Magic continues to thrive in New York City, and is doing well in the hands of the ultra-talented performer (and Tannen's Magic fan) Vinny Deponto.
His newest show, CHARLATAN, is running through April 12th in a limited engagement at Ars Nova. The show is written by Vinny Deponto and Josh Koenigsberg with direction by Andrew Neisler.
Adam and Ben from Tannen's had the pleasure of seeing Vinny's show recently, along with the added bonus of being able to sit down with Vinny for a brief chat about the show, his influences, the theatre and magic.
Enjoy the interview, transcribed below, and be sure to support New York magic and catch CHARLATAN at Ars Nova before the 12th!
Ben: [Preparing for Charlatan] How much material did you have?
Vinny: I didn’t have much, to be honest, a lot of the things that I was doing in the last show, if you remember, were completely different. So I took things that I really wanted to explore and then started with that first trick, and then just went from there. I only did them if they fit into the theme of deception and lying, that specific theme. So they were things that I never got to do, and I just wanted to try them.
Ben: Some of the pieces evolved over time though, right? Like the Carnival piece…
Vinny: Ooh, right! Carnival was the only thing that was in the last show that was also in this one. It did evolve. It used to be cups.
Ben:It was like a ring toss?
Vinny: It was a ball into a cup. It was basically beer pong, but then we changed it because it was hard to see the numbers on the cups so we sort of just brought it up sort of vertically from there.
Adam: [This was from the previous show?]
Vinny: Mysterious Delights, yeah, from the show that Ben saw at the Mead House, but also the one…
Adam: Ben you saw a preview or workshop of this [Charlatan]?
Ben: I went to the last thing in workshop…what was that?
Vinny: That was the Project Residency. So I took Mysterious Delights and I applied into al these festivals. I got into AMFest, which is at Ars Nova, and I did Mysterious Delights there for one night, and it was really fun, and I talked to them about doing something after, and they gave me a residency there. So, we created a show, took six months to create Charlatan and I had the bare bones of it in February and in September or so we put it up in residency. That's the one you saw [Ben], and then from there, almost immediately after we closed only three nights there we got word that we'd be getting a main stage. So, we went back to work and just kept refining, basically with the thought in mind, "oh, we have more money and more time!" So we thought the Carnival routine should stay in because it has a very sort of deceptive feel.
Ben: What NY celebrities have seen the show? I know you mentioned Steve Cohen has been there. I saw Ryan Oakes the last time I was there.
Vinny: Jim Steinmeyer also helped me with the show.
Ben: How did he help?
Vinny: I … can’t quite say, haha, but he was involved in the process and was absolutely amazing, and he was just in town for Aladdin’s opening and he came to the show [Charlatan] with his wife and it was very fun! Stephen Sondheim was there which was really fun. I got to draw a little X-mark on his back. We had a moment, hahaha! And Allison Williams from Girls, she caught the brick at one of the shows, which was really nice.
Adam: So, [Charlatan] is very theatrical. It’s almost a play, and I enjoy that. I’m glad to see magic given, I don’t want to say more respect, but in my opinion an audience can appreciate magic when it’s given some kind of context, and when it’s not just “let me fool you,” but it also feels, in many ways, very New York. Now you grew up in New York, so what’s it like to have a New York show?
Vinny: It’s very surreal. We’re only running for four weeks, but it’s still a very big deal to me, because, for the first time I feel like I have been given the opportunity to have a team and a budget and time, and it’s been very rewarding I think. It’s sort of like I can now try things that I’ve always wanted to do.
Basically, I came to them with these ideas, the first idea that you saw, the impostor thing with the jumpsuit, and the last idea. And I thought, they were in my notebook forever and ever, and I thought this would never ever happen in any theatre. I approached them with it and they said, “Yeah! Sounds great! Do it!” and I was like, “….I’m sorry, what???”
And so it was one of those things that I thought, let’s take advantage of that. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity to create a narrative in a show and have a New York show and not be just a straight play, but have a mix of magic and research project and straight play and sort of all these elements combined. I hate “immersive,” but that’s sort of what everyone is talking about. And that’s what it is I’d guess.
Adam: You have a theatre background, in addition to magic?
Vinny: I do, yeah, in college I was in several musicals and plays. Actually, I majored in it for a while, and then I switched to Psychology, and then I decided I would double major, haha!
Adam: In Business and Medicine.
Vinny: Haha, yes, in Business and Medicine! Basically, Manhattanville (sp?) lets you pick you own major, design your own major, essentially. That’s why I went there. So, I designed Psychology and Theatre. I just took all the classes I didn’t want to take in Theatre and all the classes I didn’t want to take in Psychology and I just combined them. And they accepted it, which was amazing. I came up with some kind of BS like “Psychology of Performing Arts” or something is what I majored in officially, hahaha!
So, yeah, I did a lot of theatre in college, and I just mixed some of my other interestes into the show.
Adam: How long have you had the goal to do a scripted, formal show?
