Wondrous Strange: An Interview with Champions of Magic Performer Sam Strange

Abracadabra! Alakazam! With a wave of a wind and a flick of the hand you’ve got— MAGIC. And not just any magic but Champions of Magic coming live to The Hippodrome Theatre this February! In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we took a quick across-the-pond call with illusionist and magician Sam Strange— of Young & Strange, one of the featured magic acts appearing with Champions of Magic— to chat about the craft and what has him so fascinated with magic and illusion enough to want to perform it world-wide.

Thanks for taking the call with us, Sam Strange, let’s get right down to it— everyone knows you’re a magician. So what is it that got you into doing magic?

Sam Strange: So I’m in a double-act, actually, with another gentleman called Richard Young. My genuine name is Sam Strange and his genuine name is Richard Young, so Young & Strange seemed like a sensible name to go for, though it took us bloody hours to come up with it. We grew up learning magic together, actually, in our early teens. We did magic for each other and that fostered a competitive environment between the two of us. We were constantly trying to outdo each other with tricks and illusions. I think that meant we learned a little bit quicker than the other magicians in our age group.

That sounds fascinating. Who was outdoing who in the teenage years?

Sam: Obviously me. Since this is a Richard-less conversation. It was obviously me.

Was there something in your teenage years or in your youth that you saw— like another magic act or a trick or illusion somewhere— that just made you decide you had to do magic?

Sam: Rich and I have a passion for big-scale illusion. Prior to us getting into and performing big-scale illusion, our biggest hero was David Copperfield. That’s when he was really at the height of his fame, I mean everyone was talking about him. He had all this hype and high-profile publicity; he traveled all around the world with the astonishing stuff he would do and I couldn’t sort of help but admire the guy for what he’d done for magic, even now, you know?

What is it that made you and Rich decide that you should take your show on the road and go do magic professionally?

Sam: It’s not really a decision where you just wake up one morning and say, “I want to be a professional magician.” I think you sort of evolve or sort of fall into it. What we were doing, we were just pursuing a raw passion for magic and for illusion. When you’re in your late teens or early twenties you just have any idea that that is ever going to lead you anywhere. You just don’t give it thought that it could ever become your career. All your doing is following a passion. And because we did that, it wasn’t long before we started putting on our own shows in and around the Oxford area where we grew up.

Richard Young (left) and Sam Strange (right) of Young & Strange, with Champions of Magic
Richard Young (left) and Sam Strange (right) of Young & Strange, with Champions of Magic Champions of Magic

Even in the early days, we did not know how to structure or build routines or design magic tricks. What we would often do was buy big-scale illusions, without a need, or a purpose, or even an area to perform them in. We bought them just because we were passionate about the illusions. I remember the first illusion we bought. It used to sit under Richard Young’s bed for about six months because there was no place to put it. We used to get it out on the weekends, we used to play with, and we’d perform it, and then back it would go. Ultimately we worked up to performing with it in shows that we put on locally, but we had bought the illusion for no other reason than passion and wanting to play with it!

So we had our passion, and we worked up from playing with illusions and outdoing each other to putting on these little local shows, and then we started doing shows nationally— in the UK. And then we got picked up with this producer for this show, Champions of Magic. He’s an ambitious, hard-working guy, and has worked very hard to get us sold all over the world. So we’re really very lucky and privileged to be a part of it.

What is it about illusions that draws your fascination and drives your passion?

Sam: That’s an interesting one. With stage illusion, with girls in boxes and things like that, they’re just fun. They’re visual. You just watch the magic happen in front of your eyes. There’s very little procedure, it’s not cards being chosen and being signed and people writing things down, it’s just a fun, big, visual spectacle. And that’s what we’ve fallen in love with.

Is there an illusion that has stuck with you over time or is your favorite? Or is there an illusion that really changed your life and experience with magic? Is there an illusion that you’ll never forget so long as you live?

Sam: I’ll give you two answers to this. One is an illusion we perform in our act and the other one is an illusion performed by David Copperfield. It’s called “Flying” and its probably David Copperfield’s most artistic and recognizable pieces that he performs. He flies around the stage. And not only is it absolutely baffling and fooling because of the lengths he goes to in order to show that he’s not hooked up to wires or anything like that. But he makes the audience care about the trick that he’s performing. He’s not just doing the trick and having the audience say, “Wow. I wonder how that works?” He’s attaching that to an emotion for the audience, which is seldom and never happens with a great many magicians all around the world. They place too much emphasis on the trick and don’t consider the journey that the audience is going on with it.

The other trick that I love is the one that we do in our show. It’s called “The Cardboard Box Illusion.” It’s basically so simple. It’s just a cardboard box and 21 wooden sticks, that you get from the DIY store. I put Richard Young in the box and then I just fire those sticks through the box at speed. One of the reasons I love it so much is because it’s the first trick we ever learned together. We’ve been doing it the longest and it’s just so simple. It’s just sticks from a DIY Store, a cardboard box, and the two of us. That’s it. There isn’t anything over the top or any smoke and mirrors, it’s just a very basic trick.

