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Ragtime: The Mechanics Behind The Magic!

Allen Carter who plays Harry Houdini in Ragtime ©Wallace Krebs Photography

While Ragtime has been taking off here at GLT, some of the performers in the show have been doing the exact same thing, taking off into the sky! Flying can be a major part of productions, most commonly musicals, and many audience members, while ‘wow’d’ by the stunts, don’t always know the amount of work that goes into even the simplest of special effects.

I caught up with Graham Shaffer, our technical director, and the man at the helm of any flying special effects, as well as Carter Allen, who plays Harry Houdini and is a part of the biggest stunt in the show. Harry Houdini was one of the most famous magicians of all time and his grand illusions and daring, spectacular escape acts drew large crowds to every performance. In the early 1900s, his act was constantly upping the ante from handcuffs to straitjackets to water filled tanks and nailed packing crates.

For those who haven’t seen the production, in the opening number, when Harry Houdini is introduced, he enters the stage in perhaps the most extraordinary way possible. Carter is lowered upside down by his feet from above the main curtain. He then descends to the stage at a rapid rate, frees himself from a rigged straitjacket and removes it while in the air, he continues to the ground to finally stand up and face the audience to deliver a monologue. All of this must be accomplished in less than 17 seconds to fit the timing provided in the music.

Harry Houdini

As soon as Carter was cast in the role, they began working during the day as early as December to see what would be possible for this stunt. Everyone backstage has put in endless hours, effort, and strength to make this the unique stunt you see.

Graham Shaffer (GLT Technical Director):

Q: Where did you get the idea for the Harry Houdini stunt that we see in the production of Ragtime?

A: Well, it is one of Harry Houdini's most famous stunts, the trick of trying to get out of a straitjacket while being held upside down, as well as it was done in the original Broadway production. Plus, it looks really cool as opposed to someone just popping out of a trap door.

Q: Can you explain in layman terms everything that happens behind the scenes for Carter to be able to achieve this effect?

A: We have a Carter-sized sandbag which is attached to the baton or the pipe hanging from the ceiling, hanging offstage where the audience can't see. And a lot of the work actually happens before the show even starts. We lower the pipe in before the rest of the actors get into places for the opening number, disconnect the Carter-sized sandbag from the pipe and hook the real Carter up to the pipe with a hidden cable, hiding the real cables with a theatrical rope. Carter has already gotten into costume and his rigged straitjacket before this happens, Then, we hoist him upside down, above the curtain and past the visible sight-lines of the audience where a hammock is hanging for him. We lift him above the hammock and gently lower him into it so he can lay horizontal until it is time to come down during the opening number. He has about 15 minutes of hanging out above the stage until it is time to be lowered. When it is time, he is lifted out and above the hammock, which he then uses to steady himself before being lowered, and hides right behind the teaser (an upper level, horizontal curtain used to reduce the height of the stage). Then, when it is time he is flown in when it matches the music, the safety clip and theatrical rope are unfastened by a fellow cast mate, while at the same time the sandbag is re-fastened to the pipe (transferring Carter's weight from body to sandbag on the pipe). Carter stands up and delivers a monologue to the audience as the pipe with the Carter-sized sandbag and the cable with his safety clip and theatrical rope ascend back up to the ceiling.

Q: How many people does it take behind the scenes to make this happen?

Harry Houdini in chains

A: We have one person up in the fly rails, one person unlclippping and re-clipping the sandbag, one person pulling a rope next to the sandbag, one person on the other side of the stage also pulling a rope attached the pipe, and one person onstage unclipping him from the safety cable. It takes 5 people to make a less than 30 second special effect happen without a hitch.

Q: What are the most important things you focus on when approaching something as extraordinary but tricky as this type of effect?

A: Safety, above all else. I would never put someone in a situation that I would not be comfortable with myself. We build in redundancies, such as the fact that we have 4 people on the ropes helping to secure him, the fake rope that is around his legs would grab him if his true safety cable were to break. He has a fully body harness that would catch him should that occur as well if his foot cuffs came undone. He has a lot of fail-safes to make sure that no matter what happens Carter will be okay and feels safe and secure the entire time.

Carter Allen (Harry Houdini in Ragtime):

Q: What is the most important thing you have to think about when preparing for this stunt?

A: First and foremost, making sure I have my safety harness and ankle bracelets on correctly. I always use the bathroom before I go upside down and don't eat beforehand. Also, I spend a lot of time making sure I have my straitjacket on correctly. Undoing this while in the air is huge part of the stunt and I have to dedicate enough time to focusing on setting this up properly. It's certainly a lot more prep work that goes into getting ready for this more than a usual start-of-show routine!

Q: Things don’t always go according to plan in live theatre, how do or would you handle any slight hiccups that occurred during any given performance?

Harry Houdini hanging upside down for a stunt

A: Because the entrance is built in with the music, I am paying extra close attention to the music while being lowered. This way I am aware that if, for example, I need to start saying the lines while still in the air I can begin to do so. Or, if I don't get the straitjacket off, I can get my arms free and still make it look like a majority of the trick has happened. I also maintain good eye contact with our master carpenter, Stephen Trammell who is flying me in from the rails and if I need to give him a signal that I need to be put down earlier than normal, we will be on the same page. Communication is one of the most important things during these moments. The key is to really listen and pay attention to everyone around me for there is never a moment where I can step out of focus. I am present the entire time.

Q: What is the most fun about performing this effect?

A: Well, I have never flown before so this is all new and unique to me, honestly. It can be difficult because often I am so focused on making sure I am doing my part of the effect as best I can so that if everyone else is doing the same it can go off without a hitch. This effect is so technical that I can lose sight of how cool what I'm doing actually is. I enjoy that little moment right when the show has started, the cast is below me, holding their positions, and the main curtain rises. I see that curtain fly up in a way that no one else sees it and wow, it is huge! It just rockets up into the ceiling. Up there everything looks so much bigger and you kind of feel as though you are the Phantom of the Opera watching the theatre from above!

Harry Houdini's daring display is shocking, it's extraordinary, and every night Carter sees the theatre upside down in a way that no one else is privy too. This special effect shows the extrodinary ability of our cast and crew both behind the scenes and onstage bringing you an effect that will make your jaw drop and have you singing the praises of "Harry Houdini, Master Escapist!"

Ragtime plays through this Sunday, March 25th, 2018 here at GLT. Call 864-233-6238 or click here to get tickets today!

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