Vinny: A while! I’ve always scripted my shows, but the difference is I’ve never really been that great of a writer to be able to have a through-line. It’s the transitions that are the hardest thing, right? We often struggle with how we get from trick to trick, and instead of it just being a show that is the trick-to-trick show, something at the top I wanted to avoid, we had to really think about (and Josh Koenigsburg was the proponent in this) figuring out how to meld these together so it didn’t just feel like it was, “Now we’re moving onto the next thing.” Which I hope it didn’t.
So, it’s always been a script, but it hasn’t always been a coherent script, and I feel like, for the first time, I walk off stage and I think, “Finally, something that I feel like had a beginning, middle and end, and something that I feel good performing.”
Ben: Who are your influences for this show in particular?
Vinny: Derren Brown, I think, is obviously an influence. The reason he is, obviously aside from being a fantastic magician and one of the greatest in our time now, I also have a personal history with him. I went to one of his shows, and we met and we stayed in touch and I got to tour with him for a couple of weeks. I learned so much just traveling and training with him. Specifically, just talking about magic and how to approach magic. So, Derren is definitely an inspiration, as well as his team, Ian Sharkey and Steven Long.
My other influences are my friends. They are people who come to shows and say, “well, why did you do that? Why did you make that decision?” I think that’s really helpful and it inspires me to be better, not only for magicians but for regular people, hahaha!
My inspirations exist outside of the magic community. I’m very inspired by Jim Henson and Dali. Roald Dahl is a huge inspiration, huge! So those are people that I realy pull inspiration from.
Ben: You mention “outside the magic community.” So you had a lot of collaborators on this project, stage manager, a director, another writer … all of which are not magicians. How does having partners in crime who aren’t magicians help or detract from your creative process?
Vinny: Look, if you find great people, it’s the best thing in the world. It really is. I mean, we had a team of 25 or so people on this show.
Ben: And how many were magicians?
Adam: I think the most interesting thing about that is, I do not think magicicans are born collaborators.
Vinny: I don’t think so either, haha!
Ben: Because we’re all selfish, hahaha!
Vinny: Well, a lot of it’s self-serving.
Ben: Of course.
Vinny: I’ll agree with you, I agree.
Adam: Well, magicians collaborate out of necessity I think. They need someone to design something for them. It’s not necessarily a conversation, and it sounds like you had a conversation.
Vinny: Right, I will say I may have lied when I said “none,” there was one person who, Matt Cooper who is a dear friend of mine, we meet almost every day for coffee and we talk about magic, and it’s sort of my daily dose of magic. So, he was integral, I think, in mapping out the show and talking about magic. He was even in the rehearsal rooms a few times to really sort of refine the performance. Overall, everyone was not a magician, but sort of became a magician at the very end.
Everything in that show has some sort of deceptive means. The lighting, the set design, everything was integral in making the show work. So, everyone sort of became a magician, but the hardest thing about that is surrendering your secrets! You spent your life keeping this from people, and the first and hardest thing to do is to say to these people, “okay, well I need your help, this is how this works.” It’s really hard to do, but as long as you trust them, as long as they’re good people, it’s so amazing!
Adam: We have a slightly confused PA, or I don’t know what he is, but somebody who keep showing up at Tannen’s not really, totally knowing what he’s looking for…
Vinny: Ah, yeah, Noah! Noah is my prop designer, he is awesome and so fun. He designed the snake and all of the props that you see in the show.
Ben: So the snake’s not real?!
Vinny: Hahaha, the snake is not real!
Ben: I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so maybe that’s why I couldn’t tell.
Vinny: Hahahaha! He [Noah] is so fun, all the time. He’s like, “I’m looking for a pen that, hahaha!”
Adam: Ben and I discussed, during the show … probably too loudly, haha … what is it? Is it theatre, or is it magic? I think it’s a good thing that that line should get blurred.
Ben: Right! He was like, “Oh, well it’s a magic show,” and I said “well … is it???” And that was out discussion, and I think that’s a good discussion to be having.
Vinny: Yeah, it’s sort of the conversation about … art and magic, right? Sort of that same conversation, which I always avoid, I don’t really like that conversation, because we think of magic as art and theatre is magic. I feel like as long as you create the thresholds of magic, as long as you really allow people to experience your magic, rather than just talking at them, I think you’ve created something that’s more than just tricks. You’ve created an experience, and I think whether you count that as theatre or not is fine, but “theatre” of course is so broad. How do you define that? So, I really don’t have an answer for that. Is it theatre? Is it magic? I’d like to think it’s … both.
Adam: I mean, I think it’s theatre. I think not all magic IS theatre, and I think it should be. It should, magic should evoke the same emotions and allow an audience to retain the event the same way they do theatre and you should be allowed to interpret it, I think, it’s important that an audience can interpret it. It’s not simply, “let me fool you!” But, on that, with al the collaborators you’ve mentioned, the production value, there’s not many magicians, at least I have seen in my lifetime, that have been allowed the opportunity to collaborate and create theatre, especially in New York, and I would count you among a very select few, probably starting with Ricky Jay and it’s wonderful to see!
