Bringing magic back to Prague after the fall of communism

December 24, 2017

When you think of the horrible things that communism has done to the world in the past century, your mind may recall the persecution of countless religions and races, horrible and oppressive dictatorships, the Iron Curtain, mass genocide, and the starving of over three million people.

There were other, more behind-the-scenes effects that rippled throughout nations controlled by communist regimes, though. Closed borders and persecution led to stifled culture, education, and yes, even magic.

The Czech Republic was once one such place—a country whose borders were closed following the infamous coup d’état in 1948 when the communist regime took control of the government. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia officially fell thanks to the Velvet Revolution.

It’s been nearly three decades since the people of the former Czechoslovakia chose to be ruled by a parliamentary republic rather than a one-party communist state, but the country still feels the negative side effects of the regime to this day, especially with magic.

The situation is a grim one, sure, but it’s on the road to recovery. There are some magicians native to the Czech Republic that are making strides. They work tirelessly to both bring the public’s attention to the world of magic and simultaneously grow and improve the industry in an attempt to make up for a generation of stunted growth.

One of those zealous individuals, and perhaps the man responsible for the most progress made in the past decade, is award-winning magician Ondřej Pšenička. He’s a proud native of Prague, and he wants to bring magic back to his home.

You may remember Ondřej from his appearance earlier this year on Penn & Teller Fool Us, an American television show where aspiring magicians perform a trick, and then Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller attempt figure out how the trick was performed. If Penn and Teller are fooled, the magician wins. In his introduction, Ondřej explained his dream—to bring magic back to Prague, a once very magical city.

“First off, there were no [magic] lectures from other countries coming into the Czech Republic. It was basically Czech magicians teaching other Czech magicians,” Ondřej told GeniiOnline. “They were not able to even get in touch with anyone abroad.”

As with any entertainment culture, growth comes through collaboration. One group will learn tips, tricks, and methods that work well for another group and mesh those ideals in with what they already know. That process needs to happen in order for progress to occur, and the Czech Republic didn’t have access to that simple idea for a long, long time.

Without the world of magic growing, the industry had a difficult time becoming as mainstream as it is other parts of the world. With the communist regime’s closed borders, magicians couldn’t know how magic was progressing in other parts of the world without fleeing their country, so tricks, illusions, and performances were the same after the fall of communism as they were when it all started in 1948.

There was nothing new, nothing exciting, and no reason for Czech magicians to push their own limits and to learn how to perform better than their peers. That’s why Prague is effectively behind in the magic industry by 20 to 30 years. Everything stopped.

For the present generation of magicians, that’s not all that hurts their chances at growth. Under the communist regime, the only foreign texts allowed for studies and education were Russian texts. In fact, children were forced to learn the Russian language. The children that grew up with only Russian texts and speaking only the Russian language are today’s adult magicians, and that hamstrings their chances at communicating with magicians on the outside.

  …tricks, illusions, and performances were the same after the fall of communism as they were when it all started in 1948.   

“That’s also what creates a gap between now and communism,” Ondřej said. “People don’t know English, so it’s hard for them to acquire any knowledge from English texts. Only after communism would people start learning english, and it’s generally more difficult to learn it when you’re older than when you’re a young kid. It took a while before there were young magicians who were actually able to get any new knowledge from English texts.”

Because of that learning gap, there are only a handful of notable Czech magicians that the public fully knows.

“We have basically two publicly known magicians. One built his career on an award that he won in Japan in 1990 I believe, and he hasn’t really improved since, because he never really needed to. He’s very good in marketing and business, so he’s always had a lot of work, and there was no competition. Now, we also have this other gentleman, who is my good friend, and he is mostly a standup comedian. He doesn’t show magic in any cool way, it’s just a part of his act. It’s primarily about comedy, and less about magic.”

In order to make up for the harm that communism caused the Czech magic community and its effects in the years that followed, Ondřej has a two part plan. Firstly, by becoming more well known himself throughout his career as a magician in the United States, he will bring more recognition to the Czech magic community. Secondly, and more directly, he will challenge aspiring Czech magicians to venture out of their comfort zones—to learn things they would have never been exposed to otherwise.

