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Tricks of the trade

Andrew Evans '09 has picked up a few tricks in his time - magic tricks, that is. He even invented one, inspired by the Fourth of July.

The trick begins with someone picking a card. Then the magician buries a fuse and lights it. The fuse burns to the ground and explodes in puff of smoke. And the card?

"Burnt and buried underneath the dirt," Evans said.

Evans, a magician since he was in eighth grade, has long been entranced by the tricks and illusions of a trade that deals in secrecy and the power of mystery.

Enchanted by the lure of the impossible, he has moved past purchasing props - he now devises his own tricks.

"You figure out what would be cool if it could happen, but it can't," Evans said. "And you figure out how to make it happen."

Evans has used this curiosity to build a repertoire large enough to put on an hour-long spectacle, "Illusions of Grandeur," which will run at Production Workshop this weekend.

Conjuring up a bag of tricks

The show, which Evans prepared in part by spending hours researching magic tricks in the John Hay Library, includes elements far more complicated than the plastic toy tricks he played with as a young child.

Evans said he started taking the hobby more seriously after his eighth-grade teacher made a card that Evans selected rise out of the deck.

He had never seen a magic trick like that before, and after his teacher told him about a magic shop in nearby Seattle, he was spellbound.

"Great magic seems so unattainable that figuring out that you can buy it is sort of terrifying," Evans said.

At the same time, he added, he was excited by the idea that anyone can access such powers of illusion.

Evans performs tricks whenever he has a deck of cards, he said. His favorite part about doing magic is the reaction it can provoke.

"When someone is so floored by something (that) they're like, 'I don't care how it's done,' that's cool," Evans said. "That's the moment of magic that you live for."

Evans has been hired to perform magic at birthday parties, weddings and other events since eighth grade, and he continues to put on shows for his friends and around campus, exploring styles beyond the stage magic that he performed as a teenager.

Last semester, Evans held a show in his off-campus house.

"I gutted one of my rooms, put up a stage," he said.

The show, "Oikos," which means "household" or "home" in Greek, attempted to recreate a more intimate style of magic tricks reminiscent of the 1960s. An audience of 25 crowded into the tiny theater Evans had created.

One of Evans' tricks began with a light bulb that lit up by itself.

"All the audience members held hands, and we formed a circle, like a circuit," Evans said. "When we finally touched fingers, the light bulb exploded by itself."

While "Oikos" tried to reestablish a connection between performer and audience that Evans said is often missing from modern magic, "Illusions of Grandeur" seeks to combine intimacy and immediacy with grand illusions. Evans plans to incorporate tricks and illusions that he has never performed for an audience before, he said.

"I have never performed full-on, overblown illusion," Evans said. "I'm terrified. It's not what I'm comfortable doing."

Evans, an engineering concentrator who has frequently designed sets for PW shows, even designed the stage for his magic show.

"We're recreating a 1920s theater with chandeliers and a curtain that pulls open," Evans said. "It's very classic."

The do-it-yourself, hands-on spirit behind Evans' ambitions for the show reflects his approach to picking up new tricks and techniques.

"I'm interested now not so much in the tricks you can buy, but the things you can learn," he said. "When you buy a trick, you pay a bunch of money for a prop, but it's a trick and everyone knows that."

Instead, Evans has found inspiration in books from the John Hay, which boasts an extensive collection of literature on magic, much of which was donated in the late 1980s by Harold Adrian Smith '30.

"Half the effects in the show are from the library," Evans said.

To learn techniques from videos, which have been added to the Hay's collection since Smith's contribution, Evans spent hours with a deck of cards in hand, sitting in the library's coat closet - the only place in the Hay that he could view the videos.

"He lived here," said Rosemary Cullen '72, the senior scholarly resources librarian at the Hay who oversees the Smith collection.

"Videos are great because you can watch someone actually doing it," Evans said. But books, he added, are the real gems that Smith has left behind.

Storing away his magic

The many volumes of the Smith collection - the library has cataloged over 5,000 titles - fill a cramped room upstairs in the Hay. The bookcases, cabinets and tables piled with materials make navigating the room's narrow spaces difficult.

Smith - the magician who donated the majority of the eponymous Smith Collection of Conjuring Books and Magicana - began his lifelong obsession at the age of 13, he wrote in an essay about the construction of his vast collection.

The teenager, who would eventually pay his way through Brown with the money he earned performing magic, found that he would even sacrifice food to support his love of the ethereal.

"Many a day, I lunched on a five-cent box of raisins to keep from starving to death until I could get home for supper, and I saved up the resulting nickels and dimes to buy a book I wanted," Smith wrote.

By 1940, his collection had grown to about 8,800 books - so many that the magician decided to construct a separate building beside his home in Riverside to house the volumes.

Though his collection was large, Smith wrote that his goal was to build a comprehensive collection. Smith's library encompassed several centuries and multiple languages, including a 1575 edition of "Spiritalium liber" by Hero of Alexandria and the 1584 title "The Discoverie of Witchcraft," by Reginald Scot.

"He has a number of titles that are not located anywhere else," Cullen said.

But the collection's rarities do not end with Smith's books. His menagerie includes other memorabilia: posters, props, wands - even photographs autographed by Harry Houdini.

The glass panels of one cabinet show the assortment of unusual objects inside: a pin in the shape of a rabbit coming out of a hat, the large linking rings that Smith frequently used in his magic, a metal flask owned by magician Howard Thurston - and the replica of a head used by American magician Harry Kellar, widely known in the late 1800s and early 1900s for his illusions.

The cabinet itself, true to the spirit of its contents, is enigmatic. It can be opened from the side, Cullen said, but the head cannot be removed without taking out the case's back panel.

The prop must have been placed inside before the cabinet was finished, Cullen said. "We need a magician to get it out."

Above the cabinet, the quiet, cluttered room's wall displays a certificate for Smith's June 1929 admission into the National Council of the Society of American Magicians - a symbol of the history of collaboration and learning among magicians.

Smith, who was elected national president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in 1948, welcomed fellow magicians, researchers and students to make use of his library, according to Cullen.

"He was very kind," Cullen said. "The world of magic and magicians was really the center of life for him."

A tricky trade

Evans's countless hours in front of the television in the Hay's coat room have given him a glimpse into the tricks and techniques of past magicians.

But another source of inspiration is much closer at hand.

Adam Robbins '09, a former Herald graphics editor, met Evans in the Sharpe Refectory during their first-year orientation.

Robbins said Evans approached him because he was wearing a black shirt with the phrase, "Got magic?"

"Freshman year, we'd hang out and 'jam,'" Robbins said. The two would show each other new tricks, said Robbins, who held his first show when he was 10.

Other magicians "can sometimes be a more discerning audience, because they know what to look for," Robbins said.

The challenge of performing for other magicians has forced Robbins to go beyond his usual tricks.

"Once I was challenged to do a certain effect blindfolded," Robbins said. "I could do the whole thing."

The world of magicians is not an easy one to enter.

"It's kind of a paradox," Robbins said. Joining the community of magicians is a difficult first step, but professionals and hobbyists "in the loop" know where to go - they attend conventions on magic, circulate newsletters and subscribe to magazines about magic.

There are "basic starting tricks that everyone's willing to teach," Robbins said.

But there are limits to how much a magician will reveal.

Robbins has an answer ready for curious kids who want to know how he does his magic.

"Very carefully."

Evans will perform "Illusions of Grandeur" Saturday at 9 p.m., Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. and Monday at 9 p.m. in the downstairs theater of the Production Workshop.


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