Ondřej Pšenička, 31, is an award-winning Czech magician who has spent almost two decades in the field of magic, coming up with great acts and great tricks. Not long ago he appeared on Penn & Teller’s show “Fool Us” which offers participants a chance to fool the famous duo with a trick of their own design. How did Ondřej do? With a little help from actress Alyson Hannigan he succeeded with a card trick using his own brand Butterfly cards.
“I started doing magic when I was ten years old, but I don’t really remember how I got into it or what the trigger was. I probably saw something on TV. Probably David Copperfield because that’s what was on TV, but I also remember, actually its one of my first memories of magic on TV: Penn and Teller. It was Penn and Teller doing this weird stunt of a car or a truck going over someone’s body and then they explained how it was done. That was actually part of the show. I have not seen it since, but I had to be around nine years old.”
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“And they marketed themselves as the bad boys of magic, and also, for instance, in London there is the oldest magic club in the world and they are banned from The Magic Circle because they exposed magic, even though they do everything great for magic otherwise. The Magic Circle is a little bit ‘old school’ and they just banned them even though they are two of the greatest magicians in the world.”
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“Well what I remember is my first three magic tricks. I had started to go to this magic club for kids, and I remember the first three, and oddly enough they were all card tricks, they were quite basic, but if I showed you them today you probably wouldn’t know how it’s done because even though they were basic, they were quite good.”
Cards are obviously an important part of a magician’s act, but there are many different implements to choose from. Even when you go to the toy stores around the Czech capital, you see now that they’re selling magic kits for kids. I guess at some point sooner or later, every magician chooses a prop or two which they prefer. You have an affinity for cards yourself. Is it fair to say you make a choice: one tool over another?
“Cards are practical. In school, they are easy to hide. You can practice with cards all of the time.”
“Yeah, I think so. I think it’s better to specialize in something because then you’re just better in that one thing, but what’s funny about my case is that magicians around the world know me as card magician, a card guy, and I’m not.
“I started on stage doing stage magic; a silent act with music, and it wouldn’t be until five years in when I started doing close up magic: small acts in intimate settings. I got into cards more when I started acting because then studying theatre and acting consumed my time mostly.
“I just couldn’t do stage magic anymore because that is something that you cannot really do all of the time, but cards, they are practical. In school, they are easy to hide underneath the desk and practice, you can practice with cards all of the time. I have cards in my hands right now.”
Are you going to shuffle them for us?
“Yes! This is a riffle shuffle this is how Czechs shuffle cards. There’s a difference between sounds. So here, we have the Czech shuffle, and here we have what Europeans call the American shuffle. Then we have the card spring, and then the card drop. We can leave them there for a minute until I really need to touch them again.”
We’re going to talk specifically about your cards later on in this interview because they are now quite a strong part of your act, not only because you use them, but because you developed this particular line. But we’ll get to that in just a moment, so the listener will have to wait for that. You said you studied acting. I read that it was at Lee Strasberg theatre and film institute in LA. Of course, he was really known as the father of method acting.
“Yes, that is correct.”
What led you to acting? Was it just branching out? Was it a different goal originally or was it connected to the magic?
“It was totally connected to magic. I wanted to study acting to become a better magician. That was the ultimate goal. I just wanted to be better at magic. That’s also because, after many years, I decided to go back to magic. It was after eight years: six years of studying acting; two years of practice. After those eight years I decided to go back to magic because during those eight years I had the struggle of whether or not I was an actor or a magician.
“Some would say that you can be both, but you can’t really be excellent in both, it is really hard. The final decision was that I love acting and I love magic. If I do acting, I can do a lot of acting, but I don’t always have to do magic, but if I do magic, I always have to be doing both, because good magic is not possible without good acting.”
One of the big successes that you’ve had is appearing on Penn and Teller’s show, which was very recently, a few months ago. That program is called “Fool Us”: it’s in its fourth season and they just announced a fifth. That must have been very exciting for you. To get on the show; long did it take you to prepare that particular trick?
