The Insider | Joshua Jay

By Damian Jennings - Sunday, December 16, 2018

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Vanishing Inc.’s very own Joshua Jay chats with me about his origin story, his show Six Impossible Things, and how hard it was the manufacture Balance.

Transcript of the podcast

The Insider: Hello and welcome to episode number six of The Insider brought to you by Vanishing Inc. and who brought us Vanishing Inc., no one but Mr. Joshua Jay who is joining us on the line today. Hello Joshua how are you this afternoon, this morning?

Joshua Jay: Hi it is a wonderful day here in New York. A little bit blustering cold but otherwise great.

The Insider: Okay, you've got 43 seconds, what's your origin story?

Joshua Jay: My origin story, my dad did a card trick for me and did not tell me how it was done and that's my origin story. I had to go to my room, figure it out-

The Insider: At what age?

Joshua Jay: I was six years old and he did out of this world and I went to my room and figured out how he did the trick: charts, graphs, tearing up cards and I figured it out and went back and performed it for him and I always say that that cycle of being a lament, being fooled, being an engineer reconstructing the trick and then being a performer performing it back to my dad that whole cycle is what hooked me. That's what we all do right? As magicians we love to see great magic and be fooled. We love to tinker and come up with our own methods and then we love to perform and I got all three of those and I was totally hooked.

The Insider: Did you create his method or did you come up with a slightly different solution do you remember?

Joshua Jay: You know what's interesting about it? I figured out the method to out of this world but I for some reason thought it was necessary to count exactly the first 26 cards as they deal which of course it isn't in most standard methods you can just guesstimate it. But the one nice advantage of counting the cards is, you can actually get some displays and shows in that you couldn't get if you just are ballparking it so to speak.

The Insider: Sure. So from a humble card trick to yada, yada, yada foolist television famous and now something very exciting is going on in Manhattan. So talk to me about that. You've got a new show.

Joshua Jay: Yeah, yeah. I'm career-wise the happiest I've ever been because we're doing a show that I'm really proud of and it's by no means a perfect show it's a work in progress. There are things that bug me about it I'm sure every magician feels that to some degree. But on the whole six impossible things is something I'm really excited about and I wish everyone could see. It is an experiential magic show.

The Insider: What does that mean Josh?

Joshua Jay: Well we hesitate to use the word immersive because it's become a loaded term that everybody's using in and out of New York for all kinds of theater even if they're just shouting things from their seats. But it truly is immersive. It's 20 people per show, twice a night coming through an environment and actually walking through an environment and seeing and experiencing magic up close and in most cases in their own hands.

Joshua Jay: So they see magic in the dark. They see magic standing, seated, surrounded, on the floor, walking through an environment and this just opens up so many possibilities. Imagine doing a trick but one in which people view it from over your shoulder.

The Insider: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joshua Jay: Imagine doing your trick with a shadow where people are watching behind your back a projection on a wall. Doing magic totally in the dark, like where do you even begin? So it's been so fun because the blank canvas that we start with is not the same blank canvas most magicians are going alright so I'm on stage, we got the lights they're in the chairs it's 100 people. We are really getting to paint from square one and say you know what for this we're going to do a trick one on one. We're going to break up the groups and have people come through one by one and it's all possible.

The Insider: How did you develop it?

Joshua Jay: Well I knew I wanted to do a show in New York-

The Insider: Okay.

Joshua Jay: And step one was work with somebody way smarter and more talented than I am. So I partnered up with Luke Jermay and Luke and I wrote this show together and then I brought it back to New York and staged it and we ran it for a whole month in previews in which I would say half the things that we had sketched out did not work for one reason or another. So we had to fix and rewrite and fix and restage and replace tons of stuff. Then we've just passed our 100 show point and we're still tinkering with things. Now those things are smaller, they're lighting queues, they're scripting changes but they're important little changes.

The Insider: Of course those little tiny wrinkles are the things that can really make a difference.

