Photo of Andrew Evans performing

Working His Magic

Working His Magic

Andrew Evans uses what he learned in Stanford’s product design program to create illusions that make audiences marvel.
By Deni Ellis Béchard
Photography by Timothy Archibald
Magic Patio sign

It’s Sunday night in San Francisco’s Mission District, and Andrew Evans is onstage at the Magic Patio, holding up his phone. “I love thinking about the past and how if you wanted to get across the city, it used to be—stand on the corner and try to flag down this strange yellow car,” he tells the audience. “Now you have apps and, like magic, a car arrives.” Evans, MS ’13, then unveils what he claims will be the next disruptive technology: “Teleportation!”

At center stage is the teleporter—a radio-sized brown box with two red buttons on the top, two silver knobs above an exposed speaker on the front, and an antenna that ends in a roach clip. Next to it is a carton of eggs and a bowl containing two lemons.

While rambling on about an upcoming IPO and nondisclosure agreements for the audience to sign, Evans takes a dollar bill from a man in the audience, tears off the serial number and returns it to him as “a receipt.” He then hands the man the two lemons to choose from and takes one back. He attaches the dollar bill to the roach clip and holds the teleporter in front of him so that the shadow it casts across his face evokes the derangement of a mad scientist. As he presses the buttons and turns the dials, the box screeches with sounds reminiscent of 1950s sci-fi, and the audience laughs. The dollar bill bursts into flame. Evans takes the lemon from the man and cuts it open to reveal the dollar, which appears singed. “We’re still in beta,” he admits.

A graduate of Stanford’s product design program, Evans incorporates the techniques he learned there to create magic. His reputation is building among the magic cognoscenti and he was recently featured on Penn and Teller: Fool Us, the TV show created by the duo that is the longest-running act in Las Vegas history. But the defining moment in Evans’s career was the creation of the Magic Patio in the eponymous back patio of his apartment in the Mission. After five years of performing for audiences packed into his backyard, he moved the Magic Patio to its new (and legal) location in 2018. He envisions it as an urban workshop where magicians will congregate to refine tricks and brainstorm new ways that design can shape magic. Tonight, by spoofing a Bay Area tech wunderkind, he reminds us that the future often looks like magic and that the tools and themes of magic keep pace with innovation.

Next weekend’s show, Illusions of Grandeur, will feature “Quantum Mechanics,” a trick that many magicians called impossible until Evans pulled it off. He spent years designing and then redesigning it until he was certain the effect was flawless. The central prop is a thin table that he fashioned specifically for this trick. His assistant will lie on it. Then her body—from her neck to her ankles—will vanish.

Go inside the new Magic Patio and see the teleporter in action. (Video: Erin Attkisson)

Enchanted

Evans saw magic for the first time when he was 3, at an Easter show. When the magician asked for a volunteer, Evans stuck up his hand. The magician chose an older girl. Refusing to be ignored, Evans climbed onto the stage. The magician assigned him “the important job” of standing to the side and watching the performance to make sure it went well. “He was quite the pro,” Evans says.

The experience revealed less about Evans’s interest in magic than his determination and compulsive nature. One of his lasting obsessions—roller coasters—was so great that from third grade onward he believed he would grow up to design them. He admits to having been pretentious, seeing himself as
a connoisseur of coasters and telling other kids why some of them were no good (“turned left too many times” or “just went up and down”). He kept tabs on height requirements for roller coasters throughout the country, since he was quite short (as an adult, he topped out at 5 feet 5 inches). When he found one that he could ride, he alerted his parents. “Sure enough,” he recalls, “we made a pilgrimage.”

Evans was born on the Stanford campus, where his mother, Jan Weiss, MA ’83, PhD ’91, was pursuing a doctorate in education, and his father, Tony Evans, was conducting postdoctoral research in exercise science, but the family soon moved to Puyallup, Wash. There, in kindergarten, Evans tried his hand at magic for a school talent show before 600 students and parents. (“It’s still one of the largest shows I’ve done,” he says, “but I did close-up tricks, meant to be done for 10 people.”) His interest in magic didn’t fully bloom, however, until a family trip to London, where, in the street outside Marvin’s Magic,
he watched a salesman make coins appear and disappear under a brass cap. Evans begged his parents to buy him the kit, and from that point on, he approached magic with discipline. “All kids have a magic phase that lasts for about a week,” he says. “Mine just never went away.”

When parents of younger children in the community caught wind of his talents, they hired him for birthday parties. The first time he was paid, he was 12; the father shook his hand and slipped him a twenty. (“I thought,” Evans recalls, “I would have used a finger palm for that transfer instead of a classic palm.”) By the time he was in high school, he was making $100 a show and working Saturdays at Lakewood Costumes, where he peddled magic kits by performing their tricks for customers. “The way that you sink your teeth into doing magic,” he says, “is by having opportunities to perform. Without performance, magic becomes a solo sport.”

