David Williamson: Ringmaster of Circus 1903, Close-up Magician, Applied Psychologist
Do you believe in magic?
For the first time ever, we welcomed a professional magician, David Williamson, to the Feisworld Podcast.
David is currently touring in the US in a circus called Circus 1903, a brand new show from the producers of The Illusionists and the puppeteers of War Horse. It's a fun celebration of the golden age of circus. Their most recent stop was in Boston, MA. (Feisworld HQ!)
I fell in love with David's performance instantly. The audience was naturally and completely captivated by his words, his humor, and his incredible talent of improvising with children ages 5-9 on stage.
If you can't see the player above, click here to play and download the episode.
To my surprise, David isn't a trained ringmaster, but a professional magician. He has been featured on ABC's Champions of Magic, where he appeared with Princess Stephanie as he performed his miracles at different locations in and around Monaco.
"The closeup magician is the supreme applied psychologist."
You know how people are going to look, you know how to divert attention and interest, and you have to put your presentation with some meaning for them to keep them interested. Kids who study magic, come away with a toolset that serves them beyond the magic tricks.
Working as a magician is a career very few people can pull off.
How did David become a magician and sustain a career for decades? What are the words of wisdom he'd like to pass onto our younger generation?
David is going to unveil the world of magic to you, and the life of performing with a Circus.
More on David:
David has also co-starred in several top-rated prime-time network specials including CBS' Magicians' Favorite Magicians, NBC's Houdini: Unlocking His Mysteries, and NBC's World's Greatest Magic 3. He was seen recently on The CW's Masters Of Illusion TV series.
In 1981 David won first place in the International Brotherhood of Magicians' sleight of hand competition. That year he also became the first ever recipient of the prestigious Gold Cups Award of Excellence in close-up magic, these are among numerous awards and recognitions David received worldwide.
His best-selling magic book, "Williamson's Wonders", has been translated into three languages. His instructional DVDs "Sleight Of Dave", "Dave 2" and "Magic Farm" are bestsellers worldwide.
David was a featured performer in the World Tour of The Illusionists Live touring Australia and London's West End. He is also a frequent favorite Guest Entertainer on Disney Cruise Lines.
During our conversation, I found out that David has also performed in my motherland - China, on the most watched program in a country of 1.3 billion people. The program is called "Spring Festival Celebration" aka Chinese New Year's Eve broadcast. David appeared two years in a row and he was invited to teach in many magic workshops in China.
Wanna watch David perform live? Circus 1903 is touring now, get your tickets here. (No commission for Feisworld)
Special thanks to...
Circus 1903's Digital Media Director Grace E. Torreano and Philip for providing us with amazing soundtracks for this episode!
[07:00] You looked incredible on stage, and you were unbelievable with kids. How were you discovered as a ringmaster?
[09:00] How long have you been touring with Circus 1903?
[10:30] How does it feel to start a show from scratch, to be involved from the beginning, including the design process?
[13:00] How was the design/creation process like? Did you have to cut or remove parts of the show?
[16:00] Is it difficult for you to cut off parts that you have worked on for a long time? How do you deal with that, as a creative?
[20:00] What were you doing when you were 10 years old? What was going through your head?
[26:00] What do you feel about the ‘art’ of practicing magic?
[32:00] You’ve worked with David Blaine. What was that like?
[34:00] How was your experience performing on BTV and reaching the entire China on TV.
[41:00] What was it like for you in the beginning, what were some of the hard parts, starting and making a living out of magic? Was there anything you’d have done differently?
[45:00] Do you think it is harder now because there are many different paths or ways to make a living out of magic compared to how it was in the past?
[47:00] What are your thoughts on how young magicians can stand out these days and how they can create a brand that differentiate themselves?
[50:00] How do you deal with kids? How did you learn how to handle them, considering the amount of energy you need?
David & Fei
Backstage at Circus 1903 in Boston, MA (March 2017)
[27:00] That was before the internet, it was before instructional videos, it was all from books, and it wasn’t until I met with other people who did it that I said ‘Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to look like’, ‘that’s how you should hold the deck of cards’... and it took a long time. Today, a kid in Singapore can invent a move and then it’s hacked, and by morning, somebody in Finland had improved it over four generations and it’s performance ready. It’s amazing what’s happening today.
[28:00] They don’t want to be a performer, they don’t want to travel the world and be in a show, or do birthday parties to make money on the weekends. They don’t want to do that. They want to make a cool video, edit it, put some awesome music, a little slow motion, a couple of filters and put it up on YouTube, THE END.
[34:00] Close-up magic is a very specialized branch of the art, and here is what it is: It’s a very intimate type of performance. No comic, no dancer, no actor even really, can get that intimate with another human being, where you are handing them an object, and looking into their eyes and using their name, finding a little bit about their background to infuse some meaning for them. It’s a very personal thing. So that’s why it’s wonderful...
[36:00] It’s an art form, it’s a form of self expression, it’s a way for me to connect with other person, or maybe three or four at a time. It’s pretty special.
[37:00] Because that’s what my books told me. Magic is not for practicing in your room, it’s for going out to the world and share it with people. You need another brain in the room to appreciate what you’ve created and to get the magical effect.
[39:00] The closeup magician is the supreme applied psychologist. You know how people are going to look, you know how to divert attention and interest, and you have to put your presentation with some meaning for them to keep them interested. Kids who study magic, come away with a toolset that serves them beyond the magic tricks.
[51:00] When I was doing The Illusionist in London, I had a little boy on stage and I said ‘come over here I want to talk to you’. He sat on the floor, so I sat on the floor with him, under the spotlight. I asked him if he believed in magic, and he replied ‘I’m not sure’. And I thought that was a really great answer. And I said ‘you know what? I’m not sure either, but I’ll tell you this, many magical things, and amazing things are going to happen to you during your entire lifetime, that’s for sure’... And he accepted that.
