Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Magical Summer

It has been a magical summer.  You know how everyone talks about a summer escape.  Well I had a doozy. 
Underwater Leap of Faith Houdini vs Alexanderia the Great
 When last I wrote in May, I was talking about how I do things differently.  You don't start out performing at age 47.  You certainly don't go into magic, where only a handful of women have been a main act. And you definitely don't go into escapes since it has almost exclusively been a man's game for over 100 years.  Whoops, I guess I missed all those rules.       

So there I was having done decades worth of work in escapes, on my own but refusing to tell or show anyone for fear that they would think I was "weird" or "different".  My hubby wanted me to do this since we were kids (high school) but I had plans (college) to be a teacher.  Then we married and we began to have kids. "A mom can't be an escape artist", I thought. Then I opened up a home daycare business and I couldn't very well tell parents who called that I was "tied up" for the moment when I was really "tied up".  After that it was a myriad of reasons why I couldn't but it came down to me not being able to get out of my own box.  The box I put myself in or let others put me in. Bottom line was I just didn't have the confidence to be different and so pardon the pun, I resisted "jumping in".  But two years of unemployment forced me to reinvent myself career wise, so with my husband's support and urging, I decided to make the leap into escapes. 
Early picture of Alex secretly working on escapes
So after years of working on whatever we saw on TV (Cooperfield, The Pendragons, Angel & Blaine)  I (Bill really helped get me the courage) decided to give it a go. So October of 2009 was my very first escape at the Worldwide Escape Artist Relay.  Of course, doing it all wrong,  as you usually start out slow in your first performance.  Not me!  I chose to do an underwater escape (one of magic's most dangerous escapes).  To be fair, I had been working for years on escapes and most underwater, so I was different.  Funny to hear me say that now. 

Well with all this practice, it never included anything formal.  I never read magic books or attended a magic convention.  It just never occurred to me I needed to learn from others.  I just tried to figure it out myself.  Ok now why would I bring that up huh?

Well flash forward less than 3 years later and I decided to attend my very first magic convention but in a very cool and unusual way.  Yeah I know different. I have been an International Brotherhood of Magicians's (IBM) member for the last 3 years.  I joined up prior to my first escape as they provide excellent insurance coverage and I joined a magic ring to get contacts Ring 122 in at the famous Ray Goulet's Magic Arts Studio in Watertown, MA

This year's 84th IBM convention was in Norfolk, VA.  Two weeks before the convention I was contacted by the convention committee who saw my Today Show story and my Facebook postings (see Facebook does work).
So they asked me if I would be willing to come down and do an escape.  Would I?  Of course!  What an honor to be invited to perform in front of the largest magical arts order in the world and the oldest running magical convention.  How could I say no.  So after a little bit of prodding with the hotel who's  lawyers heard underwater escape and freaked  but came to their senses and gave approval and so we were off to Norfolk to perform in front of over 700 magicians.  GULP!
IBM Conference Talent Chair and Master Magician Shawn Farquhar 
Nothing is scarier than performing in front of your peers.  Remember I have only been performing for less than 3 years and I am standing in front of the best in the world of magic.  No pressure.  Kinda hard to catch your breath.  Hint hint remember that line.  So as Bill and I thought of what to do to make this escape memorable, it hit us.  This escape needed to be breath taking.  And so we set out to do just that.

Now to anyone else the picture above may look like you average summer pool party shot.  Except for the fact the girl (that's me) about to jump in has more restraints on than an other female has ever had in an underwater escape.  Handcuffs, leg cuffs, a 15 lbs lead weigh belt, a 5 foot chain from my hands to my feet (so I can't swim to the surface) another 25 feet of chains wrapped around my arms and body 3 times and padlocked each time.  Then the remaining chain is brought down my body up through my legs, over my back and shoulders twice and padlocked tightly with two more locks one around my neck and the other down my back.  

