Derek Hughes to open ‘Bag of Tricks’ on Liberty Magic show

When Derek Hughes was 10, he traded a chemistry set for a magic set with a friend.

His first trick was to place a penny in the center of someone’s open palm and cover it with a matchbook.

“Then, through the magic of alchemy, it turns into a penny,” he says. An only child, his audience was largely his parents and their friends.

“Having an amazed adult – it’s a feeling of power,” says Hughes. When he was 12, he informed his parents that he intended to be a magician when he grew up.

True to his word, Hughes performs his show “Bag of Tricks” at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Liberty Magic Wednesday through Sunday through February 16.

“I had business cards printed and in rural Minnesota (where he grew up and now resides) I cold called local nursing homes. I did the nursing home circuit,” says Hughes.

By age 16, he had started a 9-year-old gig at local TGIF restaurants, eventually booking corporate events and parties.

Performing in a smaller venue—Liberty Magic has fewer than 70 seats in four rows—allows audiences to do more than just watch. “It allows for what I like to call a testimonial opportunity,” says Hughes. “You didn’t just see it, you witnessed it. The public can then go and testify.

Building a Magical Career

Much of Hughes’ allowance and odd-job money went into buying tricks at the Eagle Magic store in Minneapolis.

He paid visiting magicians for a few hours of their time, finding mentors, including the late Eugene Burger, along the way.

“I learned performance theory, the importance of storytelling,” he says.

Despite regular TV performances, Hughes believes magic should be performed live. “I use public participation a lot,” he adds. “I am a general practitioner. I don’t specialize in coins, cards, mentalism, strings. I have organized an experience that incorporates all of the above.

Take the public on a journey

In an “America’s Got Talent” performance in 2015, he stunned the judges by correctly guessing the cities, names and words they silently think of. Hughes finished the show in the top 10 finalists.

Earlier this year on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, he made actress Olivia Wilde’s engagement ring disappear, only to reappear in a locked box hanging above her head.

For a trick, he borrows a beer bottle from an audience member.

“I make it disappear in the most impossible way. It’s the thing where people come up to me later and say, ‘Where’s the bottle?’ laughs Hughes.

He gets a similar reaction with the reappearing engagement ring. “People say, ‘The ring in the box – how? “”, he says.

These reactions tell him that a piece of magic is a guardian.

Bringing Magic to Pittsburgh

Since opening in February, Liberty Magic has filled the room with artists in residence for six weeks, six shows a week.

“I think a lot of times people think of magicians as artists rather than performers,” says Scott Shiller, producer of Liberty Magic and the Trust’s vice president of art planning.

“We just had The Illusionists at Heinz Hall. We had David Copperfield and Penn & Teller. I think Pittsburgh audiences have gotten used to seeing cars disappear from stages and elephants disappear from stages,” Shiller says.

Liberty Magic offers a close-up view of the performers as they ply their magical craft, Shiller says, “just inches from the audience.”

“You get away from the mechanics and get sucked into the storytelling,” he says. “You can go on a journey that reminds you of what it was like to be a kid and not have all the answers.”

“I think (Hughes) is a great example of that. He’s done TV and movies, Marvel movies. He’s traveled the world, but finds a way to tap into his personal story and what he wants to share with the public,” he says.

Hughes also brings comedy to his magic, another tool for connecting, disarming and winning over an audience, Shiller says.

He compares Hughes to the Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka.

“It’s the idea that he’s there, from another world. He’s got all this great magic up his sleeve and he’s going to give us a glimpse of what’s behind the curtain,” says Shiller.

Brian L. Hartfield