“Years ago I lived in England as an academic, researching the psychology of magic. After publishing several journal articles, burnout forced me to leave just before getting my PhD. It’s taken three years to get into the Fringe Festival and I’m not letting anything force me to quit again. Not even a pandemic.” - Rob Teszka
“Years ago I lived in England as an academic, researching the psychology of magic. After publishing several journal articles, burnout forced me to leave just before getting my PhD. It’s taken three years to get into the Fringe Festival and I’m not letting anything force me to quit again. Not even a pandemic.” - Rob Teszka

Each year dozens of artists apply to be part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Ultimately chosen by random draw, not everyone makes it to the stages around Granville Island. It took three years for Vancouver magician Rob Teszka to have his name ironically, and quite literally, pulled from a hat.

“This year I was the very last name drawn out of the hat, and it was, of course, the one year that I decided not to go to the drawing party,” says Teszka by phone as he prepares to open Magic Dropout as part of the 2020 Vancouver Fringe Festival.

But in the age of COVID-19, this is no ordinary Fringe Fest.

Rather than two solid weeks with dozens of shows and hundreds of performances, this year’s Fringe has split into a considerably smaller cohort of shows across four mini-festivals.

In this second wave running October 1 through October 10, Teszka joins three other shows at Granville Island’s Performance Works: Charles Ross’s One Man Pride and Prejudice, Spectral Theatre’s Late Night Double Feature and Cheryl Olvera’s Study Abroad – The Musical! Destination: U.K.

Performing (magic) in the age of the pandemic

“Our Fringe community has embraced the ever-evolving and constantly shifting uncertainty of this pandemic and collaborated with us to provide an artistic platform for the local independent artist community,” says the Fringe’s executive director Rohit Chokhani. “Our collective energy has engaged with the unjuried, uncensored mandate of the Vancouver Fringe Festival in a fresh manner with health and safety being the top priority.”

“Art is made under crucible conditions where the outside world or even self-imposed restrictions change how you can create art and make something interesting.” – magician Rob Teszka

Despite the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, Teszka says while he momentarily thought of withdrawing from this year’s Fringe, despite having waited three years, he knew he had to strike while the iron was hot.

“I had the momentum and figured if I put it off for a year, the show would suffer for it,” he says. “I wanted to go when I had the vision of what the show would be like.”

With health and safety at the forefront, he and director Travis Bernhardt adapted Magic Dropout in the pandemic age.

“It was weird to redesign magic to be no contact, as it is such a high touch form,” says Teszka. “They say that a lot of the best magic happens in the spectators’ hands, so how do you get someone to pick a card if they can’t touch the deck?”

He does it by not taking any chances, with several routines requiring complete rewrites and the ubiquitous masks and hand sanitizer. “Even the pens in a couple of routines where I ask people to draw or write something with are sanitized between shows,” he says.

The road from academia to the magic stage

Teszka’s road to the magic stage began with a longtime interest in science and psychology.

“I was reading a lot of pop science and pop psychology books. At the same time, I was reading magic books,” he says. “They all blended together for me because I was interested in things like magic, parapsychology, ESP, weird history, and trivia.”

Going on to university, Teszka soon found himself at a crossroads after graduating with a degree in cognitive systems.

“I found myself at loose ends and didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I was volunteering at a lab that used eye-tracking research, using cameras to record where people are looking.”

A meeting during that time with a visiting lecturer at a local pub soon found him with the direction he thought he needed.

“We got talking, and he said he was researching magic, using eye-tracking,” says Teszka. “At the time, I think I might have been one of the very few in the center of that particular Venn diagram, so he offered me a Ph.D. position right then and there.”

With the offer contingent on moving to England and getting his Master’s degree, Teszka decided to take the opportunity to see where it would go. After completing his Masters of Science from University College London, he began working on his Ph.D., studying the psychology of magic.

“I was researching social misdirection,” he explains. “All the things magicians use to manipulate people’s attention by taking advantage of the social cues when we communicate with each other like body language, where we look, where we point.”

Immersing himself in his research, Teszka found himself undergoing the rigours of interviewing and auditioning to become a member of London’s prestigious The Magic Circle as a way to access their library.

“It was there that I fell back in love with performing,” he says. “I volunteered to host shows at the Magic Circle, and started to perform monthly at a showcase at a local theatre.”

Finding himself enjoying performing magic more than the rigours, stress and constant rejection of academia, Teszka decided to abandon his Ph.D. for the rigours, stress and constant rejection of an artist. “I traded a half dozen of one for six of the other,” he says with a laugh.

Not that Teszka was a complete neophyte when it came to the stage and magic. Having performed in high school plays, and with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society at his alma mater, he traces his interest in magic back to his school days.

“I was interested in magic in the same way that a lot of nerdy kids in school get interested in magic,” he says. “I liked knowing things other people didn’t. I liked having something I could entertain people with, but it remained a hobby.”

More recently, Teszka found himself performing magic at parties and back in January began hosting a magic variety show in the back room of a local bar. “We had about three episodes before the pandemic hit,” he says.

Failure as inspiration

Armed with a renewed love for performance, Teszka has combined it with his failure to meet familial expectations and abandoning his doctoral work in Magic Dropout.

"I was interested in magic in the same way that a lot of nerdy kids in school get interested in magic. I liked knowing things other people didn't. I liked having something I could entertain people with but it remained a hobby." - Rob Teszka
“I was interested in magic in the same way that a lot of nerdy kids in school get interested in magic. I liked knowing things other people didn’t. I liked having something I could entertain people with, but it remained a hobby.” – Rob Teszka.

“There is a sort of narrative in the show where I started off being put, almost against my will, on this route to university,” he says. “As a child of immigrant parents, there were always high expectations of getting good grades in school and an expectation to go to university to be a doctor or lawyer. Instead, I dropped out to be a magician.”

With a recontextualization of failure at the core of Magic Dropout, Teszka asks: “is it really a failure if something else comes out of it that is good or worthwhile?”.

For Teszka, Magic Dropout is about trying, failing and embracing opportunities when something more interesting comes along. “It’s playing with that very magic show structure of setting an expectation and defying it in an interesting and surprising way,” he says.

It is also about the creative constricts that often go hand-in-hand with being an artist.

“Art is made under crucible conditions where the outside world or even self-imposed restrictions change how you can create art and make something interesting,” says Teszka. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

And though Teszka isn’t ruling out a return to academia, he is content where life and education have led him for now.

“I did contribute to a couple of published research articles, and I’m okay with my contributions for now,” he says. “I feel like I can do more interesting work in the realm of performance magic, and maybe one day in the future, I can return with what I have learned.”

The 2020 Vancouver Fringe Festival continues October 1-10 at Performance Works on Granville Island. Visit vancouverfringe.com for tickets and information.