“I spent, God, probably two, three months researching the history of smell in magic,” the woman said. “I could count on one hand the number of examples that I was able to find of people doing it in the last 200 years of written history.”
We’re sitting at a coffee shop in Lakeview. The hissing of espresso machines and light 1960s pop play overhead. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” plays at one point, which the woman, magician Jeanette Andrews, calls “a riot.”
We’re talking magic. Magic and art and performance and philosophy, perception, phenomenology, vaudeville and Siegfried & Roy.
It wasn’t a wide-ranging conversation. These are all the same topic for the 25 year old who wants to make magic art again.
She plays with magic in all five senses through shows like her recent Thresholds. Beyond the visual of vanishing eggs and yes-this-is-my-card, she designs illusions for ears, taste buds, fingertips and noses.
“When I was researching smell, there’s a reason it’s not being done. It’s highly impractical, as I found out very quickly, because it is hard to have more than X number of people come smell something, at least in a way that seems interesting,” she said.
Originally from Wheaton, Andrews lives in Chicago but retains a strong relationship with the planned community of Seaside, Fla., where she had an artist residency in 2014.
Normally for playwrights, scholars, musicians, poets or painters, the Escape to Create artist in residence program welcomed the magician to their fold.
“They took a big risk on me, which at least from my standpoint has beyond paid off,” she said. “That’s been the single most life-changing event for me, hands down.”
She’s working on a new show built around the concept of lucid dreaming. She’s not ready to talk about the other show she’s creating, but says it will be the biggest of her 19-year career.
Yes, 19 years. Yes, she is 25.
Inspired by a Siegfried & Roy TV special, Andrews held her first paid show when she was 6. She got $10, which she used to buy a magic book.
Two years later, she and another child magician sold out the 150-seat Mario Parente Theater in Oakbrook Terrace. The next year, they moved their act to the 442-seat Prairie Center for the Arts in Schaumburg.
“All the money that I made as a kid always just went right back into the business and into my education in magic,” she said.
Encouraged by entrepreneurial parents who drove her to magic shops, lectures and Society of American Magicians club meetings throughout the region, she has never had another job than magician. In high school, she would doodle layouts of show plans or try to cut out of class early to rehearse or to fax contracts.
At 16, she was one of three young magicians selected to audition for German magic arts stage director Eberhard Riese, who would be coming to America for a lecture series the following year.
“The format of his lecture was such that he wanted a young American magician to perform their act, then he would give it his theatrical director’s critique and then they would perform their act again with the critique so people who weren’t familiar with the theatrical direction process could see how that worked and how the changes really make a difference,” Andrews said.
She worked out an arrangement with her school to replace some coursework with correspondence school materials so she could spend the needed eight daily hours practicing and perfecting her audition tape.
It paid off. She was the magician selected by Riese, “this guy who I had just revered since I was about 5 and had religiously studied his work.”
It also showed her traditional education wasn’t for her.
“I already have a career, I already run a business, I’ve kind of got to go,” she said, laughing.
She went for an associate’s degree, taking courses on psychology and philosophy whenever possible. Understanding how people perceive and process the world helps Andrews flip those preconceptions with a turn of a card or unexpected whiff of grapefruit.
“I decided that in the time frame that people would typically be in college, that four years, I would do the associate’s degree kind of thing and then I would take that other two-year period and basically construct my own college-level education, just seek out the best people I could possibly find and just piece it together myself,” she said.
She studied art through gallery openings or lectures at the MCA or MOMA. She studied theater not through undergrad productions of hoary musicals, but by self-funded trips to New York to see the world’s best theater in action.
Her friends include academics and scientists, other people committed to being lifelong learners.
“To me, experience or lived experience is so deeply important and I think trumps so much in life,” she said.
Hard figures are hard to find for women in magic.
The International Brotherhood of Magicians has about 570 female and roughly 9,500 male members, but neither the IBM nor the Society of American Magicians keep records on which of their female members are magicians and which are assistants, representatives for the groups said.
“We’re starting to see if more shift overseas than we are here,” Andrews said, citing Asia in particular. “The numbers aren’t moving too much here.”
A Cup of Coffee
We’re sitting at a coffee shop in Lakeview. The hissing of espresso machines and light 1960s pop play overhead. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” plays at one point, which Jeanette Andrews calls “a riot.”
We’re talking magic. We’re talking magic and art and illusions for fingertips and noses. We’re talking about “shifting magic outside of being a passive theatrical experience” and I find myself telling her about the time I interviewed the guy who played Wizzo the Wizard on “Bozo.”
We’re talking about club magic and mob clubs, old vaudevillians forced into birthday parties and about a time when a night at a magic show was a cultural affair along the lines of a fine ballet.
Jeanette Andrews wants to get back to that last one.