An Honest Liar: 5 Questions for a Magician

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Richard Faverty
There are no trap doors or secret entrances to Robert Strong's apartment in the Presidio, and he does not answer the door in a sequined shirt, or appear with a flash of smoke. It's business casual clothes and a handshake, with tea in the kitchen and a still packed suitcase from a business trip in the living room -- but his business, of course, is magic. Robert Strong began learning illusions at age 12, after seeing a street performer during a summer camp excursion to the Baltimore Harbor. Since then, he has performed in 40 different countries and at the White House twice, once for the elder George Bush and once for Bill Clinton. We sat down in his kitchen for a few minutes to discuss a magician's life, and to see if I could pry any magical secrets from his brain.

We did something a little different for this interview. Instead of just letting me come up with questions, we asked our readers what they wanted to know. Obviously, most people want to know "How the &$%#! do they do that?" I know you can't tell us how your tricks work, but can we talk about how you create a trick? Or the principles behind how magic works?

When I create a trick I pour through everything available to me -- YouTube, magic books, video tapes, etc. I find something that suits my style and ask myself if the audience will like it. If yes, I build it, buy it, or have it made. Then I rehearse it and put it in the show. I sandwich it before and after something that is already strong, and try it with an open mind and see how it goes. Every time I perform it, I listen to the audience's reaction and keep refining it until it becomes a strong routine. A lot of tricks I create by necessity. I'll get hired by a client, and they'll want me to use their product, or work in their concept, and I always say yes -- assuming it's something I can deliver. I'll find out whatever I can about the show, if there will be people in front of me, all around me, or if I will be projected onto video screens. Then I'll give the client some choices, let them pick, and figure out how I'm going to do it.

Our readers really want to know about the effect of being a magician on your love-life. Is it a repellent to the opposite sex, or do the chicks dig it?
(laughs) When you do a magic trick for a girl, you're either the coolest person in the room, or the biggest nerd in the room -- and not the good type of nerd that sold a multi-million dollar company to Google. I used to not use magic to flirt because I thought it was a crutch, and I wanted to be fun, charming, charismatic, and interesting on my own. However, I'm recently single and decided that one should use everything available to be successful in romance.

There's a moment when you do a magic trick, for a quarter of a second, where the person is fooled and they are transported back to when they were 9 years old, when there really is mystery, wonder, and awe in the world. That's a skill that I have, and I should use it because that's what I have available to me. I think one of the best ways to be attractive is to be excellent at something, whatever that is for you. I intend to use my magic to flirt, but I have a strong sense of integrity and I think that will make it fun and not obnoxious.

Have you ever used magic against someone? For example, making an asshole's wallet disappear? Or do you have a magical code of ethics, like how Houdini used to go around and debunk seances and insisted that everything he did was just an illusion?
I'm always very clear that I'm doing illusions. I think it's irresponsible and dangerous to convince people you have powers that you don't. I can't think of a time that I've actually stolen someone's wallet and not given it back. People who are magicians are honest liars -- the people who hire me know I'm lying to them. It is a kind of unspoken agreement. Now, if I was on the streets as a con artist or doing pick-pocketing I'd be on the other side of the trickery. It's the same skill set. There have been times though when I see someone who is a bit of douche bag -- and douche bags are in it for the attention -- and I've used my magic and performance skills to usurp the attention from them so that they have no more attention.

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Richard Faverty

I know that for a lot of people in entertainment YouTube has been a real game changer, and, of course, Itunes was very disruptive to the music industry. Has the digital age affected magic?
Yes, of course! Absofrickinlutely! We used to read magic books and people would interpret the material their own way. A thousand different magicians would do a trick a thousand different ways. Now we've got magicians in places where they've never even seen a professional magician live because they learn it off YouTube, but they all look the same. They do the trick precisely like the originator. Some magicians hide their stuff from YT to protect their originality, and some get on YT as quickly as possible to document their originality. YouTube allows people to either copy and steal, or it gives them access to immense amounts of content to use as inspiration to create original works.

What's nice about YouTube is it levels the playing field for marketing -- my videos can stand right next to David Copperfield's or Penn and Teller's. It's also an easy way to get booked. We used to have to send pamphlets, VHS tapes, and DVD's, but now you can send a YouTube link and be hired in minutes.

OK, you've got to give us one trick!
Here's a secret that dozens of magicians have offered to pay money for, but I'll share it with the readers because the secret is just that interesting. I do a trick where I have people write down a secret about themselves that no one else would know, and then I have them stand up and I tell them their secret. After I've read their mind and told them their secret things get weird. Then I pick a 'random' person from the audience, and I tell them to imagine they're in their hotel or at home, and that they've just gotten dressed. I tell them to imagine they're staring at the perfume or cologne that they're going to wear, and ask them if they can see it in their mind's eye. Then, I tell them the name of the cologne they are thinking of. Other magicians who do mind-reading are completely puzzled how I do that.

The secret is that I have an incredible sense of smell, and recall for smells. Before the show when I'm out mingling with the audience, if I catch the smell of a perfume I recognize then I'll remember it, and that's the person that I ask. It looks like I picked a random person.

I don't usually give away my secrets though, because then I'm robbing that person of the story they'll have for the rest of their life. If the secret is preserved, they will tell their grandkids about the time they saw a person levitating before their very eyes. But, if I tell them how, the story ends there and they never think about it again... If someone is learning a trick to perform for other people, I'm happy to teach them, but if it's just to understand it or figure it out, I don't.


 

Robert Strong performs at the Napa Valley TEDx event Dec 2 at 11:15 a.m. at the Napa Valley Opera House, Downtown Napa; admission is $65-$75. Visit tedxnapavalley.org.

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