Magician Shin Lim is the epitome of that beloved story - local kid who makes the bigtime. Lim may be the hottest young magician on the planet, and it's all the result of his initial ambitions being derailed by injury. As he explained during an appearance onPenn & Teller: Fool Us, Lim studied piano performance in college. But after he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, he left piano behind to pursue a career in magic. Lim would go on to fool Penn and Teller, twice. Lim's magic has to be seen to be believed, and even then, it's hard not to think that it's some kind of camera trick. Without a word, synchronized to music, he makes card magic into a kind of visual poetry. It's won him the top magic awards, fame and fortune onAmerica's Got Talent, and now, his own Vegas show. He spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Arun Rath, himself an amateur magician, about his career in magic, and the reason behind his silence during performances: he's actually quite shy.
Lim: My persona was...I just had a hard time talking. So I was really shy as a kid. Like in high school, I kind of had no friends. I don't think anyone really remembers me from Acton-Boxborough. The music was kind of my way of expressing myself. And so when I was doing magic, I was like, oh man, this close-up magic thing, everyone seems to be talking all the time. I felt like I was supposed to be making jokes, but I'm actually really not funny, so I needed to do something else. So I decide to add music. And then while I had the music on, I tried to talk over it, but I'm soft-spoken and I have a hard time speaking loudly, so I decided to just shut up and not talk at all, and then just have the music play. And all of a sudden, it became this character where whatever song is playing, that's the emotion that I'm feeling, and my facial expressions come from me feeling whatever the music is feeling as well. So that's my persona.
Rath: The thing about that style is it means that what you're doing visually has to be pretty amazing and arresting.
Lim: For me, yes, I always wanted it to be as amazing as possible. But for me, the more important part was the flow of it, to have it always constantly change, again and again and again. Because when you're not talking, you don't have that kind of misdirection. That was actually the main struggle for me when it came to creating a close-up act without any talking, that had visual moments, where I couldn't have a break, or didn't really have much time to set up for the next piece. That was a challenge, that's the most challenging part of doing a silent act.
Rath: And when you pick the music, which seems so particular to each of these routines, it almost reminds me of the way we see ice skaters.
Lim: It's exactly like ice skating. Let's just say - and this did happen, actually - let's just say on a TV show, they're like, we don't like that song, can you change it? But the performance is tomorrow. I'd be like, no, that's impossible, I can't. Because my whole act is synchronized to every single beat in the song. So yeah, I'm super particular with the song choices. It's tough, and it did happen, too, on America's Got Talent. They were like, we need to change the song. I was like, no, please don't.
Rath: It seems like you've been riding a crest. Your success has been really wonderful to see on America's Got Talent. As a magician, it's almost more fun to watch you on Penn and Teller, to see you amaze people at that level. Where do you take it from here?
Lim: Right now I'm in Vegas, we have our first couple of shows this year. It's been really, really good. I'm really lucky to have such an opportunity to perform there. That's every magician's dream, right?
Rath: And the magic community there, I know a lot of the people, it's quite wonderful.
Lim: Yes. There are so many magicians there. It's like a magic town, almost. It's crazy to see that the top performers in Vegas are magicians. It's nice to see, it's heartwarming to see that magic is still alive. My goal now is just to change the show and make the show a little bit bigger.