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Penn & Teller Fool Us: Behind The Scenes | Part 1

3 Life Lessons from Performing for my Heroes (and 1.15 to 2.35 million others)

April, 2002 (probably) Annapolis, Maryland (certainly):

I’m a college student who thinks I’ll be a lawyer when I grow up. I see a flyer posted on the coffee shop on campus for discounted tickets, and a group van, to Penn & Teller’s show in Baltimore. I buy a ticket.

At one point the room blacks out. A single spotlight comes up to tightly illuminate a flower in a pot. Teller silently approaches it.

For the next 4 or 5 minutes the theater is in total silence. No music. No words. No fidgeting. No coughs. Just 2,500 people, leaning forward in their seats, focused on a small, quiet, man and his extraordinary interaction with a shadow.

It is like nothing I’ve seen before or since.

On the way out of the theater my brain is racing. This is a show that hits on every cylinder a great magic show hits on; and if it were judged only on the same standards as the rest of them — entertainment and mystery value — it would be among the 2 or 3 best. But, there is more going on here…there is a gear these guys are connecting with that isn’t in the transmission of any of the other shows.

Spring 2012; Orlando, Florida

At this point in 2012, I have been a professional magician for 8 years. I’m at a table in an IHOP on Kirkman Road in Orlando. It is after a P&T performance at Hard Rock Live, and a group of performers is out having late dinner with Penn & Teller and some of their team. Penn is at a table across the way, holding court with a group that includes two other performers that I am a fan of (Owen Morse and Jon Wee of The Passing Zone).

At the table one foot from me is Teller. The man who created “Shadows.” I awkwardly smile and, when the moment feels right, I shyly introduce myself and ask if I can sit with them.

My throat is dry and tight. He indulges me when I ask him about a footnote in a magic book he annotated. His thinking is radically different than the conventional thinking of magicians on the topic; but rooted in a deep understanding of what an audience is seeing and how to pull them into a different world.

This guy is seeing something other people aren’t. The rest of us are done when we get laughs and applause; this guy is going for a different emotional experience, he’s doing it without pretense — just a theatrical experience that grabs you and refuses to let go.

I’m awkward and not at all myself. Here’s someone I have looked up to for years, and I’m way too caught up with trying to impress him rather than having a conversation.  Just being around this person, someone who is among the best in the world at the thing I care most about (outside, of course, of family), has reduced me into a quivering, self-conscious mess.

Photo: Jacob Kepler/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

April 2016, Las Vegas, Nevada:

I’m standing alone in the empty lobby of The Penn & Teller Theater, my suit coat on a hanger over my shoulder, my props in a handbag. My heart is pounding, blood is pumping hard, endorphins are lighting up my brain. A stage hand has just ushered me out after performing an original piece of magic on the stage for Penn; Teller; 1,400 guests in the room; and for an eventual broadcast audience of 1.15-2.35 million people.

As I stand in that lobby, and take a deep breath, there is an irrepressible grin lighting up my face.

The reason for the smile: however good or bad the performance (you’ll have to wait and see), I was standing there because I had set a clear goal — one that seemed impossibly big, unlikely, and intimidating when I set it — and after several intense periods of uncertainty, and a lot of focused work, what had just existed in my imagination was now real.
The road between those points — between being a college kid worshipping two idols from a distance to being in a position to perform my own work for them on national television — reinforced three powerful lessons about life: 1. Know what you want (and be ready to ask for it), 2. prepare like crazy and 3. Understand what your client really needs (and put their needs ahead of your own ego).

Next week we’ll dig into knowing what you want, and being ready to ask for it — by following the process of getting what was a dream gig.

Next: Part Two (Available Thursday, July 7)

Tune in Wednesday, July 13 at 8p for Nathan’s performance on the Season Premiere of Penn & Teller Fool Us on The CW Network.

Nathan Coe Marsh

407.900.3831 | NCM@NCMarsh.com


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