In February 2020, the magician Krystyn Lambert walked behind the scenes of the follies of brookledge – an intimate, invitation-only variety show tucked away behind a mansion in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park, where she was performing that night. Then she spotted Pam Severns, a fellow performer in the variety arts who is renowned for her unorthodox approach to classical puppetry and who works with Jim Henson Co. Lambert, a Magic Castle Junior alumnus, was planning to put in shadow puppets work on his stage. act at the time. Intrigued to learn more about the art of puppetry, she walked over to Severns and said hello. The two became quick friends, and Severns shared resources and puppet advice with Lambert.
The conversation quickly turned to the lack of support and representation for non-male variety performers. “We lament that so many of these variety shows, comedy shows – certainly magic shows – are all dominated by cis, straight, white men,” Lambert said. While there are a multitude of Los Angeles-based artists in these fields who identify as women, “they rarely get the stage time they deserve,” Lambert adds.
A glance at upcoming performances at Magic Castle, for example, doesn’t exactly inspire the certainty that diversity and inclusiveness is a priority for all guests. At the moment, no women of color appear to be performing there, and only one magician booked for a show is a woman, LA-based Kayla Drescher. As one of the city’s most renowned institutions for magic and the variety arts, the Magic Castle has been plagued by a following count a 2020 Times investigation detailing the charges that venue staff, management, academy members and performers have perpetuated abuse, including sexual assault and discrimination based on race or gender. (Chief Executive Joseph Furlow resigned amid the controversy.) The article also cited a 2019 study finding that less than 12% of the organization was made up of women, and members said the vast majority of magicians within the castle academy itself were white.
Tired of watching venues honor increased representation in the lineups, and galvanized by the immense creativity that is gathering around LA, Lambert and Severns have decided to create a new variety show called “No Man’s Land”, debuts at the Yard Theater Wednesday November 10. Lambert describes it as “a more modern take on the more traditional variety arts” which will feature artists such as juggler Tristan Cunningham, ventriloquist Hannah Leskosky, circus artist Dallys Newton and actress Cara Connors – who are all women – identify talents.
The goal of “No Man’s Land”, as Severns puts it, is “to normalize predominantly female programming”. While Severns notes that awareness of the problem is growing, she still doesn’t see much action being taken to truly diversify a series of industries historically dominated by white males. “I always see all-male queues at Magic Castle. … It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t look like things are changing much, ”adds Severns. Members of the comedy community have attempted to bring this problem to light, “but comedy is a bigger industry than juggling or ventriloquism,” says Lambert. “And so, in some of the less populated variety arts, there is a lot more ground to cover.”
Women have been inextricably entangled with the variety arts since humans first discovered the fear that accompanies a knack or pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. But they are rarely celebrated in its history. For generations, most magical women were objectified or confined to secondary roles. At the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, many talented women in magic worked on the vaudeville circuit, some as assistants.
As historian of magic Margaret Steele highlighted, the assistants were skilled magicians who played a vital role in ensuring that the act was possible. “It’s built into the art, the way the wizard and the wizard interact,” Steele told History, adding, “The helplessness of the wizard [is] in fact just a ruse ”, a bet which reinforces the scale of the smoke and the mirrors. The magician Adelaide Herrmann – known as the “Queen of Magic” – captivated audiences around the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s with feats such as shooting from a cannon, and one that involved she is locked in a coffin, draped in a sheet doused with alcohol, then set on fire.
But even now renowned magicians like Herrmann are rarely mentioned in the same breath as, say, Harry Houdini or Penn & Teller. In addition to struggling for recognition, women in the variety arts are constantly faced with disrespect and disbelief that they can command a stage. Once, while preparing her act, Lambert remembers that a room manager immediately assumed that Lambert’s boyfriend was the magician and that she was the assistant – in fact, it was the other way around. “It’s this unwelcoming environment that we try to fight against,” Lambert says.
Severns and Lambert will host Wednesday’s show, and they hope to continue “No Man’s Land” on a monthly basis. Organizers say a performance in December featuring a lineup of drag comedians and other luminaries has been confirmed for now – and has all the makings of a magical evening.
“No Man’s Land: an evening of comedy, magic and variety”
Wednesday November 10
The Yard Theater, 4319 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles
Tickets: $ 15