On the Phone With Dan Sperry

On the Phone With Dan Sperry

Dan Sperry (©Simon Painter)

Magician Dan Sperry was late for our phone interview. Had he made himself disappear? Not quite. “I was out on a boozer last night, man, and I’m hung over,” the 29-year-old explained when we finally connected. “But we’re going now. We can do this.” And we did. For 20 minutes or more, during which Sperry, aka “The Anti-Conjuror,” spilled some tricks of his trade and more than a few beans about his offstage “normal” life as a coffee entrepreneur. Looks are always deceiving, so Sperry’s Marilyn Manson exterior (tattoos, piercings, black nail polish) masks a keen drive and a grounded personality. He’s a patriot, too. And a darling of social media, with millions of views on YouTube. As an entertainer, he often performs at NYC’s intimate The Box. But now he’s reaching for the brass ring on Broadway in The Illusionists—Witness the Impossible at the 1,600-seat Marquis Theatre, Nov. 26 thru Jan. 4.

Well, hung over or not, welcome to Broadway. I hope you had a good time on your bender.

Always.

Is this the first time you’ve performed on Broadway?

Yeah, I had like my little Off-Broadway show that ran a couple of years. But this is like the first real deal.

Are you doing something special for Broadway? Any new tricks?

Yeah, there are a couple of new things I’ve been working on. A little edgier. Something you would not expect in a magic show.

How so? Or is that top-secret at the moment?

One involves a rifle onstage. Very American.

You do amazing things with birds. Are the birds coming back?

Yeah, yeah. I have to do the things that people typically associate with me: The bird act, the bit with the Life Saver. And then a couple of other things. I don’t want to give away too much. You have to dangle the carrot.

I have to tell you I don’t look at dental floss—or Life Savers—the same way anymore after seeing you on America’s Got Talent.

I was once in Home Depot, and this elderly Asian couple came up. The wife said something about how the husband tried to do the floss. And these were old people who I probably never would have appealed to had that [show] not happened.

How does the Broadway show work? You share the stage with seven other illusionists.

We kind of weave in and out. If people don’t like me (how could people not like me?), there might be a dude coming up in a couple of minutes [they would like]. Every segment is right around three minutes. It can appeal to that new mindset that people tend to be wired into now, flipping through YouTube. Everything is pretty high quality. I’ve never heard of anybody actually getting bored. Everyone kind of segues in and out, kind of like Cirque du Soleil. I think it makes it more fun for the audience and the performer. A couple of us have worked in shows together in the past where I’ve come out and done my chunk, and they come out and do their chunk. Here, it’s not start and stop. There’s a flow.

Can you take me through the process of creating a new illusion? How long from the concept to actually getting it up onstage? Is it a lengthy process?

Sometimes it can be. I don’t necessarily sit and say, aw, man, I have to come up with something new. Maybe a singer says, I have to write a new song (although most singers today don’t write their own songs). Sometimes a little nugget will come along, and then you’ll build on that. It will snowball into the next thing. In the case of the rifle, it took a couple of months to get one segment figured out and to make sure it was going to work right. It uses an air compressor. So you have to find the safe level of the air to go off. A buddy of mine from L.A. helped me build it. His name’s Gary Tunnicliffe. He did cool special effects for Halloween, Hellraiser and all these really cool classic horror movies. He’s a really talented guy. It’s been fun [working with him]. Lots of trial and error.

How do you know when something’s ready for the public to see? Do you try it out on other magicians?

I actually don’t try it out on other magicians. I’m more sink or swim. Get-it-in-front-of-an-audience kind of person. I’m going to throw you in the deep end of the pool the first time, and let’s see what happens. You can only practice in your garage or rehearsal space so much before you run out of options. You’re not going to know if it’s going to be entertaining or if it’s going to be amazing or if it’s going to tick every box that a magic trick is supposed to tick in a person’s mind. You really don’t know. Sometimes you think you have the greatest idea ever, and then you get it in front of people and it totally [messes] the bed. Then you try and fix it, but sometimes you just got to walk away from your baby.

So, you’re a tightrope walker as well as an illusionist.

That’s the way it goes.

What do you bring to the art form that no other illusionist brings?

I’m not sure if I can really answer that. I think I bring a little bit of whimsy. I don’t take myself too seriously. In the end, it is just magic tricks. What are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to have fun.

Is there a place you want to take magic to? Expand the art form in any way?

Honestly, what I’ve been able to do so far is more than I ever thought I’d be able to do. I thought I would be doing birthday parties forever, which was totally fine with me. I don’t have anything in my skull like, we’re going to do this, we’re going to make history. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and hope people like it.

You perform live all over the world in countries where English is not the first language. What’s the universal appeal of magic?

It’s always super visual. I remember doing some shows for some blind people and having what was happening be described by somebody sitting next to them, they were probably seeing a better show in their imagination than was actually going on. The person they were with would lean over and say, he just did this and now it’s gone. When I perform, it’s not a contest of me vs. the audience, of try and catch me: I’m going to fool you. I’m not out to shove that in your face. The magic trick is almost secondary or third tier to everything else that we’re doing onstage. If you’re an adult, you’re going to experience it as adult. And if you’re a kid, you’re going to experience it on a whole different level. Actually, it’s usually kids who are harder to fool because they still remember how to have an imagination. A lot of adults forget how to have an imagination. If you make somebody float in the air, a little kid can say something like, they’re wearing a jetpack. Of course, there is no jetpack. But they don’t care: They’ve already made up their mind. They know how to imagine, and they’ve got the answer: It’s the jetpack. It’s all about having imagination and going with it. It’s like going to Disneyland: You know the pirates are robots but you kind of forget.

What turned you on to magic?

I was like 4 or 5 when I saw David Copperfield.

Do you still follow his career?

You asked me earlier, if I want to take magic someplace. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t even know where to go because Copperfield is the guy who’s kind of done everything. He’s been great for magic, because he’s the king. He is Elvis. He is Jim Morrison. I wouldn’t even know where to go because he’s done it all. It’s great, but it’s also kind of like where am I supposed to go? He’s awesome. From a business standpoint, from a performing standpoint, that’s the guy who’s done it all. He sets a great example.

Off-duty, what do you think is the most normal thing about you?

The most normal thing? I usually start my day with a cup of coffee just like everybody else. I have my own coffee company on the side. I started it in New York. It’s called Zombie Java (zombie-java.com). It’s a side project of mine. A business owner: That’s something kind of normal. I did a lot of research and found the oldest coffee importer in America in Brooklyn, and I went and visited their warehouse. They’re importing directly from Argentina and Colombia. They do it all by hand. It’s a family business. In reality, I’m a pretty patriotic person. I went with these guys because they were a good father/son business. It’s a small operation compared to some bigger corporations, but it’s been great. The stuff has been shipped all over. I just do mail order now. It’s a double-edged sword, making and shipping it out. I’m not big enough to have a full staff of employees. It’s my retirement project.

»The Illusionists—Witness the Impossible, Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, at W. 46th St., 877.250.2929. Tues-Thurs 7 p.m., Fri 8 p.m., Sat 3 & 8 p.m., Sun 3 & 7:30 p.m. (No performances Nov. 27, Dec. 24 & 31; additional performances Nov. 28 at 2 p.m., Dec. 21 & 27-28 at 11 a.m., Dec. 22 & 29 at 7 p.m., Dec. 26 & 30 at 2 p.m.; time change: Dec. 31 at 2 p.m.).

Check out the slide show below for other magicians appearing with Dan Sperry in the family-friendly holiday spectacle, The Illusionists—Witness the Impossible.