In February 2020, sorceress Krystyn Lambert walked behind the scenes at the Brookledge Follies – an intimate, invite-only variety show hidden behind a mansion in Hancock Park in Los Angeles, where she was performing that evening. Then she discovered Pam Severns, a fellow vaudeville artist known for her unorthodox take on classical puppetry who works with the Jim Henson Co. Lambert, an alum of the Magic Castle Junior Program, was considering introducing shadow puppets into her on-stage act at the time. Fascinated to learn more about puppetry, she went to Severns and said hello. The two quickly became friends, and Severns shared Lambert resources and tips on puppetry.
Conversation soon turned to the lack of support and representation for performers in the variety arts who, no coincidence, are men. “We complained that so many of these variety shows, comedy shows – magic shows, for sure – are all dominated by cis, straight, white men,” says Lambert. Although there are a bevy of Los Angeles artists in these fields who identify as women, “they rarely get the stage time they deserve,” adds Lambert.
A look at the upcoming performances at Magic Castle, for example, does not make you confident that diversity and inclusivity are top priorities for all bookers. There doesn’t seem to be any women of color there at the moment, and the only magician booked for a show is one woman, LA-based Kayla Drescher. As one of the city’s most famous institutions for magic and variety arts, the Magic Castle was rebuilt following a 2020 Times investigation into allegations that the staff, management, academy members and performers continued abuses including sexual assault and performers, subjected to a reckoning of racial or gender discrimination. (General manager Joseph Furlow resigned after the controversy.) The story also cited a 2019 study that found that less than 12% of the organization was made up of women, and members said the vast majority of magicians within the Academy of the castle itself were white.
Tired of watching the venues pay lip service to increased representation in show lineups, and driven by the immense creativity building in LA, Lambert and Severns decided to create a new variety show called “No Man’s Land” , which debuts at the Yard Theater on Wednesday, November 10. Lambert describes it as “a more modern twist on more traditional vaudeville styles,” in which cast members such as juggler Tristan Cunningham, ventriloquist Hannah Leskosky, circus performer Dallys Newton and comedian Cara Connors will perform – all female talents.
The goal of “No Man’s Land”, as Severns puts it, is to “normalize female-dominated shows”. While Severns notes the awareness of the problem is growing, she still doesn’t see many measures to truly diversify a number of industries that have historically been dominated by white men. “I still see male lineups at Magic Castle. … It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t seem like things are going to change very much, ”added Severns. Members of the comedy community have tried to bring this topic to light, “but comedy is a bigger industry than juggling or ventriloquism,” says Lambert. “So there is a lot more to be covered in some of the less populated variety arts.”
Women have been inextricably linked to vaudeville since people first discovered the awe that comes with sleight of hand or pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. But they are rarely celebrated in its history. Over the generations, most women in magic have been objectified or limited to supporting roles. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, many talented magicians worked in the vaudeville circus, some as assistants.
As the magical historian Margaret Steele has pointed out, assistants were skilled magicians who played an essential role in making the deed possible. “It’s built into the art, the way the magician and assistant interact,” Steele told the History Channel, adding, “The assistant’s powerlessness [is] just a trick, actually, ”a move that amplifies the size of the smoke and mirrors. The magician Adelaide Herrmann – known as the “Queen of Magic” – thrilled audiences around the world in the late 19th and early 20th century, pouring alcohol over a sheet of paper, then setting it on fire.
But even today, renowned magicians such as Herrmann are rarely mentioned in the same breath, such as Harry Houdini or Penn & Teller. In addition to the struggle for recognition, women in the variety arts are constantly faced with disrespect and the disbelief that they can rule a stage. Once, as she was preparing to perform, Lambert recalled that a manager of the venue immediately assumed that Lambert’s friend was the wizard and she was the assistant – in fact, it was the other way around. “It’s this inhospitable environment that we’re trying to fight,” says Lambert.
Severns and Lambert will host the show on Wednesday and hope to continue “No Man’s Land” monthly. Organizers say a December performance with a lineup of talented drag comedians and other luminaries has been confirmed for the time being – and everything that makes a magical evening.
“No man’s land: an evening full of comedy, magic and variety”
Wednesday November 10th
The Yard Theater, 4319 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles
Tickets: $ 15
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