For the next installment of this series, I interviewed Travis Bernhardt, a magician. I've seen Travis perform a number of times—each time leaving me dizzy with wonder and excitement. His most recent show Charlatan!, which played at the Fringe Festival this year, featured mind reading, fortune telling, and concluded with a séance. Audience members were invited to follow along and make their own connection to the spirit world. It's a challenging show that brackets reality with the supernatural in way that made me curious. Travis and I met up and I asked him the kinds of questions you'd need to close your eyes to find answers for. Our conversation meanders into the realms of angels, tears, touch, swans dying of pleasure, beauty and spiritual healing. - Barry Doupé
Barry Doupé: How long have you been performing? Are you self-taught? And how would you describe what you do because I know your stage name is Travis the Magician, but the last couple of shows at Fringe (Charlatan! and Unpossible) they seem to move beyond magic.
Travis Bernhardt: I don't really have a stage name per se, I usually just go by Travis Bernhardt. But I do identify as a magician. I've been making a living from magic since May of 2008, when I started as a street performer at Granville Island. At first it was mostly small-scale busking indoors, then as I expanded, I worked on Robson Street and Granville Street for a couple of years. That was how I learned, so: self-taught, yes.
I had been learning magic for about four years before I started busking. If there's any kind of a story to that, it’s that I was depressed and magic is something that you can do when you're depressed. It's a lot of reading and sitting in your room and doing very small repetitive movements over and over again and trying to perfect them. It's not social. It's something you can do if you're isolated.
But in the end it's...
But in the end it's social. And I think a part of me must have known that or felt that—that it was a possible way out. Both in terms of income and feeling validated socially. The first time I did an indoor show there was a feeling: I'm valued for something. And maybe you're not supposed to find your value in that way, but when you have no feeling of value that’s something, you know? There was a social awakening in my life from that, an expansion. Not that I pursued it very hard, but it was an unavoidable consequence. You have to interact with people. That's how it works.
There's a friend of mine who did these salons in her living room and she would invite people she knew, performer and artist friends who would sing songs or recite poems or whatever—it could be anything. It was very supportive for everybody and it was all people who were pretty well-established artists for the most part. I had success performing at these, and it gave me confidence. It felt natural, and it didn't take a long time. Magic was just a good fit for me somehow, personality wise.
It does seem very natural. Even your physical presence is really natural.
Being a magician made sense for me, the way I think about the world. (Part of that circles back to my childhood interest in magic, which was formative. I was influenced by people like James Randi and Martin Gardner who are both magicians.) It fit really nicely.
The first couple of performances weren’t polished, but there was a good response. That's one of the things about magic: you don't have to be a good performer to get a good reaction. If you do the trick right the people are going to enjoy that.
Not to say that street performing was easy, because it wasn't. Street performing is really hard, and that took a long time. I never made it to the top level of street performing. I developed a sidewalk show I’m happy with, but I never leveled up to a full-sized circle show. Instead I started to move indoors. My first Fringe Festival was in 2010 and I started to cross over a little bit. I could already feel that indoors was more where I wanted to be, artistically.
Those shows seem more artistic than—I remember seeing you on Robson Street a long time ago and it was very straightforward.
Straightforward, yeah. I really like the street shows, don't get me wrong. A street show is harder in many ways. And there's real beauty in a great street show, keeping it simple and making it fun for everyone. When you pull that out of nothing—when there's nobody on the street and you start pulling them in one by one and building a crowd and getting them all together and building that wave of excitement—that's deeply satisfying in a way that stage shows often aren't, for me.
To get ahead of myself a little bit, making this year’s show work was often very difficult. Some people thought it was amazing, and would come back 3 or 4 times! But it wasn't working for everyone, and it wasn’t working for me. There was something wrong, somewhere. But then I did a street show in the Edmonton Fringe Festival, and it felt so good. Just to know what I was doing. To make people happy. It's this simple thing where everybody is happy and laughing and having a good time and at the end they’re thrilled to have seen it. Whereas Charlatan!, even at its very best, the end has a bit of ambiguity and “moral questionableness,” and emotional pain, maybe. It's not meant to hurt people. Certainly the opposite. But it opens up some things. It wasn't until the very end of the run in Vancouver that I—after having done the show over 30 times—finally started to figure out how to let it go so that I could feel good too. So, Street Magic is amazing, because ideally you're doing something that is very potent, which is to bring joy. Sure, some street shows are a lot of waiting around for something to happen. Or it can feel crass and commercial and gross in the subtext...
