Anti-conjuror Dan Sperry on pushing the boundaries of the grotesque

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Dan Sperry is the darker kind of magician. The self-labeled "anti-conjuror" says his magic is meant to test the limits of his audience's comfort zone -- and Sperry's Marilyn Manson/Edward Scissorhands look alone accomplishes that. But while his tricks sit on the edge of shocking, the illusionist says his goal is never to gross out, only to confound.

A former contestant on America's Got Talent, the Minnesota native has been doing magic since he was not quite a teenager, when he was initially motivated by a David Copperfield live show. In advance of two appearances at Theatre of Dreams in Castle Rock this weekend, Sperry talked with Westword about a clown that helped him get into the business and how ten years after viewing the cult classic Reservoir Dogs, it inspired his famous "Lifesaver trick."

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Westword: You describe yourself as an "anti-conjuror." What does that mean, exactly? Dan Sperry: Anti-conjuror was a word that I made up as a joke, originally. Then it actually came to be useful later on -- some of the venues I would work a lot in L.A. and New York were nightclubs. I would be opening for bands, and if I were to be billed as a magician, they would eat me alive -- you know, they would be tuned out. It wouldn't matter what I was going to do, they didn't care. Magic has gotten to be stereotyped as sort of hokey.

So it was a word that I ended up using to bill myself and describe what I do by being the "anti-magic" or exact opposite of (the stereotype) -- no sequins or rabbits. It helped me to fly in under the radar. Anti-conjuror sort of perpetuated as a title, and I've kind of stuck with it.

Opening for bands definitely doesn't sound like a stereotypical magician's gig.

I would do a lot of nightclub shows and working with bands and DJs, or work with alternative venues where magic was never presented before. The demographic of the audience that I was going to be performing for was not maybe as welcoming when they heard there was a magician opening.

You say that seeing David Copperfield at a young age inspired you to try your hand at magic. Who or what else inspires the work that you do?

It's a culmination -- not just seeing someone perform like Copperfield but, in general, seeing theater and seeing movies. A medium (like magic) evokes the feelings that you get in a movie or at a theater production or a concert or whatever it may be that you're drawn to.

Some psychological things like my Peter Pan complex -- I just really don't want to grow up. I don't want to be an adult; I don't want to have to get a "real job." Magic lets me have this perpetual, therapeutic, endless possibilities outlook.

There are no rules with magic.

I'm guessing there's no formal schooling or training to be a magician. How did you decide you wanted to become one?

There are a lot of steps to get there. I grew up in rural Minnesota. I'm kind of the last generation that can remember when there was no Internet -- so there was no Wikipedia, there was no YouTube. There was no source that I could instantly learn from. I had to use the library and bookstores and try to track down some magic shops in Minneapolis. It was pretty much a self trial-and--error sort of thing -- starting out doing birthdays and school assemblies.

In a way, I almost think it was a better way to do it -- not to sound clichéd, but it was a real hard-knocks way of learning, because I wasn't instantly exposed. I had to figure out a lot of stuff on my own.

Considering you got into magic because you didn't want to be an adult, you had to be pretty grown up to pursue a career with no given path. I was probably the only twelve-year-old I knew who had a Yellow Page ad. Yeah, I had to figure out how Yellow Page ads worked, what do I put in an ad that makes it effective? Newspaper ads, everything. I had to figure it out. I started working when I was about ten -- I would do little shows around town and mainly for friends and family if they were having a reunion or that kind of thing. They would ask my parents if I could come over and show some magic tricks and maybe I'd get five bucks.

My first real show that I distinctly remember getting a check for was when I was eleven or twelve. I filled in for a clown -- there was a clown who did shows in the area and he really helped me out. I would get the shows that he either didn't want to do or couldn't do. It was like doing four hours of twisting balloon animals and doing little magic tricks at a company picnic.

I only knew how to make, like, two balloon animals that he had taught me to get through the gig -- and because he was a clown, I had to dress up like a clown. That's what they wanted. I had no clown experience, no clown name, not even a clown voice. It was just a really disturbing thing that was four hours in a humid and hot Minnesota summer outdoors. I got like twenty-five bucks for four hours of dried finger-twisting balloons.

That was the first real show and I remember thinking, I made it! Or something. (Laughs) Now, looking back on it, I'm like, what in the hell was I thinking?

Without giving anything away, what goes into creating a trick or an illusion?

It's kind of different all the time -- sometimes you have an idea of what you want to accomplish, but you don't know how to get there. Or you have something you feel would be a good trick to do, but it might not fit your particular style. So then I have to think about how I would make it my own.

With the Lifesaver trick, I remember being really young and watching Reservoir Dogs and seeing the scene where Michael Madsen cuts off the police officer's ear and dances around to the Stealer's Wheel song. I didn't know what the word dichotomy was at the time, but I just knew I liked that sort of yin and yang of what was going on and it stuck with me. I felt like, what if I did stuff like that with magic -- not literally cut off an ear -- but how could I take magic and make that feeling?

That's how the Lifesaver trick came to be, ten years later -- it came from a constant seeking out of how do I create that "want to look away but can't look away, it's innocent but it's not" combination.

When you talk about pushing boundaries of fascinating and grotesque, do you draw a line with things you won't do or perform? It's about creating magic and wonder; it's not a competition of "look what I can do and what you can't figure out." It's not that for me, but it is creating a moment of maybe disbelief. The problem I do ride is, well, with the Lifesaver trick, it can be grotesque for people. But I don't want anything too disturbing or too far out there to where (the audience) isn't reacting to magic, they're reacting because they're too far outside of a comfort zone.

It's more of an assist for me to stir more emotion and can also be used as a distraction tool; your brain sometimes takes over so much of that emotion, it allows me to accomplish some of the secret stuff -- because you're too distracted.

I never want to go too far -- then it just becomes stupid performance art. It's not magic. In the end, it always has to be magical.

Dan Sperry performs this Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27 at Theatre of Dreams in Castle Rock. Tickets are $22.50 and can be reserved by calling 303-660-6799; for more information, visit the Theatre of Dreams's website.

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