In an age where all the world’s information is at our fingertips, magicians like Kevin Blake have to work harder than ever to keep audiences engaged.
Curtain-raising YouTube reveals, how-to TikTok tutorials and generalized cynicism have gone a long way toward demystifying and undermining Blake’s craft.
“Audiences get smarter every year,” Blake said after a recent performance of The Illusionist, his one-man show at the Palace Theatre in North Beach.
Thankfully—both for paying customers and for Blake’s ticket sales—he has figured out how to stay one step ahead of attendees. His secret lies in a tactful combination of humor and a keen awareness of what people actually want out of a show like his: to be genuinely stumped.
“We couldn’t figure anything out, and it blew our minds,” said Kendra Robins, who attended The Illusionist last week with a group that ranged in age from nineteen to ninety-one. All of them left the theater scratching their heads. “He’s a genius.”
Part of Blake’s genius is his decidedly modern methods of misdirection. Rather than dazzling or confusing the crowd with smoke and mirrors, he leans on self-deprecating jokes (“You want to see a grown man pretend he has magic powers?”) and meta themes.
“It's really important that the audience knows that I'm aware of what they are aware of,” he told me.
Blake plays into audience expectations. On the night I saw his show, he made us believe tricks had gone awry before revealing what was “actually” going on. He also used our cynicism against us, teasing us by acknowledging that all of the miraculous things we were seeing had nothing to do with magic.
“You’ll see many miracles,” he said at one point during the performance. “But you’d be a fool to believe them.”
It appears that this grand deception is working. The Illusionist has had 70 sellout evenings and has moved more than 6,000 tickets in just over a year, according to producer Geoff Libby. Most of the local audience, Libby added, learned about the show through word-of-mouth.
Perhaps this has to do with the way people tend to wonder at things they can’t explain and quickly forget about those things that make sense. After finding the answer to a quick Google search, we often return to the task at hand without even committing the newfound knowledge to memory.
But people pay to see Blake because they want to be tricked. Getting to the bottom of the mystery means coming to the end of the ride. During his show, Blake explores this idea as well, noting that to be the magician—the one with all the answers—is to be without a sense of childlike awe and bewilderment.
He is confident that his audiences understand this on some level. “Even though people say they want to know, they go home, and they don't look it up,” Blake said. “They're happy enough with experiencing the wonder.”
For her part, Robins validated Blake’s theory. “You always want to know how they did it,” she said. “But it's better not to.”
The Palace Theatre, 644 Broadway
Through Nov. 19 | $45-$60
2023 dates TBD
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org