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ART’s ‘The Conjurors’ Club’ brings magic and illusion into your home, ‘secret package’ and all

Vinny DePonto (left) and Geoff Kanick, creators of "The Conjurors' Club."
Vinny DePonto (left) and Geoff Kanick, creators of "The Conjurors' Club."Elizabeth DeBlasi

In fashioning their live, interactive, online magic show, “The Conjurors’ Club,” creators Vinny DePonto and Geoff Kanick wanted to foster the up-close intimacy and tactile connectivity of pre-pandemic, in-person theater. Moreover, while the magicians in the show may be performing across the digital divide, they’re not relying on special effects or techno wizardry to bring their illusions to life.

“Our approach with this was to say, ‘How can we make the most analog digital show possible?’ ” Kanick says. “Because we’re not using trick photography, green screens, or any of those digital tools. It’s all staged as if you were to be seated across the table from these magicians.”

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Presented by the American Repertory Theater, “The Conjurors’ Club” features two resident magicians and a rotating roster of guest illusionists performing tricks ranging from mind-reading and sleight-of-hand to coin and card tricks. The production runs for 27 performances, Friday through April 10. The resident performers are Ran’D Shine, a renowned magician who’s appeared on “Penn and Teller: Fool Us” and in several documentaries, and Jeanette Andrews, a Chicago-based sensory illusionist whose work “takes advantage of loopholes in our perception” and mixes magic, science, modern art, and optical illusion.

Ran'D Shine
Ran'D ShineCourtesy of Ran'D Shine

Leaning into the power of the tactile, each audience member will receive a “secret package,” delivered to their home, for use during and after the show. “Touch is certainly something that we’re really missing in this time of social distancing,” Kanick says. “So we think it’s a wonderful gesture for the audience to be able to handle physical objects and have magic happen in their home.”

“The Conjurors’ Club” is set inside a fictional century-old secret magic society where illusionists from all over the world are invited to “hone their craft” and have access to the “extensive archives that contain all the secrets of the Conjurors,” says Kanick. For the first time in its history, the club is “opening up the doors and inviting audiences to become honorary members.”

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At the beginning of the night, a host will welcome the 40 to 45 online attendees via Zoom and perform some magic. The audience will then be split into separate breakout rooms, with three different illusionists rotating through. “When you go to these virtual shows, often you’re just another face in the crowd and you kind of get lost amongst hundreds of people,” DePonto says. “We have a unique opportunity to use these breakout rooms to make it more intimate.”

The piece was first developed in 2017 as a live, in-person show in New York City. DePonto says their original goal was to create “a 360-degree experience of magic to immerse you in the world of the magician.” Viewers were invited to “explore the different spaces a magician inhabits,” which included a library, a secret space underneath the stage, and an elevator.

That idea, DePonto says, lingered into this project as well. “Audiences can see inside a magician’s space, and the magician can see the audience in their natural habitats,” he says. “That expands the gamut of what’s possible because the magician has a unique window into your world.”

The creators caution, though, that there’s nothing to be apprehensive about. “Sometimes you see magicians use audience members as props,” DePonto says, stressing that won’t be the case here. “I want to reassure people that we’re not out to embarrass anyone.”

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Still, they do hope there’s a lively exchange each night. “We want it to feel like you’re at the front row of a table, that it’s conversational and engaging,” Kanick says. “People should have the sense that this is happening live right now and I can’t hit pause and that the audience’s participation affects the course of the performance.”

In addition to magic, DePonto and Kanick both have roots in the immersive theater world. Kanick began juggling knives at age 13 (torches came soon after) and got his first straitjacket at 14. He calls himself a magician-clown-poet and was part of the cast and creative team for the Drama Desk Award-winning nightclub-circus theater piece “Queen of the Night.” DePonto, a mentalist and magician who helped design illusions for the 2018 Broadway production of “Angels in America,” is a member of Third Rail Productions, renowned for dreamlike, labyrinthine shows like “Ghost Light” and “Sweet & Lucky,” where he fashioned tricks that were central to the storytelling.

Jeanette Andrews
Jeanette AndrewsSaverio Truglia

Andrews has been performing magic since she first saw a Siegfried & Roy television special when she was 4. She is known for some mind-blowing illusions involving scent. While smells won’t work in a virtual space, she teases that one of the tricks she’s developed for the show includes “a reverse pseudo-mind reading where members of the audience read my mind, seemingly,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in trying to democratize the process of magic in different ways, and this is an interesting way to flip the script.”

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She’ll also stage “a beautiful and minimalist piece of magic with a candle and a spool of thread” that’s considered “one of the oldest pieces of magic in the written history of the Western world,” dating to 1584.

Shine, who also produces a magic show featuring an all-Black cast, says that his act features mind-reading, “a modern interpretation of a classic magic effect,” and a trick involving “three coins and a game of hide-and-seek” that is one of his favorite effects in the show.

“Randy is just an incredible sleight-of-hand artist,” DePonto says. “You will think things are camera tricks, but they are not.”

DePonto, who will appear at select performances, explains that in one trick he has an audience member “retrieve an object from their home that is meaningful to them, then [I will] attempt to divine what that object is — without seeing it of course!” Kanick, who’s one of several rotating hosts, will start with a trick that seeks to unite an audience scattered on screens miles apart from each other. Another illusion will prompt viewers to shuffle playing cards in their homes (sent in the packages) to achieve “something that is, maybe not impossible, but highly improbable,” he says.

Ticket buyers will receive a "secret package" delivered to their homes for use during and after the show.
Ticket buyers will receive a "secret package" delivered to their homes for use during and after the show.American Repertory Theater

The rotating cast of magicians includes Kayla Drescher, who was crowned “The Next Great Magician” by David Copperfield on “Today”; Eric Jones, a semifinalist on Season 12 of “America’s Got Talent”; Justin Willman, star and creator of the Netflix series “Magic for Humans”; and Madhi Gilbert, who was born without hands and “is redefining how a deck of cards can be handled.”

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Indeed, DePonto hopes “The Conjurors’ Club” helps subvert the magician stereotype, “You know, the debonair white guy with the top hat and curly mustache.”

“Lots of people have a very simple definition of what magic or what a magician is,” Kanick says, “and I think we’re excited to expand that definition to explore how there are many different flavors of magic.”

“We are excited,” he adds, “about letting each magician’s voice and style shine.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

THE CONJURORS’ CLUB

Created by Vinny DePonto and Geoff Kanick. Presented by the American Repertory Theater, March 12–April 10. Tickets from $58, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org