The business of magic: Keep tricks close to vest

By Gigi Wood

There will be no top hat, no rabbits, no sawing people in half, no glam-rock spandex.

On April 8, audience members at the Englert Theatre in downtownIowa Citywill be entertained by a different type of magic. Twenty-eight-year-old Nate Staniforth, who is in the midst of a national tour, will return to the town were he got his start, to perform one of the most important shows of his career.

“We’re bringing in a camera crew and it’s going to be a potentially huge night for me,” he said. “If this succeeds, it will be unlike any other magic special that’s been filmed before. If it doesn’t, it will be sufficiently similar to everything that’s been done before that it just won’t go anywhere.”

The new video will attempt to capture the audience’s reactions to magic illusions to better connect home audiences to filmed performances.

“You get to see that naked, exposed participation and engagement of the audience on camera,” he said. “We’re bringing in some of the best cinematographers from the area to capture the event from the point of view of the audience.”

Cameras will also film Mr. Staniforth’s performance.

“My hope is that this form will succeed in communicating that feeling of being there even though you’re watching it on your computer screen or TV,” he said. “That I’ll be able to break down that barrier that so often separates the stage magician from the home viewer. I don’t know if it will work; it’s an experiment.”

Magical background

Mr. Staniforth grew up in Ames, where at age 10, he learned about the life of Harry Houdini for a book report and was amazed by the illusions Mr. Houdini performed. Mr. Staniforth began teaching himself magic tricks and decided to steal all of the books related to sleight of hand from the public library. That way, no one else could perform the tricks he amazed his friends with during recess.

“At age 10, having this thing that no one else knows how to do is just this amazing feeling; it’s like actually having magic powers,” he said. “To cause people to erupt into delight and scream and run around, it’s the greatest part of my job, being able to show people something that causes their rational process to fail.”

He returned the books to the library in an unmarked box when he graduated from high school.

He came to the University of Iowa on a theater scholarship, where he spent his days learning how to perform from his professors and his nights entertaining audiences at bars and often at Public Space One, when it was located above the Deadwood bar in downtown Iowa City.

“I got a far better education performing at frat parties and sorority get-togethers and performing events;Iowa Cityreally has so many opportunities for the young performer to just get in front of people,” he said. “Performing in bars is not fun, necessarily, but when you learn how to deal with an inebriated, drunk audience as a 19-year-old, it makes theater audiences a lot easier to deal with. Iowa City gave me a great education as a performer, but it wasn’t necessarily through the theater department.”

He learned to master new tricks and illusions, but he also learned how to work a room.

“There’s a world of difference between being able to perform magic tricks and having an audience believe in them,” Mr. Staniforth said. “Magic tricks are easy. Making people feel it in a way that matters to them is a lot harder. Often that comes down to your ability as a communicator and a performer.”

In 2006, he filmed his first, sold-out, performance at the Englert Theatre.

“I used all of the momentum I had gotten from four years of performing inIowa City and spent everything I had and sold everything. Everything I had went into hiring this great camera crew to film the show. It was one of those deals where it was going to be a smash-success or the most expensive home video of all time,” Mr. Staniforth said.

He used the resulting video to promote his work and convince venue operators that his performances are different from the stereotypical magician’s. It worked. Because of the stigma attached to attending magic shows, most magicians perform for private parties and other events, rather than attempting to tour, he said.

“When you’re in a band, you record your songs and put them on iTunes and put them on a CD and it’s really easy to get your work out there,” he said. “As a magician, it’s a lot more difficult, because unless you’re doing magic live for people, it just doesn’t translate, unless you’re really careful about how you put it on film.”

Because smart phones allow audience members to download videos explaining magic tricks during shows, Mr. Staniforth invents his own tricks. Audience members sometimes film his shows and watch them repeatedly to discover the secrets.

“And whatever the secret is has to be invisible to the camera’s eye,” he said. “They’re magic tricks; they’re not Voodoo miracles, so it’s not entirely impossible to figure them out. The goal is to convince them that they don’t want to do that.”

Brush with fame

Soon after his first Englert performance, well-known illusionist David Blaine took notice of his work. Mr. Blaine’s staff couldn’t solve one of Mr. Staniforth’s illusions they found on a YouTube video. It was an illusion Mr. Staniforth spent six years creating. He plans to perform “The Lottery Trick” during his April show at the Englert.

Mr. Blaine used the illusion once during a television special.

“I didn’t want to sell it to him because then it would be his instead of mine, so we worked out an agreement where he could use it and I would teach it to him but it would still be my trick,” Mr. Staniforth said. “You can’t patent magic tricks because then you have to explain how they’re done. So it’s just these agreements between people.”

David Blaine is a longtime idol of Mr. Staniforth. When “David Blaine: Street Magic” first aired in 1997, it had an impact on Mr. Staniforth’s career and the way he viewed magic as an industry.

“I’ve never felt that way about anything before,” Mr. Staniforth said. “A lot of musicians cite the Clash or the Velvet Underground or one of these really formative experiences, where they take home the album and put it on and it speaks to them in a language they’ve never heard before. That’s howBlaine’s special was for me.”

The show featured Mr. Blaine walking aroundNew York Citywith a deck of cards performing simple sleight of hand tricks.

“There was just something about stripping all the bullshit of magic,” he said. “Magic got stuck in its glam-rock phase for a long time, and Blaine was the first guy to kind of strip all of that excess away. Why put on a tuxedo and dance around in spandex when you can just move people so viscerally?”

After college, Mr. Staniforth found an agent and he now spends seven months of the year touring the country and performing and his off-time developing new tricks.

“When you’re a magician, you’re basically a small business owner and having someone else say, ‘I’ll take care of all the selling, you just focus on being a really good magician,’ definitely made my life easier,” he said.

When not touring, he can be found in the workshop of hisIowa Cityhome perfecting illusions and spending time with his wife, who works as a nurse at UI Hospitals and Clinics.