Illusion. If you’re an Arrested Development fan, this word conjures the image of Gob Bluth fumbling through an absurdist magic performance. If you’re Andrew Evans ’05, it conjures the image of an intimate outdoor setting wherein audiences are truly immersed in a magical experience.
While Andrew’s day job is as a product designer for international design firm IDEO, he has opened his own performance space in his backyard in San Francisco. The Magic Patio seats 50 people and is managed by Andrew and eight of his colleagues who work as a team of performers; stage, light, and sound designers; an art director; and bartenders to create a unique live entertainment experience customized specifically for magic—with his landlord’s blessing.
We caught up with Andrew over the holidays, shortly after he and his team finished their 2015 run of their episodic live magic show “Illusions of Grandeur,” to be followed this spring by the sequel, “Vodvil.” Andrew—who has a Bachelor of Art in engineering from Brown University and a Master of Science in product design through the Stanford University School of Engineering—shared with us how he has blended magic and design into a one-of-a-kind pursuit.
What first inspired you to pursue magic?
It’s a pretty goofy story that I was only recently reminded of, actually. I was at an Easter brunch in Portland when I was 5 or 6. There was a magician performing for the kids who asked for volunteers, and I put my hand in the air. The kid next to me got picked—very clearly—but without missing a beat, as this other kid started walking up on stage, I stood up and started walking up on stage, too. The magician had nothing for me to do, but he was very gracious and let me stand off to the side of the stage. From a very early age I always liked theater and performing. I would do shows with babysitters and put them on for my parents. At some point I got a magic kit and never really put it down.
How did you pursue this passion alongside school? Was it ever a struggle to balance schoolwork with magic?
I’ve always found ways to integrate the two. It’s not at all a distraction but in fact an integral part of both my school and, now, my job. I was always performing when I was in Lower School, and later on in Middle School parents were looking for things to do for their kids’ parties and hired me, which was amazing. I was getting performance experience, which is by far the hardest thing to come by and also the most important thing to come by as a magician. So much of magic now is kids practicing in front of a mirror or a computer by themselves, so performing in front of people is a total game changer. I remember doing presentations in French class on French magicians, and I remember in eighth grade doing the mythology project with Tony Chursky—I was Hermes and he was the god of trickery, and I got to integrate magic into that presentation. Then, doing theater in high school, John Forier always managed to find ways to let me bring a little magic into the show. I remember we were doing “Romeo and Juliet” my senior year, and he let me have all these big explosions. I definitely set off multiple smoke alarms. That was kind of my legacy. If I was in a show, there was a smoke alarm that went off at some point.
How did your pursuit of magic evolve once you went to college?
Lo and behold, Brown University has one of the largest collections of magic literature in the world. It includes these old blueprints and manuscripts that are hundreds of years old and that you’re not allowed to touch with your fingers—you have to turn the pages with tweezers on foam wedges. They had a bunch of VHS tapes but not many DVDs, and the only TV to watch these VHS tapes on was in the coat closet. So I would be at Brown, in the middle of a crazy snowstorm, and get to the library and they would shove me in the closet. I’d push away all of the people’s coats and be huddled amongst these coats while watching magic videos and holding my deck of cards and practicing. I was also fortunate enough to receive grants, which allowed me to design and build these very old illusions I was discovering through research. That’s kind of the reason I have a Bachelor of Art instead of a Bachelor of Science in engineering. I very quickly realized that I was more excited about building the bridge and what it would look like than about being the one to tell you if it was going to fall down or not. Brown is close both in proximity and philosophy to the Rhode Island School of Design, and I was able to take classes at RISD in industrial design and architecture. If I wasn’t studying, I was typically in the theater. I sort of fell into set design, which I had never intended but turned out to be this beautiful marriage of engineering, theater, and artistry. I was doing a bunch of shows that had magic integrated into the set and, again, just all of these worlds collided into something that I was able to combine into a single pursuit as opposed to ever having one of them be a distraction from the other.
Can you describe the types of productions you host in your backyard?
Historically what people would call the golden era of magic is 1880 to 1920. It embraced an intimate style of performance where the audiences were relatively small, and conjuring the magic was focused on the presentation and the script. The style of magic that I really like doing harkens back to that. It’s much more about this interesting theatrical performance as opposed to, “And now for my next trick,” and so on. One of the most important things about the Magic Patio is being able to have a space that allows for that.
What was missing from local venues in your area that you wanted to infuse into the Magic Patio?
Even the term “venue” implies it’s meant to house any number of performances or shows, and I wanted to create a space that was uniquely there for magic. What’s interesting about magic as a performing art is that by definition you’re trying to create these impossibilities that happen in reality as opposed to, say, when Romeo and Juliet kill themselves—you don’t actually think the actors are dying. You see the characters dying in this world that has been crafted and we’ve been watching for the past two and a half hours. In a magic show, when a girl is levitating, you should think she’s actually defying gravity in front of your eyes. At the Magic Patio, because you can see the buildings of San Francisco around you, you can see neighbors who are sticking their heads out of their windows, you can see people who are drinking wine on the fire escape watching the show, you’re actually watching this crazy thing happening in a kind of reality on someone’s back patio.
It plays with the suspension of disbelief when the setting starkly contrasts what you’re seeing on stage.
It does. In fact, a term I use is “retention of disbelief.” It’s not about suspending anything. It’s about going, “Holy crap, this is real. How is half of her body in one place and the other half somewhere else?” Any way that you can create the retention of disbelief makes the magic itself more powerful.
Have you ever found that the process of good design takes the fun out of your magic? Or does it truly enhance it?
In the quote-unquote “process” I studied in grad school and now very much practice at IDEO, it’s the idea of a human-centered design process. Sometimes it’s not actually about efficiency so much as it’s a process that promotes delight and human values and emotion. If I’m just thinking about the best magic show I can do—what’s the coolest trick, what will blow people away, what’s never been done before—there’s a lot of stress associated with that. But when I’m thinking about what’s going to be the right thing for the audience beyond magic—for instance, what kind of drinks we need on the menu that are going to tap into the show and how we want the experience of people walking off of the street into the box office and out toward the stage to feel like—those kind of questions are deeply human in nature and require a whole different type of design. They allow me to have a couple of different minds when I’m creating the magic versus creating the experience.
How did your time at Charles Wright inspire you to pursue your seemingly disparate passions?
I think the key phrase is “seemingly disparate.” Teachers were incredibly supportive of outside passions and would help me find ways of bringing them into the classroom—or, at the very least, if not finding ways to help me bring them in, sure as heck not stopping me from bringing them in when I wanted to. Charles Wright’s a place where tactical things, like small class sizes, but also more human things, like passionate teachers driven to give good experiences to students, combine to allow for a highly customized educational experience. I’m sure that sounds really good on paper, but I believe it to be true. //
For our full Q&A with Andrew, visit click here.