Shop Class

A chat with the carpenter behind the top-secret magic on the occasion of Believe’s third anniversary

Like an FBI agent or a member of the Secret Service, there’s a lot about his job that Jeff Wilson can’t talk about. But Wilson doesn’t work for the government. He’s head of carpentry for Cirque du Soleil’s Criss Angel Believe, which celebrates three years on Halloween. Because of the secrecy associated with magic shows, the quest to discover what a head of carpentry actually does was tricky, although we do know he has about 20 years of experience and leads a team of 11. Despite a lack of backstage pass (or even many specific details), the picture of a whip-smart yet unassuming crew member slowly emerges during a pre-show interview. We sit in the last row of the empty theater, high enough to look down upon Wilson’s realm—what he calls the “show deck” and what we would simply call a “stage.” Here’s what the 40-year-old can say:

There’s a romantic notion of a carpenter building things in a workshop. How much of that is true to your life?

Beyond carpentry in the traditional sense, we also we do a lot of metal working, a lot of fabricating, a lot of welding. All of that falls under the carpentry department. We also deal with a lot of other material, such as plastics and foams and that sort of thing. There are very few materials that we as carpenters don’t touch.

How did you come to do carpentry for a show?

I actually went to college and got my degree in acting and then realized pretty early on that being an actor meant you’re unemployed every six weeks. While I loved acting, I realized it was going to be a much harder life in terms of you’re always having to look for the next job. And I have an aptitude for the technical theater aspect of things, and these guys, they work pretty steadily. So I ended up shifting gears in grad school and went toward technical theater and have been a carpenter ever since.

Are there any MacGyver-type stories where you solve problems with a paper clip and drop of honey?

I can tell you quite honestly that we probably do that, if not on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. But as far as the specifics, I can’t. I can’t go into a lot of that, unfortunately.

Besides the secrecy, are there any differences between working on a show that involves magic and one that does not?

At the end of the day, I’m still doing the same thing I would do in any other show. In any show that you go see, this side faces the audience, this side doesn’t. I remember taking my mother backstage to one of my previous jobs, and she had never been backstage in a theater before. She couldn’t believe it, she’s like, “It’s all fake!” I actually don’t build a whole actual house onstage. I build the front of it. It’s no different here.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

I like whenever anything new or unexpected happens—whether it’s a new illusion, a new project or, “Hey, we’ve got a problem with this thing. We need to figure out a way to solve this.”

What’s it like to work with Criss?

Criss is great. I actually really enjoy working with him because, as I’ve said before, that whole challenge thing. You got to be on your toes around here because the next new thing is coming.

What is your advice for aspiring theater carpenters?

Go out and learn everything you can about every possible way of building things because we use it all here. I have not come across a problem yet where we didn’t think of every possible solution to fix something.

They say that chefs don’t cook at home. So in your house, does everything work perfectly well or is it all broken?

No! I do this stuff all day, I don’t want to do it when I go home. I’m actually renting right now so I’m not making a whole lot of modifications to somebody else’s house. But eventually when I do have my own house, I have some pretty cool ideas.

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