magician

Failure

My first big performance was a huge disappointment.

I was in first grade when I found out they were holding auditions for the school talent show. They shouldn’t have made the announcement in the morning because I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. All I could think about was getting to do magic in front of the whole school.

I remember bursting through my front door and calling to my dad, “I’m going to try out for the talent show! Will you help me practice?”

He helped me read the rules for the audition, then we pulled some tricks from my shelf of magic props and headed downstairs. He plopped down on the couch and patiently watched me as I stumbled through my makeshift performance.

I had asked my friend Tim to perform with me. He was the only other person I knew who liked magic as much as I did. So we worked on our tricks nonstop, hoping we would get a spot in the talent show.

A week later, I packed my props into my backpack and left for school. The big day had arrived. I was more nervous than I’d ever been before.

All of the hopeful performers were ushered into the gymnasium. We sat in clusters around the room as each of our names were called. People sang and danced and hula-hooped and did skits. I heard the other students playing outside and wondered what my friends were doing. For a split second I zoned out - and then:

“Up next are Mark and Tim, the magicians!”

I heard my name and suddenly I couldn’t stop shaking. Luckily, I had my friend Tim to back me up. We walked to the front and began our performance.

Our showstopper was a numbers trick. I wish I could remember the exact trick but I’ve mostly forgotten. All I know is that when I went to reveal our prediction, my principal just looked up at us with complete disappointment.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t my number.”

We were crushed.

Something had gone wrong with the trick. I had failed in front a hundred other students and embarassed myself. When they called the final acts, our names weren’t on the list.

When I got home, I shoved my props on the shelf and swore I hated magic. I told my dad I didn’t want to do any tricks ever again. When I calmed down and wiped the tears away, I went outside and shot some hoops to calm down.

Then I heard a voice. It was my dad saying I had a phone call.

I walked inside, said hello, and was surprised to hear my principal’s voice on the other end.

“Mark, I have an apology to make. I messed up your trick. When I got home from school I tried it again and realized I made a mistake. You were right and I don’t know how you did it!”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We want you and Tim to be in the talent show. Can you guys do that?”

Of course I said yes, then hung up. I’m sure I screamed at the top of my lungs or something of the sort. All of our practice had paid off.

Not only did we get to be part of the talent show, but we actually ended up getting to be a featured act at the entrance of the school. As everyone entered for the show Tim and I were there in the lobby doing tricks for anyone who would watch. It was easily the greatest night of the first six years of my life.

If it wasn’t for my dad’s encouragement or my principal’s phone call, I might not be writing this essay. You might not be reading this post. And I might not be a professional mind reader.

Some of life’s lessons are intuitive, some are learned, and some are just downright lucky. I’m not sure where this one falls, but what I do know is that it’s impossible to fail if you never quit.

Mark and Tim's Magic Show.jpg

The Tour Is Over

That’s it. The tour is over.

I performed 35 shows at six festivals in six cities and two countries. Plus, I also performed the show another 30 times in Chicago to get it ready. 

So, what did I learn?

First, I can do this. All on my own, without a manager or agent or publicist. I consistently sold out theaters and built buzz without a big budget or team behind me. That’s how the best shows at fringe festivals do it. They have a good product and they work tirelessly to get the word out. 

Second, this is exhausting. There was a stretch this summer when I didn’t sleep more than two hours a night for over 10 days. Albeit, I was leaving festivals in the middle for corporate gigs then returning to finish my run. But, my insomnia was at an all-time high and I struggled to stay rested. Coffee remains my best friend.

Also, I found the show. It was like the statue of David, encased in stone waiting to be chiseled away and revealed. (Although, it isn’t remotely close to being a Michelangelo-level-masterpiece but I really like the metaphor.)

Somewhere between New York City and Orlando, I found the message. It’s not a mind reading show - it’s a show about mind reading. Over time it’s become a manifesto for everything I believe in, using mind reading and storytelling to express a single idea.

Some people got it, many did not. I learned not to worry about reviews because most writers didn’t understand. As long as the review was positive it would help fill the seats, even if they weren’t fully capturing the essence of the performance. I realized that once I sent an idea out into the world it stopped belonging to me. And I had to be content knowing that I had done my best to express myself, even if no one got the point.

Another thing I learned is that it’s easy to get pigeon-holed at a festival. You have to choose a performance genre because people want to know what to expect. But if you aren’t careful, people can get confused in a hurry.

So often the press would insist on calling it a “magic show”, even though I never use that expression. I could sense that the only way to get people to see my show was to choose the “magic” category, even though it was clouding the expectations of my audience. People would come expecting a standard magic show and I did my best to convince them they were seeing something unique and better.

Common feedback was something along the lines of “I usually don’t like magic shows but this one is different!” followed by a solid recommendation. That comment taught me two things:

1. I’m on the right track.
2. Too many magicians have similar shows and haven’t worked hard enough to appeal to a broader demographic.

Recently a performer was discussing a (in my opinion) cheesy prop online. HIs comment was “There’s a time and place for everything. I try to give the audience what they want.

