by Justine Tenzer
Dennis Watkins by Jeremy Lewis
“You have to surprise yourself, it has to go further, and the job of a magician is to take your imagination further.”
Magic on Demand
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the live entertainment and performing arts industry in unprecedented ways. People have not been able to enjoy the buzz of being together and enjoying various shows and entertainment spectacles. However, this pandemic has also forced many to reimagine the ways they can connect with an audience, leading to a variety of virtual and socially distant shows. Dennis Watkins, a magician from Chicago, has felt the effects of the pandemic like many others who practice his craft. His signature show, The Magic Parlour at the Palmer House in Chicago sat forty-four people and allowed for an intimate experience where Watkins was able to connect with the audience members. Now, he’s found a way to make this show virtual. We spoke to Watkins about his experiences as a magician throughout the pandemic, what makes magic the ultimate performing art and how magic and technology work together.
Dennis Watkins knows how to spark wonder in his audience. He studied acting in university but later turned to magic due to the influence of his grandfather, Ed Watkins. Magic runs in his family and Watkins, as a third-generation magician, has mastered the ability to entertain. He’s also no stranger to the high stakes that come with the profession. “You can’t screw up, it ruins it for everyone and everything falls apart,” he says. To him, magic is about maintaining an illusion because without the illusion there can be no magic. Every performing arts experience, be it opera, theatre or ballet, relies on illusion. This illusion, however, does not appeal to every audience member. There are the ones who are there to enjoy the experience of magic, but some are skeptical hecklers trying to challenge him. “As a magician your goal is to move everyone to be astonished”, Watkins says, meaning his job is to bring every audience member, skeptical to open-minded, to the same level of astonishment. This is what makes magic unlike any other form of entertainment. It is about the close and intimate interaction between him, the magician, and his audience. “You have to surprise yourself, it has to go further, and the job of a magician is to take your imagination further”.
Crafting a virtual magic experience was not easy. “I was foolish,” he says as he describes his transition from live entertainment. He was advised by his publicist to create an online show and he assumed this process would be short. This process turned out to be a nightmare. “I gave myself a deadline without knowing the expertise,” that is, how to create a live show that is both interactive and yet professional. Everything needed to be reinvented and even his signature magic tricks had to adapt to this new, highly exposed virtual environment. This was difficult, as Watkins had been cultivating his repertoire for years, so creating a new show on a completely different platform should have taken years to be fully successful.
Despite all these hurdles, Watkins strongly believes there were a lot of positives to this experience. Quite obviously, his outreach has increased tremendously. Discussing this, Watkins shares his excitement of “travelling” through the world in less than a day, hosting shows in Dubai, the UK and the US in one day. In total he has hosted over four-hundred virtual shows since the pandemic hit,a boon for revenue. It proves that people seem to be adjusting to this virtual atmosphere. “We are trying to create a communal experience and we found a way to do it,” says Watkins. His guests are inviting people from all over the US and often return multiple times, showing that people are willing to adapt and find sources of entertainment.
Lighthouse Immersive newest exhibition, Illusionarium, offers a unique mixture of the latest advancements in technology and the traditional experience of magic shows. Has this technology changed the originality of magic? Watkins doesn’t think so. “Technology might have changed, the feeling we create hasn’t changed”. Technology has turned into magic of its own and has allowed performers like him to adapt, create new ways of performing and significantly increase his outreach, creating a new sense of community that did not exist before. Perhaps the strong reliance on technology during this pandemic signals that the future of art and entertainment will involve a lot more cooperation between those who practice it and the technological advances of our time. We don’t know when the pandemic will end but we do know that all are craving communal experiences—we want to be together. Until the future is more clear, it will be necessary to rely on multiple forms of technology to help us get as close as possible to this experience.
Dennis Watkins wants you to know that magic is growing. It is not just this mysterious craft that only kids enjoy, it is for everybody. The vast changes in the performative arts that have happened due to the pandemic have strained the lives of many but they have also shown the immense resilience and creativity of many people within this industry. Now, magicians from all over the world can perform for a worldwide audience which has increased the outreach of this craft and have given many a new platform that did not exist before COVID-19.
Looking at the successes of Lighthouse Immersive and Watkins himself, our longing for art and entertainment seems to be as strong as ever, meaning that the original communal experience never left.