Rob Teszka’s Magic Dropout is a meditation on failure, revealing an emotional mixture of magic and memoir from a world built on illusions
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Valeriya Kim // Illustration
The magician is a consummate showman, smooth as melted velvet, a glistening repertoire of the impossible in the form of a perfect suit and tie. Yet beneath the sheen and spotlights of the Performance Works theatre simmers an ordinary man—Rob Teszka can make a lot of things disappear, but his past isn’t something he’s trying to erase. Magic Dropout is a show dedicated to his failures.
The show begins with his younger self. Teszka reveals a high school graduation photo featuring a patchy goatee and a prestigious award from the now defunct Science Council of British Columbia he won that year. It’s followed by a fairly innocent question: if anyone in the audience can guess what his average grade point was as well as his best subject—and they do, almost instantly. It feels like it belongs to the tradition of parlor-room mentalism, and yet there is still something genuinely unnerving about being exposed. After all, fall is the season that naturally causes us to reflect on the tricks we like to play on ourselves.
Between transforming a pair of maraschino cherries—which he dubs “satanic testicles”—into limes, and correctly guessing every audience member responsible for a set of random drawings, Rob Teszka takes a moment. He gestures to the stage with hands as empty as the rest of Granville Island outside, in a room divided by a necessary isolation, “psychologists are similar to magicians in that they are both liars, the theatre is a palace built on lies.”
Despite the accolade he opens with, Magic Dropout isn’t billed as a story of success. While studying at graduate school overseas, Teszka found the infamous Magic Circle. After his research in cognitive psychology influenced by magic techniques was rejected fourteen times, he permanently traded one exam for another. Founded in 1905 in London, The Magic Circle is one of the oldest magic societies in the world consisting of more than 13,000 magicians in 88 countries. Prospective magicians must present a written thesis or pass a performance exam before qualifying for membership. Which is to say, the pursuit of magic is often the other side of a double sided coin to academia—translating fantasy into science. Of course, Teszka prefers to be a little more honest, “[Academia is] a toxic face-full of prejudice and patriarchy, and the only reason I made it as far as I did is because of privilege.”
Although it’s partially through his academic research in the areas of attention and perception that Teszka already knows memories are as malleable as soggy pasta, and our decisions are constantly being influenced. Magic is just a way to pull back the curtain on the impossible. “Our art gives reverence to academics,” according to Alex Zander, former president of the Vancouver chapter of The International Brotherhood of Magicians. “[Magic] is history shared through stories.”
Like most talented magicians, Teszka partially found a home assisting in the manipulation of reality for the screen. Zander affirms that almost every special effect team and prop room is curated by a magician.
That’s the thing about films and magic—even when we’re aware it’s not supposed to be real, it unearths the fantasies we all have stuffed away inside our hats. Things like predicting the future, floating through the air, sometimes even surviving what seems impossible. Sure, Teszka can make cherries, cards and even his academic award dematerialize, but try making something like anxiety about a global pandemic disappear. “Was that amazing?” Teszka asks at one point, regarding a card trick between what appears to be a first date between two members of the audience. “Sort of,” he answered himself. It was amazing enough.
When the story is over, he swaps his suit for a more casual black t-shirt and the stage for a backdrop of bookcases at home in Coquitlam. It’s not quite the same as the one in the Vancouver Magic Circle, the largest magic library in the country housing upwards of three thousand books on the unseen arts. Still, it’s amazing enough.
“It’s possible to be manipulated, and even when you learn about it, it doesn’t mean that you’re inoculated against it.”Rob Teszka
Teszka explains that sometimes he outlines the misdirection in his tricks as a component of the trick itself. The knowledge that we’re being manipulated doesn’t stop us from being blindsided by it, “all of us lose at this all the time.”
For Teszka, magicians are the prototypical example of the master manipulators of attention, the puppeteers pulling strings to make us focus on anything, or believe anything in order to accomplish something. He insists that as far as magic is concerned, it’s largely benevolent; “Most magicians are doing this with the goal of entertaining you, but those techniques can be applied outside of magic. Advertisers, politicians, con artists—those are the same thing.” The difference offered by Zander is the simple fact that magicians are honest about the lie. The power of magic to tell the truth through honesty is something held close to a lot of magicians, and was even championed by legendary magician James Randi. Known on stage as The Amazing Randi, he devoted much of his career to exposing con men like faith healer Peter Popoff and those claiming to have real psychic abilities.