Joshua Jay: Absolutely and it has shades of feeling like the magic castle because when you do the magic castle and I do the parlor, it's 27 shows in a week and it's not just the frequency of the shows, it's the close proximity from one to the other that you can sort of go okay in this show I'm going to deliver that line but I'm going to look right at the guy. In the next show I'm going to look away from the guy and a little example there's a line in the show that I found just this week, the eight shows that we did last weekend I thought there was nothing more to be gleamed from a particular routine, but the way I deliver a line I now turn to my right and deliver it to an audience member to the right side and the laugh is exponentially funnier because of the blocking of looking at one guy so I'm not looking at the audience at large.

Joshua Jay: Yeah those kinds of insights are so interesting to me because they're so hard won.

The Insider: So you said you mentioned, I'm interested in the venue. So did you find the venue first or did you have to... 'cause it seems the venue and the show are really interlinked so what came first the venue or the show?

Joshua Jay: They are and people ask are you going to tour the show, are you going to take it somewhere else? It could never go anywhere else. It is built into this space uniquely and the story of the venue is pretty simple. We looked at almost 30 venues across New York and every single one had the same attitude which was like here's our space, here are our terms, can you tell me can you put this much money down. You would need to guarantee this much before here. It was always money, money, money. It was always what we need from you, right?

Joshua Jay: This space which is called the Wildrence is run by two young architects, two female architect graduates who wanted to do something different with their career. They were the only ones I met with who were like tell me about your show and then what happens and then what happens and let me ask you something, could we be part of the design of the set and the space? It wasn't until I was like guys, guys, guys what about the terms? Do you want to talk about availability and they were like yeah, yeah, yeah we can work all that out we just want to know about the show creatively and I instantly knew I wanted to be in business with these women because they had all the right questions and they had the right attitude and they've turned out to be perfect partners. They are so handy, they have built out elements of the space for us. I said hey I need a spotlight on the ground so everything disappears except for my hands. Sure, come back tomorrow we'll have it built for you. That's the kind of people they are.

The Insider: Oh, wow.

Joshua Jay: So.

The Insider: How inspiring that's fantastic. Apart from Luke 'cause obviously lots of people when they're thinking about doing a one man show or some kind of magic show don't go the director route, but you have done with this. But aside from Luke, who else has helped you along the way with the journey?

Joshua Jay: So there's a little town farm town kid with a dream and a glint in his eye named Andy Gladwin I don't know if you've ever heard of him.

The Insider: The name rings a bell.

Joshua Jay: Yeah he's my sounding board, we talk three, four times a day most days. So he was instrumental in a lot of it and it's funny you don't just build a team when you take on a creative endeavor. You have people that have roles and I don't mean roles like stage manager, writer, director. I mean more practical things. So Andy for me was straight shooter, so Andy is the kind of guy I can give a whole idea to, read the script, give him the whole trick and he will turn around and go I got to be honest, doesn't grab me. Or I think you're onto something, but we got to fix x, y, z.

The Insider: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joshua Jay: I love having guys like that. You need people like that around and you can see magicians in our industry who don't have honest feedback people in their lives because you're seeing them perform really nice things and you have weird questions like my God does he think that that jacket is normal? Does he think that that doesn't look weird?

The Insider: Right.

Joshua Jay: Or does he realize that his opener is completely lane and obvious? You need people to help in that regard. I also have the other brothers on the team and they helped collaborate on some of the material and they're wildly clever guys so it's great to have them and then the other thing is I've got a team of people that help with the show every night. People like Kevin [Capenos 00:09:50] and Matt Sat and Jason Silverman and these people aren't just people helping run the show, they are giving feedback every night. Hey have you tried this or I want you to stand here instead of there and those little one degree changes as John Guastaferro calls it, they're so important.

The Insider: So if somebody is listening to this and they fancy doing something, not necessarily immersive but putting on a magic show in their town, what advice could you give them?

Joshua Jay: Where do you even begin? I don't know because I hesitate to give advice because the most important thing about any kind of show is to know what your goal is. So clearly my show which is 20 people a night is not to make money because we've made every possible decision, we don't let people come back to the show. So we can't have any repeat business. My show clearly is not a money maker, it's not there to sustain my life. It is a creative exercise and it also isn't a show that is meant to compete with the illusionists on Broadway or Steve Cohen who does this wonderful show in New York that is such a crowd pleasing, easy to watch amazing magic show. My show is a storytelling show. My show is meant to push the boundary of what the form of magic can be.

