Magic and madness; Aiden Sinclair on the chilling history of Colney Hatch Asylum
At Aiden Sinclair's magic show, you won't see any bunnies pulled out of hats or ladies cut in half. Sinclair describes From a Padded Room: An Evening in Colney Hatch Asylum, which plays at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 8, at the Tattered Cover LoDo event hall, as an empathic journey back in time to the very real British asylum and the horrible practices that went on in its halls. Beyond the chilling entertainment, $5 from each ticket sold will go to support SafeHouse Denver, which provides emergency shelter, counseling and advocacy for survivors of domestic violence.
We caught up with Sinclair in advance of the show to learn about the history of Colney Hatch and his mission to raise awareness about domestic abuse.
Westword: How did the show come about?
Aiden Sinclair: The show came about by coincidence. A friend of mine in Cheyenne is a gentleman named Forrest King and he's an extremely talented artist. And the cool thing about him is all of his painting is really driven toward social issues that a lot of people don't talk about at all. So he did this painting that's called the "Battered Bride," and the first time I saw this painting it was extremely emotional. It's one of those things that's really hard to look at, but you can't look away at the same time.
Forrest King, "The Battered Bride."
So he had approached me about doing some magic at a benefit that he had, and as soon as he asked if I would do a benefit I said absolutely. It kind of struck me that normally when I perform magic for people the object of magic is the suspension of reality -- it's to take people away from the world and bring them into some imaginative creation that's somewhat impossible. Generally as a magician, for eighteen years I've been very happy to take people away from their problems. This, however, seemed like something that you needed to bring people to, not away from. And I thought it was important that if you have a bunch of people getting together to donate money to a cause, they should really be conscious of exactly what it is that they're donating to and that they're helping people.
So we stopped the show and took it off of production and went into pre-production of this show specifically for this cause. Just to raise money for safehouses. So that was the trick. How do you write a show about domestic violence and still have something that's entertaining, that people would want to sit down and watch?
What drew you to the history of Colney Hatch Asylum?
It's an extremely compelling history, and it's also amazing to me that here was this amazing place that from the outside looks like a Victorian estate, it's really gorgeous, the grounds look like the palace of Versailles, and then the most horrible things you can imagine went on behind those gates, inside those buildings.
Under English law up until about 1960 it was really easy for a man to have his wife committed. It basically took two signatures. One of them was a physician who could say that the lady was not of sound mind and body. She could be committed for far less than it would cost to get a divorce. It's extremely tragic. So we started to do some research, we thought that it would be cool to do some sort of dark show about an insane asylum. I really didn't know anything about the history of the asylums in the United Kingdom previous to that, but when we started to do research, it got really scary. We found out this particular institution housed 3,500 patients. It was built in 1851 and 75 percent of the population was women -- and it's determined that now, looking back at the records, it really looks like probably most of them had no mental illness whatsoever. You would see diagnoses like alcoholic dementia, which was probably the most common, and basically a guy would go to a physician and say that when his wife drank her personality changed so severely that he couldn't live with her. And that was enough.
That, alone, is terrible. If you can imagine it was just an innocent person who got in a relationship and for whatever reason that relationship didn't work out, and it was generally people of means who would do this. They were men who had money to pay the asylum bill, and they would have their wives committed. And it was usually without their knowledge or consent in any way.
What were the conditions of the asylum like?
Once [patients] were committed, they became wards of the state. This is a time when psychiatric therapy was extremely experimental. Electroshock therapy was just being invented. We actually have a video of it in a BBC documentary from the 1970s and there's no anesthetic being administered to this individual. It's really graphic and yucky stuff. So that really hit home, because it's domestic violence by abandonment. These guys didn't beat their spouses, but they just decided they wanted something new so they just abandoned them for life.
And once you were committed, you were committed until you died. The only person who could get you uncommitted was the guy who put you in, so we looked at case after case of guys who had their wives interned and then within five years they had died. One of the most graphic cases was a guy named Aleister Crowley. He's a very well-known occultist, very dark, spooky guy. And depending on whose stuff you wanna read, he's either one of the 500 most influential British writers or the most predominant image of the guy is one of the most evil people to ever live. He had two of his wives committed to the asylum, and his second wife, Maria, actually lived in the asylum for 35 years because he basically went on with his life and then he died, and once he was dead there was nobody to let her out.
How did you design the show?
We basically designed the show around this place and around the tragic tale of what happened to women in those days, and we take people on a very empathic trip back in time. It's not like any magic show that has ever really been done before. There are no card tricks, there are no bunnies out of hats, there is no traditional magic to it. We basically take those patient registries, hand them out to the audience, and we ask audience members to pick a patient. It's a free choice; these books have 500 different people in them, some of them are good, some of them are bad, and you basically will pick a person and become that person in your mind. You'll actually visualize what it would be like to be that person. And it's an extremely emotional experience for folks. It's really a neat show, mainly because it's not physical. It's very cerebral. It's exciting.
The first time we ever did it we presented at an art gallery in Cheyenne. We did four shows over a two day period and they were the most emotionally draining four days I think of my life. About 70 percent of the audience left in tears or visibly shaken. And not in a way that they were scared or anything, it just really struck them. And I wanted the show to have meaning but I was really unprepared for the response that I got, and that has been the consistent response.
What do you hope people take away from what you're doing?
When we do an interview or a radio piece now, it used to be about, you know, let's get people in the door so we can sell tickets and make money. And now the reality of what we do is that 90 precent of the people who read an article or hear us on the radio or TV are never gonna come to the show, but we see a call volume increase every time we do a media appearance at the SafeHouse. So that kind of tells us that just by raising awareness, we're able to get the word out. When we do a media piece like this, it can have an impact where it actually saves somebody's life. It's an indescribably powerful thing. So because of that we don't do other productions anymore. We actually stopped things that were more financially rewarding because this has become a lot more important. As an artist, it's an amazing thing to be able to actually still entertain people and do what I love to do, but also to be able to contribute to communities.
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