Because on the street there's this pass-the-hat-around thing, but at the Fringe you've already paid your ticket.
That's a big artistic issue for the street shows—the whole money thing. You have to talk about the money in a certain way, and say certain things... Though the same is true for indoor shows. You have to promote. You have to say things about yourself that might feel uncomfortable to say. But yes, I started feeling like I wanted to do things that are a little more complicated. A little more subtle. You can do most of the street things indoors. But there's a lot of indoor things you can't do on the street and I wanted to do those things.
I was also thinking about the Charlatan! show and how one of the things that I noticed was that there was a lack of props. It was very cerebral. It was very focused on this one thing, which made me think that this is more pushing into performance art or some other territory.
A little bit, a little bit.
A more interesting place than standard magic.
Yeah, it was intentionally almost prop-free. A couple of envelopes and a cork. The other aesthetic choice was to push a little bit more into, as you say, the realm of performance art. Especially the ending.
The daylight séance thing. “Communication” with our dead friends and relatives. It didn't always quite click. It's risky to hang the ending of the show on the unpredictable reaction (or lack thereof) of a single volunteer! And it didn't always come off amazing. But that was the risk. In Vancouver it was a big theatre, and the emotional reaction wasn't as visibly intense as it had been in smaller spaces. In smaller spaces you almost always got tears, and some kind of catharsis. But in Vancouver that never happened once. I think the audience was too big. They didn't feel like they could visibly emote, is my guess.
I didn't want to be sitting there saying “I'm the conduit, here's the messages from beyond.” I tried to make everybody their own individual conduit, for reasons of ethics. The risk, though, with invoking those kinds of feelings, is that you have to trust people to take care of themselves—because I can't take care of every single person, I can only make the invitation. I'm there for the person on stage, but I can't be there for everybody at once. And the thing about it is that it's not a self-selected group of people who are already interested in that kind of thing. It's people who came in off the street expecting a magic show. So it’s asking a lot. But honestly, that was part of the joy for me—to bring that out and see what it was like.
I thought it was strange that you would call the show Charlatan!. Because that's what it implies, that you don't believe, or that you're a fraud.
And I am a fraud! I'm not doing many of the things that I claim that I'm doing. But what's funny about it is that I found out that to do the material justice, you have to be honest about it. When you're answering somebody's question you have to give them your best answer as a human being, with warmth and empathy. You have to be very real with them in that moment. And in that moment you are doing it. In that moment you're not a charlatan.
It felt real to me.
It is! It absolutely is. That's the tension, right? I found out later, after doing it, that that was one of the points of the show. Do you know Alejandro Jodorowsky?
He talks about the “sacred deception.” He worked with Pachita, a faith healer in Mexico. He never figured out how she did any of her tricks, but he claims to have seen a lot of positive results from it. From her fake surgeries and the strange tasks she would assign people. She would get possessed by the spirit of El Hermanito. Her voice would get really low and she would talk in the voice of this boy she was channelling and heal people in that way. Jodorowsky developed his own technique from that called psychomagic, a technique for healing people's problems and dealing with their psychological issues by tasking them in strange ways. This allows them to communicate with their unconscious and express their innermost hidden desires in ways that would be cathartic and healing for them.
So he talks about this idea and about using deception to create an altered state that made people open to change—a version of what he felt this faith healer was doing. The point of it was that you tell a lie and the lie opens up a space for something to happen: this lie that makes available a greater truth.
One way to look at it is: doing readings is a way to hang out with a group of people and talk about their lives. It's a shortcut, no small talk. The very first thing we get to is their problem! The closer it gets to looking like therapy ,the more I become aware that I'm not a therapist. That said, the idea of real versus fake was right at the heart of the show from the very start. It was built right in. In fact, one of the reasons it’s called 'Charlatan!' is to put that idea in people's heads: the idea that what you're about to see is fake. So, when they walk in and it (hopefully) doesn't feel fake, there’s dissonance.
I thought maybe I don't know what the word charlatan actually means then.
Yeah! Exactly! A lot of the believers came more than once because they kept hoping I would get to their question. Because they thought I had some kind of insight in some way that mattered. I think they felt there was something more to it. Because that perception that I'm somehow reading their mind or picking up on something intuitively in some way gives it a certain credibility, a certain authority. A lot of people, me included, want that authority in order to believe the advice. This voice in your head isn't authoritative enough. Or if you talked to a friend it wouldn't be a big enough authority. But as soon as that authoritative figure comes in our brain accepts it. My layperson’s theory of it is when we're kids we have to accept our parents authority to live because that's a survival thing. And we never fully let go of that.
