The 21st century hasn't been kind to Northwest magicians. Though entrenched for generations as a staple of urban nightlife entertainment, illusionists disappeared without warning from area clubs and theaters. Veteran performers could barely scrape by with proper bookings while the youngest entrants in this unforgiving trade were forced to conjure audiences through whatever means necessary.
"A lot of the theatrical parts of magic had dwindled," recalls Brian Proctor, a Portland close-up specialist with nearly two decades of experience dazzling unprepared bystanders. "People saw things online or on TV, but magic needs to be live. People need to experience magic."
Proctor, alongside Portland's Brandon Lawrence and Vancouver, Wash.-bred L.A. migrant Jonathan Molo, will appear Tuesday at Curious Comedy Theater's inaugural Night of Curiosities—the first showcase for local magicians to be held at a mainstream venue in recent memory. One of Curious Comedy's founding members, Nate Smith, came up with the idea after first catching a glimpse of the venue's new Annex—a 65-seat space featuring adjustable risers that bears a startling resemblance to the Parlor of Prestidigitation at Hollywood's famed Magic Castle.
While the assembled performers' sleight-of-hand wizardry might seem a sharp break from Curious Comedy's typical high-octane improv shows, the nonprofit's organizers see the opening of the Annex as a way to offer a wider variety of programs. Moreover, there's often an association between comedy and magic. As Lawrence explains, a magician's act exists somewhere "between juggling standup comedy and juggling, like prop comics."
Lawrence has thus far tailored his technique to spark moments of wonder through forced interaction. While Proctor embraced the state fair crowds, Lawrence—a former bank manager turned resident magician for Embassy Suites' Washington Square locale—prefers breaking the ice at company cocktail parties.
"There will always be a demand for live entertainment," he says, "and there's always going to be stuffy corporate events. It's always been a goal of mine to build a career off of the corporate market. I've avoided shows with kids altogether. Comedians of the highest caliber still work small clubs, you know, and that's how I feel about my weekly hotel performance—fleshing out material to figure out what works and what doesn't. I really do care about the craft, and, this way, I can make a living without compromising what I think is good magic."
Both Lawrence and Proctor seem genuinely content with the directions that walk-around magic has led their careers, however seemingly constrained the format. Somehow, despite regularly captivating hundreds at events, Tuesday's show will mark the first appearance for each on a proper stage before a seated audience. Odder still, neither appears more than vaguely bemused by that, which underlines the vastly different expectations for the magician's diminished role nowadays.
"Magic did fall out a bit," muses All American Magic shop founder Mark Benthimer. "It was a national trend, just more so in Portland because there's so much going on here. Interests were piqued, but I think people get sick of playing games. Magic's coming back because people are looking for something that's not electronic. It's not a tablet or a cellphone. It's live entertainment, and I think people are looking for that sort of interaction. You can stare at a screen for only so long…I hope."
The local crop of magicians' journeys seem entirely self-directed, utterly distinct and more than a little dark. Proctor skipped much of his senior year to haunt the bus lanes downtown in search of amenable strangers. The deluge of promotional mailings advertising a 13-year-old Benthimer's first show launched an FBI investigation. Perhaps most revealing, Lawrence abandoned his interest in prestidigitation during adolescence to concentrate on distance running and only returned to the craft after lower-body injuries demanded a different sort of solipsistic rigor.
"Training in magic had the same feel," Lawrence admits. "They both take an enormous amount of private time willing yourself to do something you don't want to do before showing up to perform. I do like endurance activities, I do like things that are challenging, and I guess I am drawn to careers where it's uncommon for people to succeed. Day in, day out, you grind away and move forward, slow and steady, toward the greater goal—creating an illusion of ease."
SEE IT: A Night of Curiosities is at Curious Comedy Theater's Annex, 5229 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Unit 102, curiouscomedy.org, on Tuesday, June 25. 7:30 pm. $20.