Q&A with Kevin James
PBI chats with Kevin James, better known as The Inventor, to discuss the art of the illusion.
The Illusionists: Live from Broadway
Dates: March 6-11
Do you ever wish magic was more like Marvel? Then you’ll love The Illusionists: Live from Broadway, a showcase of some of the best magicians on Earth. Each performer works under a moniker that expresses his specific skill set, such as The Deductionist or The Trickster. Combined, they produce one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences on tour today. Why You Should See It: Magic done right is, well, just plain awesome.
PBI: What sparked your interest in magic?
James: The first magician I saw was in elementary school. He was the first one who just kind of sparked it. I lived in a very small village called Jonesville, Michigan. It was 2,000 people, one stoplight, and no magicians. He started this fire inside me to learn magic, so afterward I went straight to the library. It was basically me and six library books for five years.
Who are your biggest professional influences? I read you’re very into PT Barnum.
My grandmother would always tell us we’re related to PT Barnum. I didn’t even know who he was at the time. Before she passed away, I asked her exactly how are we related? And it was through marriage. I don’t have any actual Barnum blood in me, but I am on the family tree so I’ll take it. But the funny thing is he and I have a lot of weird similar likings. He was a magician as well, but he also kind of invented the sideshow. I use a lot of unusual people in my work. He had Tom Thumb working for him and I have a little guy named Antonio Hoyos who’s worked for me going on 33 years. I have a lot of strange, usual images in my show and have an affinity for the same things he did.
How would you describe your approach to magic and your general style?
I like to develop things that elicit an emotional reaction. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is, I just want people to feel it and to experience something. Some of my pieces are intimate and beautiful and simple, and then other things are shocking and visually arresting. Others talk about nostalgic topics that make you remember childhood. There’s a whole spectrum of feelings throughout the show.
You invent a lot of effects for other magicians—how does that process typically go? Do they commission you for it?
Sometimes yes. Other times, I’ll put things in my show and after a while I’ll decide to give them a second life by releasing it to the fraternity. Sometimes people will call me and go, “Oh, when you retire that trick, let me have a crack at it.” Or they’ll say, “Oh, I was thinking of doing this, what do you think?” And then I’ll create something that fits what they need.
What’s been your weirdest request?
There’ve been some real whoppers. Disney contacted me one time to do a press night where I’m standing on top of a building and then I vanish in a flash of fire and reappear on the sidewalk. Just crazy stuff. I couldn’t figure out a good method for that and they didn’t give me enough time. But you’d be surprised what people ask. Make this car appear or make an elephant appear. You can do anything if you have enough time or money. Sometimes you don’t have enough of either.
You’ve traveled all over the world with The Illusionists. Have you found any cultural differences with how audiences react to magic? Or, is it truly a universal language?
Sometimes they have specific requests. When we were in Dubai, they said don’t pick anybody in this section because it was all royalty and really rich people. Or, don’t pick any woman in a burka—you’re not allowed to touch her hand. But the audiences are still humans and they still love magic no matter what.
What’s your favorite trick from one of your fellow Illusionists?
It’s funny but it’s not so much the trick. The best-kept secret in magic is that the secrets don’t matter. I get to stand backstage and watch these guys—who are all at the top of their game—play and tweak minuscule details every night. Jeff Hobson, who is The Trickster, does a trick with a bag and an egg. It’s a classic vaudeville trick but nobody’s doing it these days, and Hobson is the best in the world at it. I get to watch him play with different pauses between the lines where he’ll switch jokes in and out or he’ll try a different expression; it’s all those millions of little decisions that make the routine really entertaining, funny, and important. It’s not that I admire the trick so much, [but] I admire the artistic interpretation of it.
Do you enjoy clueing people into the secrets, or would you prefer not to ever do that?
I don’t think it’s important for everybody to know the secret. The best audience is too busy laughing to worry about it. It’s all a personal journey. I talk about my impression of snow as a child and how magical it was, and if you were a kid in a snowy area it immediately sends you back to sledding with your grandparents. I hope they’re too busy enjoying themselves to really worry about how it works.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.