A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World

Feb 9, 2018

For Nate Staniforth, a coin trick was his gateway to magic. He was 9-years-old and living in Ames.

"I just was captivated by the idea that I could perfect this and make it look like I made a coin disappear. That's all I wanted."

So, he did the trick on the playground. "The kids didn't laugh. They didn't clap. They just started shrieking and ran away."

The teacher on playground duty came over and demanded that Staniforth show her what upset all the other kids. So, he did. "And I will remember the transformation that came over her face forever, one moment stern and angry, the next white light through the clouds amazement."

Seeing the wonder on her face was the moment that got Staniforth hooked on being a magician. And his own journey to recapture that sense of wonder for himself is the subject of his new book, Here is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern World. He spoke with host Charity Nebbe about it on Talk of Iowa.

Staniforth continued to pursue magic throughout his childhood, performing at other children's birthday parties. When he graduated high school, he knew he wanted to be a professional magician. He says one advantage of growing up and living in Iowa was that he didn't know how difficult it was to make it work, professionally.

"I was totally naive, and that was a great asset."

Staniforth moved to L.A., rented a theater and put on a show. It was an unmitigated disaster. One night, there was only one person sitting in the audience, and he brought a book, in case the show wasn't good.

"When he looked around, and realized he was the only person there, he immediately stood up and asked for his money back." Staniforth opened his wallet and obliged. "That was a bad night for sure."

But, he ended up getting signed with an agent who started booking him on college tours. Staniforth was criss-crossing the country, some nights performing for 12 people and some nights 12-hundred.

After a few years on tour, Staniforth realized that doing the shows, the magic, was a very small percentage of the total experience. He reached a breaking point at a show in Milwaukee. At the time he happened to be reading a book about street magicians in India, and decided he wanted to forget everything he knew about magic and go find them.

"I had committed too much to this relationship with magic to give it up and walk away."

But the process of traveling across India was far more amazing than the actual magicians he found there. It was more powerful to break the patterns in his life and plunge into a culture so different from his own. "It forces you to wake up and stay awake just to get through the day. It's a reminder of how much we're not paying attention to in our day to day lives."

Staniforth says India totally changed his understanding of his relationship with the audience. He says he no longer tries to make people laugh or dazzle them.

"The thing a magician can give you is an encounter with that moment of wonder."

Nate Staniforth's book is published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Credit Bloomsbury Publishing

Staniforth says adults carry themselves one way, and then magic happens and they look like children again. The transformation acknowledges a loss. What is it that you lose with age, and how do you get it back? In many ways, he says, it's more about how you look than where you look.

"You can find wonder in so many different ways. It's that thing that makes you feel alive and glad to be alive."

But it's not always a comfortable experience. Sometimes people get angry. Staniforth says deception is only half the job. "You have to take them by the hand and lead them through that experience so it feels good, helpful and useful."

"Being brought to that place of wonder is an uncomfortable reminder that the world is a hard place."

"If you gave me the challenge of getting a standing ovation, I would want to pack that audience with lawyers and doctors and engineers, all the rational thinkers because they are just as likely to experience the wonder, but the turn is so much more dramatic."

How does Staniforth maintain his own wonder? It helps to have kids. He says his two-year-old insists that they go outside every night to look at the stars. It's something that's become part of a routine but is always magical.

"It's a constant reminder to not take the parts of my day for granted, that would be easy to take for granted as an adult."