Transcript of Interview with David Williamson
Welcome to the Feisworld podcast, engaging conversations that cross the boundaries between business, art and the digital world.
The close up magician is the supreme applied psychologist. You know, where people are going to look; you know, how to divert attention and interest, more importantly. And you have to close your presentation with some meaning for them to keep them interested. Because that's what my books told me - magic is not for practicing in your room. It's for going out the world and sharing with people.
That was before the internet. It was before videos, it was all from books. And it wasn't until I met some other people who did it, that I said: “Oh, that's what that's supposed to look like, oh, this is how you hold the deck of cards, oh, I get it now”. And it took a long time. Now today a kid in Singapore can invent a move, and then it’s crowdsourced and hacked. And by morning somebody in Finland has improved it, you know, over four generations and it’s performance-ready. That's amazing, what's happening today.
Magic is a very specialized branch of the art, and here's what it is: it's a very intimate type of performance. No comic, no dancer, no actor even really can get that intimate another human being, where you're handing them an object and looking into their eyes and using their name and finding out a little bit about their background, in order to infuse what's your doing with some meaning for them. And it's a very personal thing. So that's why it's wonderful.
It’ s an art form. It's a form of self expression. It's a way for me to connect with another person or maybe three, four at a time. It's pretty special.
Fei Wu 2:24
Hello, boys and girls. Welcome to another episode of the Feisworld podcast. My name is Fei Wu and I'm so excited to be here. First question: Do you believe in magic? I do. And I've been lucky enough to witness some in real life as well. But for the first time ever, I'm welcoming a professional magician on our show, named David Williamson. David is currently touring in the US in a circus show called Circus 1903. A brand new show from the producers of the Illusionists and the puppeteers of War Horse. It's a fun celebration of the Golden Age of circus. Their most recent stuff was right here in Boston, Massachusetts. Here, at Feisworld, we love the circus, and we fell in love with David's performance in Circus 1903 instantly. The audience was naturally and completely captivated by his words. His humor and his incredible talent of improvising with children ages five to nine on stage, going from breathtaking to laughing until your tummy hurts, is a pretty good way to describe my experience at Circus 1903. To my surprise, David isn't a trained ringmaster, but a professional magician. He has been featured on ABC’s “Champions of magic”, where he appeared with princes Stephanie, as he performed his miracles at different locations in and around Monaco. David has also co-starred in several top rated primetime network specials, including CBS “Favorite magicians”, MBC’s “Houdini unlocking his mysteries”, and NBC’s “World's greatest magic 3”. He was seen recently on the CW “Masters of illusion” TV series as well. In 1981, David won first place in the International Brotherhood of Magicians’ sleight of hand competition. That same year, he also became the first ever recipient of the prestigious Gold Cubs Award of Excellence in close up magic, which is a topic we’ll cover in great detail during this episode, but these are only among numerous awards and recognitions David received worldwide in our conversation. I found out, that David has performed in my native China during the most watched programs in the country. Imagine 1.3 billion people - yep, that's our Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year's Eve broadcast. But working as a magician is a career very few people can pull off. How did he do that? What are the words of wisdom he would like to pass on to the younger generation? David opened my eyes to a world I had never entered into before, he brought me back to the early 1990s, when I was still dreaming about becoming a magician. I wasn't lazy, but I also didn't have what it took. Most people don't know how magicians perfect a trick over the course of a year, few years, even decades. David is going to unveil the world of magic to you and the life of performing with a circus. How cool is that? So please, drop me a note if you liked this episode and who else you like to hear from you the performing arts world intent. And yeah, here goes David Williamson, magician and ringmaster!
Fei Wu 6:09
I'm so glad you could join me. I was thinking, how much it takes for two people to come together. And, you know, there's like fate involved. It took kind of this world tour to go around and finally appeared in Boston. I'm just so excited.
Oh, great. Fantastic.
Fei Wu 6:30
Yeah. You must be exhausted. Or do you? How do you feel right now?
No, I feel well, we did three shows yesterday.
Fei Wu 6:38
So you would think I would be exhausted. But no. They take good care of us. And I'm not the one doing the backflips and handsprings, it's not as rigorous for me.
Fei Wu 6:49
Yeah. But still. You were phenomenal. I mean, wow. I never interviewed a ringmaster before, and I know you're not only a ringmaster, but you're a very recognized magician as well.
I've never been a ringmaster before, so yeah. This is novel for me as well.
Fei Wu 7:09
Wow. You looked completely natural. And you're just comfortable on stage in front of, like you said, 1000 people. You were unbelievable with kids. And I want to ask a lot of those questions. Let me jump in and ask, how were you discover to be a ringmaster? Like you said, that's not really the trajectory of your career path.
That's absolutely true. I never dreamed in a million years that I'd be a ringmaster in the surface. I am a magician, as you said. And I've been doing magic all my life. Turned to my mother when I was 10 years old and I said: “I'm going to be a professional magician, work on my brothers. Don't worry about me”. And she was very supportive. And both my parents were, because I had a passion and I knew what I wanted to do. So along the way, fast forward, decades later, I ended up in the cast of The Illusionist. And The Illusionist is a touring review show with several magicians of different styles, and Simon painter, the producer of The Illusionist, the man who put it all together, saw me and we spoke and he had me in his cast in Australia three years ago. And then he had been in his cast to the west end in London at this Ashbury theater last year, for a couple months. And he kind of saw the vision. He saw me with a top hat and tails and the ringmaster garb, and he thought, I would make a good ringmaster, after seeing what I could do. So he had this idea for many years for circus 1903. But when it finally came together. He called me about seven or eight months ago and said: “Hey, do you want to be the ringmaster in our circus?”, and I knew a little bit about what he was planning with the amazing elephants and all the acts that he was going to show around the world. And I didn't hesitate. I said: “Yes, absolutely. I would love to do that”.
