It was a Sunday evening, and Ken Scott’s audience was spellbound. Parents and children were oohing and ahhing as he delivered a string of miracles.
A wave of the hand over a Statue of Liberty postcard and the statue vanished. A Crunch bar morphed into a Rubik’s Cube that was solved in a flash. And a spectator’s chosen card was found without Mr. Scott even handling the cards.
Next he asked a boy and his mother to help, displayed a yellow luggage tag and said he would send their pet on an imaginary trip anywhere they want. The boy volunteered his dog’s name (Louie), a flight number (116), and a destination (New York City). Mr. Scott instantly opened the tag to show those exact things written on it.
“Oh my God!” the boy said, smiling. “I can’t believe it,” his mother said.
It was especially impressive considering, thanks to the more prosaic magic of Zoom, Mr. Scott was in Atlanta and his audience was miles away from each other. The show was filmed in his basement studio and streamed in real time. Whether the 54 people tuning in were seeking a sense of normalcy in isolated and disconnected times, or just couldn’t figure out that last trick, they were applauding from living rooms and kitchen tables in North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, California and Georgia.
As the coronavirus snuffed out live entertainment, magicians, like so many others, have been forced to adapt, trading traditional in-person performances for virtual shows. The shift has been particularly jarring for people of this specialty, who’ve long argued that magic is best experienced in person.
“I think a lot of guys were realizing they had no backup plans,” said Stephen Bargatze, 65, the president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, the largest organization devoted to the practice. (Only about 500 of its more than 14,500 members are women, but he said that number is growing.) “This idea that something like this could happen never entered their minds.”
Mr. Bargatze has worked as a magician for more than 40 years. All of his shows including a planned tour with his son, the comedian Nate Bargatze, 41, were canceled earlier this year.
Mr. Bargatze said the majority of his group’s members are amateurs or are fortunate enough to have other sources of income besides magic, like a pension or day job. The crisis facing full-time magicians is unprecedented.
“It’s a scary, scary time right now,” he said. “We’re doing whatever we can to pay the bills and hoping it turns out OK at the beginning of the year.”
From Card Work to Yard Work
Mr. Scott used to make a living performing 200 to 300 shows a year, mostly for schools and libraries in his area. One morning in mid-March he was walking offstage after a school show when he checked his phone and realized every email in his inbox was a request for cancellation.
“That all came to a big screeching halt,” he said. “I literally saw my calendar just disappear.”
Alexander Boyce, a dapper 23-year-old magician in Brooklyn who favors reinterpreting classics of magic, was performing 350 shows a year, mostly corporate performances and at “Speakeasy Magick,” a show in the McKittrick Hotel in Manhattan in far West Chelsea. But the show closed, and his corporate work dried up.
“That all went away very quickly,” Mr. Boyce said. “And like everybody else I expected to just kind of take some time to work on some new material and rehearse alone and enjoy a few weeks off and jump right back into things.”
Shawn Farquhar, 58, was crisscrossing the globe up to 285 days a year, mainly performing in 1,250-seat theaters on Disney cruise ships. He traveled so much that he received Christmas cards from pilots. But last fall he traded the long stretches away for his own theater in Vancouver.
In mid-March, Mr. Farquhar was in Las Vegas for a spot on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us.” The next day, back in Canada, he entered a two-week quarantine at his home. Things came to a dead stop. He reluctantly closed his theater. With little to-do, he traded his suit and deck of cards for bluejeans and yard work.
Along with Mr. Farquhar, magicians everywhere were realizing in-person events wouldn’t be returning soon and approached virtual shows with varying degrees of enthusiasm and equipment; setups ranged from a computer and webcam to elaborate makeshift studios.
Mr. Scott was already teaching magic classes to children after school and decided he could continue the classes and avoid issuing refunds by going virtual. He was able to salvage about a third of his normally lucrative summer library show business with virtual shows.
He borrowed some equipment and bought the rest, transforming his basement office into a studio complete with lights, cameras and green screen. There was a significant amount of trial and error; during an early show the sound cut out. He added a person to run the computer, redeveloped his show and slowly began doing birthdays, office “parties” and public shows.
“I’m doing some virtual shows, but it’s definitely not what it was,” Mr. Scott said. “Obviously I want to go back to work full time.”
Mr. Boyce hadn’t thought of doing virtual shows until a corporate client he’d worked with previously asked him to do one. The response was so positive that he decided virtual could work.
He “MacGyvered” a studio in his apartment complete with lighting, backdrop, multiple cameras and a computer. He uses a switching software so he can run the setup on his own. With employees stuck home and restaurants and Broadway shut down, corporate clients he’d worked with began turning to him to spice up their virtual events or impress business associates.
Mr. Farquhar turned to virtual magic out of boredom. Homebound and desperate to perform for an audience, he arranged a free Facebook Live show. He committed to an hour, thinking he could adapt existing material. He was struggling after 15 minutes.
“I realized I was talking to a green light on a camera and there was no interaction,” he said. “It wasn’t Zoom, it was just me talking and trying to keep an energy up.”
He found not being able to interact with an audience in real time to be “soul-sucking.” He tried Instagram Live, but he soured on that too. It wasn’t until a friend recruited enough paying customers for a Zoom show that Mr. Farquhar changed his mind. There were stumbling blocks, like keeping people engaged and dealing with dozens of audio and video feeds. But when he learned he could interact with the audience, he developed a dedicated virtual show.
Jason Michaels, 45, of Nashville, had previously kept busy with college and corporate shows, as well as tours performing magic for military families domestically and overseas. “I kind of got in my head I don’t think magic works in a virtual setting,” he said. “It’s already hard to sell a magic show just in a normal economy.”
