You have to know that it’s not possible for it to be beautiful
AN EXERCISE IN IMAGINATION WITH MAGICIAN ANDREW EVANS.
Andrew and I first met while attempting one of those escape-a-room games in Japantown. (We failed.)
Now we’re standing in front of the venue he’s renting, a commercial building he’s planning to convert into a stage for a magic show. We discuss the importance of forty-nine, a number imbued with extraordinary significance if you’re managing a venue: it’s the maximum number of seats you can have if you only have one ADA bathroom and only one fire exit. Pretty much any performance space you walk into in San Francisco is either a forty-nine-seat house, or a (roughly) ninety-seat.
We walk into the theater-to-be. The space has been empty for twenty months, and when the previous tenant left, everything was gutted, even the basic electrics. Andrew is wearing a headlamp and I’m carrying a flashlight he brought. He promises to point out the dangerous holes, as the wide wooden floorboards occasionally open up unmarked. For his venue search, Andrew had been working with a real estate agent, but ended up discovering this space himself. Conveniently, it’s only a few blocks from his apartment.
“I was excited that this was so unfinished,” he tells me, “because I knew I wanted to completely transform a space.” And it needs transformation: the walls are bare, the drywall ripped out, various wires and cords poke out rudely from the wall and floor. Even the door to the bathroom is gone. Even the plumbing. We discuss which parts of the renovation will fall under his purview and which are owed him by the landlord, who has to restore the building to something called “warm shell” condition. I am instantly enraptured by the phrase. When else does one desire a warm shell? As if we are cold slugs, house-shopping to become snails. We also discuss how code changes when you “puncture the building envelope.” Clearly, there are some poets trapped writing SF-city planning code.
Andrew’s current venue is a secret, a fictional Mission address that’s still findable when you know what to look for. And when you do, you end up in an alley that connects to an apartment that takes you to a backyard where you’re suddenly confronted with a vaudeville-style proscenium stage and lit-up sign proclaiming MAGIC PATIO. It’s beautifully executed and charming. All of these pieces that lead you in, we agree, matter. They change the way the audience experiences a show. If the show starts when the performer walks onstage, you’re starting cold. But if, as a performer, you can start to create the mood you want before the audience is in their seats, it’s going to be a totally different evening. It helps that Andrew is a designer (he has a day job at global design company IDEO) and puts his eye to the full experience. He was out of town when his roommates originally found the apartment, but when they took him on a virtual tour, he immediately thought, I could do magic out there.
There’s a lovely window storefront in the new space, and he’s already been through several iterations of what to do with it. One thing he knows is that he doesn’t want a giant sign screaming MAGIC PATIO. Instead, he’s interested in finding a way for the whimsy and the intrigue of the current speakeasy-style approach to continue into this more permanent, much less secret space. To get to the patio now, you walk through Andrew’s bedroom (though you’d never know it, as his Murphy bed is folded up into the wall). And during his senior year of college, he staged a recurring magic show for a month in his roommate’s temporarily vacated bedroom. So turning a non-magic space into something miraculous isn’t a new trick. Not a new trick for Andrew, not a new trick for magic: Andrew tells me that in the Victorians era, magic was often performed in a parlour.
Currently, the theater is a large, empty box of a room. He walks me through his planned layout for the space. Like any move, it’s an exercise in imagination. (“The wall would go to this plank, and then there’s another wall that intersects it right here.”) I follow him as though the path really existed. He explains to me how he wants to build the stage in a not-obvious part of the room, partially as a way to plan around the location of the bathroom.
I try to get him to tell me about what kinds of space modifications he’s planning that are specific to a magic show. Even a hint, I plead. But what he tells me instead is that one of his favorite things about his current space is the seeming simplicity of an outdoor magic show. “It feels like a found space in which the realities of weather and neighbors and not even having a grid, or a ceiling, makes it so innocent.” His voice drops: “And it is anything but. We have done so many things to make that space...” he pauses, “magically-inclined, let’s say, and no one thinks that could be possible.” So even though he’s excited by the prospect of a permanent, larger, completely above-board space, he’s also concerned, “because the second you move indoors, you’ve lost that layer of deception.”
I ask him if people often think that audience members he interacts with are plants. Bizarrely to me, it’s an impression that people not infrequently have at my (very unmagical) show. There just seems to be something about getting people up on stage that makes some people suspicious. To me, it seems to be a link between his illusory and my non-illusory work: it doesn’t matter what’s real, some people just don’t want to believe. Andrew says he doesn’t hear that very often. And then he gets mysterious on me: “I always want everyone to have the experience of wonder,” he says, “on every trick. But there are also some tricks where I do some things so that people have different experiences of wonder.” It’s very dark in this theater-to-be, but I’m convinced his eyes are twinkling.
And this brings us to the two audiences that are awful at magic shows. Children under a certain age are a terrible audience; they don’t know what’s impossible, and everything is already magic to them. More surprising to me, Andrew tells me that people who are high can be good at seeing through a trick. “For folks who are stoned, their mind is going, I’m just gonna get lost in this, the world is magic, right? But that’s actually when you start figuring it out. I’m designing these tricks with the knowledge that people are trying to figure them out. So the second somebody’s not in that mindset, they’re not picking up those cues, and then they’ve arrived at a completely different—and sometimes accurate—conclusion that no one else has.”
Andrew tells me that most magicians don’t design their own tricks. David Copperfield worked with a team. It’s common, and it’s not frowned on. It’s more like engineering, or design. “Or being a pop star,” I suggest. But it still kind of blows my mind. Andrew tells me that he performs both original tricks and tricks from other magicians.
Here’s an original trick I once saw Andrew perform: he made a handkerchief disappear into a lime, then the lime disappear into a lemon, then the lemon into an orange. Then he cut open the orange to reveal the lemon, the lemon to reveal the lime, the lime to reveal the handkerchief, then shook out the handkerchief to reveal a live bird, a parakeet. He bought it especially for that trick, and its name is Patty.
He tells me he hopes the new space will open in September. It doesn’t sound impossible. But I think it will be magical.—Margaret McCarthy