Philippe Petit, 68, the high-wire artist who walked a cable between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974, began his career with magic shows at the age of six. Lucas Handwerker, 23, who performs as a mentalist, also started out as a six-year-old magician. The two men are collaborating on Piece of Mind, a performance by Handwerker, and will present sneak previews at Arts Society of Kingston (ASK) 97 Broadway, on Friday and Saturday, December 9 and 10, at 7 p.m.
“My shows are about using the five known senses to create an illusion of a sixth sense,” says Handwerker. We are in Shokan, sitting in the little practice barn built by Petit using hand tools and ancient post-and-beam construction methods. Alongside Petit’s first set of juggling clubs, made of now battered bamboo, a wall of shelves is filled with bins bearing such labels as “web slings,” “pulleys,” “safety belts,” items used for rigging cables. In the yard is a low wire, a long balance pole resting at one end. Petit says he practices his arts three hours a day.
Last winter, after watching Handwerker perform at the Woodstock Playhouse, Petit was so impressed, he introduced himself and offered 12 pages of notes on how to improve the show. “It is not easy for a performer to receive a comment when he is autodidact like we are,” says Petit in his French accent. “As a young performer, I would not take advice from anyone, I would run away. I was leaning on intuition and trial and error, so I felt how it’s going to be for this young performer. He had some resistance but a generosity of spirit and intellect. It opened the door naturally for mutual brainstorming.”
For nine months, the pair have been honing the new piece, first in Petit’s barn and later in tympanist Garry Kvistad’s “cave,” a rehearsal room at Woodstock Percussion. “It’s a 60- to 70-minute show,” explains Handwerker, “and every single minute has been looked at, polished, and perfected. But we also had to leave room for spontaneity, since my shows are 100 percent audience participation.”
Handwerker says his performances are all about connection, needed today more than ever. “We can get into a space of ‘us versus them’ or ‘me versus you.’ The show lets people connect over fears and dreams and loved ones, immediately and deeply. You start with a room of strangers, and by the end of the show, they’re all talking to each other, and it feels like a community.”
He disapproves of mentalists who use their skills to make themselves more important than the audience. “Instead of ‘I can tell you what you’re thinking,’ my shows are about ‘How can we communicate on that level?’ There is still an exclamation point of being something amazing but framed in more humanistic way, caring about people.”
“You are working together on surprise and amazement,” agreed Petit. “It’s alive and funny, a joy for the audience to be part of probing the mind.”
The performances at ASK’s 99-seat theater will provide further chances to refine the show before another tryout in Key West, where Petit spends time in the winter. Then Piece of Mind will head for an Off-Broadway run.
“I see a lot of performers,” says Petit, “and none of them has the power and presence and uniqueness of what Lucas does.”
Lucas Handwerker performs Piece of Mind, directed by Philippe Petit, on Friday and Saturday, December 9 and 10, 7 p.m., at the Arts Society of Kingston, 97 Broadway, Kingston. Tickets are $25, and seating is limited. To order tickets, visit https://askforarts.org.