Jaw-dropping acts of magic + the poignant punch of Chicago theater = “a singular new play” (The New York Times). Andrew Hinderaker’s The Magic Play, which makes its world premiere here in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, uses visual spectacle to tell an intimate story of love and loss—and the desperate measures we take to hold onto the real magic in our own lives. The development process for this unusual new show was equally unique, resulting in an experience that embodies the Goodman’s dedication to nurturing new American plays.

Andrew Hinderaker
Andrew Hinderaker

Hinderaker’s playwriting career began in Chicago, where he made his mark in storefront theaters like The Gift Theatre, where he is an ensemble member. While his writing often embraced fantastical premises, Hinderaker was very much a product of the Chicago storefront community and its dedication to emotionally honest, often gritty approaches to storytelling. When he moved to Austin, Texas, to pursue an MFA, he met a wildly different theatrical community and his plays began to take on some of the characteristics of the theater he saw there—experimental, interdisciplinary works that strove to stage the impossible.

What emerged from this marriage of intimacy and spectacle was Colossal, a play he wrote during his final year of graduate school that tells the story of a gay former college football star now using a wheelchair after an injury. “I wrote about football players, dancers and a character trying to navigate a new normal in a new body, so a lot of the story was told through movement,” Hinderaker said. “Early on in the development, a lot of folks encouraged me to explode the story open as much as possible. Workshopping the play at the Kennedy Center was extraordinary. They provided all the resources of an onstage football team, percussionists and dancers; it was such a great experience of [a theater] saying yes to quite an audacious proposal.” In spite of (or perhaps because of) its size and ambition, the play went on to receive several professional productions in 2014 and 2015. The experience of challenging himself to push the limits of the possible and seeing that work realized on stage spurred Hinderaker to create The Magic Play.

Commissioned by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company and developed at the Goodman during Hinderaker’s year-long residency in the Playwrights Unit, The Magic Play began with a personal impulse. “I wanted to write about my uncle, who is a talented artist but a dysfunctional, isolated person, and I have always felt I share some of his traits,” said Hinderaker, who found a narrative structure for the work by combining his character study with one of his uncle’s passions: magic. An amateur magician, he was “the first guy who showed me a magic trick.” Magic became both the subject of Hinderaker’s play and the theatrical vocabulary through which he explored its themes.

For The Magician to be open to the possibility of love—and heartbreak—he must release control of his performance and be open to the possibility of success—and failure—in front of his audience.

Research began in summer 2013 as Hinderaker dove into the world of magic—attending shows from intimate sleight of hand to large-scale spectacles—in hope of developing an understanding of not just what magicians do, but how they do it. Also interested in what informs magicians’ relationship to their audience, he began collaborating in earnest with Brett Schneider, the Chicago-based actor and magician who plays the central role of The Magician in The Magic Play. “Brett is both a magician and an actor, so he embraces magic as a form of theater—and our conversations have always lived inside that dynamic.” Schneider worked closely as Hinderaker’s magic consultant, guiding his research into the world of magic and introducing him to magic luminaries like Eugene Berger, who is often called the “Godfather of Chicago magic.” Over the course of the play’s development, Hinderaker had the opportunity to sit down with magicians like Teller (of Penn & Teller) and Derek DelGaudio, an acclaimed sleight of hand artist whose shows Nothing to Hide, directed by Neil Patrick Harris, and In and Of Itself, directed by Frank Oz, blur the lines between theater, storytelling and magic. More recently, Jim Steinmeyer, a magic designer who has created illusions for Broadway musicals and renowned magicians like Ricky Jay and Doug Henning, signed on to design illusions for this production. All of this research, which Hinderaker notes barely scratches the surface of this rich, mysterious art form, fed the development of the play, its characters, the live magic and the magician’s relationship with the audience.

Brett Schneider and Sean Parris (above) and Halena Kays and Francis Guinan (below) in rehearsal for The Magic Play. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Brett Schneider and Sean Parris (above) and Halena Kays and Francis Guinan (below) in rehearsal for The Magic Play. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Early audiences at readings and workshops of the play also played a crucial part in helping Hinderaker and Schneider learn how the magic functions in telling the story—and what work needed to be done to make the piece more satisfying. What began as a series of small, private readings with members of the Goodman Playwrights Unit culminated in a public reading in fall 2014, directed by Halena Kays, a fixture of the Chicago theater scene whose résumé includes stints with The Neo-Futurists, Barrel of Monkeys and The Hypocrites. That collaboration continued with a developmental production that fall as part of the Goodman’s annual New Stages Festival. In that incarnation, Hinderaker and his collaborators added set, costume, lighting and other design elements and further refined the magic effects—and truly embraced the show’s improvisatory nature, specifically when audience members came on stage as volunteers to determine the outcome of the play. The New Stages workshop was followed by another reading at Roundabout Theatre Company, and Schneider recently performed sections of the play at the renowned Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

Throughout this process Hinderaker worked to balance the story he was inspired to tell—that of a gifted artist whose need for control isolates him from real intimacy—with the demands of creating a magic show that truly engages its audience. Much of the work that Schneider, Hinderaker, Kays and their collaborators engaged in during the development process was to ensure that those two goals are in fact one in the same. For the character of The Magician to be able to release control in his private life and be open to the possibility of love—and heartbreak—he must release control of his performance and be open to the possibility of success—and failure—in front of his audience.  “What interests me as an artist is when you embrace risk and failure not as platitudes but as actual things,” Hinderaker explained. “That’s the story we’re telling—the story of someone who is going through his life having created a framework that allows him to be successful, safe and alone. And then we see him embracing something that is the opposite—and I think there’s something that is terrifying and exciting about putting that in the hands of the audience. I’m always so grateful for audiences being open, vulnerable and generous. And this time, I think the play really gives that back.”