What is your favorite part about performing magic for an audience?

Sam: I think magic has one quality over a lot of other art forms. As an audience watches a magic show, just for a moment— a split moment— you can give the audience that feeling of feeling like a kid again. Even if it’s for half a second, they get that one moment where they’re taken aback in their seat and go “WOW!” and it gives them that moment and reconnects them with being a child again. That is a privilege to be able to do.

Have you ever had a moment where something has gone awry on stage?

Sam: All the time.

Oh wow! How do you get out of it or handle it? Is there some secret signal that you send to Richard or something like that?

Sam: It depends on what we’re performing, actually, and what’s gone wrong with it. There are ways around mistakes and malfunctions of props and things. But there are times where there is a malfunction on the illusion itself, which is just a catastrophic structural failure, and you can’t do anything about it. Having done magic and illusions for 10-11 years now, most stuff goes wrong if you do it in a fright. Everything that pretty much can go wrong in our act has gone wrong at some point or another, but the key thing is to learn from it when it does.

You’ve traveled all over the UK, and you’re coming the USA, where else is this global tour with Champions of Magic taking you?

Sam: We’ve got some shows booked in Kuwait, and there’s also some shows booked in the Middle East for the end of 2018. But we’ve just come back from a tour of the states, all over the different areas of the US, including a few dates in Canada. We did two months on a tour bus, which was a bit tense, but we managed. It was our first time in the states performing magic. What a void of difference that is between the British audiences and the American audiences! You’ll be quite interested to see it, as you’ve got a British partner, but there’s a real difference in the attitudes of the Americans verses the British when it comes to magic.

The Americans just get it. I don’t know how else to say it. Right from the beginning of the show we’re doing, the house lights come down and the audiences are cheering and whooping and clapping. The British audiences just sit there with their arms folded with that “yeah, okay, impress me” sort of cold attitude for the whole thing. This is why it’s so nice to come to the states because you guys just enter into the whole spirit of the thing.

Sam Strange performing the infamous "Cardboard Box" illusion with Richard Young inside the box
Sam Strange performing the infamous “Cardboard Box” illusion with Richard Young inside the box Champions of Magic

What is the thing that when you walk away from the show at the end of each night, that you walk away having learned about yourself as a person, as a magician, as an illusionist?

Sam: That’s a very good question. I know I mentioned talking about evoking childhood wonder in the audiences, but you know when you’ve done a show that’s just gone really well and the audience is cheering and you get standing ovations, you can’t help but have your own childhood feeling. What you’re doing is living the dream in front of a packed-out audience and they’re all cheering and clapping. That’s my own little childhood dream that’s turned into a reality. And I love it.

This has been so wonderful getting to hear all about your illusions, it’s been magical! Is there anything else you wanted to say about working with Champions of Magic before I make like a magician’s assistant and disappear?

Sam: Oh, I’m actually happy to talk about the other magicians because there are five magicians in the show and I’m one of them. This is going to sound like a cliché, which I try to avoid, but we get on so well, all of us, we’re all good friends off-stage, so it makes it a wonderful experience all around. We all do our own types of magic. We’ve got a guy who does Bird Magic— Edward Hilsum, using live animals, and you’ve got a Mind Reader— Alex McAleer, as well as Close-Up Magician— Kayla Drescher, the American, and then us two. It’s a really well balanced show with different styles of magic.

We all get on so well and we’ve all got the same senses of humor. Every time we come off stage, we go and hangout afterwards, which is good. Being stuck on a tour bus and traveling around can put a lot of tension on us, so us getting along and hanging out off-stage is just as important as the show itself in a way. And we do perform a big spectacular illusion together at the end. Everyone is a part of it and it’s a really nice way to unify the cast as we depart the stage. We all come off and we’re all buzzing with excitement. And then we do this “Meet/Greet” after the show where we come out into the foyer and meet the kids and the audience. We sign some posters and take pictures. That’s the best part because you get to see the kids and their reactions. Kids don’t lie, do they. They’re not being polite, they’re just exploding with excitement and you know you’re getting a genuine response. I think that’s my favorite off-stage moment of the show, meeting the kids and watching their joy.

Enter into the spirit of it, let yourself be deceived. Of course it’s nonsense, we’re not claiming that it’s real. But we’ve got pyrotechnics, and we’re giving you a chance to reconnect with that moment of childhood and it’s just a wonderful experience for everyone.

Champions of Magic plays Thursday February 15 through Sunday February 18, 2018 at The Hippodrome Theatre in the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center— 12 N. Eutaw Street in the Bromo Seltzer Arts District of Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-7444 or purchase them purchase tickets online.

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