Alone in his room, Evans developed storylines, infusing magic with charm, comedy and suspense. He also honed his dexterity, practicing moves and sleight of hand for weeks, months—even a year in one case. “You have to be precise,” he says. “You do not need to be fast. Speed is the enemy of magic. People sense that you did something quickly. Magic should look completely effortless.”

BACKYARD BONANZA: As soon as he glimpsed the apartment patio, Evans knew how he would put it to use.
BACKYARD BONANZA: As soon as he glimpsed the apartment patio, Evans knew how he would put it to use.

When he went to Brown University, he had many interests—math, physics, engineering and theater, especially set design—though he still saw designing roller coasters as his future. Little did he know that Brown’s library archives held the H. Adrian Smith Collection of Conjuring and Magicana—“long considered one of the finest private libraries on conjuring and magic,” according to the university website. (Smith, a member of Brown’s class of 1930, had paid his way through school by performing magic.)

“I spent hours in the library,” Evans says, “poring through 100-year-old manuscripts of illusion designers and their work. That was the moment I first discovered the difference between a magician and an illusion designer and a builder. You don’t expect the actors who are playing Romeo and Juliet to have also written their lines. That was Shakespeare’s job. And you don’t expect them to have built the set that they were performing on. That was a set designer’s job. In magic, it’s actually very similar, even though most of the time the audience will give credit to the magician for doing everything.”

Learning how the designer, the builder and the magician fit together to create the experience of magic, Evans saw himself in the role of all three—an auteur, so to speak. He applied for art grants from Brown to build tricks in the Smith archives and put on a show. “Suddenly, my focus on engineering and set design and theater all kind of swirled together.”

The Magic Tree House Book

Though Evans’s pursuit of magic seemed almost foreordained, his ambition to become the maestro of roller coasters stood in the way. But during his senior year, he attended an amusement parks conference and was repeatedly told to come back when he had a master’s in engineering. “I realized,” he recalls, “that what I loved about roller coasters and wanted to do as a career was not instantly attainable.”

More rejection awaited. Surfing the internet, Evans ran across the iconic 1999 Nightline video in which pioneering design firm IDEO is challenged to reinvent the shopping cart. “I learned about this place that seemed to work in the same way that I loved working, which was all about hands-on building, problem solving and creative stuff,” he says. He discovered that IDEO co-founder David Kelley, MS ’78, was instilling these methods at Stanford, establishing the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka the d.school) and teaching in the product design program. Evans applied to Stanford and was declined.

Not long after, at a Barnes & Noble back in Washington, he found a discounted copy of Treehouses of the World by Pete Nelson. He bought it and read that Nelson had a tree house company near Seattle. Evans called him, was hired and spent a year designing tree houses—from simple platforms to luxury nests with showers and kitchens. He reapplied to Stanford with his expanded portfolio and was admitted.

At Stanford, Evans found inspiration in the principles espoused by the d.school, which doesn’t offer degrees but brings students together from various departments to collaborate in multidisciplinary project-based courses. “The human-centered design methodology and process,” he says, “very much influenced me for magic shows. You come up with an idea. You make a quick version of it. You try that out in front of people. You get feedback and then you adjust. That is really the way I approach magic as well.”

For his design projects, he integrated magic techniques (which, aside from mirrors, he has declined to share) to create effects such as levitation. During the summer, he interned at IDEO and after graduation was hired there with the official job designation of “wildcard.” Every Tuesday at lunch, he taught co-workers a magic trick. With their help, he later broke into the IDEO campus one weekend, cutting a hole in the fence, and built a tree house.

Portrait photo of Andrew Evans

This period of creative exploration coincided with the beginning of the Magic Patio. Evans and two fellow Stanford grads decided to live together in the Mission, but he was out of town during the housing search.

“They took me on a FaceTime tour of the apartment,” he recalls. “When I saw this outdoor patio space, in my head I was like, ‘I can do outdoor magic shows there. Yes, let’s sign this lease.’”

Dark Arts

Magic has always advanced in lockstep with technology. For example, Industrial Revolution techniques for pouring flawless glass resulted in mirrors that could be used in tricks. Evans sees himself within a clear lineage of magicians who kept pace with innovation, such as Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the 19th-century French clockmaker and conjurer who employed engineering, electricity, electromagnets and automatons in his feats. Robert-Houdin, whose career inspired Houdini to borrow his name, also manufactured a sensational origin story as a magician’s apprentice. Evans says such stories are part of the illusion and enhance the audience’s sense of trust. “My narrative is the designer and builder—the engineer magician,” he says. “I play that up 100 percent.”

