Before Bobby Torkova debuted his new one-man show A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat, he’d spent most of his career as a professional magician performing a completely silent stage act. Torkova’s devotion to the classics informs the new show, but so does his life as a young magician growing up on Long Island and his early years as a young man growing up with a stutter. As a magic-obsessed kid growing up in New York City, I had seen Torkova’s silent stage act countless times. But until I headed out to Coney Island USA on a Friday night in January to see A Hanky and a T-T-T-Top Hat, I had never heard Torkova speak.
Torkova’s childhood interest in magic and his stuttering are inextricably linked. When he was about seven years old, Torkova’s father and uncle piqued his interest by showing him a few tricks. He had started to stutter just a few years before and as his shyness grew, practicing magic gave young Torkova something to work on when he retreated to his bedroom. At the same time, Torkova had started speech therapy in school. “The next year, my mother had taken me out of it,” Torkova tells GeniiOnline. “I think that was a mistake because I’m stuttering still, but the best part was that my speech therapist gave me a top hat for my magic.”
It’s the very same top hat that headlines Torkova’s new show. In A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat, Torkova abandons his silent act to tell a version of his own life story, falling in love with magic, struggling with his stutter, and hours spent at Al Flosso’s magic shop. Torkova’s tale is charming and gentle, and the show is a clear example of how magic can work to support a story, instead of the other way around. “I wanted the tricks to serve the story first,” Torkova says. “When I started to write the show, I realized the only tricks that served the story were the actual ones I had when I was a child, or the tricks that I always wanted when I was a child but never got.”
Torkova is a dedicated classicist, so it fits to see how he has altered and adapted what would otherwise be dusty tricks from decades ago. “The trick adds to the story and the story adds to the trick,” Torkova says, because the content of the show is all true. When he was 11, Torkova met Al Flosso in his Manhattan shop. “He sold me what I consider to be my first real, professional trick, an Easy Hat Loader, which is my favorite and is featured in my new show.” If anything, the show is proof that it’s possible to create theatrical magic that resonates as true, touching, and relatable instead of gimmicky and contrived.
It’s a hard balance to strike: “In the past, magical storytelling has been tried and sometimes it has worked and sometimes it hasn’t. I mean as far back as the 20s and 30s,” Torkova says. In response to the current movement of more theatrical magic and using magic as a tool to support storytelling, Torkova says the trend is “refreshing and inspiring”.
This isn’t Torkova’s first foray into theatrical magic, either. In Thought Prints, a show he created for the New York Fringe Festival in 2006, Torkova wove a story about a postal worker who suddenly discovered he had developed clairvoyant powers. “While the show itself was light-hearted, I was actually a nervous wreck in doing it. It was the first time I would be speaking on stage for a full hour, and my stuttering being an issue…” The director Torkova was working with on Thought Prints encouraged him to announce that he stuttered at the very beginning of the show, and to instruct the audience not to worry about it. “This would make the audience feel less uncomfortable when I did stutter, and I stuttered quite a bit in the show, but it was still well received.”
Almost a decade later, Torkova started thinking about writing a new show. He was inspired by ventriloquist Jay Johnson’s Broadway show The Two And Only, and decided it was time to move from fiction to fact. “That was the key thing that took me from writing about other magicians’ lives to writing about my own life,” Torkova says. With his improv and theater group, Artistic New Directions, Torkova wrote out one act at a time and workshopped each one on stage. “They give you ten minutes to work out anything or perform, so I would slowly work on each piece, one every few months. It took me a long time.” Every week for three years, Torkova improved his skills in writing for the stage, acting, and public speaking. A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat debuted at Artistic New Directions’ 2017 festival for new works called Go Solo.
A Hanky and A T-T-T-Top Hat has Torkova speaking on stage for 75 minutes, dealing with material that is inherently more personal and intimate than, say, a fictional tale about a mentalist postal worker. The vulnerability presented a new challenge for Torkova. “The more emotionally involved I got, I would tend to stutter more.” One of the ways he prepared for the show was to write his stuttering into the script itself—the title is a nod to that practice. “There’s a lot of shame associated with stuttering growing up. Being bullied by kids, being made fun of, some of my teachers had made fun of my stutter in class. So it was very hard to commit to doing this show that a large part of it was about my stuttering.”
According to Torkova, one of the most difficult exercises stutterers take on in speech therapy is to stutter on purpose. “It’s so incredibly painful to stutter at all that to do it on purpose seems impossible. It was only doing that exercise that I was able to relax more with the show and get through it. Otherwise it would be too challenging for me to do.”
And yet despite the huge challenge, or perhaps because of it, Torkova says the transition from a silent act to a speaking one was unexpectedly rewarding. “I think while many people enjoy my silent act, it doesn’t have the emotional appeal that telling one’s own story does,” he says. “I’m interacting with the audience more, really relating to the audience and not being up on stage alone, performing manipulation to the black void.”
For new and young magicians, including those who stutter, Torkova says building up stage time and performances in front of live audiences is the most important kind of practice. “Kids that are doing magic today, they don’t aspire to become magicians on stage, they just want to be stars online. While having a big presence online is great, it’s the wave of the future and all that, they’re not entertainers, per se.” He takes issue with the lack of audience communication, and young magicians’ inability to perform their magic for real people, for strangers. Considering Torkova has always been inspired by performing magicians, including historical greats like Al Flosso and Karl Germain, it’s no surprise that mastering live performance is both one of his top priorities and one of his highest aspirations. “That’s the only way you’re going to get better, performing for real folks.”
For more information on Bobby Torkova’s work and to find out about upcoming shows, visit torkova.com.