Joshua Jay: So take it on those terms I hope people really like it. But if you're in your own hometown and your idea for a close up magic show is just to entertain your guests you have different goals than I do.

The Insider: Sure, okay.

Joshua Jay: But across the board to answer your question the one thing I would say that we did really right, we've done so much wrong. But one thing we did really right is I scheduled almost a month and a half of what we call previews which is really like get your stuff together month and I'm so glad we did because when we did that first show I think we thought we'd coast. I'm a rehearsed guy I didn't come in blind I knew what I was doing and oh my God that first night in the middle of April for a June 1st opening we realized we were nowhere close to ready. A lot of the things we thought would be strong were not strong at all. A lot of the things we didn't know would work, worked great. But the order was wrong, the staging was wrong and we had a month and a half to just play and I am so glad we had that month and a half when nobody was taking any money. I didn't have to worry about being great. If I didn't like the way a piece looked we would just say hey to everybody, friends and family like we're going to run that piece again so sorry about this but we want to try it backwards now.

Joshua Jay: Just having that time, building that time in was really, really nice.

The Insider: Sure okay well I can rephrase the question slightly in a way. What was the biggest mistake this happened since you started the journey?

Joshua Jay: What was the biggest mistake? That's an interesting question. I will say this I call it the magic instinct it's that ability to look at a trick whether it's a trick in a book or a trick you see somebody else perform and say I'm going to make that my own I think I got an idea for that and your magic instincts should logically get better the more time you're in magic and sometimes I think to myself my instincts are pretty good. I know what's going to work for me, I know what's not going to work for me. I know when I'm creating a trick the beats that have to be good, but I got to tell you most of the time I think my magic instincts just suck. I mean absolutely we thought that the centerpiece of this show, we thought that we were going to open with a trick that was a hypnosis thing, was just going to knock people out cold.

Joshua Jay: It was almost like we had this trick and then the whole rest of the show mattered a little less than this one trick because it was so damn strong and potent. I've never seen anything like it done in any kind of close up magic show. I mean it was physical and amazing and our own plot and when I just tell you, sometimes you know like we're working a trick into the show now that isn't quite firing on all cylinders but we know it's going to get there. Conversely when we ran this trick the first night twice for two different audiences we just knew this is not fixable, this is not good. This is just bad. This is just really bad. When that happens, it takes the wind out of you because you're like this was the thing that was going to get everybody on the side and the rest of the show falls into place.

Joshua Jay: Then Luke and I said to each other we're doing all this experimental stuff there needs to be a moment, a confidence building moment, a kind of release for the audience. So we built in a classic close up magic segment, lots of good moments. Chop Cup done my own way, card effects, lots of climaxes and that was meant to go third in the show because we thought we're going to get people so riled up, give them so many moments and climaxes then the rest of the show we can do what we want and very early on we realized there is nothing stronger than good close up magic and we had to move that middle piece, that piece that was supposed to be building the pace, we had to move it to the end because the planned closer was this poetic nice moment but it had to go second to last because people want the action. You live and you learn.

The Insider: Okay so talking of closing a show, I believe that you've been closing your shows for the last few years with a particular trick called Balance.

Joshua Jay: That's right. Balance has been I mean this is so crazy, but they were asking for pictures of me doing Balance and when I dug out some of the pictures I realized that an event they were taken at is now seven years ago. So I know it's really trendy for everybody and their brother to go been working on this trick for 10 years guys can finally release it and you're just shaking your head going I know this dude came up with this trick a week and a half ago and put it out. I hate that, I hate that mentality and I equally cringe when people brag about how long they've been working on something. But truly those who know me can vouge that they've seen it. I did it in Australia a few years ago. I have been doing Balance myself for a really long time and working out the kinks has been a real process. A real education, a real learning process and we finally got it to a place where I'm so happy with it so it's time to share it with the world.

The Insider: So for those who have been hiding under a rock and have missed all of my advertising for it, tell people what it is Joshua.