I have other questions that are not specifically about what you do, or about your shows, but are more poetic and associative. Things you can respond to as you understand them. I don't even know if these questions have answers.
Have you ever found a teardrop in the centre of a cabbage?
[a long pause] A qualified yes. That makes me think of one of my exes, probably the most important ex that I had. I was together with her for five or six years. For about a year we were both raw food vegans. I got this image of peeling a cabbage down to its core and making little cabbage wraps. Slowly stripping them away. The way that relationship ends, I sort of map that onto this cabbage peeling down until its gone. That's what that made me think of.
This question reminds me of something. There was a guy who was writing about the art of readings and he has a theory that readings are better seen as a form of poetry. He points out that the Oracle of Delphi spoke in verse. So you'd go and ask your question and the Oracle would give you poetry back. The poetry doesn't answer your question, but on the way home it tumbles through your head and you think, “what does that mean? What does that mean?” And eventually you connect the imagery to your life and begin to figure out what it means and you answer the question yourself.
One of my goals, which I don't think I accomplished with the show Charlatan! was to do some of that, to have some of the readings to be more poetic. To have the courage to let people sit with images and not have to turn that into a “hit” for the whole audience to clap at. But I never quite got there. I didn't have the courage, I think. I always try to turn things into magic tricks. I think that's a failure. An artistic failure.
Because you're worried that if you get too abstract people will think you're not able to do it?
Yes. 'He's nothing. He doesn't have anything.' And I was worried about people thinking I was wrong or didn't know. Or was just cheating. Because if you leave somebody with a poetic image and they leave the theatre and go, 'actually, that applies to my life. Oh my god, that's amazing, I can use that, that changes things,' the audience doesn't get to see that! And the showman in me wants the audience to see it.
There were things that happened after the show that I would have liked to have happen during the show. One time there was a kid who asked, “will I get married?” He was about 10 years old. And I kept seeing this bus, and I tried to interpret this bus in different ways. I was semi-successful. It wasn't amazing. All I knew was that I saw a bus. And we talked about, you know, do you have anybody in your life right now? And he was like, “yeah,” and it was cute. We talked about her for a little bit and what that might mean. And I just tried to give my simplest 10-year-old advice. No big deal. But later on his mom messaged me. Her son wanted me to know that he just remembered that he met the girl we were talking about on the bus.
You're paddling down a river in a small boat and your oar gets very hot. You throw it in the river but it bounces back into your hands. Every time you try to throw it back it jumps back into your arms burning your hands. So, there's this loop. What kind of interruption would you introduce into the loop, and what kind of failure would you introduce?
My first thought is that it feels like the kind of anxiety dream that I might have. Where I try to throw away something but it just keeps coming back. There would eventually have to be a kind of surrender to the heat. Just hold it. Bring it closer. Just let the heat burn. And see if that pushes through to something else. See if that changes it. Sometimes I feel like the pushing away dynamic doesn't quite work—it's the holding pattern. If you don't have the strength to throw that paddle far enough away to where it never comes back then maybe go the other way. Use that resistance to swing the other direction.
That's a good idea because my thought would have been to introduce something new, but by stopping your own action you're creating another pathway too. Because you're the one causing the thing that's causing the anxiety.
It doesn't always work super effectively, but sometimes “giving up” can be a temporary effective anxiety relief. Surrender is a useful tool for a lot of negative emotions. Even something like anger. Obviously violence you don't want to have, but sometimes it's better to let something express itself and flow and burn out. That's what that made me think of.
You paint a picture of grapes. Your friends try to eat the grapes off the painting. Is the painting a failure?
Oh, wow. Well, that really relates a lot to the show. I get two things from that. If I didn't achieve my goal with something then it's a failure. That's how I feel about my own work generally. But there's something so beautiful about the idea of doing a painting and people trying to eat the grapes that it can't be seen as a failure from a certain perspective. The idea of failure in art is maybe more subjective than I'd like to think. I like to think that there's a more objective standard to things. To say this is better than that, or this is better for this reason. But there are cases where that's not really the right way to think about it, or the best way to think about it. Something that comes to mind is outsider art, where the intent is less well known. How do we judge success since the intent might not be readable? Your question makes me think about what is success and what is failure in some of these more outlier cases of art, the less commercial cases.
Do you feel the tension of failure in your show? I feel like I'm watching it and I'm thinking, 'I hope you don't fail.' Because it's all illusion and I'm the kind of person, I want it to work. And then it does work and I think there must be other shows where there's failure.
Certainly there are.
