In this series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with a wildlife photographer, a hotel uniform designer, and a social media influencer.
Up next: a traveling magician.
Aside from the lucky few who have long-running shows in Las Vegas, most magicians follow grueling tour schedules to make ends meet. “Over the last 10 years, I have performed in some of the best and almost all of the worst venues in the country,” admits Nate Staniforth, a magician turned author and a regular on the college circuit. In addition to playing theaters and bars, Staniforth has hosted Breaking Magic on the Discovery Channel, posted regularly to YouTube, and given TEDx talks about the magic of magic. He recently released his debut book, Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in a Modern World, which the AFAR team loved so much, it excerpted a chapter.
Perhaps the reason Staniforth’s book resonates so strongly with a travel-minded audience is that travel and magic aren’t all that different. Both inspire mystery and wonder. And both are easily spoiled if you don’t come at them with the right attitude. We caught up with Staniforth at his home in Iowa City to find out how he first got into magic, what it feels like to crack a tough audience, and how a trip to India changed his life forever.
Your new book, Here Is Real Magic, examines a time in your life when you were feeling burnt out on magic. The way you reconnected to the art form was through travel, particularly a life-changing trip to India. Tell me how that came about.
“When I’m on tour, I spend a lot of time sitting in hotels, airports, or wherever; you can only play so much Angry Birds. So I started reading this scholarly book about traditional Indian street magic. Sleight of hand goes back thousands of years in India; it’s passed down from father to son. As I’m reading this book, I start thinking about this crazy trip to the other side of the world. Well, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I looked into airfare and before I knew it, going to India was less of a possibility than a probability. That was in 2009.”
What kind of international travel had you done up to that point? “I had been to Europe and the U.K. before, but nothing like India. It was totally different and that was part of the appeal—to get as far away from what I knew as possible. Even today, my overwhelming response to anybody who asks me about India is: ‘You should stop whatever you’re doing and just go! Go now! Whatever it takes, just make it happen.’ It’s the most wonderful place.”
Where did you go on that first trip and how long were you there?
“The whole trip was five weeks and I started on the east coast. I was traveling with my friend Andy and we worked our way west, then north, then south by train. I saw snake charmers, and there was a fire-breathing illusion that I still can’t explain. But as great as those were, the process of traveling was far more amazing than any of the magic I saw.”
In the scene AFAR excerpts from your book, you’re infiltrating this secret clan of street magicians. Did you learn any tricks that you were later able to incorporate into your own show?
“Yeah, there’s this illusion in my show where you swallow a length of thread, then you swallow sewing needles, and then you have someone look in your mouth to make sure you really did swallow both of those things. And then you bring the thread back up—only this time, when you pull it out of your mouth, the needles are threaded.”
“Yeah, right?! I’ve used it in my shows for years, but the original version, which comes from India, looks totally different because it doesn’t use any thread. [When I was infiltrating the magicians’ street clan], this 84-year-old man leaned forward to show us his mouth. It was empty. Then he closed it. When he reopened it, he pulled out a fistful of three-inch thorns! Just to show me how sharp they were, he picked one up and stuck it into his hand like a pincushion. Then he closed his mouth again and reopened it and there’s another fistful of thorns! So he takes another one out and jams it in his hand. He does this over and over again. There’s a pile of thorns at his feet and his hand is covered with needles. It knocked me down! That alone was worth the plane ticket over.”
“If you’re looking for wonder, you don’t need to go halfway across the world; you can find it wherever you are, from Indiana to India. It’s not about magic or magic tricks, it’s about a love of adventure.”
So now that you’ve checked India off your magic bucket list, what’s next?
“Have you ever read the book Snow Leopard, about a trip to Nepal? I can’t stop thinking about it. But here’s the thing: Magic is universal. If you’re looking for wonder, you don’t need to go halfway across the world; you can find it wherever you are, from Indiana to India. It’s not about magic or magic tricks, it’s about a love of adventure.”
What personality traits make someone a great magician?
“Every great magician is really good at getting better at things. With guitar, you learn scales, you learn chords, and then you can play any number of songs using that base technique. But with magic, you’re not actually learning magic—you’re learning a deception that looks like magic. One illusion might use sleight of hand, another uses calculations, and another involves psychology. Each trick has its own skill set. I’ve got a routine of 15- to 20-minute blocks that I crunch through every day. Some of it’s practicing sleight of hand with cards, some involve running flash cards so I stay sharp with my math tricks.”
Wow. See, my tendency would be to lump magicians in with actors, writers, and other creative types, but you’re doing a lot about math and logic. Is magic a field where it benefits you to be both left- and right-brained?
“Yeah, for sure. It’s like architecture: The first step is to dream up this grand, impossible vision, but then you have to build it, right? The math has to work. That’s how it is with magic. You can’t only be into skill acquisition, because otherwise you have nothing worth sharing.”
In your TEDx talk, you said you first tried magic when you were eight years old, but you didn’t “get serious” about it until age 10. Were your earliest performances on the playground at school?
