Brett Schneider has a few tricks up his sleeve. Not only has he performed on magic stages across the country, including Los Angeles’ famed The Magic Castle, but he is also an accomplished actor. Schneider has also collaborated with many theater companies as an illusion consultant, helping craft any onstage magic or visual effects a production may require. For Andrew Hinderaker’s The Magic Play, Schneider combines all these skills as he takes on the protagonist, a young man [known simply as “The Magician”] recovering from a devastating breakup, presenting a somewhat traditional theater performance as he simultaneously executes acts of magic right before the audience. Schneider also worked closely with Hinderaker throughout the play’s development process to craft pieces of magic that would amaze theatergoers and best serve the play’s story. Shortly before rehearsals began, OnStage Editor Michael Mellini spoke with Schneider about his life as a magician and the unique niche he’s found in Chicago’s theater community.
Michael Mellini: When did you first become interested in magic?
Brett Schneider: I received a magic kit as a gift as a child, but was too young to understand it, so it sat on a shelf until I was probably 11 or 12 years old. Once I was able to teach myself, I pulled it down and was hooked. A lot of kids go through a magic phase but then lose interest. I stuck with it because, in addition to my magic kit, I found a local magic shop in San Francisco called Misdirections that just blew my mind and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I would go there every week and blow the little money I had on magic tricks, books, videos or anything else that helped me learn more magic. I had some friends who were interested in magic, but I mostly learned the old-school way through books, and then started performing on my own part-time as a teenager. I also started participating in the competition circuit. I won a bunch of competitions, but I was really interested in the theater of magic and performing for an audience more than impressing another magician who knows how you’re doing what you do and just judges your technique.
BS: Well, as a teenager I started really getting into theater separately. I was lucky to have a great high school drama teacher who taught a lot of improv and ensemble-driven theater that inspired me to embrace the storytelling aspect of theater. As I was performing more as a teenager, theater helped my magic and vice versa. I didn’t really think of combining the two until I was at Northwestern University. I had a writing partner who was into performance art and we started picking apart magic as a craft and why it’s valuable and what we found interesting about it. Together we wrote a one-man show that blended a lot of the ideas of theater we were learning in school with things that interested me from my previous magic experience. The show was called Dark Room. It was a big success and really fun to perform; it felt new, exciting and totally different than all the other magic performances I had done. It was very much a theater piece. In my mind, magic is a sub-category of theater. I don’t see them as separate anymore. Theater is an umbrella term that covers so many different things. If you’re an illusionist or a mind-reader, you’re a theater artist and your magic and craft is simply the medium you choose.
MM: Do most magicians share that opinion?
BS: I don’t think so. A lot of people in the magic community see magic separate from theater, which is unfortunate and shocking because I think the two communities could learn so much from each other. Magic is sorely lacking in the fundamentals that a good theater piece requires in terms of storytelling and character development. On the flip side, magic has this totally visceral quality to it where you are creating very immediate moments in the room, and theater artists are always trying to realize moments that feel similar to that. How do we write a script or stage a scene in a way that is pre-determined, but still feels alive and as in-the-moment as possible?
In my mind, magic is a sub-category of theater…If you’re an illusionist or a mind-reader, you’re a theater artist and your magic and craft is simply the medium you choose.
MM: Due to the audience participation involved in The Magic Play, each performance is different than the last. Do you enjoy that as a performer?
BS: It’s incredible. I can’t say enough about how much of a gift this project has been for me over the last few years. It’s pushed me in so many ways as a magician, an actor, an illusion designer, a storyteller and has really helped me hone my craft. Andrew Hinderaker wrote this piece in a manner that the performances literally can’t happen the same way twice, and the show will always be different depending on the audience that night. That’s really exciting and really satisfies Andrew’s desire to take real risks in the theater.
MM: Yet for all the eye-popping magic, audiences will hopefully be moved by the play’s emotional love story.
BS: This piece exists in the theater because it is a love story, not a magic show. It’s a story about relationships, and magic just happens to be used as a storytelling device because the central character is a magician. At first it feels like a magic show, but soon his performance starts to break down due to the personal circumstances in his life. The show then becomes an exploration of his troubles with his former lover and family and of his own psychology.
MM: Many of his issues arise because The Magician doesn’t quite know how to leave his craft on stage and prevent it from interfering with his personal life. Is that an experience you find familiar?
BS: This is not my life story, but I can certainly relate to how he uses magic in his interactions with people. Magic can definitely be used as a social crutch or means to hide in order to avoid exposing yourself to other people. If you’re an insecure teenager, which we all are at some point, you try to find the thing that makes you feel stronger, armor you can put on to protect yourself from feeling vulnerable. Live performances and magic were certainly those tools for me. Even today, what I experience is that magic gives you an almost guaranteed positive reaction from your audience and that can help you get through any social dynamic. This character has always relied on his talents to guide him through life, even to the extent that he sacrificed his ability to be truly vulnerable or intimate with someone. But if magic can be a way to simulate intimacy or make it look like you’re giving someone a choice when you’re really controlling everything from behind the curtain, then what do your relationships really look like? Are they real relationships? Are they healthy relationships? Or will they always fall apart? I certainly identify with that as I’ve developed my skills in both acting and magic, and through the trials and errors of my own relationships. At this point I’ve done a good job realizing that artifice is not inherently going to solve your problems. In the end it does more harm than good.
MM: Audience members may even be inspired to learn some magic after seeing The Magic Play. Do you believe magicians should ever reveal the secrets behind their tricks?
BS: It’s a case by case situation. If I’m working as a consultant on a theater piece and collaborating with other artists, I’m eager to teach the production team how and why something works and how to do it best. During the production process for this show I met with all the incredible designers, and when I taught them something, they would add their own ideas and completely improve it. I have no qualms about sharing secrets with those who are ready to learn because that’s how I learned. For those who are willing to work hard, the answers are there. There’s a saying, “The door to magic may be closed, but it isn’t locked.”