What’s in the cards at Liberty Magic, Pittsburgh’s new magic theater

The theater is part of a growing trend — thanks to TV.

Eric Jones wows the crowd.

Eric Jones wows the crowd.

Photo by Jonathan Fobear / Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Rossilynne Culgan

Magic is having a moment.

As magicians draw major attention on TV shows like “America’s Got Talent,” “Masters of Illusion,” and “Penn & Teller,” theaters devoted to magic are opening around the country, including in Pittsburgh.

Liberty Magic debuted Downtown in February and quickly sold out several weeks of shows.

“They’re popping up all over the country. It’s bigger now than it was 10-15 years ago,” said George Schindler, the New York-based dean of the Society of American Magicians. “Television has helped a great deal.”

But, he said, seeing magic on TV can’t compare to seeing it up-close and personal.

Unlike other theaters whose stages host an array of programming — musicals, plays, monologues, dance performances, etc. — magic theaters present solely the art of illusion. They’re small, and consequently, they sell out very quickly, Schindler said.

Liberty Magic fits that mold, with its intimate capacity of 66 seats in four rows and its sold out shows featuring Eric Jones.

Jones, of Comedy Central and “Masters of Illusion,” is serving as the theater’s first artist in residence. Pittsburgh’s own Lee Terbosic is up next, and future artists in residence, each serving about a six-week stint, will be announced soon.

“Our hope is to bring in the best magicians from around the world who specialize in this form of close-up or parlor magic,” said Scott Shiller, producer of Liberty Magic and vice president of artistic planning at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

The theater is expected to operate every week from Wednesday through Sunday. It’s intended for audiences 18+, but so many people requested to bring their kids that the Cultural Trust is considering adding family shows to the mix.

Different than most theaters in town, it’s BYOB for beer and wine. Also unique is its design, which is themed to look like a magic shop — think crystal balls, cards, and locks.

“We’re always looking for new and innovative forms of entertainment and constantly trying to meld arts and culture and everyday experiences,” Shiller said, adding that the space became available when Arcade Comedy Theater moved into a larger location. “We began thinking about, ‘how can we use that space? What’s missing in the cultural district?’ The idea of magic as an art form and a new genre coalesced.”

Though the theater is new, Pittsburgh has a long history with magic, as it was a top tour spot on vaudeville circuits in the 1920s.

“Every major international magician who would’ve toured to the U.S. would have played in Pittsburgh on stages in what are now the Byham, the Benedum,” Shiller said. Those theaters also hosted contemporary icons like David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, and Criss Angel, and the cultural trust will continue to present large-scale illusionists.

Liberty Magic exists in the space of close-up sleight of hand. It’s not a place where you’ll see a car disappear or an elephant show up on stage. It’s a space where audience members aren’t sitting 100 rows away from the action or watching the cameraman’s choices on TV, he said.

When a magician performs the classic ‘cut a person in half’ trick, the audience isn’t thinking about the extraordinary magician; they’re thinking about the exceptional prop, Shiller said. Parlor magic is different.

“You don’t ever think, ‘that was a remarkable card, that was a remarkable coin, that was a remarkable prop’ — you think, ‘that was a remarkable moment, that was a remarkable story that I just saw play out in front of me,'” he said. “That is the power of close-up magic.”

Night after night, Shiller said, Liberty Magic is wielding that power by showcasing magicians as artists “at the top of their skill.”

The theater creates a “unique experience where you forget in some way that you’re seeing an illusion and you just go along for the ride and you feel like a kid again,” he said. “They leave remembering the wonder and hopefully capturing some of that spirit of not knowing how everything is done in life.”