Nate Staniforth became a magician when he was nine years old. At ten, he had an epiphany. He was the new kid at school and one day on the playground he gathered a group of classmates and made a coin disappear. The coin’s vanishing was so flawless, so convincing, so magical that the kids screamed in joy and terror. Thinking they had witnessed the supernatural, they fled. The school’s scariest teacher stormed over, demanding an explanation. Nate again made the coin disappear and the dragon’s face transformed from fury to wonder.
Nate, who hosted Discovery Channel's Breaking Magic, will make you believe. His new book Here is Real Magic details his life as a magician and purveyor of wonder. He is searingly honest about how initially the grueling demands of touring wore him out. One night, he was so drained that he wrote an agonized text to his wife Katharine detailing his burn-out … and accidentally sent it to the booker at his next gig.
He had to find a way back to his original inspiration, his desire to share awe and joy. But how could he bring that real magic to his audience when he’d lost it himself? Where in the world is real magic? The answer is “everywhere” but also “nowhere” if you’ve forgotten how to look.
In adulthood we become exhausted. We’re bombarded with obligations and distractions and insanities large and small. We suffer from a deficit of magic. All of us or at least most of us. Even magicians.
But Nate is not a person who lets his life leak away. He was intrigued by a book he’d read during a miserable night in a hotel room in Milwaukee. The book was about India’s magicians. Their three-thousand year-old traditions include cobras, breathing fire, levitation, blood and guts and miraculous resurrections and nothing that resembled Las Vegas.
Nate left for India. He would be chased down a riverbank by an enraged cobra and cornered by a one-armed monkey. But he also witnessed otherworldly feats, reverence for the spiritual side of magic and ways to incorporate those transcendent rays of wonder into his own act.
Later, he traveled to England to visit famed illusionist David Berglas. Berglas welcomed Nate into his home and asked him to state Katharine’s favorite flower. When Nate answered “Peonies,” peonies appeared, even blossoming layer upon layer in the garden. But that was not the end of the story.
You can get the behind-the-scenes scoop on Nate’s international adventures by reading his book Here is Real Magic. It is both wonderful and full of wonder. Come to SPACE in Evanston this Friday, February 16 to experience his magic in person.
Nate kindly spoke with me by phone about how he lights up the stage with real magic, the most amazing illusion he’s ever witnessed, and how to keep the wonder going on a daily basis.
Why a magician?
Teme: How did you decide to become a magician?
Nate: I remember being a little kid doing magic and thinking that the reactions I got from adults were incredible. I think every little kid looks at the adults around them and wonders how they became so stern. What happened to them?
These adults would watch a piece of magic and for a moment they became little kids again. It made that loss of whatever it is that we lose when we get older really visible and obvious.
I saw it everywhere. Teachers, parents, parents of friends and then in the audience when I started doing shows. I saw a transformation in the way people acted most of the time and the way they reacted once they saw a piece of magic. It was just impossible to ignore.
I felt like I had discovered this mystery. What is that loss? What do we lose with age and how do you get it back?
Teme: I look in the mirror and think, "What happened?" It’s like in adulthood there’s a descending cloud of grimness. But I love how you say in your book that you don’t just grow up once.
Nate: Yes. I don’t think you just grow up once. You can grow up again and again and again. That was an important thought for me. You don't get to choose when you grow up the first time, but you can choose to do it again on your own terms and to keep doing it.
It's easy to shrink your world down to the size of your certainties and your struggles. My favorite moments are those that pull me outside of that and remind me, "Look around you. Wake up, and really see."
Teme: What is an example?
Nate: I love looking at the night sky. I love watching sunrises and sunsets. It's more about how you look than where you look. You can find that sense of astonishment anywhere. It's a matter of remembering to look for it. But don’t limit those grand moments to sunrises or sunsets or the night sky. Those are the obvious places.
I'm excited about the idea of finding it everywhere and anywhere. Adults are very good at making things ordinary. I love it when you can see something as it is, not just as you assume it is. It's easier to say than do, but whenever I succeed the result is great.
Teme: How do you succeed? I think it's hard for adults.
Nate: In my own life I’ve noticed the seductive nature of patterns. It's easy to fall into the pattern of doing the same thing all the time. The way you travel to work, the things you eat, the things you do. We're all very good at making the world small and manageable. But there's something to be said for making a practice of pushing those boundaries on a regular basis.
My book was an exercise in that. I know all about getting up in front of an audience and doing a show. Even though a performance can raise its own set of challenges, that is a known problem for me and I know how to solve it.
The idea of writing a book was a fascinating and terrifying jump into a world that was completely unknown to me. All of a sudden I was in far over my head and that's disorienting and also, certainly, amazing.
What is real magic?
Teme: Your book’s title is Here is Real Magic. What does that mean?
Nate: The experience of magic is the process of waking up and seeing things the way you saw them before they became ordinary.
A great magician isn't telling you anything new. A great magician is reminding you of something you've known forever, but forgot in the daily business of living.
Teme: How did your show change after your travels in India?
Nate: I became far less worried about being an entertainer. When I came back from India I saw with absolute clarity that my job as a magician was to share the experience of wonder. A great magician creates wonder. That's the goal and the beginning and the end. Anything else is just wrapping paper.
Teme: And wonder is not just surprise. I like the way you distinguish the two in your book.
Nate: Yes. Surprise is easy. You can surprise someone at a haunted house. But wonder is this strange combination of fear and joy. The fear is easy to create, the joy is much harder.
