SURREY — Matt Johnson’s magic show in Surrey won’t be quite the same as performed elsewhere.
The Chilliwack-based entertainer will not be attempting an escape from a large water tank here this Friday night (Dec. 1), after being told the contraption can’t be used at Surrey City Hall’s Centre Stage theatre, which doubles as council chambers.
The tank-escape trick was performed by Johnson on the CW Network show Penn & Teller: Fool Us last spring.
“I’ll be doing my full show (in Surrey) except for the water-tank escape,” Johnson told the Now-Leader in a phone call Thursday (Nov. 23). “I found out about this about five days ago. The (venue managers) in Surrey have made the call that they can’t have the tank in that theatre, because we’re told the stage is a hollow one, and they’re concerned about the weight of the tank and any water that could leak on the stage.”
The show is pre-written, Johnson said, so he’ll have to “extend out a couple of things, a minute here or there over the course of the show,” to make up for the 10 minutes lost.
“I’m actually thinking of playing the Penn & Teller episode with my water escape during the intermission, for anybody who wants to see it. I haven’t confirmed that with the theatre yet.”
Johnson blends urban street magic with comedy for his Nothing Up My Sleeves show, a 90-minute display of illusions, mind-reading, sleight-of-hand and audience interaction.
The U.K.-raised Johnson, who moved to Canada in 1998, has been a pro magician for more than two decades.
Earlier this year, a dream of his to perform on Britain’s Got Talent turned into a bit of a nightmare.
“I went to do Britain’s Got Talent in February with the water escape, and it was a disaster,” he lamented. “On the day of filming, in the morning, we did a rehearsal before we filmed that night, and two minutes under water, the tank cracked and exploded on stage, basically – 200 gallons of water went all over the set.”
No wonder the people at Surrey City Hall are a bit nervous.
“It was a malfunction in the old tank,” Johnson continued. “I had tried to get on the show for three years, and rehearsed for a year and a half, had done breath-holding training. I got all the way there, spent five grand to get my stuff there for the show, and then that happened. It was a real down point in my career, and in my life in general, as you can imagine.”
Six weeks later, Johnson got a second crack at doing the trick on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, and more problems surfaced.
“I came back (to North America) with my tail between my legs, because I had no tank, so I had another tank built by a guy in Calgary, which cost me a lot more money but built sight unseen, and it was shipped to Vegas,” Johnson explained. “I got down there the day before Penn & Teller and it was too small – three inches too small all the way around. So the one you see on Penn & Teller: Fool Us is a smaller one that I jammed myself in and I basically just went for it, because it cut off my breath-holding considerably. It crushed my lungs, so I couldn’t hold my breath for any more than 30 seconds when I got in it. So we just put it on the stage and filmed it, and my guy was told to leave me in there and if I stopped moving, to get me out. As you can imagine, it was a pretty daunting experience.”
The trick of escaping from a water tank is something he’s worked on for quite some time, Johnson said.
“Doing the trick, when I first started breath-holding, I couldn’t hold for longer than 30 seconds, and now I can do four minutes,” he said. “But I’m claustrophobic, it’s very scary, and I don’t like doing it in the show, but it is something in my show now.”
He really wants another crack at doing Britain’s Got Talent, and he’s also hoping to take his act on the high seas again, after returning last week from a 10-day gig aboard a cruise ship.
“I’ve been trying for about a year and a half to get a cruise-ship agent, and it’s a really difficult industry to break into, but once you’re doing it and you’re in, you’re in,” Johnson said. “That was my first cruise with my new agent out of Florida, that’s where my agent is, and we stopped in Aruba, Costa Rica, the Panama Canal – just amazing.
“The ship I was on was quite small, only around 2,000 passengers,” he continued, “and it had a beautiful theatre, an amazing tech team and I got standing ovations for my show, which was amazing. For a fly-on, fly-off, you don’t take your full show, so my show had to fit in a suitcase. That’s kind of a new thing for me, but it was really well received.”
For the kind of theatre show he’ll do in Surrey, Johnson brings a special prop.
“It’s a plastic music box shaped like a church,” he explained. “You see it at the start of my show and it comes up at the end, and that music box used to sit on my grandmother’s fireplace before I was born. As far back as I can remember, I used to go there and wind it up and hear it play. It was kind of a magical feeling, like Santa or the Easter Bunny, and that for me was the start of the feeling of magic – not tricks, but that kind of feeling, a magical experience. That’s where it started for me, and now I’m proud to say that that church is on stage with me, and now that’s the thread of the show, which is the story of my life.”
After his grandmother’s death, Johnson inherited the music box, which was shipped here from England.
“My grandmother passed away two days before Christmas,” he said. “The music box plays ‘Silent Night,’ which is appropriate. And at the end of show, I wind it up and I make it snow in the theatre.”
In Surrey, tickets for Johnson’s Nothing Up Me Sleeves range in price from $25 to $35. For details, visit tickets.surrey.ca or call 604-501-5566. Johnson’s website is at urbandeception.com.