Vinny: Thank you! I appreciate it! And Ricky Jay, of course, is a big inspiration as well! I don’t consider myself…
Ben: I missed his show at the Public Library tonight … for your show, hahaha!
Vinny: Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know he had a show! Well, thank you, that means a lot … now Ben, secretly is hating me, hahaha!
Yeah, Ricky Jay is obviously a huge inspiration. You know, there’s only two card tricks in my show, and I thin the context of card tricks is really hard to convey, and he does it so beautifully and to watch him is so engaging. I just don’t hold the same interests as him, obviously, but he’s a huge inspiration for creating that theatrical threshold in magic. That’s so important.
Adam: I think you get to count yourself among very few artists, and very few magicians, who can appeal to a crowd beyond a strictly “I want to be fooled” kind of crowd. I would hope people come to your show to enjoy an evening of theatre and entertainment, and hopefully coming in hoping to be fooled, I’m sure they are fooled, but I think there are very few shows that allow magic to be witnessed as more than a challenge.
Ben: Well, what do you hope people walk away with? What’s your goal for this, what do you want people to be like, “this is what I remember from the show” about?
Vinny: Well, I’ll answer that by saying that we never once mention “Magic” in the script. We never once mention it in the advertising.
Ben: And you don’t say the word “Magician,” you only say “Charlatan.”
Vinny: We only say “Charlatan.” So, people actually don’t know what to expect when they walk in. They’ve heard through word of mouth that maybe it’s a magic show, and can sort of gauge that. What I want them walking away with is sort of a hmmmm. I want them having fun, of course, but I also want them to know the basis of this show is, “why do we lie?” Specifically, “why do we lie to ourselves?”
What is self-deception about? And it’s not why I say it’s part magic show and part research project, is because I’m obsessed with it, I became obsessed with lying and the art of lying with a Mark Twain essay on the Decay of the Art of Lying. I want people walking away going, “yeah! We are all liars!” It’s such a negative connotation to think about lying as a negative thing, but I want people to walk away thinking, hopefully, that lying can sometimes be good and for survival, and it’s something we all do, and we just have to be aware of that.
But at the end of the day, it’s just a fun magic show and I just want people to have fun, hahaha! I mean , that was my goal in discovering this, and that’s my hope I guess.
Ben: Alright, let’s do a shameless plug. What about Tannen’s!?
Ben: How has Tannen’s, since 1925 til now, played a role in your life as a magician?
Vinny: Tannen’s was integral in figuring out … so, during previews, a lot of things went wrong! And I had to figure out, “well … how do we fix these things!?” Some things didn’t work, and so we would send over people and pick up new things from Tannen’s, and they were wonderful!
Ben: Besides Tannen’s, what other magic shops did you utilize? Like, I’m a big fan of Home Depot as like my second magic shop. It’s Tannen’s … and Home Depot. Then maybe the dollar store.
Adam: I will not rent and/or buy an apartment if it is not within like arm’s distance of a hardware store.
Vinny: Hahaha! Very true, very true.
Ben: So, besides Tannen’s, what are your other “magic shops” for this.
Vinny: The art store! But mostly Tannen’s! Hahaha.
Adam: I like that question! Like, I’m serious, I won’t buy an apartment if I can’t reach out to a
hardware store, but other kinds of shop or whatever inspire you?
Vinny: For me, it’s antique shops, mostly. Because when I walk into antique shops, there’s old ephemera and the furniture and just the design of things … I’m obsessed with design.
Adam: Speaking of antique stores, I was intrigued by the room. I’d never been to Ars Nova. This is a great thing, but I couldn’t draw the line between the set and the room, and I’m curious whether things like wall coverings, the sign about Vaudeville and the sign about smoking. Are those permanent fixtures of Ars Nova, or is that your team extending their vision throughout the room? Even the wall color of the set where you played cards and the wall color of the room is the same. Did you get to treat the entire space, or did you take the space and embrace it into your world?
Vinny: A little bit of both. I think why Ars Nova and I got along so well is because for the first show, Mysterious Delights, which was very sort of Vaudeville inspired and had a sort of old-timey feel, and their space actually has that feel already. In the loft where we rehearsed there are all these old lithographs from Vaudeville and the circus and all this beautiful stuff! So essentially, the people who own it have that obsession, but we were able to extend out into the space in more ways than one and tried to make the space feel like it fit the set and feel like it fit into the space. A lot of that was done with the collage and paper.
Adam: And did you paint the room? Is that the wall color or Ars Nova always, or did you paint?
Vinny: We did some painting. Yes.
Adam: And the Vaudeville poster?
Vinny: The Vaudeville poster I believe was theirs.
Adam: Any final thoughts, Vinny?
Vinny: What do I say!? Yes! Come see Charlatan, at Ars Nova. It runs through April 12th … lyingsonofa.com!