Magic in bloom.
Teme: What is the most amazing magic trick that you've ever seen?
Nate: The most amazing magic I've ever seen is the peony illusion that David Berglas did when I went to visit him. I don't even know if it was an illusion. Maybe it was real. I still don't know how to think about that. It is just staggeringly impossible.
I've spoken with a number of other magicians about it. No one knows how to explain it, but they all seem to think it was some kind of an illusion. Normally as a magician, when you see a piece of magic you can understand how you would go about creating the illusion. This is the only piece of magic I have ever seen where I don't even know where to begin.
A part of me really wants to know because I'm a magician and I would love to give the experience to someone else. Part of me is very glad that I have one moment in magic that is just unassailably perfect.
Teme: In your book you talk about memorable audience reactions. Do you have a favorite of all time?
Nate: I would be dishonest if I didn't acknowledge that it's really fun making people jump and scream and yell and clap. But my favorite responses are when the audience doesn't do any of that, when they just sit there sort of stunned and silent. When that happens it's really special.
Teme: In your book you ask the question, “When was the last time you were truly amazed?” What would your answer be?
Nate: On Saturday I was performing in a theater for 750 people. It was the first time my two young children (ages five and two) have seen me perform. The show went well and I got a standing ovation at the end. My boys broke free from my wife Katharine and raced up the stairs to the stage and started bowing to the audience, too. They wanted to be part of it. That was the most amazing thing that's happened to me in a long time.
Nate's upcoming visit to Evanston.
Teme: What will happen at your show at SPACE? What will the audience experience?
Nate: It will be one of the strangest nights they've ever had. Every night is different. A lot of it depends on the venue and the energy of the audience. I can promise that it will be strange and unexpected.
Teme: Do you have a favorite illusion?
Nate: I have a couple of favorite pieces and I plan to perform some in Evanston. There's one, and I don't want to tell you which one - if you see the show I would be curious if you can guess - that I have been working on since I was sixteen and it has evolved and changed in so many different ways. SPACE will be something like my 2,300th show. If you do anything that many times, things will change and morph and grow and improve.
Teme: What draws you to an illusion?
Nate: The process of creating magic happens in different ways. My favorite is when you sit down and dream of something that would be totally impossible, some grand impossible vision that is so outlandish that there's no way you can make it work.
Then it becomes just like a logic problem. You brainstorm a hundred ideas and most of those ideas are terrible, but one of them is less terrible than the others and you pursue that.
There are pieces of my show that have taken a decade to get ready. It's a really long process. But I love when you dream up something in your imagination and drag it kicking and screaming into the world, however long that takes.
Teme: Wow. Thinking that way seems like a form of magic in its own right. I don’t think everyone has the capacity to do that.
Nate: That's kind of you to say although I think you'd surprise yourself. For me, creativity is an act of problem solving. The hardest thing is a blank page. First you define the parameters. Once you have a specific vision of what you're trying to create, then it's just a matter of solving a specific problem rather than of actually having to do the impossible.
If you knew that you had to make a brick levitate off the stage, what would you test? Is there a way to use an invisible wire? Or maybe it's not an actual brick, maybe it's filled with helium. You generate that long list of really bad ideas, then pursue the one that seems a little less terrible and eventually you work it out.
Teme: What is a typical day like for you?
Nate: Tour days are just crazy. Driving and flying and setting up and sound check and doing the show, and then packing up the show and usually driving a couple hours before sleeping somewhere and then doing it all again.
Then there are writing days. I thought it would take three months to write my book because I had never written a book before. Turns out it was more of a four year project. So writing days were just block off everything and go down to the basement and write. Sometimes my only progress would be deleting whatever I wrote the day before. When you write it's halting at best. Some days you make a lot of progress and some days none at all.
When I'm inventing magic there's a lot of trial and error. A lot of building prototypes, testing them and then revising and testing again and again. I'm wearing a lot of different hats right now. Performing and touring are very different skill sets than inventing magic, and writing is a very different skill set than either of those.
I feel really lucky because I have the freedom to move back and forth between those worlds. I have never found a way to do all of them at the same time and that's okay with me. I like that sometimes I'm only worried about writing and sometimes I'm only worried about performing and sometimes I'm only worried about inventing.
Bringing magic home.
Teme: You talk about finding magic in the every-day. Where is the most surprising place you’ve found magic?
Nate: Shadipur Depot [a poverty-stricken neighborhood in West Delhi]. It was the staggering difference between this terrible wasteland of a place and this beautiful, welcoming, kind family who lived there. Far more than the magic that they showed me, their very existence in that place, living in that way, was just knock down astonishing.
Teme: What is your parenting advice for helping kids retain their sense of wonder without allowing the weight of the world to wipe it out?
Nate: I think about that a lot with my own kids. They're so young that it's easy for them. Not that it's easy to be young, but it is easy to be amazed because you are new in this place.
I don't know that it's possible for anyone to prevent the weight of the world from crushing down. I think it’s just part of being an adult in our culture and maybe in all cultures. But I do very much hope that you can remember that that's not the end of your story. There's more than that out there. You can go back and find that sense of magic.
Nate Staniforth is at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston on Friday, February 16 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15-$25 and are available here.
Nate was on Windy City Live today! See it here.
His new series American Magic follows his Real Magic Tour across the country. Watch it here.
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