Fei Wu 9:04
That was seven or eight months ago. So you've been touring with this group?
We've been touring since December
Fei Wi 9:10
Only since December last year.
Yeah, I mean, I got the call in the middle of the summer of last year. So I had a few months to prepare. And then we all converged upon Melbourne, Australia, in November, at a large empty movie studio there. And we built - literally built - the show from the ground up, from the grid work to the palace, and we painted the scenery and the curtains and all the costumers came with the almost finished costumes and, and composer came with his almost finished score. And we just kind of put it all together there in Melbourne, over the course of several weeks. And then we hit the road in Australia, rolling it out in Canberra at the Theater Center there. And then the Sydney Opera House was our second stop in the concert hall there. And I have to say, that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The Opera House over the holidays.
Fei Wu 10:06
Well, I saw in one of your blog posts, you said – well, you always have fun on stage, obviously - but this has taken your experience to a whole new level. And isn't it phenomenal for you to witness from the start? Because I've spoken with several Cirque du Soleil artists, and it really depends, you know. Some of the artists are sort of brought into the show once a set of has already been completed, whereas some of the other ones is part of the design crew. And what was it like for you to witness almost, like, raising a show, creating one? Cause a lot of things could have gone wrong too. What was that process like for you?
I have to say, that was the most exciting part for me, because I was brought in fairly early on, because what I do is fairly specialized as far as the magic. And the comedy needed to fit my style. So I was brought in as a writer, and I brought with me a friend of mine, Mike, who's a wonderful historian and magic, but he's a hilarious comedy magician and a wonderful writer himself. And he had his hand in writing some of the other scripts for a few of the other shows, that these producers have done. One of them being The Illusionist: Turn of the century, which was about billion version of The illusionists that played at the Palace Theater on Broadway last year. So he's steeped in the history of magic, but he's also very well versed in that time period. And so he was the perfect guy to bring on board to get some of the vernacular correct. And also, he had the magic knowledge. So we were able to put together some the comedy sideshow routine with some of the gags and some of the magic that you see it there. And he really helped me find my voice and along with our director, Neil Dorward, we found some inventive little ways to use my skills and lace me throughout the show, so that you didn't get sick of me, but I was there to support and make sure that presentation kept rolling along.
Fei Wu 12:14
Hmm. I've been to so many shows… Yesterday, one of my friends asked me: “How many?” And I said: “Probably no more than 10 shows”. And this is almost considered the most part of my business, because I want to learn more about independently sort of managed teams. And there is so much excitement, and you learn from every show, not to say that there is some overlap, perhaps, among the artists themselves. I love when you said, that you found your voice, because to me, from my perspective, you're very natural, as if, in a ways, you are a part of the Creator team. And there is that harmony and synergy, but it sounds like it was a process, you didn't just get dropped in the show. And everything felt completely natural.
There was definitely a process. There was a lot of trial and error and things just didn't ring true. So we had to cut, and I will say this about Neil, our director - he's not afraid to cut. And I told him from the early on, I said: “Neil, you know, I'm not an actor”. So I said: “Be brutally honest, I need you to be honest with me. If it doesn't ring true, but sounds phony, or if it looks horrible, just say so. And we'll cut it, will do something better”. So there was a lot of trust, that I'll be honest, we’ll be honest, and just make the best product we could.
Well, an example is interesting, because when you break up the circus show, typically you're like: “I love this guy. But I would love to move on to kind of see this next segment”. I didn't feel that way. I felt like I want to see more of this guy. I don't even know who he is.
Good. Yeah, yeah. Because, you know, you can fall too much in love with a character or a moment and just try to milk it, and you give people too much. And, I think, the old adage “Always leave them wanting more” is so true. And it's necessary to move a show along. For example, as soon as I knew I was going to be the ringmaster, I said: “What does a ringmaster have?”. We've got the top hat, it's got the riding boots, because traditional remasters were the equestrian masters, and how they all began - they stood in the middle of a big ring and that horses would run around. And they do these credible equestrian tricks, and so forth. So that's why he's dressed like a gentleman rider, with the jodhpurs on the boat. So if I'm going to put together a comedy bullwhip act, it’ll be perfect for the ringmaster, you know. Something out of my wheelhouse there. So I got this bullwhip. And I paid $1,000 for this kangaroo bullwhip, and said: “I need to find somebody to teach me how to use this bullwhip now, so I don't put my eye out”. And I looked online. And there's one place in the world. It's called “The bullwhip artistry studio of all things”. And this is an ex-entertainer. He used to do shows in Las Vegas around the world. And he's an expert with the bullwhip. And when piston man or people from the Indiana Jones show in Orlando, need to learn how to use a bullwhip, they come to him and study with him at his studio. And I said: “This is the guy I need. Where does he live? Where do I have to go to study with this man?”. And it was 10 miles from my house. I live in southern Ohio in a little town called Yellow Springs. And he lives down the road in Jamestown, Ohio. His family knows my family, because we're both from families of farmers. So anyway, I studied the bullwhip where they might get good at it. And I put together this hilarious comedy routine with mishaps and knocking cigarettes out of audience members mouths, and we put it in the show, and it was getting laughs, and it was getting there. But it wasn't quite right. And it made the show a little bit too long. And boy, they cut it and I had to agree with them for all the reasons but I worked so hard on this I was so proud of. [laughs] So the bullwhip back is not in the show.
Fei Wu 16:29
Oh, man. isn't that difficult sometimes when you are a creative person?
