Austin audiences have been swooning over Ray Anderson for decades. They love his sharp humor, his rapid-fire improvisation skills, his handsome smile, but most importantly his breathtaking large-scale magic illusions in the Follies show. We sat down together to talk about his career, magic and more. This is a short excerpt of our conversation.
Laura: How did you first become involved with Esther’s?
Ray: I first became involved with Esther’s around early 1982, because a friend of mine Mario Lorenz was the juggler for Esther’s, and he invited me to come and see him perform. I didn’t know anything about Esther’s, I’d never heard of it. I came down to Sixth St., which back then was a very seedy part of town, and I realized you had to enter through the alleyway, and so I walked around the corner of the alley, basically where we are now, and there were all these pretty well-dressed people standing in line to get into this place.
Laura: What did you think of the show back then?
Ray: I fell in love with it. My type of humor was the same as what they were doing at Esther’s. After the show, Mario was asked if I might be interested in taking his position. I got a routine together and it was okay, but not great. I went back to my dorm and wrote my very first talk routine for Esther’s, where I put a cigarette out on a woman’s dress from the audience. I made fun of people outside the windows for the first time, and it just clicked. I was ready for it.
Laura: You always have this sense of play, like it’s the first time you’re telling a joke. What’s the secret to your sense of spontaneity and fun?
Ray: It’s important to me to look at it like it’s the first time. It’s a way of entertaining people. A lot of that goes back to my comedy club days because that’s what a comedian does a lot of the time, you make it seem like some of it is improvised
The other thing is that Esther’s is ever changing, and that keeps it fresh for me. There’s always something new in the show every week. And every audience is different, therefore every night is different, and that’s why I like live theatre. It keeps you on your toes and keeps it fresh.
Laura: How do you pick the best audience members as your volunteers?
Ray: I pick the people way before I go out. I’m watching the audience at different moments in the show, to see who’s laughing and has an open face and a friendly smile. In the short term I can judge people very quickly on how I think they’ll respond in certain situations, and 95% of the time I’d say I’m pretty accurate on that, it’s just from years of experience.
Laura: You could have an FBI career after this!
Ray: Well, like I say in the short term. I can figure out what somebody might do in the situation they might be in for me for 5-7 minutes, but as far as what they might do when they walk out the door I have no idea! (we laugh)
Laura: What makes Esther’s such a draw after 40 years?
Ray: There’s so many aspects to Esther’s. When you come and see the show, if you don’t like something, there’s something else that comes along in the next 2-3 minutes! (laughs). Say you don’t like the politics but you like the magic, or vice versa, it’s got a little something for everyone.
The other thing about it is the windows, which I’ve always thought is the most unique thing I’ve seen in any theatre. When you’re on the inside looking out and all these people come by, I think it’s highly entertaining. And when you’re on the outside looking in, it’s almost like a giant billboard for us. You look in and see over 200 people laughing and watching something on stage, and it’s a big draw, it’s bringing people into the theater.
And since it’s ever changing, you might want to see our take on things. After the election, people wanted to see what we were doing about Trump and Hillary, so it brought people in.
Laura: Any advice for people that want to make a living as a magician or performer?
Ray: I can only speak from my own experience, but for me there was just never any doubt that this was what I was going to do from the time I was 8 years old (laughs). I was one of those lucky people that found the thing that was their passion. I never had a backup plan. That’s gotta be your attitude. Find places to get better at what you do by performing. You gotta clock those hours on the board.
To see Ray’s latest sword-illusion Tango at Esther’s Follies, get your tickets here.
About the Author:
Laura Mathis is a past Esther’s Follies performer who graced the stage from 2003- 2006 with her Canadian charms and willingness to wear any type of costume to get a laugh. Follow Laura on Twitter @thelauramathis