GRAND ILLUSIONS | From Thousand Oaks student to the world stage, Ivan Amodei reveals magical secrets.
“Great illusion centers around meaning,” says world-renowned illusionist Ivan Amodei. In the case of his new show, Secrets & Illusions: Unlock Your Destiny, “meaning” is with a capital M. Coming to the Scherr Forum Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Oct. 6, Secrets & Illusions is billed as a “psychological thriller that reveals the secrets to life, one illusion at a time.” The show endeavors to “inspire and motivate you to discover your destiny.”
It’s a lofty goal, but it’s not a new one for Amodei. The Boston Globe has described his craft as “magic with a message,” and Amodei has earned an international following for his performances that spark not only amazement but thought and self-reflection.
“I can change a blue ball into a red ball, but I’d rather make [an illusion] meaningful,” says Amodei. “A truly great illusion must be something more.” Some of his most well-known illusions include “It’s Destined to Happen,” “Mona Lisa’s Secret,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Time Is Precious.” Some are funny, others are dangerous, but with each one, Amodei hopes to inspire the audience to do something profound themselves, like face their fears or find love.
He finds inspiration almost anywhere, from sitting in a coffee shop to walking down a city street. Once he gets a glimmer of an idea, he has to see it to fruition.
“I can’t get it out of my mind. I have to make it a reality.” From there he begins to construct and choreograph the illusion. He builds the storyline and chooses the music. Probably most important is figuring out what the illusion should say. What will the audience experience while watching it? What revelations or questions will they take away from it?
In Secrets & Illusions, Amodei says that, “Underlying all the magic is the question: How do we discover our destiny?” The show is meant to take the audience on a journey to “unlock their purpose. There are a lot of illusions, surprises and twists in the show, but it’s more about what the illusions tell you.”
Amodei and his wife, Jennifer, were inspired to create Secrets & Illusions after finding themselves in the Louvre Museum in Paris near closing time. “We were alone in these amazing galleries,” she recalls. “The world became so magical. We thought, how do we bring that to the stage?” In the end, they set out to create a show that would “uncover life’s greatest mysteries inside priceless works of art.”
They enlisted the help of RabCup, a tech-driven production company, to create illusions of their own: the shimmering Louvre Pyramid, the moonlit streets of Paris and famous works of art that come to life. Onstage, Amodei is accompanied by violinist Karoline Menezes who plays music that sets the tone and helps guide the audience on an adventure.
The illusions revolve around universal themes like love, fear, time, the power of intuition and the laws of attraction. In Amodei’s signature style, the illusions are immersive and interactive, whether he calls on one audience member or hundreds to participate.
“The whole audience is involved in the trick about time. It makes you think about how valuable [it] is,” he says. When it comes to any illusion, Amodei adds, “You are making all the deductions. I’m basically leading you down a path.” Then he points out a fundamental truth: “Magic is not happening with your eyes. It’s happening with your mind. I want you to watch and think about [an illusion]. You might [go home] and think about it for weeks.”
Amodei has been thinking about magic for a long time. He knew he wanted to be a magician when he was 5 years old. Born in Cosmo, Sicily, and raised in Brooklyn, Amodei began doing magic after he saw a family friend perform a trick. “He was a close-up magician,” Amodei recalls. Even as a child, watching the man perform, Amodei wanted to explore the greater possibilities of magic. He remembers thinking, “There’s got to be something more.”
Amodei doesn’t say whether he figured out how the man did the trick. Even to this day, Amodei doesn’t study the work of other illusionists too closely.
“If I see an illusion I like, I run the other way. I admire a lot of illusionists but I really like to create my own.” His admiration for illusionists of the past led him to write the book Magic’s Most Amazing Stories: A Collection of Incredible Stories From World-Famous Magicians (Eclipse, 2010). True to the magician’s code, Amodei shares anecdotes but he doesn’t reveal any secrets.
He attended Cal Lutheran University and hoped to become a plastic surgeon, but soon switched majors to advertising and marketing. His heart wasn’t in that either. “I decided to give [magic] a try. After all, it would only be me that would starve.” To support himself and hone his craft, Amodei worked as a waiter in Thousand Oaks and performed close-up magic tricks for his customers. He was a hit and soon had a large following. The experience was good training. Surrounded by an audience that was mere inches away, Amodei remembers trying out a new trick and thinking, “How am I going to get this done?”
After 20 years of performing, there is still a first time performing any illusion. “Nobody gets it right the first time,” he admits. “You have to do an illusion in front of people over and over again before you understand the subtleties.” That’s where thinking on your feet becomes one of an illusionist’s greatest skills.
After the restaurant came corporate events and larger shows. In 2008, he opened Intimate Illusions at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Now in his 10th year in residence at the hotel, Amodei performs close-up magic in the show, designed as an elegant, semiformal affair, set in a suite.
A particularly memorable moment in his career came when he stumped Penn & Teller on their TV show Penn & Teller: Fool Us on the CW Network. The trick involved Amodei guessing the name of the state written on cards held by audience members, as well as by Penn Jillette. After 12 minutes of deliberating, Penn and Teller gave up trying to figure out the secret behind the trick. Amodei walked away a winner.
From a restaurant dining room to the world stage, Amodei has performed magic in almost every setting. Wherever he performs, one thing remains the same: It’s always different and the unexpected can happen at any time.
“Magic happens because of the audience. It’s more magical if nothing is planned. That makes every performance unique,” he says. “I know we have to get from point A to point B, but how we’ll get there is up to the audience. A lot of thought goes into every illusion, but it comes down to performing. There are challenging illusions I’ve done 10 times that have changed 180 degrees during a performance.”
Some illusions are especially challenging, like the one involving a 14-inch blade, which some venues have asked to have nixed from the act because it is so dangerous. (Amodei and the venue usually come to an understanding and he ends up performing the illusion.)
Sometimes, what happens is more unexpected than usual. There was the time the lights went out in the theater in the middle of a performance. Then there was the time the fire alarm went off and another time when someone fainted. Now Amodei never takes the stage without having a high-powered flashlight, a first aid kit and a glass of water at the ready backstage, just in case. Thinking on your feet also means always being prepared.
There is something or rather someone that every illusionist faces: the skeptic. “Sometimes [there can be an] antagonistic relationship between the magician and the audience … but I keep away from that. If you think negative you get negative back.” Amodei would rather redirect the conversation. He will talk about something universal like the law of attraction to bring the audience on his side. Still, he admits, “There is always a certain percentage of people who are determined to figure out [an illusion].” He shrugs. “I don’t care if you figure it out,” he says, “[but] you’ll miss the whole point.” The point, he says, is to “sit back and have a fun time.” And who knows, you may walk away a little closer to figuring out your destiny.
As for Amodei, is magic his destiny? “I’m not sure,” he replies. It seems that the future is the greatest mystery of all. It’s up to you to make it magic.