The Underwater Leap of Faith at the 84th International Brotherhood of Magicians Convention

So over 50 lbs of restraints, 30 feet of chains secured by 7 padlocks and chained in such a way that it nearly chokes me if I go down wrong.  We thought it should be recognized as the most a women had ever done in an underwater escape so we contacted Ripley;s Believe It or Not.  But both Bill and I wanted something more.  We didn't want to do just more than any other women and more than Houdini which this would be but something no escape artist had ever done.  But what?  How could we do something in front of the best magicians in the world that would take their breath away.  And then it hit us.  Breath away.  Let's take their breath away by me giving mine away.

I have trained with free divers having completed the pool portion of Performance Free Diving's Intermediate course.  I also am friends with some amazing women who are champion free divers and 
who have been so helpful with my training.  I train to be safer in my escapes but to also to be able to do more.  And in that vein I reached out to Natalia Avseenko who is a word champion free diver and runs the Moscow Free Diving school.  We contacted Nat and asked her to help us in training in a new and controversial free diving method called (FRC) Functional Residual Capacity or an exhale dive.  
Natalia Avseenko Wold Record Holding Free Diver and trainer
 In free diving you dive without the aid of SCUBA.  A line is set in the water and depending on the disciple (no weigh, variable weight, no limits or with fins or without) you go down as far as you can grab a tag that tells your depth and return to the surface all with just the air in your lungs.  Now most free divers do special training to learn to fill their lungs as much as they can like tanks of air to give them more reserve so they can stay down longer.  Makes sense.  Pack as much air are you can for your trip for you know if you run out you could drown.  The sport has a bad reputation sadly because some have pushed it too far with improper training.  Done correctly with proper training, the sport is   safe and those who are properly trained do an amazing job of teaching sound principles and keeping their students safer.  One of the problem that free divers have to deal with is getting down undrwater.  Sounds funny but when you take in a lot of air in your lungs, they act like balloons making it tougher to get down because of the extra air.  So a free diver decided to try and go down on under inflated lungs thus making it easier to get down but tougher to get up.  Think about when you tried to get to the bottom of the pool.  If you blew out your air, you sink.  Of course, you get down faster but it is much harder physically and especially psychologically to deal with the lack of air.
So this method which is much more risky as blackouts can come much more easily.  Why?  Simply you are working on a lot less air and your margin of error is smaller. When you push yourself too beyond you limits blackouts can be deadly.  So what does this have to do with my escape?  Well in the way I am chained across my body and with the chains being pulled tightly and padlocks each time my chest and lungs are restricted in fully inflating.  So I knew in doing this escape it is really hard to do the normal expansion that most free diver so in there breathe up routines.  I also have to train for the worst as in all escape things can happen and often do.  I have to be ready for a failure in picking or a cuff jamming or missing my landing and falling hard or in a difficult position.  So I have practiced what are called negatives where I blow out my air and just sit there and try and hold on underwater.  It comes down to dealing with contractions as that is what your body does when it wants air and you don't breathe.  It is the early warning system of survival.  As a trained free diver you know when to listen and when those signals are false.  But when it comes to being all those restraints and needing to get out  it wasn't going to be a pleasant little breath hold.  It becomes a game of mind over matter.  So when you do a negative and are out you simply pick your head up.  But when you chose to do FRC or an exhale dive with more restraint than Houdini had on I decided to ask for help.

Nat did a few Skype sessions with me to work on my breathing and think about visualizations and tables that would help me prepare for such an extreme attempt.  She is so cool and was excited for me as she is not stranger to danger.  She has done some really extreme dives in very freezing cold water and is about to embark on one of the most extreme tests in free diving, cave free diving.  Where if you make a mistake there is not going back.  She will literally be trying to squeeze into very tight spaces underwater in very cold and dark water and a misjudgement could be fatal. 