Oh, absolutely. We had a lot of things like that, that we put in, that just didn't make the final cut. And you have to go: “Okay, that's the process”. You have to shrug it off and just make what you are left with best you can.
Fei Wu 16:51
You know, I mainly interview creatives. And I consider many people artists, and not just painters. What I love what Brian Koppelman said is that creating is failing all the time. But once you've chosen the creative path, it's basically trial and error all day every single day.
That's right. I remember, when I was a painting student in a Wright State University. I thought it was going to be an artist, although I knew I was going to be a magician, but I thought I really enjoyed art. And I made this beautiful painting for my mother. I was a freshman in college, you know. And every time our teacher, when I did something pretty good, he put it in a frame and give it to my mother. And everybody was very proud of me. So on my first painting, I really spent a lot of time on it. And I showed the finished product to this young art teacher, this professor, and he said: “Okay, that's okay”. He took just some white base paint and paint it over my creation, and he goes: “Do it again”. I was dumbstruck. “You don't wait a minute, because all you think you're an artist, because your first try your first attempt. Because if you could do what you just did, you could do it again. But better come on. And campus is expensive. Don't waste these frames, you know, you're gonna hang everything you try up on the wall”. And it was a great lesson. It really was. And it shaped how I think about any kind of art that I do. You know, and in the world of performance.
Fei Wu 19:09
It just a great story! These two paintings right behind me, there were done by my mom who is living with me, and who is basically paid her way through as this professional artist, and who has supported me. Yeah, it's incredible. And then one of the stories that she shares, believe or not, she said that she has this rule, where she doesn't throw away any painting halfway through. She said: “You know, there are a lot of artists out there, who kind of rip that piece of paper of their notebook or whatever, and just start from scratch again, and forget about the previous one. And she said, she forces herself not to do that and continue to make it better and not to throw away her work.
Yeah, I was like: “That's really interesting”. You said, when you were 10 years old, that you knew you want to be a magician. And I often ask my guests: “What were you doing, or thinking or dreaming about when you're 10 years old?”. Because it's such a magical age. And tell me about what was going through your head.
Oh, my goodness. Wow.
Like I said, I lived in a small town in Ohio, and my dad was a farmer. And, you know, sometimes a factory worker. And my mom worked at the university in the budget office. And I had two brothers. And for some reason, I got the magic bug. I in the fourth grade, we had a little story about Houdini, and at the end that book taught a little coin trick. So I got pretty good at the coin trick. And My fourth grade teacher - I'll never forget - she looked at me, and she said: “Hey, David. That's pretty good. Maybe you'll be a magician someday”. And I can just imagine the neural pathway being formed, burned into my brain at that point, because that's the first time somebody looked at me as the middle child and saying “Hey, maybe you'll be blank”, you know, talking about my future. And that year magician came to our school and did a little program on the stage for the kids. And I was completely fascinated with him. And again, my teacher saw, that I was so excited and so fascinated. She talked to the magician and said: “Look, I have for you a backstage assistant, he'll take care of your rabbit and he'll help you carry the equipment to your van after the show”. And I did. I felt like I was in the club. And he treated me that way. Like a fellow brother, magician. Imagine the impact that has on a kid that age. So that kind of started it. And I remember at the age of 12, I got a book from the library called “The amateur magicians handbook” by Henry Hey, it was his pen name. His real name was Barrows Mussey. But he talked about that in the introduction. All the great men of magic he met, when he was a boy in Iowa, practicing magic keys to go meet Tommy Nelson once, who was a famous sleight of hand man from the Vaudeville area, lived in a neighboring town, and john Mulholland, famous magician and collector. Basically, he was telling me that there's a larger community of magicians that communicate with each other and respect each other's histories. And it was a little introduction, little peek into the world behind the curtain of magicians. And I thought: “Wow, there's a wider world out there of these people, who love this art form”. And that fascinated me, I wanted to peek behind that curtain. I want to meet some of these great men and travel the world. And then, when I was 13, my mother found an article in Boy's life magazine about little town in Michigan. Colon, Michigan was a place for the Blackstone, the great Blackstone, the magician, he used to summer there on Lake in Colon, Michigan little farming community. Every year they have a festival in the summer, where thousands of magicians come from all over the world and camp, and the Amish folk flee their farms and rent their homes to the magicians, and there's a big magic festival to this day. It's the home of the “Abbott's Magic” manufacturing company. It's a magic company that builds magic. And boy, you know, I used to get their catalog of magic tricks, and it was as thick as a phone book. And so when my mother dropped me off there in the pop tent - in the 1974,I was 13 years old - me and another kid from Cincinnati, she took off for Wisconsin, to visit her sisters. So there we are, in the middle of this dairy field, in our tent, and all these other magicians with their tents, and the sitting at a picnic tables by Coleman, and doing magic tricks. And then we go down to the high school to see the big shows and that marketplace, the dealer's room, where they sold the wares. And they had lectures, competitions. It was the greatest weekend of my life. I'll never forget it. I met so many wonderful people that weekend, that are still lifelong friends to this day. And that was my introduction, formal introduction to the crazy world of magicians. And 95% of people involved in the art of magic are amateur enthusiasts. They're not crazy enough to try to make a living out of it. So there are magicians in every city. There's a wonderful magic group here in Boston. There's magic groups in every city. So, you know, when I'm traveling to a city, I'll put the call out and I'll have dinner every night with different magic friends.
Fei Wu 24:40
Wow. Seriously, you just reach out and…?
Oh, absolutely. There’re a wonderful magicians here in Boston.
Fei Wu 24:47
It’s incredible. How do you go about selecting the people you want to meet with?
I've been doing this for 40 years or more. So it's - we become friends. It's a small community. Everybody knows each other.
