Conjuring a Career
For Yale’s magicians, turning a hobby into a livelihood requires some sleight of hand.
Some students were shuffling cards in their hands — others spread them out along a felt tabletop, arranging them in various pyramid structures. Every member of the Yale Magic Society was fiddling with a deck of cards when I walked in the room and continued to do so throughout the 90-minute meeting.
“I mean, you might as well do that trick with duct tape,” remarked Max Lukianchikov ’20, president of the society. “This item [for an upcoming magic trick] came in the mail, and it’s the most gorgeous piece of inventory I’ve ever seen in my life.”
He erased some writing from the board and added duct tape to the list next to the trick. Over the next hour, he and the six other members in attendance discussed tricks and how they were going to accomplish them, with references to magic books and famous magicians throughout. Members bantered back and forth, sprinkling magician’s terminology like “inception” and “table vision” amid ideas and criticism. Lukianchikov offhandedly mentioned that he had always wanted to learn how to perform hypnosis, which launched a 20-minute conversation about the most effective methods of hypnosis.
This is the convening of the Yale Magic Society. Founded in 2010, the society brings together students interested in practicing magic and allows them ample opportunities for performance and preparation. Its members do more than simply pulling a rabbit out of a hat; their magic is performance, expression and, ultimately, art. In each meeting, members perform their individual tricks — ranging from putting together a “broken” chair to reading minds — and plan new tricks to be used in the future.
The society is also involved in so-called magical outreach. Each year they take a trip abroad through an organization called Magicians Without Borders, which allows them to perform and teach magic. The group also volunteers with the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, teaching recovering drug addicts how to do magic tricks.
The Yale Magic Society serves as a single point where magicians expand their passion for the art form and gain valuable experiences. But beyond the thrill of performance, members express gratitude for the community the society has brought to them.
When Jen Kramer ’14, founder of the Yale Magic Society, came to Yale, she assumed that there would be a magic society “because the place was practically Hogwarts!” As it turned out, there was no outlet and community for the art form — so she started one. The newly formed group met each week to give feedback on each other’s work, performed in New Haven and hosted residential college teas with magicians from around the world who would sit in the Pierson College basement and talk to the aspiring magicians for hours.
“It is such a fun, creative and spirited group,” said Alexander Posner ’19, the Yale Magic Society’s former president. “We have a terrific time designing new magic routines for our shows. In many ways, I’d say that the creative process is even more fun than the product.”
Magic had been a significant part of Kramer’s life since she was 10. She joined the Society of Young Magicians, a group that met every month in the backroom of a Manhattan Magic Shop to hear from veteran magicians and critique each other’s work. It was there that Kramer met Posner, an aspiring middle school magician who had been going to magic summer camp. He practiced magic regularly throughout high school, and by the time he took his gap year in 2016, he was traveling to dozens of countries to perform. When he arrived at Yale, Kramer had graduated, but the legacy of her contribution remained. Posner quickly joined and performed with the community at Yale.
The Yale Magic Society, for Kramer and Posner, was both an outlet for magic performance and a way to bring a vital part of their lives to Yale. Both emphasized how magic, at Yale and in the world, is more than enjoyable entertainment.
“Magic, when done well, evokes a sense of childlike wonder,” said Lukianchikov.
Unlike Posner and Kramer, Lukianchikov had never performed in high school and considered himself an amateur magician, learning card tricks from YouTube. When he came to Yale, he met then-president Posner, who lent him books and resources for further study. On top of classes and other extracurriculars, Lukianchikov began practicing 4-5 hours a day and was soon performing both with Yale Magic Society and through paid gigs for businesses and parties.
“Performing for other people is incredibly gratifying, and being able to use magic in the business setting, to help people’s relationships, to genuinely elicit emotions out of people that you would not expect, is incredible,” said Lukianchikov. “I’ve made the CEO of a company cry in front of all of his employees. … [Magic] transcends language, it transcends culture.”
Lukianchikov is seriously considering a career as a professional magician, but he has various other interests, namely math and music, that he also might pursue. He often asks Kramer for advice on the topic.
“The overlap between Yale students and people wanting to be professional magicians is incredibly small, and, as far as I’m concerned, one person deep: that’s Jen Kramer,” Lukianchikov said. “So, if there’s anyone who can help me, it’s Jen, because she has done it, and it makes it easier for me to realize that it’s viable as a full time career.”
Kramer always knew she was passionate about magic and approached her college years as a time to figure out the concrete steps to make her dream of being a professional magician a reality. She interned at the Nathan Burton Magic Show in Las Vegas for two summers, learning what the day-to-day life and work of a professional magician would be. When she graduated in 2014, she decided to move to Las Vegas and pursue magic.
“I figured if there was any time in my life to take a risk and do what I love, this was the time to do it,” she said.
Kramer contacted over 40 hotels to set up a weekly show, and eventually one, The Wyndham Grand Desert, said yes. A month after arriving to Las Vegas, she received three more offers for weekly shows. In 2017, she began headlining a show at the popular Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino in front of hundreds of people.
In recent years, Kramer has earned accolades such as the Merlin Award and Best Female Magician of the Year, the highest recognitions a magician can earn. But while most magicians in the Yale Magic Society will perform and learn magic for the rest of their lives, Lukianchikov noted that few want to pursue it as their primary career.
Posner entertained the idea of being a professional magician at one point but now has plans to focus on environmental policy. He is the president of the nationwide coalition Students for Carbon Dividends, which advocates for a carbon tax.
“I’m very interested in climate change,” Posner said. “But I think the tools of magic are totally applicable.”
Posner believes his presentation and persuasion skills from magic will help with furthering his cause, and that he will in no way be shutting the door on magic forever when he graduated in the winter of 2018. He plans to keep magic as a hobby for years to come.
Lukianchikov spends a large amount of his time traveling to gigs in New York and Connecticut. Businesses fly him out to cocktail parties and networking events around the country. Though Lukianchikov thinks working as a magician could be economically viable after graduation, he has had some doubts about pursuing this path full time.
“If you had told me [about magic as a full time career] when I was first doing it, I’d have said, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that. What a waste of a Yale degree,’” he said. “Which are all partially true things. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I go, ‘I don’t know, I’ll see.’ I’m in the position where I can choose something that makes me happy and it’s a win-win situation.”
Lukianchikov believes that magic is important beyond its entertainment value because of the way it brings people together. But he has also learned how magic can concretely better lives through the society’s partnership with Magicians Without Borders, a nonprofit whose members travel to different countries to perform and teach magic to children. Posner traveled with the organization during a gap year and served as its vice president throughout his college years. In his first year at Yale, he organized a collaboration with the society, and the Yale magicians traveled to India. It was on this trip that Lukianchikov first met Kramer. The next year, he travelled to Costa Rica, and this past winter break he went to Bogotá, Colombia.
Most might consider magic a harmless, even eccentric hobby. But Posner credits his experience teaching and performing magic with Magicians Without Borders as opening his eyes to the stakes and life-changing potential of learning magic. For him and for the people across the world to whom the organization teaches magic, magic is not just about the entertainment; it has the potential to scaffold self-worth and make life, even in dire circumstances, a bit better.
“Magic in itself isn’t life threatening or enhancing,” said Posner. “But it helps to bring life meaning, and color, and texture.”