- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Magicians and mentalists are having a moment.
As live events got crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the business of magic may not have seemed the easiest to transition to a virtual space because part of the thrill of having one’s eyes deceived is being as close to the action as possible. But several of the industry’s stars have emerged to prove it can be done, and done successfully.
Justin Willman, who has performed tricks and illusions for three seasons on Netflix’s Magic for Humans, adapted the series as Magic for Humans at Home. The Zoom format typically sells out at $25 a pop with individuals, couples and families tuning in from across the globe. It’s been a booming business for Willman, who turned to the format as a means of therapy after losing his mother and his dog as the pandemic was setting in.
While Willman’s has been a family affair, it’s safe to describe Dan White’s virtual experience as a star-studded one. To date, White has performed his sleight of hand, card tricks and illusions for such A-listers as Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, Kendall Jenner, J.J. Abrams, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom, Kris Jenner, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, Reese Witherspoon, James Corden, Neil Patrick Harris, Gayle King, Kate Hudson, Chris Rock, Jesse Eisenberg, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher.
White, who for five years performed his sophisticated set from the NoMad Hotel in New York, managed to segue to a sleek Zoom format as The Magician Online. Presented by theory11, tickets for White’s show are $125 per household, and he performs two or three times per week. As of press time, he had only one date still available in late March, otherwise, it’s been consistently sold out.
The Hollywood Reporter attended one of White’s recent shows — billed as a night of “magic, mystery and deception” — and ahead of the event, a package arrived featuring a small box not to be opened until instructed during the show. White’s tricks are best left unexplained so as not to spoil the surprises, and even after the experience, it may take days to process. “That show was INCREDIBLE. Still talking about it over here,” posted Reese Witherspoon on Instagram. Added filmmaker Jon M. Chu: “It was like being a kid again experiencing magic in this new medium.” Country superstars Dan and Shay also weighed in, “SO GOOD.”
In an interview with THR, White says when the pandemic first began, he didn’t think performing magic in a virtual world would work. “Magic is inherently social and unexpectedly physical. So the challenge here was preserving that feeling and creating that social experience, despite the fact that we’re not in the same room,” he explains. But the format has exploded and one of the best parts for him is being able to host guests from all over the globe on the same show.
During one event, there were people tuned in from New York, London, Vietnam and Australia. And, of course, there have been the bold-faced name attendees. “A lot of those audience members are heroes to me, so there’s a huge amount of pressure to respect their time and make sure they have an incredible experience. That stress is only in advance, though. Once the lights dim and the show begins, it’s no different than any other show. Every audience is unique.”
White developed the show after taking long walks through the empty streets of Midtown Manhattan, listening to music or talking on the phone with Jonathan Bayme at theory11, his show producer and longtime collaborator. He also credited mentor Will Guidara from Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad Hotel. “Will often says that ‘adversity is a terrible thing to waste,’ and that often there are things we can learn or grow from any experience. That quote inspired us to look at things, as best as possible, through a positive lens, and it challenged us to make the most of this new medium for magic.”
For Willman, he says he was hesitant at first to take his act to a virtual format, but while doing press for the May debut of the third season of Magic for Humans, he wound up on shows like Kelly Clarkson, The Today Show, Good Morning America and The Late Late Show With James Corden. “I was totally proven wrong — it was a blast,” he recalls. “Sometimes the connection, the intimacy you’re able to get with these hosts or just audiences through the screen is even better than in person. You’re really zeroed in looking into each other’s faces without all these distractions and everyone’s doing it from their most comfortable place in the world.”
Shortly thereafter is when Willman lost his mother and his dog, devastating losses that helped him realize how much work functioned like therapy for him. “I never knew it because I’d never had to go without it for more than a couple of days,” he explained, noting that his wife also noticed the imbalance so she suggested he put a show together as a form of self-therapy. It worked.
But more than that, it allowed Willman to democratize the experience by offering affordable ticket prices — only $25 a pop for entire households — that were available on a global scale so he could reach brand-new audiences. Shows maxed out at 1,000 and quickly started selling out. Since he launched Magic for Humans at Home in August, Willman estimates that he’s sold more than 100,000 tickets (he’s also reserved recent shows for free for military families overseas and stateside).
“It was never really about trying to make a lot of money. It was just about giving people an outlet for escapism,” he explains. “For me, too, it was a form of escapism from grief and anxiety and the opportunity to have a creative outlet again. I didn’t want the ticket price to have any factor in who got to see the show. Whenever I set out to do something that is a business endeavor, those never work out for me. But when I set out to do something that I’m creatively or emotionally excited about, those are the things that take off because people can sense the authenticity.”
Willman keeps his crew at a minimum, crediting magician pal Nick Paul for helping out from his home in Burbank as a “stage manager” of sorts. “He’s like a live Genius Bar who helps maintain quality control.” In shaping his show, Willman said structuring the pace proved to be important in order to counter “Zoom burn.” So he wanted to present a program that was “really funny, really fast and still intimate.”
The name Bruce Springsteen may not be the first that … springs to mind when the subject of magic comes up, but Willman says the Boss is forever an inspiration: “I’ve always been a Springsteen fan. When he’s on stage, he is 100 percent present with that audience and gives them an experience worth their full ticket price. For Springsteen, that’s a three-and-a-half-hour experience, but I try my best to pull that kind of energy from my soul and put it there on the screen for my show. I want to give the audience that cathartic joy that I get just from clicking through the gallery view and seeing all these happy faces. Being able to make them feel the joy from that as well as is … satisfying.”
And Willman and White aren’t the only two making headlines as of late. There’s also Derek DelGaudio: His long-running live show, In & Of Itself, directed by Frank Oz, just debuted on Hulu to rave reviews. DelGaudio performed his show in New York as well as at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse, home to the recent smash The Present, written and performed by Helder Guimarães and directed by Frank Marshall. The show, which features Guimarães’s mind-bending illusions, sold out its entire 24-week run. He’s back with a new show, The Future, which is on through March 28 with tickets still available here.
Meanwhile, mentalist Jason Suran is still hosting “Reconnected With Jason Suran,” which has been praised by Alan Cumming and The Washington Post, the latter calling it “a thriving piece of live theater.” It’s so popular that Suran is currently sold out through June 18.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day