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A Gen Z Wunderkind Ushers In the Future of Magic — With Old-School Tricks

Leave the giant illusions to David Copperfield and David Blaine. All 22-year-old Franco Pascali needs to blow your mind is a deck of cards.

It seems so often that magicians are defined by the extremes of their personalities, whether it’s David Copperfield’s sprawling cockiness or David Blaine’s mercurial devil act. Franco Pascali, however, cuts against type: With a model’s bone structure and a swoosh of curly dark locks, he kind of looks like a fever-dream Timothée Chalemet, and he speaks with a stoner’s mellow baritone as he shows me his playing cards. 

From a deck on the table in front of him, Pascali slips out a card and places it on the tip of his middle finger. With a flick of the wrist, the card starts spinning — and, improbably, continues to spin on his fingertip for several seconds. 

“There was something about me never thinking that I’d be able to do this, which is manage a small enough weight of just a single playing card and be able to spin it on nothing but one finger counter-clockwise for as long as possible,” he explains. “I’m only saying that as a visual example, but when it comes to cardistry, there’s a lot of movements that you just don’t think you’ll be able to do, until you can.” 

Pascali, just 22, is a rising star who performs at the renowned Magic Castle in Hollywood and is performing a residency dubbed The Magic Show at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, where I’ve come to meet him. Two weeks prior, I watched him perform miracles on a tiny stage surrounded by prying eyes. He opened with a dramatic video montage followed by a mesmerizing sequence of that aforementioned “cardistry,” using his fingers to flourish and juggle cards in impossible ways. But then, surprisingly, the set took on a much more relaxed feel, with Pascali guiding us with stories while using his tricks as poetic metaphors for life, memory and sensation. 

Pascali is a child of Southern California, which maybe explains his mix of otherworldly ability and chilled-out wonder. (It’s the same energy you get from wunderkind skaters.) He still lives in his hometown of Glendale, not far from the family home where his father used to host endless games of Truco, an Argentinian card game, with a boisterous crowd of older men. “Maybe that almost psychologically implanted this idea of playing with cards in my head,” Pascali tells me with a sly grin. 

Like so many young street magicians, David Blaine’s early specials served as the trigger for Pascali’s decade-long obsession. The story reads like the prototypical first act of a prodigy’s biopic: He begged his parents to buy him props and books, found himself lost in the craft and sought bigger and better illusions with each successful move. “I was just self-aware of how much fun I was having practicing. Not showing a trick to someone — literally just trying and failing at something difficult,” Pascali says. “Usually, practice is boring.” 

Even for a lover of magic, Pascali’s skill at close-up card effects, combined with a wicked ability to seemingly read the minds of strangers, feels timeless for such a young performer. And given his position as director of magic for theory11, a group dedicated to finding, developing and teaching fresh material, I figured the future of magic would have an opinion on, well, the future of magic.

What’s the benefit of being born into this generation of magicians?
The privilege that comes with being a magician of my age in this era is very simple: We have the most knowledge available to us than any other magicians have had in the history of time. 

So there’s just so many ways to learn magic. Living in L.A, you’re extra privileged with the Magic Castle, knowing you could attend lectures as a magician, where literally you’re in a classroom where other magicians talk about, “Yo, here are my philosophies and why and how.” So the knowledge part is just the biggest, biggest, biggest advancement as time goes on.

Does that make it hard to build a set, given there are so many techniques and gimmicks to use?
There is something about this unlimited bank of knowledge we have with the internet. But as far as magic goes, we all have an almost equally unlimited bank of knowledge with books. Books written more than 100 years ago, too. You basically have an entire library of magicians who are tipping their secrets through history. People have this misconception that magicians never reveal their secrets, but well, of course they do. A lot of them, though, are much harder to execute than others, and by reading them, you might end up more confused than when you started. 

So it’s not like so much has changed in terms of the knowledge — you just build a tool box over time. I remember as a kid, I was obsessed with completely gimmickless card magic, with no trickery. I thought to myself, I wonder if there will ever be a day where I could go to somebody’s house, use their deck of cards and do magic with that deck of cards for over an hour. And now I could do five hours. I’ll do magic until people tell me to shut up and stop showing them tricks, you know? You need to collect so much data. That hasn’t changed. 