I prefer to do the opposite.

I think about what I want to do and I consider what I want to say. Then I write my show to convey my own personal truth. The hardest part is convincing the audience it’s what they wanted all along.

By the end of the tour, the show was doing exactly that. My audiences were raving and I ended up winning a total of five awards in the process, including “Best of Fringe” (NYC), “Audience Choice” (NYC), “Pick of Fringe” (Orlando), “Critics Choice” (Portland, ME),  and “Outstanding Magic or Mentalist Performance” (San Diego).

I feel like all the rehearsing and writing and traveling and performing and dreaming finally paid off. I’ve spent the better part of the last several years crafting this show from the ground up and I’m so proud of it. But it’s time to bid it farewell.

I have other things to say and more, possibly better, ideas. If I don’t explore them now and force myself to create something else then I’ll never grow as an artist. I don’t want to settle for something just because it works. I want to evolve and change onstage, just as I do in the real world. 

So, I’m already writing the next show and will be presenting it for the first time at the Chicago Fringe Festival in two months. Then I’m taking the show on the road.

For as long as I can remember my biggest goal has been to do a full-blown theatre tour around the U.S. I’d like to say it’s time to check that goal off the list but I’m not ready for that just yet.

The end of this tour is only the beginning.

My 30 Favorite Gigs

I turn 30 years old today! Wow. I can't believe it.

I've spent most of my life studying the art of magic and mind reading. When I got out of college 8 years ago I started performing full-time. Performing is all I've ever known and it's been the through line of my life thus far.

So, with that in mind, here is a list of my 30 favorite gigs from the past 30 years. (In no particular order.)


1. The Early Days - When I was younger I'd perform for anyone who would watch. I wanted to be a magician, a clown, or a detective. Now I get to be all three. 


2. School Talent Show - My friend Tim and I did a partner magic act at our elementary school talent show.


3. Senior Showcase - In 2009 I did a magic/mind reading show to earn my BFA and graduate from college.


4. Children's Shows - In the early days, I did a ton of children's events at libraries, schools, and parties.


5. TED Talk - In 2014 I checked "TED Talk" off my bucket list when I presented at TEDxParkerSchool in Chicago. You can watch my talk below:


6. Bowlus Fine Arts Center - A childhood dream was to headline at this beautiful performing arts center in my hometown.


7. Harvard - I drew a standing room only crowd for my show at Harvard. They said it was "Unlike anything we've seen before."


8. WGN TV - I've been on WGN in Chicago several times but this clip is one of my favorites.


9. Stage 773 - My first attempt at a theatre run. It was a disaster.


10. Bar Below - I sold out almost every show of my 12 week run at the Bar Below in Chicago.


11. Public House Theater - The following year I did a six week run in north Chicago. You can watch the full show here.


12. Chicago Fringe Festival - My first fringe festival was a blast! Watch the behind the scenes below or click here to see my full show.


13. Disney World Boardwalk Resort - One of my earliest gigs! I spent 9 months performing in Orlando. It was SUPER HOT outside but it gave me time to develop the material and persona I have today.


14. The Aldrich Mansion - I performed in the same place Brad Pitt stood in "Meet Joe Black".


15. The Hemi Hideout - Outside Houston is a barn with hundreds of collectible neon signs, gas pumps, and vintage cars. It's incredible.


16. National Museum Of Wildlife Art - An incredible show and one of the most incredible places I've ever been.


17. Snow College - I was flat broke and flew to Utah for one of my first college performances. The students were incredible and I used this photo to book dozens more colleges in the coming months.


18. WGN Web Series - I did a 10 part web series with WGN, culminating with this blindfolded bike ride through downtown Chicago.


19. UT Austin - The Longhorns took a chance on me early on and I gave them a show they'll never forget. I've been back five years in a row.


20. NCAA Prediction - I predicted the final four teams, the championship score, and the headlines of that day's newspaper. Here's the proof:


21. Crown Uptown Dinner Theater - This was a benefit show for children with special needs in Wichita. My first marquee!


22. Cupcake Comedy Cabaret - My friend Casey let me on his show week after week so I could work on new material. It was my first show after I moved to Chicago five and a half years ago and I still do it whenever I can.


23. Walking On Broken Glass - I used to ride the bus in LA with two buckets of broken glass so I could do this in my show. It helped me stand out but it was a huge pain in the ass. It's easier to read minds.


24. The Heckler - People hardly ever mess with me during a show but when this guy spoke out I had to respond.


25. Converse College - Most college shows are memorable but the way this girl reacted makes it a stand out.


26. Corporate Events - It's too hard to pick just one but damn this is a good picture.


27. Appearing Convertible - The first magic video I ever made.


28. Havencrest Castle - I can't do it justice with words. Just go.


29. Hard Rock Cafe - A rock band was onstage downstairs and I brought the house down upstairs. Crazy.


30. Chicago Magic Lounge - I'm performing there tonight. Will you be there?