Judy Carter’s play blends magic and humor to heal the past
"The idea that a woman could corrupt your sense of reality is very disturbing for a lot of people,” Judy Carter said.
Having made a living as a magician and a standup comic, she should know. In an industry such as magic notoriously fronted by men, Carter is embracing her authentic self in her new play, addressing the elephant in the room and marching on.
“The real secret is what a magician does and what I’m going to be doing on stage is manipulating people’s reality,” she said.
Carter’s new show, “A Death Defying Escape” which began April 2 at the Hudson Guild Theatre with streaming available beginning April 9, intentionally defies easy description.
Billed as having a “unique storyline” that features “Jewish humor, a lesbian romance, a clarion call for disability awareness — and jaw-dropping, audience-interactive on-stage magic,” it’s a little difficult to imagine what this production might look like, until one understands a little more about Carter herself.
Put simply, Carter is a Renaissance woman. She has worked professionally as a magician, standup comic, published author and corporate keynote speaker. She was featured in the Los Angeles Times in 1961 for performing magic shows when she was only 10 years old. She overcame a speech impediment and was one of the first women to perform at the Magic Castle Close-Up Gallery in Hollywood, not without resistance.
“One of the magicians literally picked me up, carried me out and threw me in the parking lot,” Carter said.
She added “standup comedy” to her resume when the airline lost her luggage and tricks on a gig. She has appeared on over 100 TV shows and four comedy cable specials, as well as opened for Prince and performed in Vegas. The longtime Venice resident is also a frequent contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” She even wrote the Bible…well, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon & Schuster).
Drawing upon her many talents and occupations from magician to TEDx Talker, Carter’s latest venture attempts to blend elements of her past into a one-of-a-kind production for the present. Directed by Lee Costello, Carter’s one-person band of a show features real, on-stage magic as a metaphor for our ability to “escape” and move on from serious life issues.
“In the play, I reveal secrets,” Carter said. “Not only secrets about my life, but Houdini’s secrets and how we can use his escape techniques to escape from things in our life. Because we all have something or someone we need to escape from. Whether it be escaping from the closet, or escaping from a Verizon contract or even just trying to get out of a pair of Spanx on a hot day. We all need to know. And that’s what this play is. This is a story that’s told with magic.”
Describing the play as a “dark comedy,” Carter said the play includes many formative and often painful memories from her childhood.
“Growing up with a sister with cerebral palsy, a narcissistic mother and an abusive father, I dreamed of becoming a magician,” Carter said. “I didn’t want to saw women in half, I wanted the power to put them back together. The power to make my father disappear and to levitate my sister, Marsha, out of her wheelchair.”
That concept became this play.
“It’s a three-person play, where I tell the story of escaping childhood problems such as an alcoholic father, a disabled sister and a speech impediment,” Carter said. “And kind of knowing I was gay, but pretending I wasn’t.”
She clarifies the show is biographical, but not a biography.
“The main character has my exact name, but it’s not a one-person show,” Carter said. “It’s like nothing anyone has ever seen.”
So why now? Carter said the inspiration of the show came from a mortality check-in.
“My motivation was pretty much that, ‘Okay, what do I want to do before I’m dead?’” Carter said. “I almost got hit by a car. And my only thought was ‘I didn’t do that play. I didn’t write that play.’”
Carter said it took four years to write in order to research her own life, but also to ensure there was entertainment from start to finish.
“When you write something based on your own life, it’s not enough to go ‘and this happened, and this happened,’” Carter said. “That’s called narcissism…I wanted to create a story that wasn’t just bragging about my life, or coming from ego. I wanted to have a message to other people.”
Part of that message is about authenticity, even if it means reinvention.
“When I first started doing magic, I had to pretend to be a friggin’ idiot so not to disturb people,” Carter said.
Citing artists like Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen, Carter said “pretending to be stupid” was essential at the time for a woman to be successful in a male-dominated profession. But times have changed.
“I’m just going to be really escaping from all these restraints,” Carter said. “I’m going to hold down people’s concepts and ideas. And right before their very eyes, they’re going to see reality shift.”
Part of the reality Carter hopes to shift is people’s perception of traditional, male-centric magic.
“Look at [traditional] magic shows: a man saws a woman in half, a man throws swords at a woman, a man decapitates her or lights her on fire,” Carter said. “When I see a magic show, I see a guy working out his mommy issues.”
But Carter sees barely veiled sexism in more than the tricks themselves.
“You look at the role of the assistant, the assistant is jumping in boxes, she’s the one getting sawed in half, she’s the one cleaning up the rabbit crap,” Carter said. “What happens at the end of the show? She takes a step back and points to the guy and he takes the bow.”
By contrast, Carter said her show is about feminist empowerment, but in a fun way.
“It’s not a play where we hit people over the head with this,” Carter said.
In the spirit of inclusion, Carter’s creative team credits multiple men including scenic designer and magic illusion creator Craig Dickens, who has created illusions for David Copperfield, lighting designer Matt Richter, and sound and projections designer Nick Foran. With their help, Carter is primed to make history.
“I will actually, in front of everybody’s eyes, not only escape, but completely vanish,” Carter said. “This is an illusion that has never been done before. So it’s going to be pretty amazing.”
While Carter teases to physically disappear at the end of the show, she intends to put her personal life on full display.
“I feel like the play is going to reveal secrets of my life, like now I’m involved in a relationship,” Carter said. “I happened to fall in love late in life with somebody who was much younger than me, like four decades younger than me.”
She also hopes these revelations will help the audience address their own issues.
“The play also shows that when we deal with the past, we really deal with it,” Carter said. “Perhaps it’s the secrets that kept us tied down that then we can find love.”
“A Death-Defying Escape”
Through May 15
Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.
Hudson Guild Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles