“Liberty Magic @ Home” dazzles audiences from a distance

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Kaycee Orwig | Visual Editor

Magicians stream shows live Friday nights as part of “Liberty Magic @ Home.”

By Charlie Taylor, Culture Editor

Robert Ramirez balances a bucket on a keyboard in his living room, mixing and magically unmixing brightly colored liquids while bantering with audiences via webcam.

This setup may seem humble, but it’s the new reality for Ramirez and his fellow magician, Siegfried Tieber. Both Los Angeles-based performers were featured this past Friday on “Liberty Magic @ Home.” This show is the latest from Liberty Magic, a Downtown performing arts venue operated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, streaming Fridays at 7:30 p.m. on the Trust’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

The show is hosted by Zoe Ruth, Liberty Magic’s venue manager. According to Ruth, “Liberty Magic @ Home” started as a way to connect the venue’s patrons and regular fans with the magic community while the Downtown venue is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have a lot of subscribers who are regular Liberty Magic fans who we see for every show,” Ruth said. “We wanted to continue bringing magic to them and continue connecting with them.”

Ramirez opened the night with a torn up piece of paper. He began covering and uncovering the pieces to gradually reassemble them and reveal the words “Liberty Magic @ Home” written on the slip, all while singing an upbeat tune.

Ramirez frequently brings this musical flair into his shows — he appeared on the Broadway tour of the musical “In The Heights” and performed a mashup of musical theater and magic at Liberty last winter. Tieber was also a familiar act to Liberty Magic. His planned three-week residency, scheduled for this April, was postponed because of stay-at-home orders.

Ruth said every magician booked on the virtual series has either performed at the venue in the past or will do so in the future.

“[The featured artists] are magicians whose material we’ve been excited by and wanted to continue to highlight,” Ruth said.

Tieber structured his virtual performance around the theme of order and chaos, demonstrated using two Rubik’s Cubes. After informing the audience that there are 43 quintillion different possible arrangements for the squares on a Rubik’s Cube, he mixed one into a random pattern, covered it, and proceeded to reproduce the same pattern on the other cube.

Tieber said storytelling plays a major role in most of his performances, oftentimes revolving, like the Rubik’s Cube trick, around a central idea. He said this narrative style allows him to connect more deeply with the audience.

“I use magic tricks or performance pieces as an excuse to share that idea with people and explore it in front of them. I consider myself as much a storyteller as I think of myself as a magician,” Tieber said.

The magicians also took questions from two regular supporters of Liberty Magic via webcam. Tieber and Ramirez discussed the magic scene in Los Angeles and the role of the Magic Castle, a well-known LA theatrical venue, in developing the city as a major center for magicians.

Both performers moved to Los Angeles in order to work with the Magic Castle. Tieber said Dai Vernon, a guiding figure in the magic world, brought many students to the venue in the 20th century, and many still flock there today.

“We magicians would say that music had Beethoven, physics had Einstein, and [we] had Dai Vernon,” Tieber said.

The show concluded with a bit from Ramirez, one of his favorites to perform, which involved moving a ball into a shot glass without touching either the glass or the ball. Although he brought an old classic to Friday’s livestream, Ramirez said moving online has made him alter his performances and stretch his creativity for the better.

“[Video] has helped me stay creative by having the mindset of, ‘How can you adjust or create new things with the circumstances and the platform you have?’” Ramirez said.

But for Tieber, the transition to video performances has limited his ability to interact directly with the audience and ask them to make decisions for him, something that he said is key to the way he performs, since their decisions actively influence his tricks. Despite this, Tieber has found ways to create an interactive experience.

“Given the technology that we have, communications go both ways,” Tieber said. “I can still ask questions of people and I can ask them to make decisions that will influence the outcome of the event.”

Ruth also said moving online affects the way the audience experiences magic, since a trick might become less believable when the viewer watches through a screen, rather than really seeing the physical object that the magician manipulates.

“A lot of what magic is, especially in the live theater environment, is taking an object from the physical world that exists right in front of you,” Ruth said. “I’m taking that usual object and making something magical or impossible happen.”

But Ruth added that the livestreams also offer a great opportunity. She noted that this week, “Liberty Magic @ Home” connected Pittsburghers to California magicians, and this Friday, it will feature two performers based out of England, Billy Kidd and Guy Hollingworth.

“Right now we need to overcome the screen-to-screen space, but we have the opportunity to make magic happen from a screen in Pittsburgh to a screen in LA, or a screen in Pittsburgh to a screen across the Atlantic,” Ruth said.

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