Fei Wu 25:00
It's interesting. It's a small community, because I grew up in Beijing, China, in the 80s and 90s. And I had magic books in Chinese and in English. And really, I'm not alone. Because we have shows. And we have different activities in school. And my mom has purchased so many different kits, you know. You have the cards, and you have different rings, everything. And what I felt rather surprised by - I wouldn't use the word discourage - as a child, how difficult it was to practice magic. And in comparison, I'm also happened to be a skateboarder. And yeah, and I just compare practicing a very simple magic trick as a child versus practicing Ollie (which is a technique, the board and you basically fail on your knees, your wrists, your elbows) for three months straight, before you can go out for two inches if you're lucky. So that's how I felt about practicing magic.
That's a wonderful metaphor. That's exactly right. That's the way I felt about it, too, when I was a kid. Because, you know, I was an introvert. And what if I could accomplish something that my brother's couldn't do, because both of my brothers were very accomplished in sports and music. And the outgoing personalities. I had none of that. Bit I had magic, though, I could have a few small magic skills and a few secrets. And imagine how far that got me in school. Because it kept me from getting beat up. But now I would make friends with the jocks, because I fooled them and they thought I was cool.
Yeah, I practiced and I had a real practice regimen. That was before the internet. It was before videos, it was all from books. And it wasn't until I met some other people who did it, that I said: “Oh, that's what that's supposed to look like, oh, this is how you hold the deck of cards, oh, I get it now”. And it took a long time. Now today a kid in Singapore can invent a move, and then it’s crowdsourced and hacked. And by morning somebody in Finland has improved it, you know, over four generations and it’s performance-ready. That's amazing, what's happening today.
In fact, I liken it to skateboard, because there are kids today, who do things with a deck of cards, that I didn't think was possible when I was their age. And they don't want to be a performer. They don't want to travel the world and be in a show, or do birthday parties to make money on the weekends. They don't want to do that. They want to make a cool video, edit it, put some awesome music, that little slow motion, a couple filters and put it up on YouTube. The end. You know, it used to be with a deck of cards - you get the one down the corner store, a basical deck of cards, because you didn't want to have an unusual brand, because people thought they would be unusual or for tricks. The idea was that it doesn't look like you do anything. It looks like you pick up the deck, maybe give it a cut and set it back down. Meanwhile, it's very ninja-like, cloaked in secrecy. But today, there's these back designs, which are innovative and beautiful. And there's graphics, just like on the bottom of skateboards. And certain artists get more attention. And these kids are trading in these cards and doing these overt sleight of hand moves. That's called card history. If you ever want to have your mind blown, google “card history” or go to YouTube, and search “card history”, and watch these amazing things: there's Card History Con, that just happened in Berlin. Kids from all over the world come to Berlin to show each other flourishes with decks of cards, that's a whole new branch of magic. Now, some magicians are the old school, and they are very threatened by this. And they said “That's not magic. That's juggling. There's no mystery”. There's no theater, you know, but I don't care. I love it. If I would have been 30 here in 2017. I be doing it too. It's fantastic.
Fei Wu 29:04
Yeah, I must say that the way you started the show - you didn't draw so much attention to yourself. I didn't even connect the dots right away, that you were a magician, and now moment came. I remember as a kid was just playing with a deck of cards and trying to shuffle it. And in that moment it became so obvious to me! And you're standing in front of the kids, and you have this deck of cards in your hands, and you just shuffle. I kind of don't even know what that's called.
It’s flourishes. Yeah, we’ll spring the cards from hand to hand, I do flourish, just to draw attention. Yeah.
Fei Wu 29:39
And I was so close like “Oh my god. I can't believe that just happened in itself!” You know, you watch these incredible world class aerialists, Contortionists, doing their thing. And they're great with their bodies. But I think about our hands all the time. Our hands are magical. And well, we can do it with our hands. And some of my guests say like: “Kiss your hands every day, because they make magic”. [laughs]
[laughs] Oh, yeah. Well, I've been massaging a deck of cards. I've been shuffling a deck of cards for 45 years. And they're still not shuffled yet. But I don't leave the house without a deck of cards. Because if I'm waiting for a car, or sitting in a theater, I always have a deck of cards in my head. I'll never be bored. I can always keep myself entertained.
Fei Wu 30:28
So funny. When I started the podcast, I interviewed a lot of family and friends. And within 10 episodes, I realized, wow, I could reach out to anybody in the world. And that's magical. But there was one gentleman who I knew for a long time, but we never conducted an interview. And he's this world class keynote speaker. So before we got started, and this guy Stephen Shapiro, he said: “Hey, do you want to see a trick?” And I was like: “What is this about?”[laughs]. So before we even turn on the recording, he just took out this whole suite of things, like, I didn't know this guy could do any tricks!
Oh, the magic, you find it everywhere. I mean, there's so many people out there who are secret magician geeks. A good friend of mine, who I grew up with, his name Chris Kenner. And he's David Copperfield’s number one assistant. Now he's his main go-to guy. And of course he goes to all the fancy Hollywood parties and so forth. And he was at a party not too long ago. And Bob Dylan was there. And he comes over to Chris and goes: “Hey, can I show you a trick?” Cause Bob Dylan likes magic![laughs] He was doing magic tricks for Chris.
Fei Wu 31:42
No way. Yeah, when I was 15, I was still living in Beijing. And I came to the states when I was 16. So one year David Copperfield was in China. And it was a really big deal. He took over the entire stadium, I believe, at the time. And so I went with one of our family friends, and it was really eye opening, and years later, that means maybe I'm not as plugged in anymore, I learned about the gentleman named David Blaine. You have worked with him, yeah?
