Every Wednesday night until March 25, at Chicago Magic Lounge in Ravenswood, Trent James will lie to you for an hour. The 23-year-old comedy magician and Brookfield native is the latest to be featured in the Magic Lounge’s artist-in-residence series, and, in 2015, he became the youngest recipient of one of magic’s most prestigious honors, the Milbourne Christopher Award. Here, James discusses his humble beginnings, the perks of being lied to, and why magic is still relevant in 2020.
How long have you been doing magic?
I started doing magic when I was five. My dad was an amateur magician who did shows for family and friends. I found some of his old props when I was a kid and, naturally, I was very interested in them. He showed me a few tricks, and then I really got into it around age eight or nine. I started doing shows then.
Tell me more about the Chicago Magic Lounge and your residency there.
The Chicago Magic Lounge is an awesome venue dedicated to live magic and Chicago-style [close-up, tableside] magic. The Magic Lounge started in the basement of Uptown Underground; that grew so successful the founders [Joey Cranford and Don Clark] were able to open up their own place. When I started there, I was 17 or 18. Being in that environment and performing magic for adults taught me a lot.
For the artist in residence, they change the performers every quarter, so for three months they bring in a new performer to do an hourlong show. The idea is to do something different than the lounge’s signature shows.
What is the premise of your show, Pure Lies? And how have the shows been going so far?
Growing up, I got into the early seasons of Saturday Night Live, and I wanted to incorporate that late-night comedy vibe into my show. The objective is about being honest that magicians will deceive you. But I’ve found people are OK with you lying to them if you’re giving them happiness in return. Right? “You look great in those pants!” “I love the casserole!”
So far, we’ve sold out every show. Chicago Magic Lounge is probably my favorite venue to perform in. I grew up in Brookfield and live in Chicago now, and it’s great to come home — I feel like Chicago doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Do you think smartphones and other distractions have affected audiences’ receptiveness to magic?
I think the rise of magic has been huge over the past 10 years or so — you’re seeing magic in mainstream shows like America’s Got Talent and on the internet. Specifically, it’s popular with an adult audience — it’s easy to think “Oh, yeah, magicians, that would be great for my kids,” but the current generation [of magicians] is trying to change that, to push that to be something more. I think we’re getting there.
Only rarely do I feel like people are distracted during a show. Most people want to be attentive and present for the experience. I mean, if you’re looking at your phone, you could miss something, and you don’t want to do that.
How do you bring a fresh spin to the classic magic show?
There’s the old cliche rabbit-out-of-a-top-hat trick that everyone thinks of when they think of magicians. Back in the ’20s or so, it was pretty awesome: You would borrow someone’s top hat, because people in the audience would definitely be wearing them, and you make a rabbit come out of it. Now, it really doesn’t make sense for you to walk onstage with a top hat. I think the way to go is turning tricks like that into something more relatable for modern audiences. A lot of the tricks in my show are based off of old ones, some of which are 50 to 100 years old. But they’ve been twisted to create something new.
I think the biggest thing is my personality: I don’t take myself seriously. I love magicians like David Copperfield, who makes magic this suave, serious thing, but I think you can just have fun sometimes and be real. It’s not real for me to have a fan blowing wind into my hair. But I wouldn’t mind it. That sounds great, actually.