‘A collection of impossible moments’ – magician Josh Staley on the magic of magic
After winning the ‘Artistic Excellence Awards’ at last year’s Melbourne Magic Festival, Josh Staley is back at the 2018 festival with a brand new hour of fascinating close up magic. Moments in Time is a tense, playful show from one of the rising masters of magic. Josh kindly took the time to chat to Antonia Kent about what makes a good magic show, the intimacy and spontaneity of close up magic, and how he covers it up when it all goes wrong.
How did your interest in magic and illusion ﬁrst begin?
When my brother was much younger, he developed an interest in magic, and in the holidays used to go to the magic shop in the city. I’d come along and my Mum would buy me a couple ‘jokes’ like a whoopee cushion. Eventually, my brother moved on from his magic hobby, and become a Tri-athlete for Australia, and I got his hand-me-downs. In the holidays I continued going to the Magic store, but instead started buying tricks, and I’ve never looked back.
Where did the show title Moments in Time come from?
When I think about memories, specifically memories of seeing magic, I don’t think we generally remember the entire trick, just a moment. No one ever talks about the entire routine, its just the thing that stands out for them: “the magician pulled a coin out of my ear when I was little” or “My signed card was in HIS WALLET!”. Everyone remembers those impossible moments in time, and that is what the show is about, a collection of impossible moments.
What aspect have you found most challenging working in this industry?
I think ﬁnding your voice is very difficult in any art form. Its really easy to watch our heroes, our inspirations perform, and think “I want to be just like them”. The problem is, often people do become just like them, in the sense that everyone is doing the same tricks, with the same jokes, the same mannerisms and movements. Finding what makes you unique, what makes you original and interesting is really a challenge in life, and its amplified in this industry. Being able to come up with original material is extremely difficult, especially with the temptation of being able to use other people’s, when it already exists, and is proven to work. However, I think the audience can tell when something isn’t truly ‘you’. For anyone who’s seen me perform, or comes to see this show, I’m very high energy, I never take anything too seriously, and I want my shows to be fun, memorable and amazing, so if I tried to do something very somber and slow, it just wouldn’t come across correctly.
What do you ﬁnd most rewarding or enjoyable?
I know this is cliche, but I really do love being able to have such an impact on people’s lives, and be able to make them smile, or laugh, and really blow them away. For most people, they might see one or two magicians in their life, so it’s really important to me that if I’m going to be one of those two magicians, I make sure I leave them with the most incredible experience possible. It’s not just about fooling them, but entertaining them, ensuring that they have the most positive, fun experience possible.
What are some of the most important qualities you think a magic show needs to have?
I think magic is super subjective. Some people love to go see someone on stage, swallowing razor blades and regurgitating them, where as other people love death-staring a magician as they shuffle the deck and then cut to the four aces. Although those are two completely different experience, what they have in common is making the audience feel something. Whether it’s fear or anxiety, hoping the magician escapes from whatever death trap they’re in, and then relief and joy when they ﬁnally do, or the need to erupt in laughter after a magician does something funny, it’s connecting with people, and I think that’s what is most important, beyond the tricks. Tricks are a given, you go to a magic show, you expect amazing magic, but I think the good magicians can go beyond the tricks, and I think the best magicians don’t need the tricks at all, they’re just a bonus.
Do you ﬁnd you need to move around a lot for your profession?
Yes and no. It all depends on what your aspirations are, and where you want to perform. Obviously, we have very few ‘big stages’ like you might ﬁnd in Las Vegas, and no real theatre district like Broadway or West End. However, the style of magic I love most, close up, they’re is an abundance of opportunities. Being able to perform for an audience close enough that they can reach out and touch what ever you’re holding brings completely new challenges, but also new possibilities, and that’s what Moments in Time is all about. I’m performing it in a custom designed theatre, for a small, intimate audience, because thats where I believe magic shines. Being able to interact with each and every spectator personally is truly a joy for me, and I know it is for the audience to, and changes things from a monologue, the audience watching the magician perform, with the occasional spectator on stage to examine a box or bag, and makes it into a shared experience, the audience and I on this journey together, and I never really know where we are going to end up, because they, to some degree are in control. Like I said, they can reach out and touch things, or make an interjection while I’m talking, even change the course of the entire routine with something as simple as “can I shuffle the deck”, and that’s exciting for me. This ﬂexibility of not beading huge stage, or a team of crew means my performance opportunities are much more accessible here, and as the Melbourne Magic ‘scene’ grows, they become every more plentiful.
Do you have certain techniques you use when a trick or an illusion doesn’t go as planned?
The biggest ‘tool in my toolbox’ is surprise. The audience never knows what is supposed to happen, so if I have to improvise, they rarely realise, as they just think that is what was supposed to happen the entire time. I actually perform with a group of other magicians in something called ‘Magic Sports’, which is a totally improvised magic show. Taking inspiration from Theatre Sports, we play different improv games all centred around magic. For instance, we will be doing a trick, but throughout the routine, the MC will yell out a different emotion, and we have to switch to perform as if we were feeling that. So, we might be in the middle of asking someone to pick a card, and the MC yells “angry” so I’ll the have to start yelling at the spectator, telling them to hurry up and choose, but then just as quickly I’ll hear “anxious” and I’ll have to so how switch to being anxious about something, while still completing my routine. Another example would be ‘Drunk Tech’ in which we have to perform a routine to music, but we don’t know what that music is until we’re on stage. Being able to do things like this, really helps with getting out of a trick going wrong, and it’s a lot of fun too!
What do you use for inspiration when you are creating a new show?
Inspiration can come from anywhere; A movie, a book, a quote, anything that peaks my interest really. Generally, I’ll start with a overall concept, like a show name, or poster, something like that, and then try and build around that.
Do you have a favourite trick?
That’s a tough question really. I’m very proud of a lot of my creations, and am always making new amazing things. Of course, there are a couple pieces I’m particularly proud of, but I don’t want to give to much away, as you’ll see them featured in Moments in Time.
As a magician, what question are you asked most frequently? Are there any stereotypes that you ﬁnd yourself actively resisting?
The most common questions are pretty easy to guess really – How did you do it? Did you go to Hogwarts? Can you make my wife disappear? Although easily guessed, I do ﬁnd they they’re asked with genuine interest. Once we get past the joke questions, they’re almost always followed by the same sort of questions you’ve asked. Like I said, most people have either never seen a magician, or only one, maybe two. It’s a profession shrouded in mystery, and when people get the chance to pick my brain, more than often, they are genuinely interested in the art, and my thoughts on it.
What’s your dream magic show?
Funnily enough, shows like Moments in Time really are my dream scenario. A small intimate audience, who have come specifically to see what I do best. The best thing about a ticketed, formal show like this, is everyone there are there to see magic, there aren’t any hecklers or uninterested people, like you might ﬁnd at a operate cocktail party or something similar. That makes for an amazing environment with everyone excited to see magic and ready to be amazed.
Moments in Time is on at the Secret Room, Collingwood, from 10 – 14 July as part of the Melbourne Magic Festival. Tickets are available from the Melbourne Magic Festival website.