Yeah. David Blaine, I've known him since he was a teenager, he used to come around to New York, when I'd be hanging out with my buddies up there. And we'll practice, I guess, magic. And then, you know, the next thing - boom, he's got a TV special and he's world famous. He's a great guy. And he's very serious about magic, and I worked on a couple of specials as a “consultant”.
Fei Wu 32:32
I love his style. And I definitely see similarities between just how relaxed and comfortable you are (I wish I was introduced to the magic world that way), versus sort of his style, that's more flashy, you know.
It's more flashy, Vegas. A little more formalized. Yeah. So when did you leave Beijing? What year would that have been?
Fei Wu 32:55
When I was 16, that would be like 1999, 2000.
Okay, so, in 2009 we had the World Magic… it's called FISM, the biggest magic gathering in the world. It's every three years. It's kind of like the Olympics of magic. And it was in Beijing for the first time in 2009.
Fei Wu 33:13
Oh, people must have loved it.
Oh, they did. I went ahead, and I did a lot of press beforehand. So I did a lot of TV shows and interviews and stuff. And people there didn't really know David Copperfield. It wasn't a common name. And so for a short time, I was the most famous Western magician in China, because I was on all the talk shows, the newspapers and so forth. But all the magicians from around the world came to Beijing. And all the Chinese magicians came out. And I met so many great Chinese magicians. And there's a wonderful community in Beijing of fantastic magicians. And eventually, I went back like 12 times after that to China, doing the theater shows and also lectures for the various magic groups, and all the different cities all over the country. And y right, that there are student magic clubs, and they're not necessarily performers. They're kind of like fans of magic. And they do a little magic. But you know, I have 3040 people show up from a university magic club, all these kids to learn about magic and the way we do it, and so forth. Yeah, it's great.
Fei Wu 34:16
I’d love to see you go back there.
I loved it. I've met so many wonderful people there, that are friends to this day. I haven't been back for several years. But I made many trips to Beijing. In fact, I was one of the co-hosts of the Springtime Festival on TV.
Fei Wu 34:33
Wow, that's incredible. So, we started off when you were 10 years old. And asked your mom and said: “Don't worry about me worry about my brothers”. Now, I'm not even sure if your parents and brothers are aware of the numbers we're talking about. That's over 1.3, 1.4 billion people, think about the percentage! Back in the old days, when I was growing up, eight or nine years old, like the entire nation would tune in, and before that YouTube and web, talking about maybe a good 30 – 40 - 50%, that's just insane amount of people watch TV show!
One thing I did, was a children's festival at the old CCTV studios there in Beijing, this giant TV studio, and it was a cast of over 1000 kids doing these amazing dance routines and entertaining. It’s fantastic.
Fei Wu 35:26
Wow, I can't believe how you know, the world is so small!
Sometimes it really is. And magic. You know, I think back to that 13 year old kid, practicing his card tricks. And so again, the dairy field, and Colin, Michigan, with his eyes wide. And these magic tricks have taken me all over the world. And it's wonderful. That's why I love the art of magic. And anytime I see a kid, practicing magic, I try to take as much time as I can with them. And encourage them.
Fei Wu 35:54
I even think, that the magic tricks these days plays even more of a significant role. I noticed, a lot of my friends are older than I am. And I just love when they approached me with a trick, you know, some of that, it's small trick, and many I've seen. But I love watching people doing that.
David Williamson 36:15
Close up magic is a very specialized branch of the art, and here's what it is: it's a very intimate type of performance. No comic, no dancer, no actor even really can get that intimate another human being, where you're handing them an object and looking into their eyes and using their name and finding out a little bit about their background, in order to infuse what's your doing with some meaning for them. And it's a very personal thing. So that's why it's wonderful.
It’ s an art form. It's a form of self expression. It's a way for me to connect with another person or maybe three, four at a time. It's pretty special.
That's why I love close up magic, you know, sitting at a table with just a dozen people or fewer, and showing them some magic, and creating just these moments that they've never seen before. And it'll never happen again. Yeah, it's pretty special.
Fei Wu 37:09
I love it. And I watched some of the David Blaine's shows. And I've had people and, especially, teenagers these days, who approached me with a magic trick. And I feel very special.
David Williamson 37:22
They’re forced to talk to you and look you in the eye. And it was a wonderful tool for learning how to be social, when I was a kid. Like I said, I was painfully shy. And as a 17 year old, I was very tall, and very geeky, and gawky, and awkward. But I was compelled, because that's what my books told me - the magic is not for practicing into room, it's for going out the world and sharing with people, because you need another brain in the room to appreciate what you've created, and to get the magical effect. So I was out there, work busking, working in restaurants and hustling, tips and so forth, and approaching older people, and couples, and families. And for me, to talk or walk up to somebody at a party and talk to him, is still difficult to this day. just as me, but as the magician, it taught me some social skills. The closeup magician is the supreme applied psychologist. You know, where people are going to look; you know, how to divert attention and interest, more importantly. And you have to close your presentation with some meaning for them to keep them interested. Cause kids, who study magic, come away with a toolset, that serves them beyond just the magic tricks.
Fei Wu 39:35
I completely agree with that. You reminded me of a story, when around 2009 and 2008, my dad was really sick in the hospital in Beijing. And he eventually passed away, but during the most difficult time - and I was so worn out - I was just a caretaker, but my mom was doing most of the work. And I had put myself on a leave of absence from work. And I was away from my social group. But I feel like I had a couple of books, thank god, at the house. But you didn't quite socialize with a lot of other people. And I remember this gentleman who was also sick, 86 years old, and he had this grandson, who was 10, kind of chubby little kid, and who came to visit him, it was so fun. He was really shy, and his grandma was like: “So why don't you show Fei a magic trick”. I was like sure, give him a stage and let him perform. And he didn't look super psyched. And he performed that trick. I just remember, my anxiety was completely out of the window. My heart, my heartbeat felt normal. Everything just felt really good for those three minutes. And it didn't even matter to me whether he was good at all. And in the end, I was really surprised. I had no idea what he did to make that happen. I was like: “Wait a minute, you fooled me”. And it was so beautiful. And I just want to see so much of that happening in this world. There are people listening to the podcast, who have full time jobs, and they still do have these dreams, whether it is to be an artist, blogger, magician, and they never thought it would be possible. And I wonder, what was it like for you at the beginning? What were some of the hard parts that in retrospect, that you either have to live through that, where you could have done something different to overcome them?
