Keeping the Magic Alive: How Magicians Have Adapted to Socially-Distant Shows

Christian Cagigal and some of his magical objects. (Julie Michelle)

In a world full of self-declared “experts,” magic is a great leveler. Even if you once dabbled in magic as a child, or think you’re quick enough to spot how a trick is done, professional magicians still have the power to amaze—not just through speed and sleight-of-hand, but through their commitment to selling a trick. And while television magicians can use spectacle and sleek production values to create a suspension of disbelief, a stage magician relies on the force of their charm, and, frequently, on the personalization of the encounter. A magician asks an individual to pick a card, any card; that person draws a physical card. A tangible connection is made, and the foundation for trust is built.

Part of the joy of magic for an audience member is to be right there as a familiar object you held in your own hands—or in your mind—is transformed by the magician into an experience. But can that wonderment translate across digital platforms in the same way? Magicians around the Bay Area are rising to the challenge.

Christian Cagigal has already readied his act for the road—so it was only a matter of "re-choreographing" it for Zoom.
Christian Cagigal has already readied his act for the road—so it was only a matter of "re-choreographing" it for Zoom. (Julie Michelle)

A New Stage and Reworked Show

For longtime Daly City-based magician Christian Cagigal, the pivot to digital has been an interesting undertaking, in part because he’s spent many years deliberately crafting shows that hearken to a pre-computer age. Think Wunderkammer and antique music boxes and a Victorian parlor aesthetic. Even his “semi-autobiographical” show, Now and at the Hour—which he committed to camera with the help of filmmaker H.P. Mendoza—incorporated a live audience, and his close-up-magic-on-camera show Obscura also relied on the physical presence of its rapt attendees.

Fortunately, in order to be able to tour as a magician, Cagigal had already worked up a set of more standard, less atmospheric magic that could easily be adapted to a number of stages and lineups. For the last two years he’s traveled between New York City and the Bay Area, establishing himself bi-coastally at events such as Speakeasy Magick at the McKittrick Hotel, Odd Salon, and as the owner of the San Francisco Ghost Hunt. Thus prepared, he’s thrown himself into repurposing his material even further for an online audience.

Christian Cagigal performs a magic trick over Zoom. (Screenshot by Nicole Gluckstern)

Cagigal's experience setting up his magic table and filming it live for Obscura comes in handy here. He’s already learned a lot about positioning his camera for the best angles, and making his hands the star of the show as they swiftly manipulate cards, coins, photographs, and envelopes within unobstructed view.

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“I don’t have to reinvent my material,” Cagigal clarifies as we chat over Zoom. “I just have to re-choreograph it.” Fellow magicians have been a good source of information on video-conferencing basics, home lighting, and tweaking certain tricks to fit their screens. Ultimately, though, it's the audiences themselves who have been the best barometers of a particular bit’s success. And according to Cagigal, they’ve been pretty accommodating of his limitations.

“People allow us a little bit of extra leeway... and not be suspicious of every single thing,” he explains. “Because they know we’re all trapped in our space, and this is not the situation we are trying to create.”

Magical Nathaniel has had to pivot during the pandemic from in-person parties (above) to Zoom, where he's found a worldwide audience.
Magical Nathaniel has had to pivot during the pandemic from in-person parties (above) to Zoom, where he's found a worldwide audience. (Jim Vetter)

Everybody's Zooming Into the Act

For Magical Nathaniel—currently located in Oakland—adapting to the moment has been challenging and inspiring in equal measure. A predominantly local performer with a penchant for family gatherings and birthday parties, the 25 year-old performed his first full magic show in third grade (“a disaster!”), and developed his chops over the years as a resident magician at El Cerrito’s Playland-not-at-the-Beach, where he estimates he performed over 1,000 shows before it closed in 2018.

Thanks to shelter-in-place and the internet, he’s been able to broaden his audience base to previously unimagined levels. Recently he performed for an after-school group of almost 200, including members as far away as China. He’s also performed custom shows and taught magic lessons for folks all around the country. In the spirit of embracing the unknown, he’s been adapting his performances to a variety of platforms, such as Instagram Live—where as many as 500 people might be watching at any given moment, and up to 23,000 for an entire set.

“Nobody knows what the future holds...but I think it’s going to be a very long time before we transition back,” Nathaniel muses. “And I don’t know that virtual shows will be transitioning out. I think they’re here to stay.”

Seated at a low table in front of a glittery curtain backdrop that used to travel with him to his live performances, Nathaniel matches his shirt and bowtie to his decor, and his patter to his mutable audience. Like Cagigal, he relies in part on the willingness of his virtual clients to trust him not to use camera manipulation. He gives off a wholesome, camp-counselor vibe, and even from a digital distance, there is a feeling of personal care in his routine.

Magical Nathaniel performs one of his signature tricks online. (Courtesy of Magical Nathaniel.)

Growing up without a lot of extra money for the usual beginner props and gags, Nathaniel began building his own tricks at a young age. He demonstrates some of his favorites: one camera-friendly moment in which he makes money “fly,” and another using a series of sealed envelopes, which he opens one at a time with practiced aplomb. “I love envelopes,” he grins. When he finally pulls the card I’d been thinking of from the final envelope, I’m relieved—for myself and for him. Even from afar, this confident magic-maker has “read” my mind, and I’m appropriately impressed.

“We all need something, a sense of hope, a sense of wonder,” he emphasizes. “And that’s, I think, what will help get us through this—whatever we’re going through.”

 

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For more information on upcoming shows and appearances, see the sites for Christian Cagigal and Magical Nathaniel.