On episode 158, Matt Johnson joins Jonah to discuss escapology, adding human elements to your magic, and recreating your brand. You may know Matt for his water tank escape on Penn & Teller: Fool Us or for his semi-place finish on Britain’s Got Talent.
Matt remembers a wind-up box at his grandmother’s house sparking his initial love for magic. While not a magic trick, it still gave him this magical feeling and caused him to want to know how a little box could play music. At the age of twelve, he started learning tricks and, after performing for Matt’s siblings’ birthday, a magician took Matt under his wing. Soon, he was attending his local shop every weekend right through his teen years.
The magic shop was his grounding and it allowed him to immerse himself in everything from sleight-of-hand, to mentalism, to unicycling. At the age of eighteen, he was encouraged to follow what he loved and he began to perform for every venue – from bowling alleys to corporate shows.
In terms of his interest in escapes, he first attempted them when he was sixteen. His first and last time in a straitjacket involved him dangling from a crane and simply escaping the jacket. At the age of eighteen, his interest in his escapes stopped and it wouldn’t be until three years ago that he took them back up.
For his entire twenty year long career, Matt has been a full performing magician and a jack of all trades in the magic he performed. However, three years ago he hit a brick wall. His performances were becoming robotic and his passion for magic was dwindling. He knew he needed to change or he was going to stop altogether.
Around this time, he had been visiting his local swimming pool to learn how to hold his breath. Matt was not training for an escape or for a magic related reason; he was learning how to hold his breath to understand the experience his brother goes through. Born with a rare genetic disease called Tuberous Sclerosis, Matt’s brother experiences seizures which cause him to be unable to breathe or speak, trapping him alone in his mind as he waits for the seizure to stop. As his older brother, Matt wanted to know what it felt like to be alone in your head, unable to breathe, so he took to the swimming pool to learn.
Ultimately, Matt knew that to truly understand, he needed to be locked in a box so that even if he wanted to come out, he would still need to escape. So he built the water tank and began to rehearse. The four minutes he could do in the pool, quickly became twenty seconds in the tank. With the knowledge that you’re locked inside comes a whole new psychological game. That moment for Matt was when he truly began the struggle his brother was going through.
The Human Element
At the end of the day, Matt doesn’t approach the water tank escape from a performance perspective. He doesn’t train for it by learning free diving or breath holding techniques; the only training Matt had was the training he did through his sheer persistence at his local pool. That’s why when you watch Matt perform and he says that “after a minute thirty underwater, he’s in trouble,” he sincerely means that he’ll be in trouble.
This, in Matt’s opinion, is what allows him to truly connect with his audience. And it’s that connection he’s looking for in his escapes, as people should be doing in all of their performances. When the audience is able to see that what he’s enduring is real and that there is a struggle going on, they actually care about him. They remember how they felt for him while he’s struggling to escape.
Matt explains that magic is not about tricks, it’s about the audience remembering the connection you made with them. Because the audience can see Matt struggling, they want him to succeed. So, when he stands up, free from the tank, the audience is compelled to stand with him.
Don’t Try This at Home
For those who wish to take up escapes, Matt’s first piece of advice is: Don’t try this at home.
Any escape is dangerous. If you’re going to attempt anything like an escape, you need have a spotter nearby with a key for the locks. If you’re practicing holding your breath, alert the lifeguards and let them know what you’re doing. You may pass out long before you reach your actual limit. With anything that has an element of danger, injury or death is a real option.
You need to treat escapes with the utmost respect and professionalism if attempting them.
Britain’s Got Talent
It took five years for Matt to get on Britain’s Got Talent. Each year he would send in audition video after audition video because he wanted to get on. Eventually, in 2017, he sent in a rudimentary version of his water tank escape. During his audition, however, his water tank shattered at the two minute mark, flooding the stage. To remind him to not stop chasing his dreams, he got a tattoo on his hand that says: Never Give Up.
For 2018, he applied again. Only for no one to reply. However, determined to get on the show, he continued to contact them until they finally got back to him. This was the audition everyone saw, and this was he water tank escape that changed his life. This was an important lesson for him as it reminded him to not give up.
Penn & Teller
His appearance on Penn & Teller came six weeks after his water tank exploded on BGT. Depressed, afraid to go underwater, and without a water tank, Matt wanted to give up. Instead, he bought a new water tank and sent it right to the Rio Theatre. Backstage on the show, Matt tried out the water tank only to find it was crushing his lungs and that he now felt claustrophobic. His assistant asked him what he wanted to do with Matt deciding that he would push through it.
For those wanting to get on Penn & Teller, Matt reminds you that Fool Us is meant to exhibit talented magicians; it’s about taking the opportunity to showcase who you are and using the opportunity they give you. If you put on a good performance, people will want to come out to see you.
What do you like about 2019 magic? What do you hate?
The ability to reach the magic community is both amazing and disappointing. Nowadays, it’s so easy for anyone ot be a creator and release their gems to the world. When Matt was younger, he didn’t have that opportunity to instantly connect with new magic from around the world.
However, it’s primarily about selling magic to magicians now. Releases need to be flashy so that people will buy them–often resulting in distributors to pass over thoroughly polished material.
Take Home Point
Jonah likes the idea of being persistnet and not giving up, alongside knowing the why behind what you’re doing.
Matt reminds the audience to Never Give Up.