Yeah, absolutely. It's very difficult life. You know, when young magicians come to me now and go: “I want to be a professional magician, just like you. Do you have any advice?” I say: “Yeah, make sure your girlfriend has a good job”. [laughs]
Fei Wu 41:39
With good education, you might have a chance. But it was very difficult to try to make a living. I remember when I was a young hot shot in my 20s. And I was going around all the magic festival, and winning competitions, and doing my little lectures and so forth, and wrote a book, you know. It was kind of an ego driven kind of time for me. And a more established magician, sat me down and said: “Look, it's well enough to be the flavor of the month, when you're a young man, but you owe it to your parents”. He said: “Try to figure out, how you're going to make a career, how you're going to make a living doing this stuff, because it's going to be a long arc, and you're in this wonderful moment. But you need to think about revenue, need to think about a savings plan, you need to think about your future”. And he kind of laid down the law for me and said: “Show business is two words: you've got the show, you need to think about your business and take care of that, figure out how you're going to do this”. So he was absolutely right. I think, I resisted that a little bit. But, you know, as years went on, I really appreciate him taking the time and saying good words about how you're going to turn this into a career. And with the help of friends, along the way, showing examples of how they may be marketed themselves, set up an LLC, you know, a separate corporate entity, even though they're just one person, was beneficial in some cases. And along the way, I kind of learned these lessons, that I would have learned a lot quicker if I would have taken a couple business classes in college. But I didn't think I needed that.
I think the most valuable lecture, that we could possibly have at a magic convention these days, is have a tax lawyer come in, and lay down the law, and tell him to look at our taxes as performers and proprietors for our little businesses, and so forth. But no, we get the guy, who comes in to show a new card trick for 45 minutes. It's like, wouldn't it be more valuable to have an expert marketer come in or a tax lawyer?
Fei Wu 43:48
No way! I think we joked about this, but it's absolutely true. You know, I am a freelancer, and I was able to carry my skills and experience as a project manager, digital producer, to really still have a lucrative career, you know, something I can rely on. And recently taught at Leslie college, right here in Boston. And they were teaching project management, and some of the students weren't as interested. But in general, that knowledge is never taught anywhere. And the moment you graduate, you're expected to know and that's fascinating. I love to see that, we should make that recommendation to conventions and get it together.
I mean, now, it's a very kind of ad-hoc loose apprenticeship kind of thing, and it’s really a school of hard knocks, because especially these days, there are as many ways to approach a career as a professional magician, as there are professional magicians. Everybody's got their own approach and way of doing it. It's not like the old days, where you had a certain management companies and bookers, taking care of everybody's career, you know. But now, with the digital entertainment and all the various venues, there's so many different ways. And just when you think the rules have all been set, somebody comes along, breaks the rule and makes a career for themselves. So it's a very exciting time, actually, right now.
Fei Wu 45:15
Do you think it's hard? Is it harder now? Because there are many different paths versus just one?
That's a good question. I don't know if it's harder or not. That's an excellent question. It's hard for me to judge, because this is one of those careers where the longer you're in it, the more opportunities open up. And so I have more opportunities, obviously, to me now, 40 years later, than when I was starting out in my 20s. And so it's very difficult to judge from this perspective, if it's harder for a young person coming along or easier. Yeah, the path was a little more straightforward back, you know, 30 years ago, but these kids these days seem to be embracing that. They don't want one path. They want to forge their own and create their own audience, bring their own audience to them, rather than trying to get access to that audience out there. They'll just create their own.
Fei Wu 46:09
Yeah, it's interesting, we're talking about this. It's almost like now you have a mic, you have a computer, anybody can be a podcaster and produce shows versus back in the old days, which I was fortunate enough to work at that China National Radio station for one year as this young DJ. And really, I loved it. I won an English competition. And this producer approached me and I thought, he was kidding. And that moment was like, well, this can be real. And I paired with a very renowned DJ, I remember all the girls from my high school was asking for his autograph. And then, next thing I knew, I had my own show for a year, right before I came to the States. So I remember just how interesting that was just, getting letters sent to my home, to my school, and people from all around China, which is tuned in on that now, I like this format a lot better. But when you don't have this official master voice behind you, this corporation behind you, you know, what is your legitimacy?
I interviewed Dorie Clark, this wonderful woman speaker in New York. And she wrote this book called “Stand out”. So, what are your thoughts on how do these young magicians stand out and create a brand, that's actually can be differentiated and recognized?
Good question. I don't know. It's going to bubble up. Somebody is going to stick their head above the pack. Because it's kind of like the lemming thing. Everybody follows the last successful guy, and then it's that one person, who goes: “Wait a minute”, he stops and goes: “I'm going to go the opposite direction, because everybody else is going that direction”. That's what David Blaine did. He was the first person to turn the camera around, the camera was not on what the magician did. The interesting part of that TV show was the crowd reaction, what happened to the tricks, that David Blaine did in his first special. I don't want to reveal anything, but there were very simple tricks. I mean, they were simple, but powerful.
