When Ryan Lawrence ’99 was 10 years old, his parents took him to see a magic show. Faster than they could say, “abracadabra,” he was hooked. Enthralled with the spectacle of magic, Lawrence immersed himself in the ancient art. After years of practicing with magic sets and staging living room performances for family members, Lawrence began transforming his hobby into a money-making venture.
“As a teenager, I started making money performing magic for organizations and schools,” Lawrence says. “I joined the local magic shop and spent so much time at the magic shop that the owner gave me a job. I remember pouring over magic manuscripts, investigating props and performing magic for customers. It provided an outstanding learning curve.”
During more than 15 years of performing, The Amazing Ryan has met many well-known magicians that he credits with being friendly and gracious with their time, including David Copperfield and Penn & Teller. But despite his respect for many contemporary magicians, Lawrence finds himself gravitating (if not levitating) to the work of earlier greats such as Harry Blackstone and Max Malini.
Inspired by these early illusionists, Lawrence sees magic as much more than a bag of tricks, instead viewing his craft as an opportunity to expand horizons and as a great vehicle for storytelling.
“I’m more interested in developing character and story than learning tricks,” Lawrence says. “Once you have the story, it’s fun to go find the magic that supports it. In the end, it’s all about taking the audience on a journey.”
But a magical journey can be fraught with pitfalls, especially when pyrotechnics are involved. “I once performed a pyrotechnic effect and some streamers accidentally caught fire on the floor,” Lawrence says. ”There was no property damage or danger, so I just played off it and quickly stamped it out. The audience went crazy and thought it was part of the act. It was a real ‘I meant to do that’ moment … sometimes this is a magician’s greatest ally.”
Lawrence recounts a similar story involving Harry Blackstone, who performed in Decatur during the 1920s.
“During one of Blackstone’s performances at the Lincoln Square Theatre, there was a fire backstage,” Lawrence says. “To keep the audience from panicking, he calmly announced, ‘This next illusion is so big that we all need to go outside to see it.’ Everyone was slowly escorted outside and saved from harm. This is real magic.”
Although he now has a successful career in marketing, Lawrence’s passion for magic is in no danger of dematerializing. After devoting countless hours to preparation of his material, he still performs several shows each year. His solo show, “A Vanishing Art,” took several years to develop as Lawrence explored new effects and elements.
Lawrence says he considers magic a “what if” challenge. “What if we could levitate?” he asks. “What if we could dematerialize objects? What would it look like? How can we challenge ourselves to make these things real?”
Assuring his audience a truly magical experience is a challenge Lawrence takes seriously. He takes copious notes while developing his performance and practices each effect diligently.
“I work very slowly on my performance material to ensure that everything I do is excellent,” he says. “I would prefer to do one effect better than anyone than do a thousand effects poorly.”
A theatre major at MU, Lawrence credits his Millikin coursework and student performances with helping develop knowledge and techniques he still uses today.
“I count my time at Millikin as the most formative of my life,” Lawrence says. “I also formed some of the greatest relationships of my life with friends and colleagues, and I still communicate with faculty and classmates.”
He is also quick to acknowledge faculty members’ roles in his college experience.
“My movement and improvisational work with [professor] Denise Myers helped me overcome some performance fears and obstacles,” Lawrence says. “I also enjoyed group discussions in Doc Golden’s directing courses. Doc helped me develop technique both creatively and on the business side of theatre.”
Lawrence has a parting message for faculty and alumni:
“I look forward to seeing you soon … in Decatur, Chicago, online at amazingryan.com, or wherever our paths may cross. Thank you all for an amazing experience! It was truly magical.”
Margaret Allen Friend is associate editor of Millikin Quarterly magazine.