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Backstage With a Traveling Magician

This April Fools’ Day, we’re leaving the tricks to the professionals: Joshua Jay was crowned World Champion for Close-Up Magic at just seventeen years of age. Since then, he’s performed in more than 80 countries, appeared regularly on national television, authored a pair of best-selling books, headlined Hollywood’s celebrated Magic Castle, and co-founded Vanishing Inc. Magic. His talent for close-up magic — intimate prestidigitation using ordinary objects — has impressed major celebrities, heads of state, and a certain hotel booking website.

We sat down with him to discuss the changing landscape of magic, his feelings about the Davids Blaine and Copperfield, and how he stays sane while traveling an average of nine months a year.

We’ve never covered magic in these pages before, so let’s start with the big picture: what’s your take on the state of magic in 2017?

Magic is experiencing a second golden age, and that’s so exciting to me. The golden age of magic is understood to be the vaudeville era, 1890 to 1920 or so. There’s now another golden age happening, and I think the Internet has driven that. I also think the Internet has had some really negative effects on magic.

Wow, you’re good. That was our second question: what negative effects has the internet had?

When I did my first world tour, I was 17 years old, and I was stunned. It was so cool to go around the world and see how topological Japanese magic was, and how tango influenced Argentinian magic, and how French magic was just as you’d expect: flamboyant, and flashy, and smooth, a little bit show off-y. Now, because of the Internet, when we tour the world, we’re seeing phenomenal talent, but it’s all very much of the same style, because you can take your influence from anybody now.

We were in Bahrain a few days ago, and there were local magicians that showed up at my show doing my tricks back to me. That’s endearing and it’s amazing, but also, I can’t help but think what we’re missing by not having a Middle Eastern culture of magic on its own.

As a close-up magician, what do you think about the spectacle illusionists like David Copperfield?

When people think about magicians, they used to think about big stage illusions: Houdini, and Blackstone, and Doug Henning. And then David Copperfield made it even bigger. The tricks just became what we call mega-illusions, and more scale was the thing. These days, the trend has become more intimate and impactful. I’m lucky, because close-up magic is sought after all over the world now. People are seeing this hyper-realistic kind of magic, and I think it’s resonating more with this generation.

Do you see the trend continuing in that direction?

I think that the next transition will be from the raw trick, which is quite fashionable now, to storytelling. My magic is very personal; it’s influenced by the stories that have occurred in my life. I would love to see magic be more personality-driven instead of the “look here, watch this, check this out” that’s so popular at the moment.

Joshua Jay

Joshua Jay

Speaking of personalities, where does David Blaine fit in to the evolution of magic?

The big sea change with reactions owes a debt of gratitude to David Blaine, because his magic special turned the cameras from the magician to the spectators. If you watch magic on TV before him and after him, it’s shocking because he had the insight to turn the cameras on the spectators going crazy and flipping out. It’s what he’s famous for. In a way, that trained people to behave that way, which is really amazing.

It’s one of those ideas that seems so obvious in hindsight.

The College of New Jersey did this far-reaching magic study, and I was the consultant on it. We asked audience members: what do you like best and least about magic? It turns out people don’t want to see magicians sawing a lady in half, linking rings, tricks they’ve seen or they feel they’ve seen a million times. They want to see new things. That shocked me, because in our industry, it’s always about the classics. You learn the classics to learn the skills; like playing scales.

That plays out in your favor, since you’re an inventor of sorts.

I invent tricks for a living — that’s essentially my main thing. I’ll often say I want to vanish a ring and make it appear in a sandwich, something like that. Maybe there have been rings in other locations, but I’ve got to figure out how to do that, and that’s really exciting to me.

Joshua performing for Ben Affleck

Joshua performing for Ben Affleck

As a creator of new tricks, how do you deal with intellectual property issues?

The ethics of magic are self-policed. There is no such thing, really, as copyrighting a magic trick (I mean, a few; Penn & Teller successfully did one). If your average magician invents the next great trick, there’s no protection to legally make sure that somebody doesn’t watch it at a show, figure it out, duplicate it, market it, and go around the world performing it. However, if somebody were to steal a trick, that person would be ostracized in our community. Magicians wouldn’t book that person, and that person wouldn’t want to show his face. They would be kicked out of the magic organizations. Nobody has to do anything in court, because it’s settled on its own.

Do magicians try to stump each other at parties?

Yes. I hold two gatherings for magicians that are just like something out of Hogwarts. We’ve got a dealer’s room, where 44 vendors are selling tricks with poofs of fire and all sorts of stuff. Late into the night, four or five in the morning, magicians are doing tricks at each other, trying to one-up each other. I had the privilege of being on Fool Us with Penn & Teller: I, in fact, fooled them, which was a huge honor.

Have you ever had a trick go wrong in front of an audience?

I’m asked this question so much. Magicians have to have A, B, C, D, E, and F plans. So many things can go wrong, and the solution to the problem might go wrong, and so on. All I can say is I hope that it doesn’t look like something’s gone wrong. I have problems often on stage. We all do. But they’re not problems people always perceive, even somebody like my wife, who sees the show every single night. It’s thinking on your feet, like jazz music.

Joshua performing a trick for a live audience

Joshua performing a trick for a live audience

Your wife, Anna Kloots, is also your assistant. What’s the traveling magician’s life like for both of you?

Every day I wake up, it’s different. I’ll give you just the most recent examples, the last five weeks: I started with a show in London. Then I went to Blackpool for the largest magic festival in the world. Then, three days later, I flew to Bali, where I picked up a cruise ship. We work two cruise ships a year. My wife met me there, and we went through Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and ended in Singapore. From there, we flew to Bahrain, where I was a keynote speaker at a teacher’s conference.

It’s really, really, really unusual to wake up and know that I’m going to be doing something different almost every day. Life on the road becomes home. I live out of my suitcases, and my wife and I travel together almost always. Home is where the two of us are.

Do you plan to continue touring or would you prefer to develop a single performance base, like a Vegas residency?

It’s great doing so many different things. I hope that won’t stop. I don’t want to be pushed into the same thing all the time. I’m sure that it’s held me back in some ways and has been a real advantage in others. Who knows? If we have a family later on, maybe that will change, but for the moment, I’m really happy the way it is.

You’ve traveled the world. What are some of your most memorable experiences?

I’ve been so lucky. I’ve gone to 87 countries. We keep track with an app. A recent trip that just absolutely stunned me was Tibet. I think I was the first American magician to do a public show in Tibet, and that was really cool. I did a trip to Africa three years ago where I went gorilla trekking in Rwanda. We did two weeks of safari in Tanzania and Kenya, Maasai Mara, and I agree with what so many people say, it’s life-changing. France holds a special place for me, because I went to school for a year there.

Probably my favorite thing to do is to be able to integrate the travel that we do and the experiences we have into tricks. That’s something I’m always looking out for.

If you’d like to look out for more Joshua Jay, you can visit his website: http://www.joshuajay.com/
Joshua’s wife Anna is also an accomplished travel blogger. Her site is: http://www.traveloutsidethebox.net/

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