It was very powerful, but very simple. Some of them you can buy from a magic shop, but he did them well. He didn't understand it, he didn't present them like a showman, he was just kind of guy, walking down the street for something cool. And boom, if you get the right crowd reaction and turn that camera around - that was a whole new way of marketing this magic, and seeing it on TV show… So I've always known, that the simple tricks get crazy reactions. But we've never seen that on TV before. So David Blaine was the first person to turn the camera around. He didn't go with David Copperfield land for Penn and Teller, and anybody beforehand, so he kind of switched gears. And that's kind of what it takes, I think.
Fei Wu 48:55
Wow, that is still so far my favorite video, it felt like a documentary, right? In a way. So close. Felt like instantly I was drawn to this guy. I felt like I knew him for 20 years. You know, you trust him right away. And just you can see the pure joy he was able to create in somebody's life, after meeting them for five minutes and five seconds. I don't know whether those actors or not, I don't care.
Yeah, that whole TV world changed with Survivor.
Fei Wu 49:32
So, watching you, on the other hand, your magic with kids… May I ask, how do you possibly even engage and organize them? Because I'm a martial art nerd. And I encounter 3, 4, 5-year-olds and all the way up. Oh, man! I mean, people who haven’t taught a group of kids, they don't know how exhausting that is. Right?
Well, I have learned how to channel their energy for my games.
Fei Wu 50:08
You clearly do.
I worked on Disney Cruise Line for about six years, entertaining family audiences. And I loved it, because it wasn't a kid show. It was a family show. So I would entertain the adults through the children, you know, by talking to the kids and letting the kids be kids. Because if you put the right spotlight and the right framework around a little six year old, there's nothing funnier. There's nothing more charming if you hit them with the right questions, or give them the right task to attempt to do so. Yeah, every night, I get four kids on stage. We attempt to do this little card trick. And I give them each a little job. And hilarity ensues. Because it's like herding kittens. It's chaos. Yeah. But it's controlled chaos. I've been doing it long enough, I kind of know the signs. I know the cues. I know, when kids about the burst into tears, or burst into something else. I mean, it's all happened over the years. I've done this routine thousands of times now, and it's completely different every night, because the personalities of the kids, you'll get some show off, you’ll get shy kid, you'll get charmers, you'll get brats, you'll get everything, but they're all wonderful. And, you know, I hope that what comes off is that I respect childhood. Because I love having kids on stage and just saying: “Look at these beautiful children. Let's try to put them through the paces”. Nope, that didn’t work. But we were thoroughly entertained. And that doesn't matter if the trick works or not. Because that's not what it's about at all.
Fei Wu 51:37
Hmm. I was so touched when you said to the little boy that, you know, you're going to have this beautiful life, and it just, like, drew tears to my eyes.
David Williamson 51:48
I have to keep myself from tearing up every night, when I say that too. It kind of came out organically. One night, when I was doing The Illusionists in London., I had a little boy on stage. I said: “Come over here. I want to talk to you”. And he popped down and he sat on the floor. So I said: “Okay”. And I sat on the floor with it in the spotlight. And we just had a very nice little chat. And I asked him if he believed in magic. And he said: “I'm not sure”. I thought that was a really great answer. And I said: “You know what, I'm not sure either. But I'll tell you this many magical things. And amazing things are going to happen to you during your entire lifetime. That's for sure”. And he accepted that. “Okay, sounds cool”.
And I thought, you know, it's true. I looked at my life. And I looked at the life of my children, all the people I know. That's what life is. And that's kind of my summation for this circus show. Life is a circus, and that's what I want to leave the kids with. It's like, the circus was amazing. Guess what? The rest of your life is going to be even more amazing.
Fei Wu 52:49
Yeah. Wow. So philosophical in a way that you interpreted a very difficult concept in a very easy, digestible, unforgettable way.
Every day there's a gift, like meeting you and this podcast!
Fei Wu 53:03
I know! I do have one more question: you mentioned, that you're a dad. And I think somewhere on the website you had mentioned you have a few children. And how old are they approximate? I wonder how cool is it to have you as a dad.
I don't know. You know, my daughter's 18. She's a freshman in college and my son's 25. And they both traveled all over the world with me. And I've been to a lot of different places. And I think the thing they love the most about me being a magician, is the community around me, all my crazy performer friends. I mean, I have some true eccentrics as friends, and some brilliant people, some hilarious people, some very fascinating people. And so they get to meet all these wonderful people in our life. And I think that's what they love the most, is just all the crazy people that we know around the world. And when they travel now on their own, they're getting to the age where they can travel on their own, they're always going to have a friend, or an uncle, or a big brother, or somebody to look out for them wherever they are, because they know they’re one phone call away from having hot meal and bed to sleep in, because of the network of magicians out there.
Fei Wu 54:16
Wow. Such a, like you said, small, close community! I think that beats a much bigger, sort of less connected communities.
You're right about that, like music, or the world of comedy, or acting and things like that. They're huge communities, but they're not very cohesive. These magicians, for some reason, are very fraternal, maybe it's the secret nature of the art form. But magicians love to get together, and share secrets, and boost each other, you know, and help each other's careers and so forth.
Fei Wu 54:46
Wow, amazing. Thank you so much, David. What a pleasure to have you here.
Really nice to talk to you. Thanks. Thanks so much for the opportunity.
Fei Wu 54:59
Hi, there. Me again. I want to thank you very much for listening to this episode. And I hope you were able to learn a few things. If you enjoy what you heard, you'll be hugely helpful if you could subscribe to the Feisworld podcast. It literally takes seconds if you're on your mobile phone. Just search for Feisworld podcast in the podcast app on iPhone or an Android app, such as Podcast addict, and click “subscribe”. All new episodes will be delivered to you automatically. Thanks so much for your support.