When Iowa native Nate Staniforth mastered his first coin trick at age nine, he learned a powerful lesson: a bit of wonder can melt even the stodgiest of foes — including a stern teacher.
Now one of the top magicians in the world, Staniforth, who lives in Iowa City with his family when he’s not touring, returns to the Englert to promote his new memoir and deliver a few surprises. What can the audience expect? “All I can really promise is that it will be the strangest night that they’ve had in a very long time.”
Boyhood in Ames
While growing up in Ames, Iowa might not seem ideal for a young magician, Staniforth credits his supportive community — and well-stocked public library — with setting him off on his unusual path.
“I think it might not have struck me in the same way had I lived somewhere else,” Stanifoth explained in a recent interview. “In New York City people grow up to do all sorts of things — they become actors and musicians and film directors. But in Ames Iowa, no one did that. No one grew up to join the circus.”
“When I found these histories about great magicians of the past, it wasn’t the historical information that resonated so powerfully with me, it was this sense of possibility. The specific details of their careers — that’s what captivated my imagination: this sense that you can decide to do something that sounds audacious and make it happen.”
“It was like a secret door.”
Building up, tearing down
After graduating from the University of Iowa with a B.A. in History and Religion, Staniforth began working as a professional magician, first in Los Angeles, then traveling the country doing more than 100 shows a year.
He’d succeeded. But five years into this rigorous schedule, Staniforth could feel the wonder and enthusiasm that drew him to the profession begin to wane. This feeling of disillusionment, he noticed, was common for many people, across many paths in life.
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“People are really good at making things ordinary. That is a really useful skill, but I’ve come to believe you have to be careful of it. It’s so easy to live in the story that you tell yourself about the world rather than in the world itself. And to treat your cosmology as the truth, your understanding of the universe as the way it actually is rather than acknowledge that it’s sort of a useful construct you’ve put together to help you navigate day to day.”
“My favorite moments are those that pull me out of that and remind me that whatever version of existence I’ve come to believe is true, that understanding is insufficient, and that it’s larger and wilder and more mysterious than I have allowed myself to believe is true.”
To shake himself out of this potentially career-ending doldrum Staniforth traveled to India for five weeks in 2009. Here he studied under a 3,000 year old clan of street magicians, as well as snake charmers, shaman, and witch doctors to learn about the roots of his craft.
“Every culture in the world has its own tradition and culture of magic, just like food, just like music. So I could have gone anywhere to do what I set out to do: immerse myself in another cultures’ history of magic. Turns out that’s not actually what I wanted. That’s what I said I wanted. I really just wanted to get lost — I wanted to discover that the world was big.”
After this transformative experience, Staniforth was rejuvenated. But now he had a new problem: how to share this all with an audience?
“On the flight home I felt sort of desperate. I felt like I had been struck by lightning. “Shit, I have to find a way to share this with people.” I didn’t know if I could do it with magic.”
So Staniforth started exploring ways he could combine his life’s work with philosophy, history, and storytelling. He gave a TED talk on creating astonishment, a lecture at the Mayo Clinic’s TRANSFORM conference about the intersection of magic and medicine, and a speech about the experience of wonder to the Oxford Union Society. He moved to television and hosted the Discovery Channel’s “Breaking Magic” series. He went back on tour. He wrote a memoir, “This is Real Magic,” out now from Bloomsbury press.
And when he finds himself caught up in the day-to-day minute of life, he doesn’t have to go far to rediscover that sense of wonder. “My two-year-old insists we go out every night and say good night to the stars. Even if it’s -15 degrees. It’s an incredible thing to be drawn back into that way of seeing the world, when everything’s new.”
“I’m still figuring it out as I go.”
Returning to the Englert Theatre
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Performing at the Englert is particularly special for Staniforth, and not just because he’s from Iowa City.
“I have this tradition of introducing a new thing at the Englert that I’ve never performed before. Which is a terrible fucking tradition — it scares the shit out of me,” he laughs.
But there’s another reason, and it has to do with what happened there one night early in Staniforth’s career.
“I was 22 and I had been touring for a year, and I realized that in order to compete with all the other acts that had more experience and money and better publicity I needed a video of my show. And I wanted it to look like a concert video from a band or something. So I rented the Englert Theatre and hired a film crew. I spent everything I had ever earned on this one night — it was just absurd. I had no idea if anyone would come. But I knew that if people did come, the footage would look amazing.”
But things didn’t exactly go as planned.
“Three weeks out from the show, we’d only sold maybe 100 tickets; two weeks out from the show, maybe 200 tickets. And I thought: “Oh, I have ruined everything — there’s no way I can make this work.”
Convinced this would be the last show of his career, Nate went out on stage. And then:
“It felt like actual magic. It felt like the whole city turned out. We sold out the show. And I used that video to book years of work as a touring magician.”
“You don’t often have moments where you are able to put everything on the line: if this works, it’ll be a victory; if it doesn’t work, I am done. But one of those nights was at the Englert. And I always love coming back.”
IF YOU GO
l What: Nate Staniforth: Real Magic Tour
l When: 8 p.m. Saturday
l Where: Englert Theatre, Iowa City
l Cost: $10 students, $15 seniors, $20 general admission
l Tickets: (319) 688-2653; www.englert.org