So after careful planning and training with Nat,  I was ready to try and make history. I stood on the deck which was so hot that the chains that Bill laid out for inspection had to be dunked in the pool before he could put them on me.  A volunteer did a great job securing the chains tightly ( magicians don't mess around).  And so after a short breathe up not like before where you do full inhalations, I more simplified my breathing.  Trying to go slowly and smoothly in and out.  Not full but slow and natural trying to get to a certain place.  A place where I could slow down my heart rate and block everyone out and just relax.  Finally I breathed in a final time normally and as I began make my leap you could hear me exhale loudly.  I hit the bottom of the pool and heard nothing.  Just the swish of the water as the bubbles exploded to the surface.  When ever I jump in with all those restraints I still freak out a bit honestly.  But I have begun to enjoy my leaps much more lately.  And this one though it was potentially stressful for I was performing in front of the best of the magical world, I felt different.  Yes the excitement made this tough as adrenaline is not what you coarsing through your veins when you are trying to relax and slow things down but felt different.  And maybe for the first time in my life different felt really cool.

Here is the short video of my Underwater Leap of Faith at the 84th IBM convention.  Ripley's Believe It of Not will be recognizing the escape in an upcoming Believe IT or Not feature and in their book.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Doing it Different (Part 1)

Alexanderia the Great aka escape artist Donna Purnell 
David Copperfield
 I was not trained in the classical way.  I didn't start out doing card tricks or learn at home magic kits.  How did I start out? I watched TV.  I simply watched and tried to duplicate what I saw.  Houdini, Henning, Copperfield, The Pendragons, Burton, Blaine & Angel.  I watched what they did and I wanted to do it.  The more challenging or dangerous the better.  I am self taught.  I love to challenge myself.  Most of the escapes I tried when I was younger, it was simply mind over matter.  If I didn't mind, it didn't matter, meaning I would go through the pain to escape.  But now the escapes are much more challenging and dangerous. I needed to add skills. But who could help me and how could I do it? When I got serious about maybe showing the world what I could do, I looked to the pros.
Doug Henni

Steve Baker
  I have talked with some legends Steve Baker and Norm Bigelow.  Steve who professionally was know as Mr Escape, talked with me in 2004.  I was deciding on whether to perform for the first Worldwide Escape Artist Relay (WEAR) in 2005.  I was concerned as to whether I was good enough and prepared enough to perform publicly. He shared with me some breath holding tips and some personal experience in his many underwater escapes.  He explained to me the dangers of underwater escapes and why I needed to overly prepare as things can and will go wrong.  He shared with me some of the problems he encountered and cautioned me in not "jumping into" something so potentially deadly without proper training and preparation.

Norm Bigelow
Norm Bigelow, I contacted a few years later when again I was thinking about doing WEAR in 2009 of which I did perform.  He has been simply amazing in all his support and guidance.  He did some amazing escapes in his day.  He is still developing new ideas and always challenging the escape world to move ahead.  He tirelessly continues to write on escape topics and is a great teacher.  Both of these legends were so wonderful to give of their time and advice to a novice.  I will be forever grateful to both.
Morgan the Escapist & Alexanderia the Great
I also called on Morgan the Escapist, early in my decision making process.  In 2004, I first called her to talk with one of the few woman in the world who called herself an escape artist.  I wanted a women's perspective on the escape world.  She was wonderful and took the time to view some escape video of me.  She gave me tips and encouraged me to perform.  We have stayed in contact and it was great to see her perform in her home state of New Jersey.  She is great.
Charlotte Pendragon on NBC Houdini Secrets Special 1995

Seeing Charlotte Pendragon of the Pendragons perform an escape in 1995 on an NBC Houdini special, really opened my eyes to what women could do. I have spoken with Charlotte via Facebook and it was great to speak to someone who really influenced me.  She showed me that women can take center stage in escapes.

