Magic in a Digital Age

The Spencers bring the "theatre of illusion" to the world of magic.

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Millions of people fly across the country every year. We've made computers that can think faster than we do. We've mapped the human genome. But show us someone who can guess our card was the Ace of Spades and we still sit up in awe.

For Kevin Spencer, this is what makes magic worth performing.

"To be in this age of technology and to still be able to bring wonder to anything, to be able to create that emotion in people, is great," says the magician and illusionist. Spencer is a performer in the escape tradition of Houdini or Harry Blackstone Jr. But neither of them shared the stage with his wife.

"The fact that my wife and I work as a team makes it a better show," says Spencer. "We know each other so well and so many of those things are expressed on the stage. Who we are together works well on the stage."

Cindy Spencer got involved in magic through Kevin. She was working as a diamond consultant and dating Kevin's roommate when the three of them started performing together. After the roommate left the act, Cindy and Kevin continued to work together and eventually fell in love. They've been married for 18 years.

Spencer, on the other hand, has wanted to be a magician ever since he was very young.

"I was 5 or 6 when I saw my first magic show. It was so completely fascinating." After getting a magic kit for Christmas, he started putting on shows, eventually doing them for local civic groups during junior high and high school.

"I lived in a farm town in Indiana. Everybody knew I was the little boy who did magic."

During college, he majored in clinical psychology and worked his way through by continuing to give magic shows.

"I was going into it to help people with their minds," Spencer says and laughs. "Now all I do is mess with them."

It was around this time he saw Doug Henning perform, talked to him backstage after the show for over an hour, and decided that he was going to do magic for a living. But Spencer says his show is a little different from most of the magic shows you see in live venues or on television.

For one thing, the Spencers perform with a lot of audience participation.

"That's the most exciting part, when people can experience it for themselves," says Spencer. "When they can be close to it, it becomes incredible." But it also lends credibility to the show. After an audience member comes off the stage, his friends and neighbors can ask him what exactly happened.

But the main difference, Spencer thinks, is that they try to present the show with a theatrical twist.

"A lot of times when you see magicians perform, they bring the illusion onto the stage and then they carry the box off after they're through." This is not the way the Spencers work. Using elements from the theater -- music, lighting, scenery, special effects -- the duo tries to bring a sense of heightened tension and fluidity to the production.

"Like any good play or musical, the audience experiences a wide variety of emotions," says Spencer. "There are light-hearted tricks and then there are very dramatic moments."

But all that sleight of hand is building toward one key moment.

"Each illusion is a kind of act on its own. They are each dressed differently until we get to the finale." The Spencers try to tailor each show to the stage on which they're performing. On the stage of the Bartlett Performing Arts Center, that means Houdini's water trick: A milk tank is filled to the brim with 50 gallons of water, and Spencer is chained and padlocked inside the tank.

"And I have to get out," says Spencer. "It's pretty intense. Not many people do it anymore. I'm not sure if that's because of skill or stupidity."

He laughs and decides it's a question of skill.

The Spencers: Theatre of Illusion

8 p.m., Friday, February 23rd

$15

Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center

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