Ariann Black Makes Magic in a Male-Dominated Field

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Ariann Black has worked as a professional magician since 1990, and she's a master of her enchanting art form. The Canada-born magician began practicing the art of illusion when she was just four years old, working her way through magic school and onto the world's stage. She's performed on television and now is a staple on the Las Vegas entertainment scene, working to elevate the visibility of women in the male-dominated world of magic. In advance of her two-night appearance at the Theatre of Dreams in Castle Rock this weekend, Black spoke with Westword about her decades of experience as a magician and what it takes to hone your craft.

Westword: What brought you to wanting to becoming a magician in the first place?

Ariann Black: I was about four years old and I had a cousin who would do magic tricks and he would never tell me how they were done. The first time I saw him do a magic trick, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. He lived in a different city, so I went home and it took me a couple of months to sit down and figure things out. But once I got it figured out, it was about three months later and we went back to visit the family and I showed him what I thought the magic trick was and then he showed me another one.

At four, you don't realize that there is more than one magic trick out there. I was fascinated with the idea that there was more than one magic trick and you could do all sorts of things. When I was twelve, I saw Doug Henning on television, and prior to that I had been told that girls couldn't be magicians. But when I saw Doug Henning and I saw him with his look — he didn't look like that stereotypical magician — I thought, yeah, I can be a magician, too. He really inspired me.

You mention being told that girls couldn't be magicians — do you find sexism in your industry to be prominent? How do you combat it?

If I had known that I wouldn't have friends and stuff — a lot of people have friends in their industry and as a female, I don't necessarily have that. I have a small group of friends but I can go to a magic convention and still be the one who sits and eats alone. Women are just an oddity. A female friend of mine was at a convention and ended up being sexually harassed. I'm always on the lookout for female magicians, especially the younger ones, to make sure that they know that kind of behavior (toward them) is not okay, it's not acceptable and that they need to stand up for who they are and be respected. It doesn't just happen in magic — it happens everywhere.

It's like the female CEO — there's only one female CEO here in Vegas who is running a hotel. For every job that's out there (in Vegas) for guys, there might be two guys competing for that job — but there are twenty or thirty women competing for a job and that doesn't create a lot of camaraderie amongst women just in general. We're taught at a very early age that if there's a job out there for us, we better compete for it or somebody else is going to get it. Guys aren't necessarily taught that.

It's kind of ingrained in us to find that guy to take care of us because he's going to offer us safety and security; for women that don't necessarily need it does sort of make us outsiders. I've found — and this isn't just in magic, this is life in general — that if someone is going to say something bad about a woman, it will be another woman who says it first.

I think that's part of the culture around women and work in general, this idea of competition — that we have to be competitive instead of supportive.

I actually run an online group for female magicians where they can go and talk to each other. If they're going to be at a convention, I always encourage them to meet with each other because these will be lifelong friendships. It doesn't matter if that person is over in Germany or Australia or where ever — it will be a lifelong friendship. Making sure we stay in touch is important, because we all have the same issues.

You work with animals in your magic shows. Does this require additional training for the animals?

With bigger animals I use a trainer. I'm a magician, not an animal trainer and I don't want to get eaten [laughs.] But for smaller animals like dogs — I grew up in a family where we trained our dogs to behave. In training a dog to behave, you're able to find the behaviors come naturally to that dog. I had one dog who loved paper — he would stand up on his hind legs and take pieces of paper in his paw. So I trained him to pick a card.

The birds, oddly enough, don't need a lot of training — at least they don't with my routine. Some magicians do free-flying acts and stuff like that but I've traveled to so many different countries where I end up borrowing birds. I've created an act where I can just pick up someone else's birds and use them. Birds have varying degrees of intelligence — doves aren't on the high end. They are really pretty but they aren't very high on the list of intelligence.

How did you come to make magic a career?

You know, as soon as I saw Doug Henning, I never wanted to do anything else. I've only ever wanted to be a magician. Because of that, that's why I went and got a degree in magic — I wanted to be able to be taken seriously. I have a degree in magic and it's how I learned the really hard, complicated type of magic — like the bird steals and card tricks where it's just your hands, you're not using any gimmicks or illusions or anything else. That's what I have a degree in, and that's what I'll be opening the show with. I've always loved magic and wanted to learn as much about as many different types of magic as I could. I kind of just gravitated towards that — it's a style of magic that really appealed to me. It's my favorite thing to do, not because it's hard but I because in my show, it's where I get the most satisfaction out of doing it.

I have a degree in musical theater too, which I got just so I could be a better performer on stage. I just love it. I love that it's an art form — it was recently declared an art form by congress. For me it has always been an art form; it's a way of telling stories and connecting with people. When you watch singer, they may have the ability to make you laugh or cry at the songs they sing. A juggler can't do that. Sometimes dancers can make you react and comedians make you laugh, they don't make you cry. But a magician is like a singer — we can make you laugh and cry and really engage our audience with the stories that we tell. That is one of the things that attracted me to magic.

You're absolutely right — there isn't one specific emotion attached to how we feel when we see magic.

That's what made (David) Copperfield so great; when he used to do his TV specials, he did a lot of vignettes. Doug Henning chose a different path in magic — he chose to be the happy, fun magician. Which was really popular and worked well for him. And I must admit, that is one of the tougher things in magic — finding out who you are. Most magicians don't find out who they are on stage until they are older, which is also why many really great magicians you see are older.

It's an art form that's hard to perfect. People like Criss Angel are an oddity in our art form — most people don't find out who they are as a performer until they are much older. That's why at the turn of the (last) century, the stereotypical idea of a magician — like Howard Thurston and Harry Kellar — are all older men. It's weird; there was a phenomenon that happened in the '30s and '40s where they started exposing magic — once that happened it became more of a kids form of entertainment, as opposed to back at the turn of the century when the big stars in magic were touring all over the world and were extremely successful. It's strange because now, magicians are thought of as birthday party magicians and that's not what this art form is. I mean, it can be but it really is an adult form of entertainment.

I think sometimes as adults we forget how much we like being surprised.

For a while people assumed that as an adult you had to be serious, which takes away our sense of wonder; that sense of wonder is only for children. People are slowly coming back to wanting that sense of wonder again. With computers and all the information that is out there, nothing much surprises us anymore, which is actually why I think magic is becoming popular. People want that sense of wonder, they want to be taken somewhere else. They want the ability to believe that the impossible is possible.

Ariann Black performs this Friday, March 20 and Saturday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Theatre of Dreams in Castle Rock. For more information on the shows and to buy tickets, visit the Theatre of Dreams website. For more on Black and her work, visit the magician's site

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