Whistler might be in full swing during February, but for magicians mid-winter is shoulder season.
Vancouver's Travis Bernhardt, a.k.a. Travis the Magician, is spending this downtime after the holiday crunch and before summer festival season digging into new tricks and planning upcoming shows, including a stop in Whistler as part of the Creative 5 Eclectic at Dusty's Feb. 8.
But where, exactly, does a magician find new material? "Fortunately there's a vast library, you could say, of magicians writing down their tricks and explaining how they work and publishing that," Bernhardt explains. "A lot of the work of magicians is delving into that material. You find something you like, you take that and adapt it to your own performing style... Even the really creative magicians are working on established principles or combinations of ideas and putting them together in a way that makes sense to them."
It might seem surprising, but Bernhardt says the Internet hasn't really ruined the secrets of the art, despite the relative ease with which you can find information on tricks. That's in part because most people want magic to remain shrouded in mystery and, well, magic.
"I think anybody who's willing to put the time into digging into that, go for it," he says. "You can find a lot of things on the Internet superficially, but none of that will teach you how to be a performer or hold an audience."
That's especially true for Bernhardt's show, which focuses on sleight-of-hand, rather than elaborate prop-based magic. Though he's performed everywhere from Canada's Fringe Festival circuit to corporate events and theatres, it's his roots in street performing that have best prepared him for his act.
"The street has a certain difficulty in that you're on the street. Nobody came to see you," he says. "You live or die based on your ability to gather a crowd, hold them there and make them pay you at the end, which is extremely difficult."
In other words, it forces you to be good, quickly.
"The show has to be tight," he adds. "It has to flow or people will just leave. And that's good because it teaches you something. You learn really quickly what's boring for people."
Creating a cohesive show, tied together with an element of performance is equally important — and sometimes more challenging — than mastering the tricks. While Bernhardt doesn't consider himself a comedy-magician, that's what others have often labelled him. "The feedback I get is there's a comedic element to it," he says. "I don't focus on that, partially because I think it's funnier if you don't have expectations. My style can be a dry wit sort of thing. It's about managing people's expectations. I don't sell the comedic part, but that's part of the show."
Bernhardt has been honing his craft seriously for nearly a decade, but first took an interest in magic as a kid. "I ignored it for the most part," he says. "I had an ear to the magic world, but didn't have any serious interest. Then many years later I saw a video for a magician on the Internet and it triggered something in me. I started learning about it and buying books and going to the library and reading up about it... It took two or three years before I had anything worth showing anybody. There's a lot of practice before you get to that point."
Even though he has the techniques of magic down pat, there are still certain tricks that are challenging, mainly those like mind reading, which require "audience management" rather than technique.
"Holding people's attention or making them think about a certain thing or redirecting their thoughts in a certain direction," Bernhardt says, elaborating on the difficulties. "The mechanics might be easy, but if you just did the mechanics, things might not work."
Still, he has learned that a simple approach is often best. While some magicians might try to convey deep, layered meaning in their act, Bernhardt says the magic speaks for itself. "Magic is best considered to be light entertainment, for the most part," he says. "Acts that weigh it down with too much meaning tend to fail... If you wanted to make some sort of statement about perception or deception or our vulnerabilities to being lied to or things like that, those are quite compatible with magic. That's the subtext of magic."