I’m sitting with magician/mentalist Gary Ferrar in a room beneath Oxbow Tavern on Columbus Avenue where once a month he’s performing “Nothing Here Is Real.” Comfy couches, armchairs and small tables are scattered on the periphery. There’s a bar at one end.
“I’d like you to commit one thought to this card (white, about the size of a business card), a person from your childhood you haven’t thought of in awhile,” Ferrar says.
Into my head pops neighbor, Araby Wicks (her real name), of whom I haven’t thought in as long as I can remember. As instructed, I write the name, turn my card face down on a stack of them, place one hand flat beneath, one above. Gary covers my hands with his own. We stare into one anothers’ eyes, mine, I imagine, all innocence.
“Think of the first letter of the first name. (A) Then think of something else that starts with that letter (Apple). Now think of a state that begins with that letter (Alabama) and where it is (south). Focus on the second letter. An L? (Yes.) Is the state Alabama? (Yes.) When you think of the south there’s a slight drop in your eyes. Focus on a letter at either side of the center of the first name. Is it D? (No.) Is there a Y at the end of it? (Yes.)”
“Now think of a letter towards the middle of the last name. Is it C? (Yes.) Think of a memory with this person. (Playing in the yard.) Was it happening outside? (Yes.) Say the first name in your mind. Something like Arby? (I get the feeling he already knows the actual name and is playing.) Focus on the last name. Is it a thing? (Yes.) Think of the object. Is it something warm? (Yes.) Picture what the object does? Is it Wicks?”
Gary Ferrar came to magic late, which is to say in his twenties, despite sown seeds. His great grandfather, a hobby practitioner, taught the boy four card effects. Gary the Great, age 12, was asked to do the “act” at the senior’s retirement party. Later, a grandfather invited him to perform at the hotel of a friend. Shows were fun, but the adolescent had many interests.
In fact, Gary entered the field serendipitously. Graduating Hoftstra a theater major, he met a musician who performed in pediatric wards, offered his services, and was soon doing sleight of hand at five units a week. It was, he recalls, a low pressure environment in which to hone skills. Eventually a little mentalism – guessing a card, for example – was added. “Kids couldn’t appreciate the level of the effect, but they loved it.”
Next, he joined a performer who already had a business entertaining at kids’ parties. Though given pointers, it was time to find a mentor and/or people further on from whom he might learn. Gary was savvy enough to visit one of New York’s oldest magic shops in search of denizens. He found Tannen’s (established 1925) too intimidating, so visited Fantasma.
The young magician sat at a table with someone about his age and performed an effect. Instead of the expected correction, he received introduction to a more seasoned practitioner who offered suggestions as to how to improve it. That lead to joining The International Brotherhood of Magicians.
“When you have trust, it’s not as closed a society as it seems. We share with each other about once a week. Not everything, of course, but enough to help those who are earnest and active. Anyone who’s performing magic poorly is hurting all our interests.” Sometimes, Gary tells me, the method is incredibly simple. It’s all about how you package, present, and sell it. Having seen quite a few effects repeated by different magicians/mentalists, I can testify to his. Personality, style and story count.
Nothing Here Is Real is specifically designed for this room. “Most shows are angle proof, but everything I do is conducive to environment.” When Gary’s hired for a private party or corporate work, he can rarely adjust surroundings. Most everything the performer needs is packed in a briefcase. Given the opportunity for complete control, he understandably takes advantage.
“I started this show with ideas not methods, working backwards, reverse engineering how I can create miracles. Methods are original or sometimes a twist. The point is to entertain.”
Apparently used in his presentation, the pool table is antique. When a ball is sunk on a modern table, it rolls down and racks up. This one has leather pockets; a ball goes down and stays, offering proof of prediction. People gather round. Part of the Nothing Here Is Real is performed before a curtain, part at individual seating. “I can’t tell you how I know who to approach. If you can find the right person, it’s half the battle.”
“It’s rare that someone starts with mentalism without crossing through magic. I don’t have psychic ability. Everything that happens does so because I design it that way. Mentalism is exciting, especially for a theater person, because there’s a level of improvisation. If you bring someone up, you have no idea what they’re thinking or how they’ll react. It forces you to be present in the work.”
Reading minds is a challenge these days because of social media, he tells me. People post a lot online. There’s access to an audience’s charge cards, a seating plan. The wealth of available information makes people skeptical of revelations. In order to keep things current, Gary ends the show by writing down events that happened to a number of audience members that very day.
In addition to private appearances, the magician has performed strolling magic as publicity for the film Now You See Me. He’s been brought in to commercial shoots to stand behind the camera and do something that elicits astonishment on an actor’s face. Among the celebrities to whom he’s given magic lessons are Mike Bloomberg and Ralph Lauren.
I ask about common terminology. “There’s a difference between an effect (it’s a noun) and an illusion. An effect is the mental perception of what’s happening, you’re immersed in it. An illusion is what you’re seeing, but implies things are happening beyond that. We avoid the word ‘trick’ because it sets up an us versus them scenario. “I ask about practicing. “I used to, but now I work so often, there’s no need.”
Gary tends not to use people’s possessions. It’s about intimately knowing your material and objects, the fewer variables, the better. He also looks on card tricks much like vacation slides. No matter how good, people assume they’ll be boring and familiar. This show, he tells me, is mostly mentalism. I’m still wondering about how he came up with Araby Wicks.
Nothing Here Is Real – once a month, on Tuesday nights. Admission price includes two drinks. There’s a discount upstairs if one dines before or after.
Pool table and Eight Ball photos by Harrison Kramer. All photos courtesy of the artist.