HP: Do you also pass on the legacy by teaching?
AB: I did when I was not on tour. When I was in Italy and my career was growing, I wanted to have an academy of magic, since there are no real schools of magic where somebody can enter and learn. There are magic clubs, and there are activities but I was trying to build like an institution of magic that so people would come every week and have different teachers going through. I did that for five years, trying to give younger people opportunities to grow up in magic, but then I was so busy traveling, I couldn’t keep it up. I think it’s good to give the opportunity to somebody that maybe doesn’t have the strength as I had when I was 17 to say “Hey, I will move to Las Vegas by myself to meet the greatest magicians and learn with them.” Someone who cannot do that, maybe could have a chance to enter the school and have an opportunity to learn that way.
HP: Many magicians claim to be influenced by Houdini, but through your performance with The Illusionists there appears to be a particularly strong connection. What does his legacy mean to you?
AB: For me, it’s like he’s a real person that exists in my life. It’s like a second father, a person that every day influenced me in what I do, what I want to create. He gave me a dream of becoming what he was and through his most difficult act. He said he could never achieve anything better than that or more death defying than the water torture chamber, and very early in my career, I went straight to his top escape. It was like where Houdini left was my beginning. So it was like a passage, when you pass the torch from Houdini. He’s like a spiritual figure in my life, still there, still influencing me. I keep reading his books and everything he says and I try to (take in) as much as I can about what made this man immortal.
HP: Based on the nature of that escape, do you ever meet fans who say they are worried about you?
AB: Oh, yeah, especially ladies and moms. Because I think well they see a young man on stage and I think since I’m doing something very physical where there is a real genuine risk involved of drowning. It’s something people relate to very easily because we all swim at least once in our life. We jump in the lake or in a swimming pool and we know what it feels like not being able to breathe under water. So I think in that moment where I’m hanging over the tank and taking the last few breaths is a very deep moment that everybody relates to and they become very empathic. I think women are particularly sensitive about this. So they can be more empathic for sure, and I have ladies that had to leave the theater because it was too intense, or after the show they come and they tell me they know how intense that moment was and the release at the end pays off. It’s like they escape with me at the end.
HP: That must be gratifying to hear.
AB: Absolutely, and there are many ways to feel gratified. I think one of the most curious was this lady who came with this little girl who was probably 4 or 5 years old and she wanted to meet me at the stage door to let me know she was afraid to swim, afraid of water. She didn’t want to take swimming classes because she hated it and when did my thing, after the act, the little girl said to her mom, “If he can do that, and he’s not scared of doing that, then I can swim.’ So she wanted to take the lessons and overcome the fear. To me it was a big gift that someone would take strength from watching the performance.