But I just haven't been to one.
Right, yeah. You try to minimize it. In my case you can try to spin a failure into something else. I do a lot of improvised theatre as well, and in improv there's this idea of how you embrace failure. There's no such thing as a mistake. You can take a mistake and that mistake can become the best thing that ever happened.
How do you count backwards from infinity?
That's a real brain breaker. What that makes my brain do, is try to picture infinity so that I can start there. You could count backwards to infinity. But from infinity is a different story. I'm going to say that I see a swirling galaxy that diffuses into a cloud the closer I get.
That's what I imagined as you were waving your hands around. Okay. You blow a bubble. The bubble holds your breath. It's floating along and there's all the breaths of everyone else around your breath. If the bubble bursts into the rest of the breaths, is that romantic? Or if the bubble never bursts and stays separate is that more romantic?
I think it's more romantic if it stays in the bubble. Because I think that romance contains tension and anticipation and even separation. Diffusion and release and joining doesn't feel like romance to me. It feels like something else. It could be love. But not romance.
Right, because romance flattens out into love?
Maybe. What's the romantic moment in the story? Is it when their eyes first meet across a crowded room? Or is it when the narrator goes 'And they live happily ever after.' I think the first one's more romantic. The falling in love phase is the more romantic part. Romance is kind of a stretchy word, though. Romance means a few different things...
What would you ask you?
That question comes in two forms, there's what would I ask me if I wasn't me? Versus what would I ask me knowing what I know about me? There's two versions of that.
Knowing what you know about you.
I might ask 'Talk to me about the ideas of connection and distance both in your work and in your personal life. And how those contrast or intersect.' Something like that.
Connection and distance, with people?
With people. I think it goes back to something we were talking about earlier, about being in your basement by yourself. I think the work that I've done has more and more movement towards connection with other people because I think that's what I'm trying to teach myself. To get over the distance between me and other people. On some level, that's the project. I think you can chart that to a degree in what the shows look like and the type of shows that I'll do. It was one of the reasons I started to do clown work and improv. Just to start performing on stage with other people. The shows that I've done have become more personal and more about connection. The reason that that's the question for me is: What does that even mean? Why? What does it mean to connect or have distance?
Going back to Jodorowsky's Psychomagic, I think a lot of that stuff has some utility. I think it's useful. The most useful thing that I ever did for my depression was see a guy who was basically like a Shaman. Doing sweat lodges and such with him had more of an impact on me in terms of my recovery than the psychiatrists or psychologists did. (Medication had some effect. I was on that for a while and it was very positive. I'm glad I took it. It was very useful. It wasn't necessarily curative, but it helped get me to the point where I could think that way. It was a part of the cure. A part of that process.)
But what I was getting to—it wasn't just that. There were other things that the shaman did that were very strong for me, that were useful, that were like magic. I had a couple sessions with him where I would lie on the table and he would do this leg measuring thing, where is your alignment, which leg is feeling longer than it is? In the end it's a pretty dubious thing, but at the same time it's just enough of a hook of a placebo, one of those “sacred deceptions,” maybe.
Uneven legs signal some kind of emotional imbalance?
No, it's more like so that at the end of the session you see a change. At the end of the session he measures again and—oh it's much more even now. It's almost like your spine has been aligned in some way. Analytically I don't believe in it, but I believe in it as a useful component in the work. At the end of the sessions, I felt amazing. Amazing. With no talking, with no analyzing my life. He was there, and he had a rattle, and he would pray and burn sage and shake the rattle. And he told me my soul was disconnected, that he calls your soul back from the universe. He brings back parts of your soul that have left. That was his lens for what was happening. Do I agree with the theory? No, I don't. But did I feel amazing after that? Better than anything else that I had done (except for the sweat lodges which are so physically overwhelming you can't deny). I felt amazing.
Is the humming in Charlatan! connected to that?
A little bit. It was something I didn't want to lay on too thick. But it's part of that.
Because it did create a vibration or a kind of reset to the energy in the room.
It just does. I almost wanted to push that harder during the show. In the end I left it as a little light moment of punctuation. It is pretty powerful.
I could tell you're making careful judgments when you're picking who in the audience is going to work with what you're doing. That openness that you're trying to achieve.
Yeah, totally. That's hard. And that's an intuitive process. It's also difficult. You're looking, who's giving me the feeling that it's going to work? Where am I getting this feeling? Because I don't know consciously what I'm looking for. I couldn't write it down so you could go do it. “Oh, look for these things,” I couldn't do that.
