Chicago’s renowned Magic Cabaret grew out of a desire to perform smart magic in an intimate setting. In 2007, magicians P.T. Murphy and David Parr were inspired to “create a place where people could experience magic the way it's meant to be experienced — not on a TV screen and not in a tiny window on YouTube,” says David Parr. Since then, the two have more then met their goal. Their Magic Cabaret delivers a weekly live magic show to eager Chicago audiences. Parr spoke with Our Town about how to personalize an illusion, the meaning of “Chicago Style” magic, and what real magicians think of David Blaine.
Our Town Historically, what’s Chicago’s link to magic?
David Parr Many prominent magicians have lived and worked in the Windy City. At one time, there were five magic shops in the downtown area. But what is most significant about Chicago is that it was the birthplace of a new style of magic. Matt Schulien, a mountain of a man with a boisterous sense of humor, was the chief pioneer of this style. In his bar and restaurant, Matt performed magic up close, on the bar top or at the dinner table, and the audience was an important part of the show. What magicians called "the Chicago style of magic," in which the performance was not a spectator sport but a shared experience, spread throughout the world. The big touring magic shows have gone the way of the dodo, but Chicago-style close-up magic is still thriving in every corner of the globe — and at The Magic Cabaret on Wednesday nights.
OT As a magician, who are your influences?
DP I was seven years old when I started reading books about magic and learning basic sleight of hand. I saw Doug Henning about five years after, first on TV and later in his live show. Watching Doug enchant an entire audience made me realize that magic was something one could do as a full-time occupation, something one could devote one's life to. One could become a magician. I could become a magician. The key to Doug's ability to connect with audiences was sincerity. His "magic is all around us, nothing is impossible" persona wasn't a put-on. That's who he was. It didn't matter if that came across as a bit kooky. What mattered was that we could sense it was genuine. I also appreciated that his shows — even his live shows — always included close-up magic, which I knew required serious dedication and practice. Ray Bradbury was another big influence, one of my childhood heroes. At around the same time as I was getting into magic, I encountered Bradbury's writing — The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The October Country, The Martian Chronicles. Those books, those stories, were so important to me. Bradbury wrote about the fantastic with such clarity and directness that it became believable. These days, I'm an editor for a magic magazine and I write scripts for my shows, and I honestly think that much of what I know about writing was learned from reading Ray Bradbury's books.
OT You’ve written two books about magic, can you talk about what inspired you to do that and what the books entail?
DP I'm fascinated by the creative process, which often happens on an intuitive level that's invisible and mysterious. It's a bit like magic in that way. Where do ideas come from and how do they grow? Writing a book for magicians was a way for me to take apart my creative process and examine it from new angles. There's that old saying, "We learn by teaching. By teaching other magicians some of the material I've created and performed over the past couple of decades, I was able to see my work in a way I'd never seen it before. I learned some interesting things about the way my mind works and what motivated some of the creative choices I've made. And I hope that reading about it will encourage other magicians to examine their own creative process and develop an understanding of how it works.
OT How do you make an illusion distinctly yours?
DP Magic, to me, is not only a way to share an experience of mystery, it's also a means of self-expression. Everything I perform conveys information about who I am. Many magicians have performed the effect in which a handful of salt vanishes without a trace. When I performed this effect in The Magic Cabaret, it was part of an explanation of how to kill a zombie, inspired by an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid. A magic effect is like a song that can be interpreted in many different ways by many different musicians. My aim, in choosing how to present a particular illusion, is for the people in my audience to get a sense of who I am as a person, not just as a performer.
OT How do you feel about magicians like Penn & Teller who reveal how tricks are done?
DP Penn & Teller care enough to place this sort of material in a theatrical context that makes sense and is satisfying in ways that go beyond the revealing of secrets. Others compensate for a lack of creativity and talent by using the revealing of secrets as a cheap and easy way to grab attention. There's an important difference between those two approaches. One requires thought and effort; the other requires nothing but a need for attention.
OT What about stunt magicians like David Blaine?
DP To my way of thinking, stunts are not magic. But they're a valid way to garner publicity, boost ratings, and sell advertising on TV. Blaine is a capable magician, so perhaps the focus on spectacle is based on the demands of modern television.
OT What’s the best part of performing in an ongoing series like The Magic Cabaret?
DP Magic can be practiced in front of a mirror. It can be rehearsed in an empty room. But a significant part of the development process can only happen when the magic is performed in front of an audience. After that, the material grows and evolves in ways that couldn't have been predicted or forced. Some of the magic I'm currently performing wouldn't have had a chance to grow without a place where I could try it out and refine it, week after week, in collaboration with audiences. Every one of those shows is an opportunity for me to share the experience that sparked my imagination when I was a kid, and still occupies my imagination all these years later. That's the best part.
The Magic Cabaret runs Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. At The Greenhouse Theater Center.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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