The pioneer in female escape artists was Dorothy Dietrich.  She was the first women I remember seeing do escapes.  She was a magician as well and was famous for the being the only women to have successfully performed the dreaded bullet catch.  I remember first seeing Dorothy on an HBO special.  She did an aerial strait jacket escape upside down from a burning rope.  Tony Curtis the actor who played Houdini in the 1953 bio picture of Houdini was the master of ceremonies.  Hearing Tony, who played the immortal Houdini, it was like having Harry himself speak.  It gave her escape so much more impact.  Dorothy & I struck up a friendship on Facebook and she invited me as her guest to see her perform at the Houdini exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City.  We met both Dick Brooks and Dorothy at their hotel in New York and we drove over together to the event.  
Dorothy Dietrich & Alexanderia the Great
She gave me some wonderful memorabilia of hers that I cherish.  We did lunch together before the event and Bill shot video of her strait jacket escape.  He posted it to Youtube for her after the event.  It was a great night as we also met Ken Silverman who wrote an amazing autobiography of Harry Houdini!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss.  The picture above is a vid clip of the video my husband did at the event.  Dorothy has it is her picture on Facebook.  And the picture here is of her and I that night.

Alexanderia the Great & the
Underwater Leap of Faith
Since I have began this journey into becoming an escape artist, I have been fortunate to meet some great professionals who have offer some great advice.  Trying to go beyond Houdini has forced me to go way beyond my comfort zone.  This is why when I decided to try and not simply duplicate what has been done before but take it to the next level, I could not just do the tried and true methods of before as they would not do.  I had to take another path, as I didn't start with the simple stuff like everyone else.  I went right for it in doing escape's most dangerous act, underwater escapes.  In trying to not copy but go further, I have had to get stronger, and push my limits.  When I found my limits and it was not enough, I had to push past them.  How?  By redefining my limits. I had to overcome my obstacles.

A little secret about my past.  I wanted to be a lifeguard like all high school kids.  It looked like a great job that allowed you to go to work at the beach in a swimsuit and get a tan.  Now that is a great summer job.  I had one small problem.  Though I loved the water and was a strong swimmer, I could not hold my breath.  I was horrible at it.  When it came time to take the test, I could do all the moves except one.  Diving to the bottom of the pool and picking up the instructor was a problem.  Because of my limited ability in holding my breath, I could not manage to get him from the pool bottom.  Though I told him and everyone else that it was the case of bronchitis that stopped me from passing, it was really a fear of holding my breath and diving.

So how is it that I am now able to be shackled, chained, padlocked and weighed down with more restraints  than even Houdini did in his underwater escapes?  How can I now jump willingly into 12.5 foot deep pools having to hold my breath long enough to escape all of these restraints?  It requires me to train in a different way.  In my next blog, I will explain some of my different methods for going beyond what has been done before.
Alexanderia the Great A Modern Day Houdini lifting weights underwater
as part of her extreme training for her death defying escapes



Next time part 2 of a different way to train.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Going Beyond Houdini Slideshow

Hey all,
Having amazing summer weather here in New England in March.  Go figure. Things are heating up ofr shows too.  Did a show at a the Griffin Museum on Sunday for an amazing photographer Meg Birnbaum.  I am one of her subjects in her newest exhibit person/persona.  It is getting rave reviews and it was some much fun to do a talk and perform at the Griffin Museum. My agent MacKay Entertainment is hard at work doing bookings for me this summer.  I am also really excited to be performing in Orlando in August right outside of Disney World at Mer-Palooza The Mermaid Event of the year.  I will be doing a death defying underwater escape and am in training now to hopefully be successful.  More about that one in one of my next postings.

Here is a short slideshow of some of my escapes. You get to see pics of my Underwater Leap of Faith (where I am restrained in more than twice what Houdini was in his leaps).  I also show pics of my Extreme Strait Jacket (where I set a world record getting out of a regulation strait jacket secured with 50 feet of 1/4 inch chain and 10 padlocks in 2 mins 37 secs on national tv). You see pics of an escape I call Airless (chained up with tons of chain wrapping my arms around my body like a strait jacket but all in steel chains and 9 padlocksbut the kicker is my head is wrapped in plastic wrap so I cannot breathe.  Kind of an escape or suffocate kinda thing.  Very intense.)  Last but certainly not least I show my combo Milk Can/Water Torture Cell that I call The Underwater Cell (UC) done in bullet proof  tank in full view -no curtain).  Check it out and leave a comment.

