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Center Stage

Jeans, a work shirt and a sense of wonder


When you ask Nate Staniforth what inspired his stripped-down brand of magic — doing the impossible right under our noses — he says it was his first Bob Dylan concert.

“Nate Staniforth Real Magic Tour.” Temple Theater, Des Moines Performing Arts. Wednesday, March 23 and March 30, 7:30 p.m.

“Nate Staniforth Real Magic Tour.” Temple Theater, Des Moines Performing Arts. Wednesday, March 23 and March 30, 7:30 p.m.

“It set off an electrical transmission between us,” claims Staniforth. “Dylan laid down a challenge, showing how little you need, just the music and the spirit.”

Continues the Iowa magician, “I went home and threw out my tuxedo.”

Even as a child in Ames, Staniforth was “obsessed” with magic, and this allowed him lots of practice. “I was the only act in town,” he says. Likewise, at the University of Iowa, his first major was theater, which seemed useful for a performer.  He even put on bar shows, Saturday nights.

Prep Iowa

“All of it had something to teach,” he says. “If you can handle drunken frat boys, you can handle anything.”

Yet at the same time, Staniforth was developing a different vision. He began to study history, realizing that magic has “ancient roots.” He kept on exploring those roots, even in faraway places, after he married a local girl. He has two children now in Iowa City, but not long ago he needed to “immerse himself” in the magic of India.

“I tracked down a tribe of street performers,” he said. “They had tricks they’d been passing from generation to generation for hundreds of years.”

Those tricks included one or two an American might see in Vegas but without Vegas glitz. Old traveling shows had to work in the middle of the market, pulling marvels out of thin air.  They won their audience with rude materials, something like Dylan did, when Staniforth at last caught up with him.

Thus inspired, about five years ago he worked up material he could perform in jeans and a work shirt — with the sleeves rolled way up. He works without special effects, on a near-naked stage. Also, whether in Mumbai, London or Des Moines, he spends time on the streets, amazing folks with ordinary objects that defy the laws of physics, right there on the sidewalk.

Some of the results can be found online, thanks to his work with “Breaking Magic” on the Discovery Channel. Staniforth has a web series too, where one clip has gotten nearly 850,000 views. At Temple Theater, he screened three short videos, providing moments of quiet after his more jaw-dropping feats.

Quiet, in fact, is one of this artist’s gifts. Where a lesser magician would use a fog machine, this one simply allows a pause. It heightens the thrill — though at a Virginia show, once, a man broke the silence by jumping up and shouting that Staniforth was “the Devil!”

The memory makes him laugh, of course, but he knows enough to take a response like that as kind of compliment. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says, “taking people back to pure amazement.”

Overheard in the lobby: March 25, “Children of a Lesser God” opens at Tallgrass. A story about a deaf woman, it will be presented with ASL interpreters. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See

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