In keeping with our Thirteen Questions series for folks putting theater out there this October, guest blogger Nirmala Nataraj brings us this exciting interview with actor/magician Christian Cagigal.
Christian Cagigal is something of a living legend. A Bay Area favorite among magic lovers and haters alike, Christian’s been lauded with accolades galore and plenty of literary-sounding descriptions of his shows, which toe the line between creepy tableaux straight of Poe and mentalist trickery peddled by wandering street performers. It seems almost silly to refer to him as your typical boilerplate magician. A Cagigal show tends to be centered around a recurring motif or narrative and it’s usually audience-participatory (without being cheesy or annoying)—but it’s also inscrutable in the way that only someone who is accustomed to breaking the conventions he’s utilizing can manage.
Christian was kind enough to chat with me about Halloween, the mythos of the magician, the challenge of balancing the various roles required of being a self-producing artist, and the covert psychic powers that drew me into becoming his friend in the first place.
NN: What’s your dream Halloween costume?
CC: Running around with friends dressed as Ghostbusters, one friend with a boom box on their shoulder blasting the theme song while I run around with a glowing, smoking trap as we push through busy foot traffic warning people that we have a, “Class 5 Free Roaming Vapor! Class 5 Free Roaming Vapor! Out the way please, we have a Class 5 Free Roaming Vapor!”
NN: What scares you, and does that make it into your shows?
CC: Polka dots. Hell no, they’re scary!
NN: What is it about magicians that freaks people out so much?
CC: Long hair and sequins, or nerds with power. After that it’s the idea that someone has a mysterious power or they can create the illusion of a mysterious power. Either way, there is a mystery we don’t have the secret answer to. We hate not having answers. And we hate nerds in sequins who pretend to have mysterious powers.
NN: Do you ever exploit that to your advantage?
CC: Well I do have a secret sequined shirt collection…
But yes, I’m aware that “mystery” can be off-putting, so I use that to my advantage in my persona and show structure. For example, I love having sets that feel like old living rooms or attic with things that feel familiar, like old furniture, pictures, etc. Then I sprinkle that with weird things like old dolls, animal part (my shows are not vegan…), nothing too overtly weird. Just weird enough. This makes one’s mind ask questions: “Why is that doll placed there? Why does he have a dead frog playing the upright bass? Where they hell did he get these things?” Their minds are finding or creating mysteries out of old junk. Mysteries with no real answers. So even before the show starts, audiences feel both comfortable and off balance.
NN: The aspect of mentalism in your shows tends to be pretty strong. When I saw The Pandora Experiment back in 2006, I was convinced that you were psychic.
CC: I’ve always had mixed feelings about those reactions. During the one or two hours of my shows, I like people to believe that magic exists, in all forms. And I want that feeling to be carried out of the theatre and remain long after the show is over. And yet, I don’t have psychic powers and I don’t want people to believe that I have psychic powers.
NN: What am I thinking right now?
NN: Tell us about your show Obscura, described as “an intimate evening of close-up magic, fairy tales, dark fables, and strange happenings.”
CC: Obscura is different from my other shows in that it’s almost exclusively close-up card magic and it doesn’t have as much audience participation as my other shows. Essentially, it’s a storytelling show with card magic. It’s also much lighter than my other shows. That having been said, I tell stories about death, war, and the Devil. So, ya know…it’s a family show.
NN: You are a man who wears many hats: magician, artist, actor, pinball aficionado. How do you balance all these roles, and how does that figure into your particular brand of entertainment?
CC: Great magicians of yesteryear always wore all of those hats. They were the creator, the performer, promoter, producer. How do I balance? I don’t know that I do…Although for many years I focused on creating work at EXIT Theatre where I’m an artist in residence. But the past couple years, I stepped back from creating more work and mainly focused on producing my shows in other cities in the hope of expanding my visibility, name, and opportunities. So, I guess for now I have my producer hat on. And of course, when it’s show time, I become the performer again.
NN: Do you want people to see your work as “entertainment,” or is that a pejorative label?
CC: I love entertainment. I think entertainment is the perfect place to make change in the world. How? Because more people seek out entertainment than they do art. The thing is, I hate bad or dumb entertainment (no, I don’t think that’s redundant). I love good entertainment because you can sneak new thoughts, ideas and experiences into people’s minds and get them to see things in a new way when they weren’t expecting it. I find that to be the ultimate form of subversion. Get me to like you, laugh with you, clap for you, and just as I’m feeling safe and open, get under my skin and make me see myself or the world differently. I find that quite artistic, indeed. I should say now that I think the difference between art and entertainment is bullshit.
NN: It seems like being a magician requires the ability to think fast on your feet. For example, what happens when one of your devices or tricks doesn’t pan out the way you want it to in a show?
CC: It’s happened…it sucks. I mean, in a regular or more traditional magic show, I can change gears and move on to something better. But when you depend on each effect to help tell the story and they go wrong…oh man… suckage! There’s no way out other than through…
NN: How do you deal with the killjoys—like, hecklers or people who come to a show expecting to be enchanted out of their cynicism?
CC: I don’t. I focus on the others having a good time and let the cynics decide if they want to “come outside and play” with us or not.
NN: Those who love your work tend to be diehards, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as magic aficionados. What’s that special ingredient that tends to capture the hearts and imaginations of your fans?
CC: I endeavor to make the experience of magic personal. The focus is not on the effects/tricks and my skill; it’s on the narrative and atmosphere and how that effects you. Whether it’s a grand Cirque du Soliel show or a minimalist piece of theatre, audiences can be transported to any part of the world and see any fantastical thing, as long as the actors truly commit to the play—and I mean the art of playing, being playful, imagining and living the world they are prescribed to perform. This ignites the audiences’ imaginations too and magic is born, magic that the audience is participating in creating. And so the experience of magic is something they own. That’s what I hope to do in every performance. The effects are there to support and make “real” that magic.
NN: So…do you believe in magic?
CC: Yes… 😉
Nirmala Nataraj is a Bay Area journalist, playwright, tarot card reader, and former actress and model. She’s wicked magical herself.