“I don’t remember if the playground was my first performance, but I do remember it being the first time that it went off like an explosion. Magic is a binary experience: Nothing is ever ‘kinda magical.’ [Laughs] It’s all or nothing. When you see a magic trick that’s not ready, it’s less than nothing; it’s just bad technique. But the first moment for me that it ever really flipped from being nothing to something was on the playground.”
I know you got your first magic book from a library. How old were you by the time you could search magic tricks on YouTube?
“I’m 35 now. I didn’t have an email address until I went to college, and YouTube wasn’t around for a couple years after that. It was a strange time for magic, especially in Iowa, when there were no other magicians around. The repository of knowledge that I had was everything at the public library. It was a blessing in so many ways, because whatever I didn’t have there, I had to invent. Now it’s much easier to find magic secrets, which is a good thing.”
Is it? Or does it destroy people’s wonderment that much quicker? When you can Google the technique behind a trick, it’s an instant spoiler. . .
“Magic has suffered for decades, and probably even hundreds of years, for being a closed community. The only people who know the secrets are the people who stumble into them by accident. What magic really needs is the explosion of young, smart people who are interested in it. Music got this in the 1950s with the introduction of the Fender Telecaster. Here was this cheap, commercially available electric guitar: Dylan had one, Jimi Hendrix had one, everyone had one in the garages and basements of teenage America! That availability changed music forever.
“If you want to learn to be a magician, there has never been a better time.”
“That’s happening with magic now, too. It used to be, if you wanted to be a professional magician, you needed a million-dollar lighting rig and a team of assistants and a stage and smoke and lasers and all the trappings of a show. Our ‘electric guitar moment’ in magic was David Blaine’s Street Magic special, because overnight you didn’t need any of that. You just needed a deck of cards and an imagination. The secrets are on YouTube now. If you want to learn to be a magician, there has never been a better time.”
Considering how secretive magic has been for so many years, does your willingness to talk about techniques put you at odds with the larger magician community?
“I’m sure it does. This is an ongoing debate, if you can believe for a second that there are major disagreements in the field of magic. The fundamental issue is between exposing a secret and teaching a secret. If you’re just giving away a method to spoil the experience of mystery and wonder and magic, everybody agrees that’s a bad thing. But if you’re exposing it to teach someone how they can do it themselves, then that’s a great thing. It feels selfish to me to say, on the one hand, that wonder and magic and astonishment are valuable and worth preserving and sharing, and then on the other say, ‘But I want to be the only person doing it!’”
So when you were younger, in the Paleolithic pre-Internet days, who was your magician idol?
“Houdini! He was the hero in the magic books that I read and his impact on me has been devastating. His story, for a little kid, is the most inspiring you could imagine. He ran away from home at age 10 because his family didn’t have any money and his dad had just died. So he joined a circus and sent money home to help his mom feed his brothers and sisters. He just sort of declared that he’s going to become the greatest magician in the world—and then through sheer force of will, he made it happen. For a young kid hearing that, it was not very different from actual, real magic. I remember I wanted to do Houdini’s straitjacket escape, so my mom helped me make a straitjacket out of a roll of duct tape and an old sweatshirt.”
What do you consider your first big break?
“Ah, man. I’ll tell you when it happens. I dunno. I have high hopes for this book.”
You don’t feel like you’ve had one yet?
“Here’s the thing about magic: There is no ‘career path.’ Every magician you’ve ever seen is just making it up as they go. With music, for example, there’s an industry and a mechanism for people who want to be musicians. . . . But magic is at the periphery of our culture. There’s no cultural support for the art in that way and no infrastructure. I guess the breakthrough moment for me was when I could pay my bills with card tricks. But your victories are what you declare them to be. Every show has an opportunity to be a ‘break.’ That feeling onstage when you see a room full of jaded, cynical, skeptical people just erupt—like, that is the greatest feeling in the world. The career stuff is fun and important, but nothing beats that feeling of just blowing the roof off the building.”
So is this a career that, at least in the beginning, you were doing other jobs to pay the bills?
“No, but I did go to college. I studied acting in school, then I switched over to history and religion. I was not a very attentive student, but I learned a lot in college because I got a magic show every week above a bar in an art gallery. I had to keep coming up with new material because the same people would come back to see me. I went to college knowing full well I’d be a magician when I got out. And once I left school, I went to Los Angeles, jumped off a cliff, and hoped it’d work out, which fortunately it did.”
“Sometimes you know something about yourself that you can’t prove any other way, other than by just doing it. That’s magic for me.”
Was your family supportive of you becoming a magician? Or were you steered by them to study history and religion as a backup?
“I mean, I don’t know that anyone who really wants their children to be successful would push history or religion. [Laughs] As for magic, it’s adorable when your nine-year-old declares he’s going to be the greatest magician in the world. It’s much less adorable when your 19-year-old says it. I’m sure I scared the shit out of them. But sometimes you know something about yourself that you can’t prove any other way, other than by just doing it. That’s magic for me.”