Going Beyond Houdini Slideshow: Alexanderia’s trip from New York City, New York, United States to 3 cities Boston, Cambridge and Salem was created by TripAdvisor. See another United States slideshow. Create a free slideshow with music from your travel photos.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trying to Transform Escapology One Escape at a Time

Harry Houdini & Alexanderia the Great escape artists meet
I have been doing escapes since I was a kid.  They started out as challenges.  How long can you hold your breath.  Can you get out of rope, chains, shackles, cuffs etc.  Then as I began to get better it I wanted to see was how could I challenge myself even more.  Can you get out of this in a certain amount of time or even more dangerous offerings like underwater.  It has grown since then.
Alexanderia the Great aka Donna Purnell a Modern Day Houdini
As I began to get more serious about these challenges, I began to do some research.  I admired Harry Houdini, who was the first magician to do escapes in such a grand scale.   Harry was an accidental escape artist.  He did escape stunts as a way to promote his magic show.  He was first known as the King of Cards and then the King of Handcuffs.  He began doing bridge jumps (underwater escapes) in town for free to announce and promote his show.  Without TV or the internet, Harry needed to do something to demonstrate why someone should go to his show. It was escapes that made Harry famous and so others began to copy him.
Houdini King of Cards Alexanderia the Great blog

Harry Houdini King of handcuffs Alexanderia the Great blog
Copycat escape artists began to pop up as soon as Harry became famous for such escapes.  They would try and steal his act.  Harry hated imitators.  Harry did all he could to stop them. He even copy wrote his Water Torture Cell escape he called Upside Down originally by putting it in a play. He did the escape in the play just so he could copy write it. He closed the play after only one performance.  In that way, he had a way to sue others for trying to copy what was in the play.
Houdini imitator Carl Mysto Alexanderia the Great blog
Sadly these days, escape artists do Harry Houdini's escape exactly as he did them. Houdini died in 1926 almost 90 years ago.  Houdini was the best and so few have been willing to attempt to go beyond what has been done.  In my research and training I, Alexanderia the Great, have been trying to go beyond those escapes.  I have been trying to add to his escapes or update them.  Trying to add more restraints (more chains, shackles, padlocks, cuffs) or combine them to do them in ways that have not been done.  I am trying to remove the curtains literally.  I do my escapes in full view, no curtains, so all can see just what it is like to try and escape such restraints.  In this blog, I will begin to show you what it is like to try and be a Modern Day Houdini.  I did not give myself this label.  To compare yourself to Houdini is not something one should do themselves.  I let my reputation speak for itself.  It is the media who has given me such labels as, Houdini Mom, the Housewife Houdini, The Hockey Mom Houdini and a Modern Day Houdini.  I am proud of the comparisons but there was only one Houdini.  To be mention in the same breath is such an honor. I do my escapes hopefully in a way that would make Harry Houdini proud. To copy Houdini would be to cheapen what he did.  I look to go beyond and hope Harry is smiling now.

PS In my next few blog posts, I will try and give you updates on my training and explain how I try and do my escape differently.  I will post pictures and links to escapes so please stay tuned and invite others to add me.
Fox News, The CBS Evening News and NBC's The Today show all have done feature stories on me and called me "A Modern Day Houdini". A women who tries to go beyond Houdini in her death defying escapes. Go to my Facebook page below and LIKE it to learn more. Share with friends who you think would like as well. 
Web site http://www.alexanderiathegreat.com/
Youtube http://www.youtube.com/Alexanderiathegreat
Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Alexanderia_EA
Blog http://alexanderiathegreat.blogspot.com