I’m so happy you found that one! I’ve actually done 2 TED talks and this one wasn’t shared as widely. But like the first, there’s a fun surprise ending.
This talk is me expounding on the principles of illusion, largely in-tandem with the book that I wrote, called SPELLBOUND: 7 PRINCIPLES OF ILLUSION. I cooked all these things at the same time, because like my film and television projects, they shed light on how a magician thinks.
Preparing for the big TED stage takes months and months. You write something, you show it to people who are better writers than you, they tear it apart and you put it back together. And because it was a talk about illusion, there’s the added task of pulling off a trick during the talk. So you have double-duty! And the performance, rehearsals, and timing for that
one took a good half-year to put together.
Besides your work in designing illusions, you also are a New York Times crossword puzzle constructor. How did you get started doing that? And any tips for crossword aficionados?
I’ve also loved puzzles and games my whole life. I’ve been solving the NYTimes crossword puzzle daily since I was a teenager. I had my first submission printed just after college. And I realized later in life, when I was 30 years old, that I could combine the worlds of magic and
puzzles, as I reasoned all magic tricks were puzzles! As far as being a crossword constructor (a cruciverbalist) is concerned, anyone can mail them in to the NYTimes, it’s an open submission process. They get reviewed by the guru of all puzzles, Mr. Will Shortz, and his assistant editors. And I had so many puzzles rejected before I finally figured it out - and I STILL get them rejected, because I’m always trying to push the envelope!
As far as tips? For Solvers, start with a Monday - anyone can do a Monday NYTimes crossword. Saturday’s crosswords are the most difficult - it can still take me a full day to get through a Saturday NYTimes crossword. And if you want to start making crosswords, there are a few great blogs (Diary of a Crossword Fiend, Rex Parker does the NYT Crossword) that break down how a puzzle comes together. But honestly it’s trial and error — don’t be afraid to mail in your crossword and get feedback from the editing team.
I was lucky enough to get to attend your immersive show The Enigmatist at the High Line hotel recently, and it was an unforgettable evening. Without any spoilers - what was the process like of brainstorming the show, and what do you hope people take away from the experience?
I’ve been doing magic professionally for a decade, but it has always been for cloistered circles — corporate events, private parties and social clubs. This is my first ever publicly ticketed show! Seems to be going well as we sold out January and have extended to the end of March. I
guess there are a lot of puzzle-loving people out there!
I’ve had these tricks for years and years, but I’ve never strung them together in a narrative form before. I was so thrilled when I discovered the central story of Riverbank, the strange and fantastical location in Geneva, Illinois, where the story takes place - the “cradle of cryptography.” I’m absolutely in love with the characters in the story, and that’s a situation you want to be as a storyteller - I want to hang out with these characters!
As far as takeaways go, I want people to learn about puzzle-solving and puzzle-creation. This show is meant to introduce you to that world - you aren’t expected to know anything about puzzles in advance. And my hope is that people don’t feel like I’m performing magic AT them, but WITH them - it’s a very audience-participation-heavy show, where I encourage people to be a part of the collective experience. A lot of magicians pretend to have superpowers, to manipulate you or have control over you - but I at the beginning of the show say “There’s no magic in magic. It’s not real, it’s all a puzzle. And we’re going to experience this puzzle
together.” Like I said, I guess I like pulling back the curtain!
What does the average day look like for you? How do you stay operating at such an incredible level with travel and other demands?
It changes with every project I’m working on. Right now I’m in the throes of THE ENIGMATIST. We’re still getting it to be a well-oiled machine. On February 15th we’re going to launch version 2.0! So I don’t have an exact routine yet, but usually my mornings are on the computer, wearing
my producer hat, emailing and coordinating all of the different moving parts of the show, and then in the afternoon I’m practicing sleight of hand. I collaborate with a lot of people - I’m working with consultants for direction and writing, hoping to make this show as good as it can
I’ve learned how to work while traveling. I actually love flying, and I’m addicted to my computer already - so having 5 uninterrupted hours to get things done is a dream! And I try to partition things as best I can. During the week, it’s often corporate shows, where I get to fly around
the country and meet people from all over, and then the weekends I’m back in New York for The Enigmatist.
What words of wisdom would you have for others who aspire to inspire through illusion or artistry?
Be original. Magic, I think, as a profession suffers from people presenting magic in a cliched way. You can buy a magic trick from a shop and it hands you patter to say as you perform it. Tear that up and throw it out! Come up with an original presentation, be innovative.
These tricks have been around for a hundred years so the best thing you
can do is put a fresh coat of paint on it. How can you make magic different
Another way to be original? Cross-pollinate. Take something you know, and apply magic to it. Justin Willman does it with comedy. Dan White does it with a cool modern, classy approach. I try to do it with puzzles and history. If you like football, do a sports trick. If you love hip-hop,
put some lyrics to a card trick. Take a look around and see what other people are doing or how it’s been done, and do something completely different.