"Magic is the only art that needs to be seen live," Taylor Martin tells me over a hummus plate at the Irvington pizza joint Jockamo. "If you're watching a magician on TV, you immediately think there has to have been a camera trick in there somewhere. But if you're in the theater, you can see the whole trick from beginning to end."
Not that Martin is into "tricks," per se. A co-producer (along with IndyFringe) behind this weekend's Indianapolis Winter Magic Festival — a two-venue showcase for both up-and-comers and established talent (notably, Vegas legend The Great Tomsoni) — thinks that 35 percent of every magic show has to "actually surprise people. Some people say 'fool.' I don't like that term. Anyone who says they want to be fooled is lying."
It all fits into Taylor's scheme to make Indianapolis a destination for fans of magic. Not folks looking for Branson-style schmaltz. Or any variety of spiritualism ("all bullshit," Martin says, though he's always up for a good mentalist). The Winter Magic Festival — and its monthly cousin, Indy Magic Monthly — is about devotion to the craft.
"I'm not paying them hardly anything; they say they just want to come and work for an audience," says Martin. "After doing corporate gigs, birthday parties, working before drunks, this is where they can really stretch out and do shows. And they get 25 minutes. If they've got something new they want to try out, they can. I don't tell anyone to do anything."
A self-described name-dropper (he says he stayed for a week at Penn Jillette's house in Las Vegas) with a fascinating resume (ask him about his stint doing singing telegrams), Martin is also a seasoned magician. He'll introduce The Great Tomsoni in the guise of Rodney the Elder, Conjurer, his medieval alter ego. Martin has a number of characters in his arsenal, including the brassy, wig-bedecked Andrea Merlyn (Martin says he's one of three drag magicians working in the U.S.).
Call it an attempt to correct a gender balance on Martin's part. He estimates that 98 percent of magicians are male, and so when he "finds out a little girl is interested in magic, I say, 'Good, we've got enough ugly guys in tuxedos already.'" That two percent will be represented this weekend by Kayla Drescher, who won a David Copperfield-judged contest on The Today Show earlier this year.
Other established performers on the bill include Crescent Circus, a New Orleans-based duo recently featured on The Tonight Show that combines acrobatic juggling, dove magic and hula hoop work; and Trent James, whose Rabbit-Less show includes sleight-of-hand and a "long-distance card trick."
The elder on the bill is Johnny Thompson, aka The Great Tomsoni, an advisor to the stars like Penn and Teller and Lance Burton, whose straight-from-Poland act (Thompson is a Chicago native, but he performs with a thick stage accent) was a Las Vegas mainstay through the '70s and '80s. Taylor calls him the "world's greatest all-around magician" and talks up his legendary bird act (though Tomsoni will be leaving the birds at home for his hour-long show at Cook Theatre).