One could call Teatro Zinzanni's newest production, "Love, Chaos, and Dinner," a meal and a showbut that would definitely shortchange this ongoing extravaganza. Taking place at the Loop's Cambria Hotel, there is not a bad seat in the house (or tent) as its story unfolds, complete with aerial acrobatics, contortionists, incredible singing and mystifying magic.
Queer performer Carisa Hendrix has one of the pivotal roles in the show, portraying Lucy Darlinga bawdy, comedic, seductive magician with an extensive bag of tricks. In a talk with Windy City Times, Hendrix discussed everything from her discovery of magic to queerness in the United States and Canada.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: One of the things that I didn't know about you is that you're from Saskatchewan.
Carisa Hendrix: Yes, I am! I'm from Prince Albert, a tiny town in Saskatchewan and we're really good at raising wheatnot so good at raising people. It's a great place to grow up but I go back there now and it feels like time travel; it's like they haven't seen anything new in the past 20 years. I remember going back 10 years ago and everyone was so excited because they got a sushi restaurant. I went to that sushi restaurant and it definitely served Chinese foodand one avocado roll. [Laughs]
WCT: So how did you become involved in magic? Did you see a particular show? Read books?
CH: So we eventually moved from Prince Albert to Calgarythe big city. [Interviewer laughs.] We didn't have a lot of money so there weren't many extracurricular activities in my house. One day my dad and I are watching television, and we saw this magic special. My dad would ask how he did something and Ibeing 6 or 7would make up some sort of story. And it got into my head that magic was this solvable thing, and I wanted to solve it.
I didn't know that there were such things as magic books; I just assumed that magicians had created every trick. So I was a volunteer at the library, and I would memorize the cardsand then did a trick with the library cards that killed.
Then, at 16, I got kicked out of the house and I needed to make money. I worked with Marcia, my mentor at the time, who said she was booking talent for a haunted house and she told me I could do a 10-minute setfor $50 a night! The previous summer I met people at this arts festival who you could call classic freaks, such as a guy with flipper arms and one whose fingers bent sideways. The guy with the fingers had moved from Europe and asked if I could help him clean out his garage; in exchange, he taught me skills in things like fire-eating. So I had all these acts for the haunted houseand it went horribly! But, over time, I got better; by the end, I had a solid 10 minutes. Then I got other gigs for things like balloon animals, even though I couldn't do them.
Later, I became a magician's assistant, but the world of sideshows was just so accessible to me. Then, I became a little more successful and even set a couple of Guinness world records. But I realized that when I did other things, I did them for money; with magic, it didn't feel that way.
WCT: How hard is it for women to break into the business? It still seems like such a male-dominated field.
CH: I work in an industry in which every piece of literature and DVD of every trick was made by a person with a penis, so that a person with a penis would be performing it. The problem with magic is that, with the best magic, male-presenting and female-presenting people move and hold themselves differently. Step one always involves reinventing the wheel a little bit. Personally, I haven't encountered any sort of [discrimination] but it's going to take us another big chunk of time to move past the fact that good magic has traditionally been based on how men traditionally move.
WCT: By the way, did you see Magic Immersive when it was here? I was fortunate enough to see an entire show of women magicians.
CH: NoI never got to see it. It never got on my radar. But that makes me so happy; I'm going to have to look that up.
What I realized is that with 99% of the people who see me, I'm the first magician they ever seeso, as far as they're concerned, 100% of magic is female-presenting.
WCT: So when did you first see Teatro Zinzanni?
CH: In 2019… So I was in town doing a residency with the Chicago Magic Lounge; I'm obsessed with that place. And I became good friends with [entertainment director] Ben Barnes and we got these tickets to see Teatro Zinzanniand I had never seen anything like that before. I was going through a slight artistic/creative crisis at the time, and I'm used to working with a team. It was this perfect show and I wept at the end of it, thinking I'll never be part of anything this cool.
But there was this ticket exchange, so some of them came to the Chicago Magic Lounge and saw me. I think I saw their show seven times and through several cast changes. About a year ago, I was doing a residency with Rhapsody and I got a call from Teatro Zinzannibut I waited until I got a meatier role as the catalyst of the show.
WCT: Lucy is what I would call a bawdy broad.
CH: Yesvery much so…
WCT: Do you ever meet people who confuse Carisa with Lucy?
CH: Never ever! Last year, we were in the Chicago Theatre with Magical Cirque. One of my favorite things to do is to finish the show and put my civvies onnot even taking off my makeupand go out front. People would take pictures with the big posterwith my face prominently picturedand I would take pictures of them with me. I can go through this theater with civilian clothes on, and in full makeup, and no one will recognize me. My posture and voice are different.
WCT: Wow. What does that say about human nature?
CH: [Laughs] Well, your brain is always trying to run shortcuts, like what someone sounds like and what the form of the body is.
WCT: Regarding your queerness, who was the first person you came out to?
CH: That's a great question. So I think I accidentally came out to my own parents when I was 7 or 8. A lot of my adoptive uncles were queer, and we were at Uncle Martin's place. So his boyfriend gives him a kiss, and my mom saw that I noticed. She said that "Uncle Martin only likes boys." I went, "Oh, that's dumb. You have to like everyone. That's the only way."
Three or four years later, I was dating this girl at school and I told my mom I was gay. She said, "Oh, we knew the whole time. So you take her upstairs and leave the door open a crack." [Interviewer laughs.] And all the people in our little groupwhether or not they were queer-presenting at the timeare now trans, nonbinary, gay, drag queens or drag kings; we just organically found each other.
WCT: I've asked several people this question: For you, what is it like to be part of the queer community in today's America?
CH: Hmmm … fascinating. It's scary, manespecially because I'm also Canadian. I'm here by request, so there are good and bad things about that. I know that if things get really bad, I think I'll be okay, because I can go hide. But it also means that if they're sick of me, I can be shipped off, so there's not a lot of security.
It helps to think that this is not my culture. Canada has its own problems but we generally do a good job of "love who you love." I performed at a wedding in Calgary because, at the time, Canada was the only place where same-sex marriage was allowed; that was the first time I realized, "Oh, we have it good here, and it's not like this in America." Then, when I married my wife and I started traveling, an Uber driver would say something like, "Ohso where's your boyfriend?" And her name was "Jamie," which is a gender-neutral name, so I wouldn't correct them.
I'm very straight-passing and have long hair, but not everyone has that option. A lot of people don't have the security that I do. However, once this driver asked me about my boyfriend and I said, "I have a girlfriend." There was a long silence and I thought I was going to get murdered. Then he asked me, "I think my daughter's gay. What should I do? We don't know how to tell her it's okay." I thought, "This is not where I thought this conversation was going to go."
Teatro Zinzanni's newest production, "Love, Chaos, and Dinner," is slated to run at the Cambria Hotel, 32 W. Randolph St.,, on Thursdays-Sundays through March 31, 2024. Tickets start at $119 each; visit www.ZinZanni.com/Chicago .