If you hadn't heard of the Indianapolis-based Ridgeway & Johnson Ridgeway & Johnson Grand Illusions & Death Defying Escapes show before, you probably did last month when Kristen Johnson went into a hypoxic seizure performing her Water Torture Cell stunt in Oklahoma City during the Thunder's half-time show.
NUVO met the couple at an Indianapolis eatery to discuss the recent incident and their upcoming show "Breathless," coming to the Paramount Theater in Anderson this Saturday.
"There is danger and risk involved and we try to eliminate those factors. She's done it over 600 times now and [the seizure] has only happened twice," said Johnson's husband and show partner, Kevin Ridgeway.
The video of her escape gone wrong has had a quarter of a million hits on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbvokC6xo20) since it happened Jan. 16. Johnson is the only performer to do the water cell stunt in full view. Spectators actually witnessed the seizure and the fumbled attempt at a rescue. In the video, assistants seem slow to react and extremely unprepared to pull Johnson from the cell.
Some skeptics have questioned if the incident was planned to create publicity. Since the seizure, the couple has made national news several times. They insist that more media coverage was not their goal.
"We don't have some weird twisted sense of humor," Johnson said. "I watch what I eat, I control my breathing. I don't do anything that will cause me to get stressed. [The seizure] is definitely something that's not to be taken lightly, but we put a lot of effort into making sure that it doesn't happen." Hypoxic seizures are more likely if one is slightly dehydrated, exhausted or dealing with low blood sugar.
When the accident happened, Johnson said she woke up confused while pulling herself out of the cell. "In this case I had removed the lock from the top and I saw [Kevin] rush the tank and signal me to get out. We have signals. If he has a problem he'll come and bang on the tank, but this time I just didn't get out fast enough. I remember going to my handcuff and then the next thing I know I'm pulling myself out of the tank. I didn't have a clue what happened. I just had a gap. So, we walked back to the dressing room and I said, 'Did you have to get me out?' I just didn't remember. It's still a little scary when you get back in again."
In full view
Johnson still hasn't watched the video of the accident, but she did get back in the tank again. She returned to the water cell just a week later in Bomant, Texas.
In the escape, Johnson is handcuffed and chained, then dropped into a circular glass chamber filled with water. Once inside with the lid shut and locked, she uses bobby pins from her hair to unlock herself while holding her breath for two and a half to three minutes. Ridgeway offers a $10,000 reward to anyone at the show who thinks they can prove that Johnson uses a breathing device or a key once underwater.
Since the incident, Johnson is doing everything she can to make sure it doesn't happen again. "A good portion of [my training] is making sure that I can hold my breath for an extended period of time, but unfortunately, I'm not relaxed when I'm doing it. Your body is telling you this isn't a good idea. Every part of your body just screams. So, it's controlling the anxiety that comes along with doing something unnatural."
It's the same stunt Harry Houdini made famous in 1912. Johnson is the only illusionist who performs the act in full view. Audience members are able to watch the entire performance from every seat.
"We really wanted to set Kristen apart. A lot of times escapes are really just magic tricks. When there's that cover the audience really perceives that there is more trickery going on. If you get rid of the cover, you put it more into the realm of stunt, daredevil. There's nothing secret about it," Ridgeway said.
Johnson first performed the water cell trick in 2003 at a lock convention in Indianapolis. She plans to outdo Houdini's lifetime record of performing the stunt 1,000 times in 2010.
"The water cell will take people through a whole gamut of emotions," Ridgeway said. "Someone is going to be afraid of water. Someone is going to be claustrophobic. Someone is going to be empathetic. They'll go through all of those emotions and then, the neat thing is at the end. There's that feeling of fanfare. Just that feeling that somebody has conquered something that seems impossible."
While the water cell is perhaps Johnson's most publicized stunt, the couple said they have more tricks in store. Their 747 turbine jet stunt is another signature spectacle. Ridgeway & Johnson are the only illusionists who tour with this giant piece of machinery.
"The jet's about 11 feet tall, 10 feet wide and about 10 feet deep. Right when the curtains open there are gasps by the audience. It's just ominous. Especially if it's a smaller theater, people just wonder how it even got in there. Like the water cell, we don't cover the stunt at all. [Kristen] just passes right through the spinning blades. It's definitely unique," Ridgeway said.
"I want people to walk away feeling good. Like they've been entertained and they feel excitement from that. The jet turbine is this ominous-looking piece of equipment and then, they see me go through the blades and I want people to feel empowered that they can do anything. And I want them to think, 'If she can do that, what can I do?'" Johnson said.
A chance meeting
Ridgeway met Johnson in Indianapolis at a home and garden show. After Johnson took Ridgeway to his first magic show, he believed he had found his calling, even though he didn't know much about magic. "I only knew one card trick at the time, but I came home Monday morning and quit my job," he said. Unlike most illusionist couples, Johnson holds her own as the daredevil while her husband plays the role of handsome assistant. "There's a lot of stuff you're going to like. It's not your typical magic show," Ridgeway said.
Ridgeway and Johnson, who usually spend 250-300 days a year on the road, will appear close to home in Anderson. The couple promises current music, masterful illusions, daring stunts, fun interactions and even a few laughs. "Comedy keeps it all together," Ridgeway said. "We really try to let them see our personalities." Johnson will also perform her two most famous escapes: the Water Torture Cell and the 747 turbine jet stunt.
Ridgeway and Johnson take pride in making the show fun and interactive. Be sure to volunteer if given the opportunity. The couple brings about 10 audience members on stage for each show.