Joshua Jay is a magician, author and lecturer. He is a former world champion of the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. He fooled Penn & Teller on their hit show, Fool Us, and appeared recently on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Joshua has consulted on magic for the US Postal Service and Game of Thrones, and he has performed at President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Ball. He is currently starring in Six Impossible Things, an immersive magic show in New York City.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
I think these words are related, but any attempt to assign what any of us feel when we experience wonder or awe or curiosity is highly personal. There is great debate in my field about whether being “fooled” is a good thing or not, and it’s a silly argument of semantics. Being “fooled” can mean being cheated by a man selling fake watches, but when a magician fools you, it’s usually a more positive experience. Words are just words. Tom Robbins said that using words to describe magic is like using a screwdriver to cut roast beef.
If I had to rank them, I would say curiosity is the mildest of the three, and awe is the next level up, and wonder is the most potent. Awe speaks to me as a more aesthetic quality. I stare at things in awe when they’re pretty or unusual in scale or scope. But wonder occurs when my mind and my heart are truly captivated. What’s interesting is the destructive element of wonder. Our act of “wonder” often leads us to how things work, or to finding out the true nature of something. Stevinus said, “Wonder is the enemy of wonder.”
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
Some years ago a guy was giving me a hard time during a show. Not exactly a heckler, but he was INSATIABLY curious about how the magic worked. Chill out, I thought. Relax and enjoy the show. But he couldn’t, this man. He wanted to know how everything was done. And what I realized is that he was me. Those of us who HAVE to know how things work, how we can do something, how tricks are done, make for the worst audiences. But we make good magicians.
You HAVE to be curious to be a great magician. The act of innovation is one of pushing, of not accepting what’s been done, and that takes real curiosity.
I jump start my curiosity with triggers. For you they might be totally different, but for me they’re insightful films or challenging works of art. I sometimes go to museums without any intention of engaging with what I’m seeing. But just being in that environment can be inspiring.
What do you love about magic (the performance by magicians on stage/TV etc.)? And what do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?
I don’t generally enjoy magic on TV – doing it or watching it. But that’s probably because I know all the sacrifices you have to make to do things on television, and I prefer the more “pure” versions that are performed live.
What I love most about magic is the thrill of the chase. I spend every waking moment of my days thinking about the next great trick, or ways I can create something new. In the scheme of things, I’m not onstage anywhere close to the time I am “working” on magic. The stage time is the laboratory. But the rest of the time is all development.
The part I like least is the business side. There’s a totally different skill set in networking, marketing, drawing up contracts, seeking new business, and this side interests me almost zero. I respect people who are great at it, and there are times when I see real beauty in the business of magic, but I’d rather be inventing a new piece.
A couple of years ago you published an article “magic by numbers” where you investigated what audiences really think. What were the stand out findings for you? Did anything shock you?
Most of it shocked me. The study showed that most people DISLIKE seeing magic they think they’ve seen before, which was a shock. We’re always taught that we should all do the classics because they’re great and proven. But a majority of people want to see things they believe are new. We also learned that introductions can make a huge difference in how a magician is perceived.
Can you tell me about your show “Six impossible things”? Where did the idea come from, what have been the audience reactions and what has surprised you?
My show Six Impossible Things takes twenty people on an immersive journey. I frame each of the six pieces in an environment that best serves the material. You experience magic standing, seated, surrounded, in the dark, on the floor, and at the end, completely alone. The idea came from my observation that intimacy was a key factor in magic shows. As my career developed, the venues got bigger, and so did the audiences. That’s great in some ways, but you lose something when you’re speaking to 2,000 people. I’ve been amazed at the generous reviews and reactions to my show, and it’s a joy to perform. One thing I will tell you, though, is that I never understood the power of an audience dynamic until Six Impossible Things. With 1,000 people–even 150 people–the reactions are averaged out. In other words, you’ll have generally the same reaction to a show with a lot of people. Some may laugh louder than others, some tricks may resonate more with some people, but the variety between shows will be small. With just twenty people the character of each audience fluctuates WILDLY. We do two performances a night, and I’ve had shows that were ELECTRIC, followed by shows that were so, so, so quiet. The audience brings a lot with them when they walk into our doors.
What is the role of a 21st Century magician? And where do you think magic is heading?
Magic is making great strides in being taken seriously as a performing art, and so I think as time goes by people consider it less as a diversion and more as something worthy of watching.
You’ve published numerous magic tricks and co-run Vanishing Inc. magic shop. If you could only perform 1 trick for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Impossible to say. When people ask my favorite trick, the answer is always, honestly, whatever new piece I’m working on.
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