Sunday, June 24, 2018
Stage

The Illusionists bring shocking tricks to the Straz stage

Two images come to mind when you say "magic show": Clowns pulling quarters out of Grandma's ear or David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty vanish.

The Illusionists, coming to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts from Tuesday through May 31, want to show the world there's a ton of magic in between those extremes.

Seven veteran entertainers from around the world are touring together, each bringing his own specialty to the mix. Show producers gave them each a name encapsulating their magic style: the Anti-Conjuror, the Inventor, the Futurist, the Escapologist, the Manipulator, the Trickster and the Warrior.

They've all got more than enough material to have an hour on stage alone, said Jeff Hobson, the Trickster. But no one wants to sit through a seven-hour magic show, so they've condensed it to only the best tricks.

"We all are doing our A-level stuff every night," Hobson said.

Hobson and fellow Illusionist, the Anti-Conjuror Dan Sperry, talked with the Times about the perils of magic, terrible trick ideas and which Illusionists they love watching from behind the curtain.

The Trickster

Jeff Hobson, 51, a Detroit native and self-described comedy magician, took his act to Las Vegas 23 years ago and has been touring the world with the Illusionists for more than three years.

You interact with the audience a lot during your act. How do you deal with the difficult audience members?

Well, generally, I verbally b---- slap them. That's the best way I can say it. I make it obvious to everybody and the obstinate ones know in no uncertain terms this won't be tolerated. There's always that person who wanted to be an entertainer their whole life and might tell jokes at a party that no one laughs at. Then they want to try and make their five minutes of fame on my time, but it ain't gonna happen. I have a job and an audience. I make sure they see it my way.

Was there ever a trick you got into trouble pulling?

Here's the thing ... I steal stuff. I'm from Detroit. What do you want? Practicing pickpocketing, though, is quite interesting — especially in Detroit — because you can't practice it, you just have to do it. Taking people's belongings, when they catch you at it ... I've been almost strangled and threatened and held against my will. And the worst is when people have something missing and assume I must have done it. That I escaped Detroit without a gunshot wound from someone who thought I was ripping him off is a miracle.

What's the toughest room you've ever played?

Oh gosh, actually there are two. The first one is in England. It's called the Grosvenor and it's well known by all other entertainers as a tough room. And, yeah, it was one of the worst shows I ever did. The second was performing in Serbia. I don't know what you remember about Serbia but it's a war-torn country that's still living through that. ... They are not happy people. I tried, but they need more time.

Are there any guys on the tour whose tricks you'd like to have in your arsenal?

You know, there is one guy in our show. Andrew Basso, our Escapologist. He cheats death every night. He can hold his breath up to four minutes. Backstage he's one of the best sleight of hand guys in the world, and whenever he shows off that stuff I pay really, really close attention to that. Every one of us can put on a whole hour or more show by himself. He got hired to be escaping. I can do some really cool magic, too, but I'm better at the comedy.

The Anti-Conjuror

Dan Sperry, 28, left St. Cloud, Minn., and began opening for metal bands with his magic more than 10 years ago. He lives in Las Vegas and has spent three years as one of the Illusionists.

You're a shock magician with some pretty gruesome tricks. What's the worst fail you've had on a live stage?

The one where I swallow the thread and pull it out of my eye, that took a while at first. I tried finding the right knack and it was really hard. My eye would swell up. Clearly I was doing something wrong and I thought, "I've got to figure this out." ... This past October I had it get stuck in my eye and lost in there. It eventually came out the natural way. It's like getting an eyelash in there. You know it's there, you just can't get it out or swallow the rest of the thread. It can only go one way. You can't pull it back out of your mouth.

Did the crowd notice?

Usually no. That's the good thing about magic. For those who have done it enough, you kind of are a master and know how to troubleshoot in real time. Things that go wrong, they don't even know that it has gone wrong. If a comedian messes up a punch line you go, "That makes no sense. What is he talking about?" But for magicians there are several ways to attain the outcome in front of the audience.

What in the world is an Anti-Conjuror?

Anti-conjuring is a fancy word to sort of approach the style of magician I am. I used to open at Goth clubs for industrial bands. Not exactly your typical showcase for a magic show. When the promoters put me on the flier, I was going for something different. I didn't want them to say magician or illusionist because it would paint a picture, you know, the stereotype. It might not fit with their idea of a good time. "We don't want to see a magician. We can just come later and see the band." If it's Anti-Conjuror, they might ask, "What's that?"

Whose act do you enjoy the most on the tour outside your own?

I don't really watch it that way. If there is somebody who is most interesting to watch it's the Trickster. We've worked together in shows before in the past. We established a good friendship. His sense of humor is great. His thing is, he works with the audience a lot, even more than I do, and he deals with difficult people being stupid. I like watching how he handles that. His character is very interesting and unique. It's fun to watch him perform and get away with what he gets away with.

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