There is a lot to contend with the unknown. No one knows exactly what the world will look like next month, who will be in power, the course the virus will take, what we are supposed to think, what we are supposed to do. According to Teszka, that’s always where magic creeps in. “That feeling of uncertainty, which we’re all experiencing with dread right now, to be able to experience it with joy is something valuable. I think that’s something only magic can do,” he said. “The way the world is is not dissimilar to the Great Depression—Vaudeville is an escape.”
For most of us, the first magic trick we learn is peekaboo. It begins when something a baby loves disappears—although in a far more literal way than Teszka’s disappearance from academia, because babies are completely emotionally transparent. The fear and anxiety are real. Then the face reappears, and everything is right in the baby’s world again. Anxiety is banished, replaced with giggles. Of course, that kind of magic is short lived when they become aware that a hand is the thing committing these great acts, which is why one of the fundamental rules of magic is to never perform the same trick twice.
“Magicians become jaded over the years,” shared Zander. “The more I learn about magic, the less I’m surprised.” Although he’s seen Teszka perform many times, Magic Dropout still managed to offer him a few surprises.
Hanging on the walls of Teszka’s study is a vintage poster depicting one of the greatest illusions of all time, Maid In The Moon. Most levitation illusions involve an infamously uncomfortable method, but none quite come close to Astarte, as it was originally named in the late 19th century. Astarte requires not just skill but enduring extreme muscle strain while remaining in complete control as the picture of poise and bliss. Although the ethereal woman in the poster is as perfect as anything carved by Michelangelo, the heart of Astarte, like all good magic, is total devotion to the art.
The audience already knows the truth; the world is simple, painful and miserable all the way through. But if the magician can make us doubt for just a second, then it opens the doors of perception to the possibility of a new reality. Teszka doesn’t want them to care how it’s happening, and it’s in that fleeting state where he meets his audience and gives them something quietly profound. Whether it comes in the form of suspicion, hope or joy, it’s all within the suspension of disbelief. For Zander, real magic is it’s innate ability to conjure joy, “[I love] being able to see the moment of joy, and all the human variants of joy.”
Weaving classic prestidigitation and subtle mentalism, Teszka’s story unfolds into a confessional meditation on magic and memoir. The academic burnout and failures underpinning the narrative of Magic Dropout also caused an ongoing off-stage struggle with depression and anxiety. “There’s a long history of people hidden behind the stage. Magic was an escape hatch, performing gives me joy. Magic, in that sense, saved me.”
“[Academia is] a system that was designed in a certain way hundreds of years ago and has barely gone through any changes since, except to be made worse by the addition of corporate administration.” From the long history of illusionists and escape artists to which Teszka belongs, magic shows us it’s possible to slip the knots and break the chains holding us back. “Magic has to change, because as people’s understanding changes, what counts as magic—as impossible, changes.”
He takes a moment to wax historic, as he seems apt to do, about the famous French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin’s ethereal levitation illusion. It began with showing how the unknown properties of the new ether vapour could make a child levitate on the end of a broomstick. When people learned about ether being knockout gas with no magical properties, the magic fades. Except Houdin’s illusion has been performed for over 150 years, because it’s one of the best illusions ever created. As Joshua Landy describes in his book The Re-Enchantment of the World, Houdin’s ethereal suspension succeeds as a model for the construction of a belief system that recognizes itself as illusory. “The mechanics of the effects don’t change,” Teszka answered, “the way people tell stories about them changes. All that really means is you have to find a different way of explaining it.”
In 1917, Max Weber wrote “the fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” There’s a reason magic is as entertaining today as it ever was over a century ago, and that’s because it’s something Teszka feels no other performer can do. When presented in the right way, the same science weaponized by Enlightenment ideals to disenchant the world, the magician re-enchants. The art of magic is in re-kindling the sparks of honesty, wonder and fascination with the unknown.
“I love that feeling of not being sure whether something is real or not,” Teszka says with a wry smile and a quick laugh, “let’s just keep going and see. Maybe this will keep me up at night a little.”