Watch Evans’s TEDxStanford talk, featuring variations on the theme of sawing a woman in half. (Video: TEDx Talks)

The narrative of the Magic Patio is that of a candy shop, which is how the storefront appears. Inside, people can indulge a sweet tooth or pass through a sliding wall, as if into a speakeasy, to witness magic. The performance space includes additional illusions in the tradition of the golden age of magic that followed Robert-Houdin, when magic halls integrated innovations in design and technology to flummox audiences.

But if Evans is a throwback in certain ways, he is thoroughly modern in others. He is concerned about the role of women in magic—typically scantily clad assistants, rarely the magicians themselves. His own assistant, Naomi Aeva, performs in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, and he often credits her with the success of his tricks.

NEW TRICKS: Evans, right, with Aeva, is skeptical of the old sawing-a-woman-in-half gambit.
NEW TRICKS: Evans, right, with Aeva, is skeptical of the old sawing-a-woman-in-half gambit.

Evans also worries about how to address the simulated violence toward women in magic shows, epitomized by sawing them in half. “The trick has changed throughout the years, but it’s always a woman who gets in the box and a man who takes the bow.”

In The Secret History of Magic, Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer call cutting a woman in half “a thinly disguised act of torture—indeed, an act of murder.” They write that “in stage melodramas from the 1860s to the 1890s, there was no set formula; often a man was imperiled and a woman saved him.” But during years leading up to 1920, as American and British women fought for the right to vote, the trend changed. In films, the victims became almost exclusively female—tied to train tracks and threatened by buzz saws. In 1921, the British magician P.T. Selbit premiered the trick in which he sawed a woman in half. He even publicly dared a prominent suffragette to let him cut her in half (she declined). Having gained actual power at the ballot box, women were rendered symbolically powerless in the magician’s box.

Magic, the Gathering

The new Magic Patio seats nearly 50 and boasts a creative team of 10, including Shara Tonn, ’11, MS ’14, Kelly Schmutte, ’06, MS ’13, and Evans’s younger sister, Lindsey. The weekly shows continue to sell out in under a minute. (Evans’s favorite compliment has been “Damn, these tickets are harder to get than a Beyoncé concert’s.”) He recently left IDEO to focus on the Magic Patio.

Evans imagines Magic Patios in urban centers across the country. His vision is based on vaudeville, a form of live performance that began in France and spread to the United States during the golden age of magic. The variety-show format included unrelated acts, such as music, comedy, circus, skits, lectures, athletic feats and magic. Vaudeville waned with the rise of film and TV, but Evans anticipates that age’s pleasures regaining popularity.

LEVELING UP: The new—and legal—location.
LEVELING UP: The new—and legal—location.

“People are hungry for intimate live performance,” he says of our Netflix-saturated society. He explains that TV no longer defies our sense of what is possible, since we both expect the impossible from it and know how the effect is created. “Streaming-based content is so easily accessible. But when you see something beautiful and compelling in reality, that’s a stand-out experience. That’s what you talk about to your friends the next day at work.”

In 2018, he performed at the Academy of Magical Arts’ 50th anniversary awards show, revealing “Quantum Mechanics.” The trick was conceived by Jim Steinmeyer, perhaps the most influential living magic designer (he invented the illusion in which the Statue of Liberty vanishes, performed by David Copperfield in 1983). Though other magicians said that “Quantum Mechanics” couldn’t be done, Evans spent eight years building and rebuilding it.

According to Steinmeyer, Evans’s adventurousness enabled him to pull it off. “He just powered through it and found his own personal way in,” Steinmeyer says. “He very actively has a good sense of what feels different, what feels fresh, what feels new. He really works at putting together a show that always has a new feel to it. That’s not easy in this business.”

NOW YOU DON’T: Other magicians said “Quantum Mechanics” couldn't be done. After eight years, Evans proved them wrong.
NOW YOU DON’T: Other magicians said “Quantum Mechanics” couldn't be done. After eight years, Evans proved them wrong.

“Quantum Mechanics” is now one of the main acts at the Magic Patio’s Illusions of Grandeur show. On one night when Evans performs it, he first acknowledges the troubled gender dynamic in magic and tells the audience that when women are sawed in half, the credit has always gone to the magician. “But tonight,” he says, “the credit goes to Naomi Aeva for her sleight of body.”

Rather than be bisected, she will vanish from her neck to her ankles. She lies on a thin table. Above and beneath it, the curtains at the back of the stage can be seen. Evans places two white screens in front of her, covering all but her head and feet. He then takes a lamp. Standing behind the table, he flourishes it and illuminates the screens, showing her silhouette. A moment later, he puts down the light and removes the screens.

The audience gasps.

Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.