Joshua Lozoff: Virtually Impossible

Friday, Dec. 4; Friday, Dec. 18, and Saturday, Dec. 19 (online), 7 p.m., $30  

The Durham magician and mentalist Joshua Lozoff is telling me a story about a can of orange soda. 

The story is this: Researchers conducted a study on the power of influence by putting five different cans of soda pop on the table and asking people to use a pencil to place a checkmark by one can, as randomly as they could. When the pencil was orange, the orange sodas were far more likely to be chosen. None of the participants, though, said that the color of the pencil influenced their choice; they maintained that they had placed their checks at random. 

“You could do the same thing in a magic trick and say, ‘Hey, I’m psychic, and I knew you were gonna pick orange soda,’” says Lozoff, who traveled around the world for many years before settling in North Carolina. “But the real reason—the fact that we are all suggestible and being influenced all the time—just lends itself to saying this is actually about all of us, and that we can be aware of these things in ourselves, rather than just making it about me.” 

This year has forced some obvious changes in the work of the veteran illusionist, whose solo shows have touched down over the years at regional venues from the ArtsCenter and Sienna Hotel to the late, great Manbites Dog Theater. 

The title of his new show, Virtually Impossible. alludes to the fact that he’s only staging live performances of it online, on Zoom. It also starts with a riff on social distancing, in which viewers are assured that the performer will remain masked, silent and never less than six feet away from his camera. (Fair warning: none of that ultimately happens.)

But despite the drastic change in venue, what strikes Lozoff most is how much has stayed the same. “In itself, performing virtually wasn’t that big a leap,” he says. “To me, the magic has always been in people’s experience in the audience. I never felt it was in my hands, or on the stage with me; it’s out there, with them.”

Still, the new performance modalities imposed by social distancing challenge the sense of group experience at the center of Lozoff’s work. “For so long, my show has been about how we are all connected, how we’re all in this together,” he says. “I’m still trying to make that happen.” 

Throughout the show, screen shots feature the gallery view of all participants, as well as audience members interacting with Lozoff individually and in teams. “In developing the tricks and the visual experience,” Lozoff says, “I am trying to create something where we feel like an audience experiencing something together, and not just one-on-one. That’s really hard to do with Zoom.”

His latest work continues to diverge from traditional stage magic. Conjuring for the public generally involves monumentalizing the tricks or the trickster, as in the grand illusions of David Copperfield, the mannered, glam suavity of card artist Shin Lim, or the faux psychosis of shock magician Dan Sperry.

But even though it presently can’t bridge the physical divide, Lozoff’s work continues to overtly collapse the aesthetic distance between performer and audience. In his stories, the magician firmly situates himself in the context of his community and his family. 

The architecture in one mentalism exercise last Friday night made an audience participant appear to be performing the illusion instead of Lozoff. Instead of escalating the stakes after he correctly guessed the identity of two cards, Lozoff told him, “If it doesn’t work, it’s really no big deal, because this is already really cool.” The moment conveyed the feeling of shared discovery in his work: a sense of performer and audience uncovering mysteries together. 

“Some of it’s conscious, and some of it just kind of evolved,” Lozoff says. “Certainly, my personal values are all about community and connection, so it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve evolved my performance art to reflect that.” 

There’s always been an approachability and warmth to Lozoff’s act, a feeling that he’s taking care of those he interacts with. If anything, the close proximity of a camera adds a degree of intimacy to the mix.  

“When a magician feels unattainable or kind of above his audience, it can indicate a lack of respect,” Lozoff says. “I am dependent on the audience. It’s totally, genuinely important to the trick that the individuals and the group participate and give me the right energy in the right spirit to work.”

“Magic naturally has this idea built in it: that amazing things can happen and are happening, that we can create and explore them together—and that it’s only possible because you’re participating with me.”  

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