The Bob Dylan of Magic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s more to magic than rabbits and hats (but please don’t ever stop that, magic community).
By Libby Coleman
Magician Nate Staniforth kind of makes me mad. It’s frustrating to watch him predict the top card in a deck or hold up a printed lottery ticket with the numbers that four random strangers just said aloud … and have not one freaking clue how he did it.
But the former host of the Discovery Channel’s Breaking Magic calls for a more peaceful response than mob violence: “The point is that something extraordinary has happened,” he told his audience during a performance last year. After a decade on the college circuit, Nate Staniforth had a (magical?) reawakening. About five years ago, he left the U.S. — where magicians have creepy hairdos and dress badly — to meet magicians in different countries, finally setting down roots in India. Upon his return to the States, he’s been able to see the “wonder” of his craft, Staniforth says. His message, as he explained in a prestigious Oxford Union speech, is simple: “Magic for me has been a way to remain open to experiences like wonder and astonishment.” Up next, a memoir and a national tour.
Forget the image you have in your noggin of an older chubster in a tuxedo. Staniforth, a nerdy-hot 33-year-old, ditched the tux in high school for a more casual look — and approach — to magic. As fellow magician Brian Brushwood puts it, in a world where big-name prestidigitators dazzle with music and glitz, Staniforth is more “basic” and “all meat.” He doesn’t pretend to have powers; in that way, he’s more Penn and Teller, less David Blaine. Or, perhaps, more like Bob Dylan, one of Staniforth’s favorites, whom he studied along with the greats like Houdini to find a comfortable onstage persona. Whether he’s performing magic or speaking, his is a softer style. “If magic has a poet, it’s Nate Staniforth,” Brushwood says.
While Staniforth may be comfortable with the path now, his career in magic started accidentally. As a 9-year-old in Ames, Iowa, he loved Lord of the Rings, which opened his imagination to the idea of spells. Expecting that the magic section of a public library would help him bring up the dead, he checked out lots of books. Instead, they taught him the beginner’s tricks, those sleights of hand you’ve seen at your 5-year-old nephew’s birthday party. Which, Staniforth points out with conviction, is not the best venue for magic: “The parents hire you because they think it’s for children, but invariably it’s the grown-ups against the wall who have the most powerful reaction.”
Sometimes, that powerful reaction is to be pissed off. The opposite of a fan called him the devil, Staniforth says with a laugh. Then there are the Internet commenters who call him out for mistakes that I can’t spot even with 10 viewings. But mostly, joy wins out. As Staniforth puts it, “You can say something with a magic trick that is very, very hard to say any other way.”