Back Stage West
By: Jenelle Riley
While people may not readily admit it, everyone loves magic. Whether it is the challenge of figuring out a particular trick or the need to believe in the unseen, the world of magic has long endured as one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Perhaps Albert Einstein said it best in his famous remark, often quoted by magicians: “The most beautiful experience one can have is the mysterious.”
Magic has never been more prominent in the world of entertainment, as well. Tom Cruise, a vocal fan of magicians, optioned the rights to the best-selling novel Carter Beats the Devil and is rumored to be interested in playing title character Charles Carter, a world-famous magician. And well-known magicians such as Ricky Jay and Penn and Teller are popping up with increasing frequency in film and television. Indeed acting would seem a logical extension of performing magic, as the key to both professions is performance.
A Pair of Aces
One of the few places in L.A. to offer a regular magic show is Magicopolis, located in the heart of Santa Monica. Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Steven Spill and Bozena Wrobel, Magicopolis opened its doors in 1998 with a performance by Penn and Teller. While the place has featured several established acts, its current program Escape Reality stars Spill and Worbel in a show that combines dramatic and comedic sketches with magic tricks that range from sleight of hand to elaborate large-scale illusions. “Part of our goal is to have some content in there, rather than just doing the tricks,” explained Spill. “Each trick becomes sort of a tiny drama by itself.”
Spill has been performing magic for about 40 years and has written for or consulted on a number of projects, including the A&E series On the Road and Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular. Spill literally grew up on magic—his father was a manager at the private magician’s club The Magic Castle in the 1960’s, and Spill would often sneak in to watch the illusions.
“At that time, magic was really kind of dormant. So a lot of the magicians were in their 70s, hanging out and showing each other tricks,” recalled Spill. “I was a sponge; I would hang out with these legendary magicians and learn everything I could.” In the 1970s, Spill racked up around 500 performances at The Magic Castle, which he regards as invaluable experience. “Whether you’re a magician, an actor, or a comedian, there is only so much you can get from a class. The rest you have to get in front of a real audience. The Castle is great because you’re doing over 20 shows in a week.”
Bozena Wrobel, on the other hand, is relatively new to the world of magic, having picked it up less than two years ago. A native of Poland, Wrobel is a working actor who appeared in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed Decalogue series and has been seen in America in shows such as Seinfeld and Dharma & Greg. She openly admitted to having little interest in magic previously. “Before I met Steve, I didn’t have much of an opinion of magic as an art form,” Wrobel said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh, pull a rabbit out of a hat? Big deal.’ And I know a lot of people might think that way.” That all changed when Spill invited her to a Penn & Teller show. “I didn’t even think of it as magic. It was interesting and filled with meaningful stories, and it stimulated me to realize I was mistaken. It was an art.”
While planning Magicopolis, Bozena Wrobel had originally intended to perform dramatic pieces in the theatre in rep with magic shows. But Spill and Wrobel soon decided it would be more effective to combined magic and theatrics. “Realistically, I realized it would be easier to bring people into a magic show and incorporate the acting and the art into it,” said Wrobel. “And I don’t regret it, because we have an audience. It can be heartbreaking as an actor to do a beautiful play where you rehearse for months and then only do three performances. There is no theatre without people.”
Some of those people have included Billy Bob Thornton and Rob Reiner, whom Spill said he often grills afterwards for tips on working with an audience. “I’ve been a solo performer most of my life, so I’ve learned to be collaborative, and she’s brought a lot more colors to the painting.” The collaboration has resulted in a family-friendly show that often weaved the tricks into a scripted scene. For example, a levitation illusion is worked into a sketch in which Spill plays a psychiatrist and Wrobel is his patient. In another scene, Wrobel recalls a sweet story about her grandmother that is accentuated by a disappearing umbrella. “Sadly, there’s not as much art in the craft of magic as there can be,” said Spill. “Magic has the built-in irony of things not appearing to be what they seem. But adding in some poetry or using the magic tricks as a metaphor or a vehicle to express ourselves is closer to what our aim is.”
Like any other performance, there is always the possibility something could go wrong, and having a live audience keeps Spill and Wrobel alert. “There’s always the standard audience management problems,” Spill said. “Over the many thousands of shows over the years, I’ve had everything from the epileptic fit in the front row to many smaller mishaps. It keeps you on your feet.” If that weren’t enough, there’s also an element of genuine danger to Escape Reality in the form of the finale—featuring Spill attempting to escape from restraint before 28 steel spikes come crashing down upon him. It’s a trick that Wrobel literally can’t watch. “I was kind of against this illusion, because he really can die, but he insists we need that element of danger,” she said, sighing. “And every time he does it, I stay backstage and close my eyes until it’s over.”