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"You know something cannot be happening but you're experiencing it happening at the same time. The initial moment is like a defibrillator. It just shorts a circuit—in a positive way."

How Joshua Lozoff is, and isn't, like David Copperfield 

The mechanics of magic

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Cutting the deck: magician Joshua Lozoff at his home - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Parlor Magic
Joshua Lozoff
The Siena Hotel
Dec. 13, Jan. 8, Feb. 5, March 5

Orange County magician Joshua Lozoff says it's no coincidence that performance magic came into its own toward the end of the industrial revolution in Europe.

"The timing is really relevant," he says. "I think there was some void to be filled that magicians saw. In this period things are becoming a little less 'miraculous' in Western culture than they were a few hundred years before. There's less superstition and certainly a positive evolution of culture.

"But," he continues, "maybe there's a baby of wonder in all that bathwater of superstition that shouldn't have been thrown out."

After its Dec. 13 matinee performance, Lozoff's current show, Parlor Magic, runs on the first Friday of each month through March at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill. In some ways, it represents a bold step backward into the history of legerdemain, because his first evening-length show, Beyond Belief, which played to sold-out houses at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater in 2007 and 2008, was a theatrical production in a more contemporary style.

But he's been thinking a lot about why we respond to magic shows. "We know exactly how far away the sun is and how things work—and if we don't know, we can tap a button and find out. But I think now, certainly more than then, there is no daily opportunity for amazement or thinking that there are mysterious things in life. I think at some level people feel the lack of it. It's a craving I relate to."

As it happens, Lozoff tells me all this after we watch David Copperfield, the world's most famous purveyor of magic, ply his trade last month at Durham Performing Arts Center. Lozoff likens the experience to "a jazz musician going to a Springsteen concert," since the two practice different types of magic. He says he was trying to see Copperfield's show as a first-timer, seeing what a magic show actually feels like before knowing any of the "green-room stuff."

"I've come across a lot of magicians," he says, "whose performances appear to be the result of having disconnected from a sense of what it's like to be in a magic audience—what it's like to be amazed by something."

He admits it's a hard thing to do. "As an actor, when I'm watching a movie, I'm aware of where the boom mics are. A special-effects person is going to have even a tougher time appreciating a movie as an audience member because he knows exactly what's going on."

"A magician is an actor meshed with a special-effects person," he concludes. "You're both."

Lozoff is impressed by the efficiency he sees in Copperfield's act; the crowd-management skills required to get that many audience members on and off stage in a fast-paced show, the way the illusionist and his crew are constantly communicating with each other as they propel a technically daunting show forward.

But efficiency means something else to the parlor magician. "In life, you mostly know what's about to happen ... Something might happen to surprise you, but most of the time it doesn't. You generally never know in real life when you're going to have a powerful emotional moment.... [If] I come along and ask, 'Would you like to see some magic?' and I think my question is immediately interpreted as, 'Do you want to have a higher peak of life for a moment?'"

The title of Lozoff's new show refers to a magic tradition that dates back to the 19th century. Although the term is now discounted in some circles of professional magic, parlor magic gets at a certain sense of intimacy and shared experience that has always fascinated Lozoff. More than a century ago, outside of public exhibitions in major theaters, this is largely how people encountered the art form: in commissioned performances of close-up magic—Lozoff's calling card—in the sumptuously furnished homes of the upper class.

Lozoff didn't have a luxurious private home at his disposal, so as an approximation he went with the Tuscany Room of the Siena Hotel. For his show, the gold wallpaper and ornate curtains of the banquet room are offset by tables covered with black cloth. On each table are card games, books on magic, pens and multicolored slips of paper. Convivial, well-dressed patrons enter from dinner or drinks at the hotel bar.

After a moment, Lozoff enters, dressed in a black three-piece suit. He doesn't pull out a deck of cards or flourish a vividly dyed silk—at least not yet. Instead, he begins to tell us a story about his own history in magic. As the conversation develops, an event occurs that really shouldn't be able to happen. Then another one does, slyly interwoven into the threads of Lozoff's narrative, but otherwise uncommented upon until after both have taken place.

In a conversation before the show, Lozoff admitted that "I didn't want to be the guy who pulled out a set of linking rings, linked them, put them down and then without any context... picked up another prop, did something with it, put that down and picked up a bunny.

"If music were magic," he continues, "those kinds of shows would be the equivalent of lounge music, where the singer's not really connected to what he's singing, and there's no reason for him to go from one song to the next."

To create an organic whole, Lozoff structures his shows carefully so that the effects accumulate and connect with each other.

"You know something cannot be happening but you're experiencing it happening at the same time," he says. "The initial moment is like a defibrillator. It just shorts a circuit—in a positive way."

The brief but potent koans of Zen are said to serve a similar function: to shock the mind into awareness, to bring into examination incomplete assumptions, beliefs and perceptions.

"Maybe as you leave, those circuits are getting connected again, and wonder turns more to curiosity. That's totally fine with me. There was still a moment where it wasn't all left-brain, not all analytical. It was a shorted circuit," he grins.

The December and January performances of Joshua Lozoff's Parlor Magic are sold out. Visit www.parlormagic.net for more information. The Indy's culture editor, David Fellerath, worked on Lozoff's 2007 show as a set designer.

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