Joshua Jay: So Balance is a suspension effect and I would venture to say almost no magicians working today are doing suspension effects, it's just a rare plot and what's wonderful about it is it's sustained magic. So most of us build to one climax, one moment of magic. In Balance the whole thing is impossible. You have six objects, various objects examined and you take those objects and you form them into an impossible sculpture. So a water bottle Balances with a toothbrush coming at a right angle and then you Balance a pencil on the tip of the pencil to the bristles of the toothbrush and then you Balance a card box on top of that and a crayon box on top of that at an angle so it's just the point that it's Balanced on and then a crayon is balanced on top of that.

The Insider: It sounds impossible, but more interestingly is the story and the trailer about this whole prison thing Josh. Is that all true?

Joshua Jay: Yeah that's entirely true.

The Insider: Really? Pinky swear?

Joshua Jay: Pinky swear it's true. Actually what's crazy about it is it's actually a composite of several prison pen pals that I have. When I wrote for Magic Magazine that's a common thing that inmates in prison can subscribe to, Magic Magazine. It's something they're allowed to do. They promote it in there. So you do get a lot of people who write to me from prison and my rule is if you tell me what you did I won't judge you. I don't judge but I need to know and you have to be patient because I'm on the road a lot and yeah, so that's the idea and these guys would write to me and they'd say look I'm doing magic in an environment where sometimes I can't even practice my tricks because I'll get beat up in my cell if I don't tell them how I did it or I do magic for gang leaders and they'll beat me up if I don't tell them how I did it or if I make a fool of them.

Joshua Jay: I can't use playing cards, I've got to make my own. I've got to use just a toothbrush and a water bottle and so truly that's what got me thinking along those lines of that plot to that trick.

The Insider: I guess because of the nature I don't think I'm spoiling anything and as far as the items that you get are precision engineered. So would they even be allowed them in prison? Can you send anybody a set?

Joshua Jay: No, of course not. You can't send any props of any kind. The first things they do in these max security prisons that I send, I donate some of our books sometimes to them so they have something to read. They slip the covers right off. They just slip the covers themselves off because people can take a hardback book and fashion it into a weapon.

The Insider: Right.

Joshua Jay: How sad is that?

The Insider: Man.

Joshua Jay: I mean the most common thing that I get from these prison pen pals three in particular I'm thinking of is that they say they're so appreciative when you write to them and what they say is like thank you so much I feel like a human being.

The Insider: Wow.

Joshua Jay: When I'm writing to you. And I always ask what do you mean by that and they're like you know when we're in here the system is designed to make us feel actually like animals.

The Insider: Sure.

Joshua Jay: We are kept in pens, the medical services we receive are more like what you'd give to an animal. Nobody looks us in the eye, we're told not to look people in the eye. They are treated as animals so when they're treated as humans it's special to them.

The Insider: How wonderful to be able to give somebody that, that's amazing.

Joshua Jay: I feel like it's the least I can do right? It's just an email or a letter.

The Insider: Sure, but not that many people do it. So you know.

Joshua Jay: Yeah.

The Insider: So how was the processing getting from seven years ago there's a photo of you doing it, to now. There must have been a process to help you stage, but how was the whole manufacturing process of something this precision engineered?

Joshua Jay: It's an undertaking, when I say bigger than anything we've done that doesn't even do it justice. It's way bigger than anything we've ever done. These are six injection molded custom made props and I got to single out George our project manager at Vanishing Inc. and he practically deserves co-credit on the whole trick because look I got it as good as I could but I had my friends Tim Hill and Mike Masevick help me make mine. Beautiful stunning version that I could do and it was just great.

Joshua Jay: But when you go to manufacture it you not only run into problems, but you run into potential improvements. So George was able to make these little design fixes and I'll tell you right now this is for magicians, there isn't one method that makes Balance work. You can't look at it and go magnets or string or screws because everything is examined and some objects never leave your site, some do. Some objects are just touched together. Some the audience are involved with. So what's beautiful about it and necessary in a trick like this if you want it to be deceptive is combining methods. So it's everything right? George was able to really improve the method. It was actually better than what I brought to the table of here's what we want Balance to be because the switching box for example, this is what you use to switch the objects. He was able to put wings on it so that you can do it surrounded. There's so many little details in Balance that I'm so proud of and he gets a lot of the credit for that.