But after months without work, Mr. Michaels hit a low point over the summer. He worried that after 17 years he’d have to join the ranks of magicians who take day jobs to pay the bills.
After encouragement from several colleagues, Mr. Michaels invested in some equipment, put together a studio in his office and redeveloped his magic into two separate shows, one — a demonstration of superb card manipulation — just for entertainment and a second that incorporated an educational component. The trickle of income has helped keep him going.
Kayla Drescher, 30, a magician in Los Angeles, was also reluctant to join the rush to virtual. Ms. Drescher spent the last three years touring with “Champions of Magic,” a five-person theater show. Her close-up card manipulation was done in front of a camera and projected onto a screen. But she said her high-energy performance style is heavily reliant on audience interaction, which can be difficult during a virtual show.
“For me, doing shows through a screen just doesn’t have that level of satisfaction, but it also doesn’t have that level of satisfaction to an audience,” she said.
To supplement her income, Ms. Drescher began teaching magic online, including a summer camp program and a magic date night for couples akin to a sip and paint class in sweatpants. She willingly agreed to virtual shows for children’s hospitals and other charities. But she has not marketed them to new customers.
“My fear is that they’re going to see me as just a Zoom magician and they won’t then book me in person,” she said. “No matter how fancy the camera is or how hard you work, there’s no way the show over a Zoom is going to be the same live.”
The Form Transforms
Magic — the ability to make people believe something that isn’t true — has long been an in-person contest between the conjurer’s finely honed skills and the spectator’s untrained eyes. Add a camera to the mix and everything changes.
“When you come see me and I pull a solid ring through your finger, it’s a totally different experience than me pulling a ring through my finger,” Garrett Thomas said. “Magic is meant to be experienced.”
In addition to traveling for shows, Mr. Thomas, 43, performed his brainy sleight-of-hand at bars and restaurants in the Buffalo area. That work has quickly faded, but Mr. Thomas, who has consulted for David Blaine, took a few months to figure out the best way to design a virtual show.
“Most magicians I see just kind of took their show and tried to put it on Zoom,” he said. “And that works to some extent.”
But Mr. Thomas took a step back to reimagine what a virtual show could allow him to do. The central challenge he faced was how to convince a virtual audience that what they were seeing on the screen was genuine. He couldn’t have a spectator pick any card from a deck or use a borrowed dollar bill to show it was ordinary.
In television these challenges are addressed by including a live audience or spectators to act as a stand-in for the viewer, he said. Even then, people often assume C.G.I. or camera tricks are used. For Mr. Blaine’s television specials, Mr. Thomas said the programs were presented almost as documentaries about people enjoying magic, because there was no way to convince the viewer what they saw was a genuine illusion as opposed to television trickery.
Mr. Thomas concluded that the best option was to take advantage of the opportunity presented by performing virtually. Camera angles, lighting and optical illusions can be employed and manipulated. Many of the effects in his 45-minute virtual show couldn’t work in person.
“I want to remind people that just because you see it on a video doesn’t mean it happened that way,” he said.
John Wolfson, 31, of Rochester, N.Y., was skeptical of virtual shows, but became excited by the possibilities and challenges of performing remotely.
“We quickly decided that this could not be my regular show just put in front of a camera,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to have any instances where I was explaining away or apologizing for the format.”
In a show marrying the energy of “Blue’s Clues” with the whimsy of Bob Ross, a playful Mr. Wolfson makes a bowling ball appear from an empty bag and rhymes his way through a mystifying trick in which a rope is cut and restored. At one point he makes a pen vanish from his hands, showing them empty. Up his sleeve? He pulls his sleeve up to reveal his arm erased from wrist to elbow, his hand floating in midair. Later, his arm back to normal, the pen reappears in his mouth.
With the benefit of a green screen, Mr. Wolfson brought his audience around the world and included a mix of traditional magic with tricks that wouldn’t be possible in person. He’s working on a new show with more green screen and special effects. He said he wants to ask a copy of himself to pick a card.
Mr. Farquhar finally reopened his theater, Hidden Wonders, in a new space in late summer. The speakeasy-style site is hidden by an ordinary-looking curio shop. Guests learn the address after buying a $50 ticket. That doorknob on a shelf? Put it in the right spot and the hidden door opens.
Local guidelines in Vancouver allowed Mr. Farquhar to begin weekend shows with 12 people in the 30-seat space. He’s preparing to roll out a hybrid show that will include the audience physically in the theater and a few dozen virtual patrons. Both will be able to see each other on a large screen. And he’ll be able to pick volunteers from either audience.
He said he designed the show to be interactive; the audience chooses the direction of the show and magic by selecting items from a cabinet. It’s all meant to keep the audience’s attention, especially the virtual audience.
“You have to find a way to engage them and keep them engaged while you’re doing it because they can easily be distracted by a thousand things in the room,” he said.
Unfortunately, most magicians don’t have the resources to invest in large-scale shows. Mr. Bargatze said the prospect of investing thousands of dollars in the equipment necessary to create a presentable show has deterred many magicians from going virtual, especially older magicians.
He said entertainers have a responsibility to not endanger their audience’s health, but that most magicians have used virtual shows just to stay afloat and are eager to return to live performances. He’s heard from magicians who have returned to smaller, socially distanced venues in areas with low infection rates. He said he’s started doing a handful of school shows, with hand sanitizer, face masks and smaller groups of students.
Though they can’t perform the ultimate trick of making the coronavirus disappear, magicians hope and expect there’ll be a significant amount of pent-up demand for their trade after the pandemic fades.
“Magic thrives when people are at their worst because people at their worst need hope,” Mr. Farquhar said. “And that’s what magic is.”