“It was funny. Actually, the reason why most of the magicians get on the show is to get good publicity. But for me, it was that one day I was practicing my act for the Magic Castle because I wanted to tape it and give it to the entertainment director and get hired. Then one of the effects in that act which I came up with, I realized that it was perfect for Fool Us, you know with the headphones and everything.
“I realized it would be Penn and Teller sitting in those chairs, and then there was presenter Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother, American Pie) who would perform part of the trick for me Then, I could go sit in Penn’s chair right next to Teller, and watch her fooling Penn, and that would be amazing, right?
“That was actually one of my favorite moments in the show as when I went and sat next to Teller, and also it was one of my first thoughts, one of my first images that I saw when I was developing that act for that show.”
What happens when you don’t fool them? That must be a terrible sinking feeling/ Did you worry perhaps that you wouldn’t?
“Yeah, you know, for some people it doesn’t matter because they already know that they’re not going to fool them. They want publicity and don’t care.
“Good magic is not possible without good acting.”
“I really cared. I really wanted to fool them. I went there to fool them and there was no world in which I wasn’t going to fool them!
“Also, for me, they tell you in code how they think the trick was done, and with me Penn thought right up until the end ‘we don’t think you fooled us’. So that was funny: they had basically said that I had marked cards, their explanation for the trick was that I had marked cards.
“The problem is that you can’t do what I did with marked cards.
“Teller though that maybe I had looked back when Penn was putting the card back. And I said ‘No, I looked back when he was already shuffling the cards.’ And Teller looked at me and went “huh…” and then went back to Penn and then, because normally they would discuss a lot, in his earpiece, one of the consultants, Johnny Thompson, one of the most knowledgeable magicians in the world, he confirmed ‘Guys, you were fooled.’
The winner on the show gets to open for Penn and Teller.
“Yes, by the way there is also the trophy.”
What, you have it here? This is the actual trophy?!
“This is the trophy.”
It says… I fooled Penn and Teller…
F-U, ha ha, we’ll take a picture of that! There was another aspect of it that I think you must have found very pleasing, which was that Penn seemed to be very impressed with your deck of cards. He said they were very beautiful. This is your design on these cards, isn’t it?
“Well, not really. I hired a designer, my friend from Sweden, Stefan, who is a magician and a designer at the same time. So, I came up with a special thing that is in those cards. I explained to him, when I was in Stockholm, what I had in mind and I asked him if he would be interested in designing those cards. First, I thought there was going to be trees, then one day I thought of butterflies over a floral pattern. So, the concept is my idea, but then he took that and the system that I came up with and he put those together.”
The execution was his and the fine design work, but the idea was yours.
“I really cared. I really wanted to fool them. I went there to fool them and there was no world in which I wasn’t going to fool them!”
I understand that these were crowdfunded as well, and it wasn’t so easy to find a manufacturer that could make cards with the right qualities.
“I can’t really tell you…”
You can’t tell me what those qualities are…
“What the thing is, but there’s only one factory in the world that can make it and its in Belgium.”
And the butterflies are a pretty good symbol because they have the whole metamorphosis. Penn mentioned they were like a Rorschach test.
“Yes, that was funny.”
They do look very fine. Are those available commercially since they were crowd funded to people who backed the…
“Yes! They are! They’re all mostly sold out at the moment, however. So, would you like to name any card?”
I’m not going to be very original but I’m going to say the ace of spades.
“The ace of spades is very unoriginal.”
Alright, wait, let me change that, how about the four of hearts?
“I have a psychic connection with my cards. The four of hearts is right about here. Am I close?”
“More than close, you’re bang on. Right exactly. Sweet.”
“I just got to a card after cutting the deck, which is funny. But if I spell you name, which is J-A-N, turning over one card after another after each letter, what is the next card?
“Oh wow! The ace of spades.”
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