Brett Schneider was 10 or 12 years old when he got his first magic kit.
“I started nerding out at an early age,” laughed the actor, who grew up in Oakland, California. “With magic, I really enjoyed both learning how the tricks worked and performing them.”
He got into theater around the same time, acting in shows at school. “It kind of went hand in hand, actually.”
And it still does, amazingly enough. Schneider may have gotten into magic partly to impress people as a kid—“I don’t think I was unlike any other adolescent who used magic as a crutch, to do something cool at parties”—but as an adult, he has managed to integrate magic into his formidable bag of actor’s chops. Schneider says he sees magic as a form of theater, a legitimate parallel skill set like singing or dancing or comedy. Which brings him, in a crazily perfect storm of sleight-of-hand-meets-Chicago-storefront, to the main stage of the Olney Theatre Center, where he’s starring in a play about a magician that comes with equal parts heartache–and how’d-he-do-that?
“It’s truly bananas, what he does,” said Halena Kays, who directed Schneider in “The Magic Play” first at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and now during its run at Olney. “I can never believe it. It’s totally fantastic, the amount of work that he has to do: this incredible, vulnerable performance, this responsive and honest scene work—and meanwhile, he has a hand in his pocket, preparing for the next trick.”
Kays is equally effusive about the other two cast members, Jon Hudson Odom, who plays The Magician’s love interest, a professional diver named Daniel, and Harry A. Winter who plays The Magician’s dad. And she can’t say enough about the design team that has wrestled together a play with projections, audience interactions and a full-scale magic show.
“It’s a real trick producing it,” she said. “It’s a three-character play, but there’s a lot of complexity in what seems like a relatively simple concept.”
A seasoned theater-maker, she’s up for it. The Chicago-based director, who teaches directing at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is the former artistic director of The Hypocrites, a founding member of the artistic collaborative, The Ruffians, and has directed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where Schneider has performed.
“He’s sort of always in two places at once, and it’s a challenge,” she said. “He’s an actor ninja, always present in the scene, yet prepared to do this complicated magic. It’s a fantastic thing to watch.”
It’s something Schneider seems to have been preparing for all his life, finding mentors at Misdirections Magic Shop in San Francisco, where he would spend his money and free time as a kid; performing at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, where he’s a member; working as an illusion director and magic consultant for theater, television and film, and studying theater and philosophy at Northwestern University in Chicago. That city, with its storefront theater tradition, was the common denominator between Schneider, Kays and playwright Andrew Hinderaker, who started writing “The Magic Play” using Schneider as an advisor on all things magician-ary, but eventually began writing the play around the actor-magician.
“This one is really specific to Brett,” he said. “Someone else could play it, but I would argue that if you really want to see the play done well, see it with him in it.”
The genesis story for “The Magic Play” is that Hinderaker was challenged to write a play that was impossible to produce, and so he one-upped his football-drumline-ballet epic “Colossus” with an opus that called for stagecraft to incorporate magic tricks, dive routines and audience participation.
“I’m interested in characters,” Hinderaker said. “I think if I’m honest I was interested in exploring this discipline because I knew that if I wrote it well it would make great theater. There’s something so inherently theatrical about the way those people express who they are.”
Football player, ballet dancer, magician: Hinderaker says he wants to see the art form embodied by the actor on the stage. “I’m really interested in the people who devote themselves to those disciplines,” he explained. “As an audience member, you’re much more interested in seeing a play about a magician if it is being played by somebody who’s also an award-winning professional magician, doing seemingly impossible tricks.”
This kind of theater is significantly harder to make, he said, because it involves so many specific realms and takes so much time and research — but the playwright’s goal is to really know and populate the world in which each of his plays is set. Collaborating this closely with Schneider guarantees that the actor onstage is truly a magician, and that the interactive magic show that’s an integral part of the story comes off seamlessly every time.
“It limits the number of productions you can do, but I am drawn to the excitement of seeing something that takes years to make, that was written for one specific person,” the playwright said. “You’re really present for theatrical lives.”
And that’s where the real magic trick comes in: finding the balance between the professional magic and the personal story, the place where it all comes together emotionally.
“This is a play, first and foremost,” says Schneider, “It’s not a magic show. It’s a love story; it’s about trust and intimacy, how we as people choose to protect ourselves—or not.”
“The Magic Play” is at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, through May 7. Regular performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and 2 p.m. May 3. There will be an audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, and a sign-interpreted performance at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 4. Tickets start at $45, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.