The Insider: Oh, okay George, we love George. So-

Joshua Jay: We do.

The Insider: Who's it for? Who's your buyer?

Joshua Jay: So here's the great thing and I know again this just sounds like every cliché magic dealer selling stuff, but it's true. The hardest part about Balance is making it look hard and I'm not going to lie that isn't as easy as it sounds. I mean, it's completely self working. You will be able to do it the first time right out of the box, with that said, to make it look really authentic to make it look right on the border of what's real and what's magic you have to sell it. That's really a question of like asking yourself what would it be like if I could Balance the tip of a pencil on a toothbrush? So it's easy to do right out of the box. This is perfect for anybody doing parlor magic, anybody doing stuff for TV or YouTube or Instagram. Anybody doing close up magic as long as you can put I'd say a table's distance between you and your audience then it's perfect for that.

Joshua Jay: I think that it's for anybody that likes to tell stories with their magic, but if you prefer I've been doing lately a lot of it with just, the only thing is music and that's really powerful too. I love having just a quiet piece in the show.

The Insider: That's interesting, but what you said about the making it look like you're balancing something, that's the same as everything with magic no? It's like a double lift it should look like you're turning over a single.

Joshua Jay: Yeah.

The Insider: When you french drop a coin you should look like you're taking the coin. It's like-

Joshua Jay: Exactly, you're simulating reality.

The Insider: Can you tell me about the cigarette and crayon thing because that's interesting to me.

Joshua Jay: Yeah a lot of people are asking about that. So when I came up with it I used a cigarette and a cigarette box because that's of course the currency in prison and the most common thing. When we went to manufacture it of course we very quickly learned it isn't just difficult it's also unethical and not possible to sell a real cigarette to minors or to anybody else. So we don't sell the cigarette version. However, this is the key take away from Balance, I hope nobody is going to do it like I do it. That's my story with it. You should be adding your own story to it and so you don't have to use the props that we give you. I mean you can change them out and use other things.

Joshua Jay: So if a cigarette is much more common in the venues you are working than a crayon box, by all means grab a cigarette box and within 10 minutes you can alter the things that come in this kit and use your own and that's totally not just fine, but we encourage that. It's easy to swap out a lot of these objects that come in the thing. I want people to think of Balance less as a trick and more like a kit.

The Insider: Okay, so how much arts and crafts is involved? You say 10 minutes. I am useless with a craft knife and glue, I can't do any of that stuff. Seriously how difficult is it?

Joshua Jay: I honestly think 10 minutes is a very conservative thing. If you know what you're doing you can do it even faster than that. I don't want to give away too much here-

The Insider: Sure, no, yeah.

Joshua Jay: To protect those who buy the trick, but yeah you're talking about moving the little gimmicks from one object into your own object, that's all it is.

The Insider: Okay. Well I'm very excited to see it in the flesh. I think mine is on its way. So what's next for Joshua Jay?

Joshua Jay: So it's such an exciting time. A bunch of things coming up. So number one is I got to finish this run of six impossible things. It ends in December and then opens again March, April, May. If there are magicians around the world we have lots of people flying in I would love for you to see it and snatch up the last, I think there's about 100 tickets left total.

The Insider: For the whole three month run?

Joshua Jay: For the whole three month run. We're like three quarters sold out. So yeah, so that's that. Then of course we have our two conventions which in both cases are stellar years. We've got the session going on in London and we've got Magi-Fest January 17th to the 19th. Magi-Fest is in an almost sold out situation. I think we're down to our last 25 spots. So, that's going to be great. Juan Tamariz, Guy Hollingworth, Yann Frisch and a bunch of other people. So yeah, that's super exciting and then I go to Blackpool as well in your fine country so I'll be seeing people there and that takes us through May and then I hope to get a good night sleep at some point in the future.

The Insider: That sounds like an admirable go Mr. Jay. Well thank you very much indeed for your time today. I appreciate it and I look forward-

Joshua Jay: Of course.

The Insider: To seeing you when will I see you? In January.

Joshua Jay: In January that's right.

The Insider: Okay.

Joshua Jay: Alright take care.

The Insider: Take care man, bye.

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