Does having that library come naturally for you?
No. It comes with me doing this every day. I was up till five on some magic stuff last night, for example, which could very easily be useless in about two days. Or not, you know? But it’s just constant, and you just keep doing it. 

Okay, so what’s different about performing in 2019 versus, say, the early 20th century if so much hasn’t changed?
There’s no more mystery in anything. You could Google how to do magic and learn a lot of things, right? A lot of the mystery of magic has died, which also means performance styles need to change. There are still some people that are playing it way too real, in my opinion: “I have real powers. I could really read minds.” To me, you’re almost insulting an audience’s intelligence. They should be able to enjoy it for what it is regardless.

I wonder if our modern cynicism makes it extra tough. After your show, for example, my friend thought your mind-reading had to use cameras all over the stage and audience plants. I found that hilarious.
Yeah, you don’t want everyone to think, People are just in on it, or There must be cameras. That’s called a false solution. None of my act is done with that. But it’s so easy to think that. So it’s kind of two things: You can acknowledge the false solutions and let them understand it’s not the case, but you also don’t want to over-explain why something is amazing.

How does technology fit into that tension?
In an ideal world, every magician should be at the forefront of technology. A hundred years ago or whatever, there were magicians playing with magnets in a fascinating way. And even a tool like that changes a lot over the course of a century. People still think magicians are all magnets and mirrors — and some of it is. So to be at the forefront of tech is important for the advancement of magic, but it’s much easier said than done because new tech means anything can happen. People have more reason to doubt than ever before. 

Man, I don’t want to see that edited video magic and stuff like that. When you get into videos, there are literally people cheating, using camera effects and doing things that cannot be achieved in real life. So what that does is hurt everyone’s credibility. When a person gets caught, it feels like we’re all seen as cheating. 

The second problem is that people now can replay what they’re watching over and over again, and if you’re in the mindset of wanting to figure an effect out, sometimes you can. That’s kind of the old saying that a magician never repeats the same trick. But people think if they can catch it on a bunch of replays, they haven’t been fooled. I don’t think it affects live magic. That’s the main takeaway for me. I see all of that and I know that it won’t affect live magic. 

Oh, and one thing that feels cutting edge to me is selflessness and a lack of arrogance. As a magician, you’re showing people what you can do, but you need to do it in a way that’s not so “look at what I can do.” Being polite is cutting edge. How many magicians come up and make people feel uncomfortable for the sake of a joke? 

There’s a huge world of tricks and illusions for sale on the internet, including your own. Again, what’s the impact of that development?
It’s part of business, and it’s part of progressing as an art. But something very dark becomes true, which is some magic is nothing but a self-working prop and a couple lines that the trick gives you. How crazy is it that the art of magic can support the weak performer, because people wouldn’t know otherwise anyway? There is something really dark about these Instagram dudes racking up millions of views who are literally talentless. You went to a shop and bought a gimmick thing, just press the button and boop, you got enough for a seven-minute take. 

So, you know, selling magic, it can be very good, but it can absolutely go very bad. And now you’re in this muddled world where people don’t really know where ideas came from and people are now almost stealing other techniques without permission.

How does it get better?
On an individual level you have a stage and you’re just creating your own magic, talking to your own circle of magicians, keep doing your own thing. It’s really easy to stress about that stuff, but the truth is just, do you.

What else do you envision for the future?
I’d love to make something for Netflix that’s about knowing the challenges of seeing magic on screen and overcoming those criticisms. I’d love to mix magic and art by having, say, a pop-up art gallery with different magic apparatuses on display, being shown live by magicians. I love fashion, so maybe it’s doing an advertisement that involves cards and fabric and just weird ways to show magic. 

Whatever it is, when you’re going back to a toolbox of methods, a lot of times in thinking up a routine or a trick, you come up with what some of us call the “dream effect.” A very simple example of a dream effect would be someone thinking of any card and it appearing in their back pocket without you coming anywhere near them. And you go, “Shit, that’s hard.” You think, I have no way to do that now. But I’m going to keep that in mind as my dream effect.

You have to set these seemingly impossible objectives that you only have a sense you’ll be able to solve throughout the years or through collaboration with other artists. That process hasn’t changed.