Seeing is believing, even if it’s sometimes hard to believe what it is we’re seeing. With illusionist Drew Thomas, even a magical show like Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker can stand to have a bit more visual splendor than it has become known for. Having staged amazing and inexplicable feats at Universal Studios‘ Halloween Horror Nights, Sea World and Six Flags, Thomas reached an even broader audience by becoming a finalist on America’s Got Talent. And after adding some magical flair to last year’s production of Atlanta Ballet‘s Nutcracker, he returns this year not only as an illusory advisor, but also to play the role of Drosselmeyer. With his final appearance in this year’s show taking place this Sunday (though the show continues through Dec. 29), Thomas talks to Wrestling with Pop Culture about how this magical collaboration came to be.
You were involved in last year’s production of Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, but you weren’t actually in the show. How did you end up being involved with this show and how did that evolve into you actually being a main character in this year’s show?
I think all of this stems from the fact that many years ago, when I was straight out of high school, John McFall was the artistic director of a ballet company in Columbus, Ohio, where I’m from. He recruited me to work as Herr Drosselmeyer then, and I did so for five years. It was really successful, we explored a lot of different options and had a lot of fun. Many years later, we’ve reunited to do this with the Atlanta Ballet. He knew it was within my repertoire to have the presence of a dancer’s style and carry my own in a ballet, as well as be able to perform illusions.
Were your illusions part of your previous work with him?
They were. We created numerous illusions for that one and none of them have been repeated for the Atlanta Ballet. We’ve moved on to newer, more elaborate things.
One of the most impressive illusions in this year’s show is the one that kind of ties the whole show together. We see the handkerchief at the beginning of the show, then it becomes the common thread throughout the show and returns to end the show. How did that particular illusion becomes such an integral part of this year’s show?
I love the pun. We keep saying that to ourselves when we’re having creative conversations about the silk handkerchief being the common thread. When John brought me in last year to consult on some effects for The Nutcracker. I said, “I have this really cool illusion we could do that would literally break the fourth wall and go out among the audience. It would be this kind of whimsical thing.” I felt that Drosselmeyer’s character, kind of like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, is in this magical world where magic happens around him and sometimes things take a life of their own because of Drosselmeyer’s magic. So I thought it made sense to have Drosselmeyer up in that little workshop, then all of a sudden something becomes possessed with his magical powers and starts to do something theatrical. We did that last year and it was very successful. Then this year when we revisited what to do to be different from what we’d already established, I said I had some ideas of how I wanted to do some additional effects with the handkerchief to make it a more prominent effect throughout the ballet, but then it would be great if we could do something with it at the end as well. Then John said, “I don’t want to put this out there and get my hopes up, but it would be really cool if the handkerchief came back to you at the end.” I thought about it for a second and said, “I can do that.” Sure enough, that’s the bookend to it all. When I got to do that on opening night in front of an audience, oh, my gosh! When it flew back to me through the audience, I could tell we had hit the nail on the head with that visual effect.
I was lucky enough to have seats right in front of the workshop window. So when the handkerchief flew into the audience at the beginning, then back into the workshop at the end, it was flying directly over my head.
Oh, wow. That’s cool.
What were some of the other more interesting or challenging illusions that you did for this year’s production?
One of the biggest ones is the levitation. That is a pretty big thing to do in a ballet production and it required a lot of figuring out as to how we would do that. It isn’t a magic show, it’s a show that has a story. So where could we put something like that where it would convey the right feeling at the time? We even fleshed it out a little bit more with the choreography to where we we’re implying that Drosselmeyer – I mean, he’s the one who orchestrates the entire concept of The Nutcracker and drives the entire story – is very much the puppet master. All the while, he directs Nicolas towards a positive resolution. So the levitation of me going way up in the air – it’s almost 17 feet in the air – and presenting the Nutcracker and the Rat King, I move my hands in a puppeteer gesture bringing them together, then blackout. Then she wakes up for the final battle scene and everything explodes.
Though your illusions will be part of the entire run of the show, you’re only appearing through this weekend.
The show goes until my birthday, Dec. 29. Unfortunately, when we worked out the schedule it turned out that we could only work together until the middle of December. So the 15th will be my last performance this year. I had really hoped to do the entire season, but that’s all we could allow for this year.
Will you be working with the Atlanta Ballet on any future productions?
John continues to have conversations with me about a variety of projects, so I would not be surprised.
Where will you be going after your run is over this weekend?
I actually produce the longest running and most successful magic show in the cruise industry. It lives on the Freedom of the Seas, which is a Royal Caribbean ship. From Atlanta, I have to fly to the Caribbean for an installation. We’re training a new cast that’s taking over. Then I’m off for the holidays and taking my family on vacation.
Do you have any shows to start the New Year?
We are constantly working for the NBA doing halftimes throughout the country. I tour with my show called Materialize and we’re currently ironing out the dates for next year. We do a lot of work at casinos throughout the country and some performing arts venues are picking up some dates. So 2014 has an extensive amount of travel and live public performances coming up.