He organizes lectures and talks with magicians around the world to speak to the young, aspiring magicians in some of his magic clubs back home.

“Mostly through my foreign trips, magic conventions, and my studies in Los Angeles, I made a lot of friends that are magicians. I’m trying to bring these lecturers to visit Prague, because a lot of magicians have not even been to Prague, and it’s a beautiful city. For many, I might be the only Czech magician they know. So now, when magicians are planning their tours, they might think, ‘Oh, there’s this guy in Prague, maybe I could lecture in the Czech Republic.” They get in touch with me, and I’m more than happy to organize their lecture, because that is certainly helping Czech magicians to get better.”

The club that Ondřej likes to help the most is the KIM-club Praha, a prestigious Prague-based club for young magicians. Most magic clubs in Prague like to gather as a social event, to swap stories and tricks over some drinks and occasionally visit a conference together. KIM, however, takes the situation more seriously. The goal of nearly every gathering is to improve as a whole and to help one another with magical theory, and that’s what Prague needs the most.

As for his career here in the States, things are going exceptionally well. He performs mostly private shows, but he’s just as comfortable performing for the general public, which he often does at the world famous Magic Castle in Los Angeles, California. His rather successful appearance on Fool Us didn’t exactly hurt his recognition, either.

More recently, Ondřej launched an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund the production of his signature butterfly playing cards, just like the ones he used on the Penn & Teller show. His fans have donated nearly $60,000—over four times as much as he hoped to raise. The cards have special markings to help the magician in identifying chosen cards without actually looking at them, opening up an entirely new realm of possibilities for cardistry.

Ondřej hasn’t always been a booming magician with huge dreams of restoring magic to a nation, though. He had humble beginnings.

He was born in 1985, four years before the fall of communism, and as such, he bore witness to a country in the middle of a great repair. He remembers when the first McDonald’s was allowed to be built in the city, and he remembers when Disney movies made their way across the borders for the children of Prague to enjoy.

Ondřej was still very young when he first discovered his passion for magic. His mother enrolled him in a magic club as a child, and from there, he practiced and developed his skills all the way until he met his mentors, Eve’n Alan, at the age of 12.

Eve’n Alan is the name used to represent the partnership between Eva and the late Alan Vejr, the couple that took Ondřej under their wing to teach him all about magical theory and different types of acts, tools that he would eventually put into practice to develop his own act.

It was their dream, originally, to work towards a brighter magical future in Prague. When Alan died in 2002, Ondřej was only 16, and that was when he decided to venture out with the same noble dream in mind.

After high school, Ondřej spent the better part of a decade studying acting in both Prague and Los Angeles at the Lee Strasburg Theater & Film Institute and then magic at the Academy of Magical Arts, also in Los Angeles—all in the name of improving his stage and show skills. He knew that this was the only way to craft a truly extraordinary performance, and extraordinary was exactly what he needed if he ever hoped to gain enough recognition to make a difference in Prague.

All of those studies paid off when, nearly eight years later, Ondřej decided it was time to put his plan into motion.

After a brief three week course in Stockholm to brush up on his magic theory, Ondřej put on his first show. It was an hour and 20 minute cardistry set in Stockholm, and after each performance, his audience grew larger and larger until, eventually, he had achieved a sizable following. While putting on his show, he perfected his new trick—using headphones to direct a random spectator to perform a trick flawlessly, thanks to his butterfly cards and set he developed himself.

It was then that Ondřej showed off his new trick on “Fool Us,” which would become the largest boost to his recognition that he had received so far, and the perfect avenue to declare his dream to the world’s magic community.

It may have taken him eight years of studies and preparation, but Ondřej was finally right back where he belonged—performing, and bringing magic back to Prague.

“If you want to be a great magician, don’t obsess over just the magic. You should go out and watch movies, listen to music, and watch theater, because that will make you who you are. It’s not magic that’s actually interesting—it’s you that matters the most.”