The Fort Worth theatre is kicking off its 25th annual Main Stage season with a “DIY séance party”
By Charlotte Settle
Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage continues to excel in its mission to produce boundary-breaking theatre, kicking off its 25th annual Main Stage season with a “DIY séance party.”
In her world premiere play, “Instructions for a Séance,” Katie Bender, creator and performer, invites audiences to help her summon the spirit of famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Reality and illusion converge as Bender questions, “What are we trying to escape?”
Originally from Austin, Bender is an award-winning theater maker who has produced new work all over the country. She spent her early career as a professional actor in New York before shifting her focus to writing when she got pregnant with her daughter. “Becoming a playwright was really about becoming a mother and taking more creative agency over the work I was in,” Bender says.
Bender earned a MFA in playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where one of her professors recommended she visit the university’s Houdini archives. Around the same time, Bender observed her single, childless grad school colleagues traveling and writing freely, unencumbered by the responsibilities of motherhood and marriage. “I was so jealous of their time and carefree attitude,” Bender says. “Staring at pictures of Houdini escaping sort of helped me escape my own life structures, and “Séance” comes from that place.”
Bender recruited the prolific director, dramaturg, and new play-enthusiast Lily Wolff to direct “Séance.” The pair met at UT Austin and bonded over shared experiences of new motherhood during the pandemic.
“It has been an incredible honor and privilege to explore this séance together as artists and mothers,” Bender says. “To see the ways in which parenthood and the pandemic have gotten into the piece makes it even more exciting for me,” Wolff adds. “We’re learning something new about it every time we touch it.”
Unlike a traditional play, “Séance” involves light engagement with the audience. Attendees have equally as much influence over the outcome of the experiment as Bender does, which means no two shows will be alike. “It’s not an experience that can be even remotely replicated by sitting alone on the couch watching Netflix,” Wolff says. “It’s about being present in space with other people, and I think all the guests will leave feeling less alone.”
When it comes to audience participation, Bender ensures safety and comfort will be prioritized. “As moms, caretaking is very important to both of us,” she says. “We have worked really hard for the audience to feel cared for.”
Bender and Wolff recruited renowned magician and illusion designer, Brett Schneider, to bring various elements of magic to the show and evoke the mysteriousness of Houdini. “Brett is incredibly tapped into the dynamics between performer and audience,” Wolff says. “He’s an absolutely key storytelling player.”
For every iteration of “Séance” she has workshopped, Bender has adapted the script to the community in which it took place. As the location of its world premiere, Fort Worth will always play a vital role in its development. “If you like the idea of a piece of art that’s been made in response to your town, then give it a try,” Bender says. “It might defy your expectations.”
The remainder of Amphibian’s 2024 season promises even more riveting, important stories. Hitting the Main Stage in April is George Brant’s “Marie and Rosetta,” a musical celebration that highlights the legacy of two black women and largely uncredited heroes of Rock N’ Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight. Harley Elias’s “The Handless King,” coming this summer, is inspired by real artifacts from 728 BCE and chronicles a zany “coworker dispute turned deadly” in the wake of revolution during the Assyrian Empire.
Written by Amphibian’s artistic director, Kathleen Culebro, and directed by Amphibian’s marketing director, Evan Woods, “The Amazing, Fabulous, and Spectacular Untruths of Juan Garcia” will close out the Main Stage season in the fall. The play is an homage to Juan Ruiz De Alarcón’s “La Verdad Sospechosa” (The Suspicious Truth) — a 17th Century play that seldom received credit for inspiring subsequent acclaimed comedies written by white men.
This summer, Amphibian’s 4th annual SparkFest will celebrate artists from the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community. Featuring new play developments, a variety of performances and workshops, and a Van Cliburn-inspired National Acting Competition, the two-week long festival is a beacon for artists from across the globe and open for public viewing.
Whether it’s conjuring spirits, witnessing new work in development, or anything in between, there’s something for everyone this season at Amphibian.
DETAILS: “Instructions for a Séance” runs Feb. 2-11 at Amphibian Stage. Showtimes are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Head here to learn more and purchase tickets. For more information on all upcoming events, click here.