Okay. This one is about thought. It's summer, and you're feeling intelligent. There's an intelligent breeze blowing through your mind. You have a thought that you've never thought before. You have a thought that nobody has ever thought before. It's unexpected to you. What is the thought, and do unthought thoughts already exist?
I've had thoughts that I thought were good or clever or creative or that solved problems. I think I'm always surprised. I think there's something about the surprise and delight of receiving the gift of a good thought that I really enjoy and I want more of. That's one of the reasons in my life I like to learn new things a lot. When I’m in the learning phase I get more of that drug of feeling of insight, of feeling a new thought. The longer I've been doing something the less I get that hit of inspiration. Inspiration is what I'm talking about. Feeling inspiration. Inspiration and learning are not the same thing. For me they're similar. They feel similar. What I want is the feeling of inspiration. But the feeling of new thoughts when I'm learning something new is connected also on some level. I never thought about that before.
Sometimes they take time. It seems like there's an unpredictable quality to creative thoughts versus analytical or planning thoughts and that's the interesting thing. Your analytical side can create the structure, but then you have this other, mysterious, creative thought zone that I find interesting that happens during a show.
A lot of the creative thought happens during. The analytical side can create a structure that it thinks will produce these kind of results that I'm talking about and the creativity side is more in real time. I think sometimes other people often have better ideas about what the show is about. The ideas that they projected onto me after having watched the show were better than what I had come up with. Some people when talking about the show talked about what they perceived as my kindness and sensitivity. Another person who also enjoyed the show talked about how he felt it had a very dark subtext.
I have a question about angels. Is there some purpose for angels? Is there something that angels do? From your observations at the séances that you've done. Is there something that they do or people think that they do?
I think positivity is inherent in the idea of an angel. (The idea of an angel also suggests its opposite, but that doesn't negate the idea.) Anytime we have a concept of an angel, that's opening up a space for something that is positive and out of our control, that lives just out of reach. It's like a psychological trick in a way. Rather than being something that we have to push, it's something that we have to remember or allow into our consciousness. You make space for that idea as oppose to force it. If there's this possibility that you have an angel watching over you in some way you might practice inviting it in. You let go of control. You have this concept of this entity that is powerful and beyond me and positive and loves me. The idea of a guardian angel is a powerful one, and there's a reason why that idea has stuck around and has been used by lots of different cultures.
I think of them as someone that you knew when they were alive.
I think many cultures think of it that way. There are lots of different ways to think about it. In terms of the show, I never use the word “angel,” but I do think that there is something in that, and the idea of someone that you knew when they were alive who might still be there watching or helping is a bit different. Because that's a personality. A version of them lived inside of you and when they die that version of them is still there.
I want to ask you a fun question. You're touching an object and you're wearing gloves so there's no consequence of it actually touching you but you can feel it as though you're not wearing gloves. What object would you touch? Is there some object that you've wanted to touch but without some barrier you felt you couldn't?
Right away I think of all sorts of physical, internal bodily kinds of things.
So do I.
When it's my own body, it would be interesting to wrap my hand around my heart and feel my beating heart. Or any kind of organ. Like our stomach, the inside of it. What would that feel like? But then I thought to myself what if it was another animal, what would it feel like to hold an animal's live eyeball? What's interesting is that there's a second block that comes in. Which is a moral dimension. You can't just touch other people and their things. Of the things that I would feel morally okay with touching, it would probably be internal, body things. What does a brain feel like? Things like that. Also, I think there would have to be a condition that it wouldn't cause any pain to have that thing be touched. The other thing that I thought, was that there are certain types of animals that are dangerous.
It would be interesting to be able to stick your hand into the mouth of a lion and feel its teeth.
There's a part of me that thinks, if it couldn't hurt me, that it would be so intriguing to just lay down in a pit of snakes and have them crawl all over me. If you had invulnerability, then there is something to putting your hand inside the shark’s mouth and having it bite down, but its bite doesn’t hurt you. There's something about the feeling of invulnerability that's intriguing. This magic glove that keeps you safe, well let's apply that to the whole body and mind. Let's do all these perverse and dangerous things that seem horrifying. There's something cathartic about that. There's something relaxing about the idea.
If you were blind, how would you describe a swan dying of pleasure, with an image?
I'll just ask you one more. Can I cry your tears?
I think I'm going to say yes. Another interesting question would be: Can you cry your own tears? If I lived in the woods by myself, and never saw any other people or knew what was going on in the world, and I lived a solitary, hermit life, would I cry at all? I think if I were to cry it would be in relation to other people. With other things, at least. Or to memories.