Andrew Basso enjoys living life on the edge and is happy if we choose to live vicariously through him.
"We all want to feel adrenaline. We all want to do things that give us a rush," Basso, a world-renowned escape artist, said last week in a phone interview. "But sometimes (the public) wants to do it safely, so we watch crazy, dangerous things through the eyes of someone who is actually doing it."
Basso is the guy doing it much to the delight of audiences on the current U.S. tour of "The Illusionists" — starring a group of the world's leading magicians — which will visit Hershey Theatre on Oct. 3-4.
Basso has been called "the escapologist," "the latter day Houdini" and "the rock star of magic" for stunts like escaping a car before it careens down a mountain, and escaping a coffin rigged with explosives.
If you've got a ticket to one of the Hershey shows, you will have an unobscured view of his signature routine: the Houdini Water Torture Cell.
Basso is handcuffed and lowered upside-down into a narrow, glass water tank. His feet stick out of padlocked lid. Armed with nothing but a bobby pin, he picks the locks and emerges from the tank. In one popular YouTube video of the stunt, he is underwater for just over 3 minutes.
Basso said he has to be completely zoned out before the stunt and cannot allow an adrenaline rush, which would be detrimental.
"My job is to be completely out of this world," he said. "It's the moment when I need to be focused on my breath-holding, my heartbeat. When I enter the tank, I need to feel that I'm going into a separate universe. And then I will 'come back' when I get out of the tank."
While he talks about his fascination with "crazy, dangerous" stunts, there is nothing crazy about Basso. Born and raised in Italy, Basso is personable, polite and engaging.
He talks affectionately about his small hometown of Borgo Valsugana, located between Milan and Venice in northern Italy.
"I was in a beautiful place with mountains and lakes," he said.
He also talks nostalgically about getting interested in magic when he was 7 years old and recently meeting the man who inspired him as a child.
"I got touched by magic when I was a little kid. I had the dream, and I never gave up my dream. And it's still my dream," Basso said. "In the beginning, I was fascinated by the circus. I remember the first time I walked in the circus tent with my parents. For me, it was an amazing experience seeing this colorful world where people were having fun, and artists with unusual skills."
But it was an amateur magician named Mauro who put Basso on his career path.
"It was a magician I saw that really got me intrigued and made me decide this is what I want to do," he said.
Just last month, Basso had a chance to meet Mauro.
"I managed, after 20 years, to find out who this magician was, and I had the chance to meet him," Basso said. "It was fascinating. It was like closing a circle. He never did magic as a profession, but I wanted to tell him how much influence he was when I met him. It changed my life. I wanted to let him know that what I'm doing today, touring the world with the best magic show around, is because of him."
Like any kid interested in magic, Basso started out with card tricks and a magic kit. But in his teen years, he was drawn to escape artists and risky stunts.
"I was very fascinated with the idea of doing something dangerous," he said. "When you step into that age — maybe 14, 15 — you're kind of attracted by the dangerous stuff, and things your mother doesn't want you to do."
That latter comment emits a laugh, but Basso turns serious when recalling the time he had to confront his fears head-on: his first daredevil stunt at age 17.
Basso was placed in a trunk, chained and locked, and submerged in the cold waters of a lake in Italy.
"When you meet the fear of something, it is you and yourself," he said. "Nobody can really help you in that moment. It's a very interesting process when you have a chance to know more about yourself."
That propelled him into a world that few visit: escapalogy. Basso surrounded himself with good people and became an expert in the field.
"After Houdini, nobody really came through and tried to keep up with escapalogy as a specific field. You have to try it on yourself and find your limits and try to defy your limits," he said. "I've been lucky to meet the few people in the world who have the knowledge to teach me about it. It requires a lot of different skills — not just the skills of a showman, but the skills of an endurance artist, a physical artist, like an athlete, to control breath holding, the control of your heartbeat, lock-picking skills."
Basso hopes that his audiences are entertained, but he also hopes that they find something much deeper in the performances.
"There are many messages ... If you believe in your dreams and put all your effort into it — it doesn't matter if you're from a little town — if you trust your dream, you can achieve it," Basso said. "I come from a tiny town in Italy where nobody knows what show business is.
"The other thing that I bring on stage is that I'm doing a stunt that is a death-defying stunt, and I hope I can bring people to think that fears can be overcome," he said. "Anything we are scared of or afraid of can be in life. You don't need a water tank. The water tank is a symbol. It's symbolic; (the fear) can be anything."