Working His Magic

Working His Magic

C J May is recycling himself.

For years, he was the recycling coordinator for Yale University. Now, much of what he did as a resource manager for over two decades has been deemed either second-nature to responsible workers or better delegated to other departments. Friday, July 13th was CJ May’s last day in his old job.

But CJ May is still a recycling coordinator. He’s just coordinating “magic jars” and crystal balls instead of bins and pick-up schedules. Last Friday, the lanky, ponytailed magician/manager brought some green-focused hocus pocus to Yale’s Kroon Hall—headquarters of the university’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, itself a model of green building technology.

“Magic and recycling have a couple of things in common,” May announced. “Waste managers have been asked to do magic since the beginning of time.” One big difference, he notes: “Things don’t really disappear. There is no ‘away.’”

CJ uses magic to underscore important points about saving energy and reducing waste. When explaining the benefits of new CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) over old-style incandescent light bulbs, he places a light bulb in a clear plastic bag. He dangles the bag with one hand and makes a fist with his other. As he clenches, the untouched bag follows suit, until the bulb within it explodes.

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In the show’s longest set piece, May tells the tale of a magician who comes to realize that the elements of his own sorcery are polluting the water of the kingdom where he lives. A giant fishbowl is muddied with the sorcerer’s colored sands. As his environmental consciousness expands, the wizard resolves to clean up the damage. May scoops the sand out of the watery muck. Magically, it emerges as bright and dry as it was when it went in. The water, meanwhile, gets cleaner and cleaner until it’s transparent. May sums up the trick by explaining that the water will never be as crystal-clear as it was originally, so it’s best not to mess it up in the first place, but environmental clean-ups can do wonders nonetheless.

May opened his show by explaining the need for it. “Magic can be a very important tool not just for entertaining, but educating.” He wanted to create a show which he could do not just at schools and libraries and festivals but at conventions of resource managers and recycling specialists who (just as he was at Yale) are charged not only with putting recycling programs into effect but also generating enthusiasm for them.

For several years, May has been appearing as Cyril the Sorcerer, preaching the values of recycling and conservation through clever, eye-catching magic tricks. For those shows, he dresses in the accustomed cone-shaped sorcerer’s hat and flowing cloak. You might also have seen May in ancient tribal garb as a member of the Celtic Learning Project, whose members spin old Irish tales at local schools and libraries, and distinguish themselves with their prancing and shouting at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

CJ May has cleaned up his act somewhat for “Resourcery: The Magic of Water.” He has shed the medieval and mystical trappings this time, dressing more like a professional magician in formal attire and a fancy vest. He’s still down-to-earth in his presentation, though, and not afraid to get his hands dirty.

May’s Kroon Hall show was introduced by another crossover magician, Rev. David Reed-Brown of Simsbury, whose “Meaningful Magic” act imparts spiritual values. Reed-Brown first met May when both men studied with esteemed magic teachers Eugene Burger (who, interestingly, is a graduate of the Yale Divinity School) and Jeff McBride at McBride’s Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas, Nevada. Reed-Brown employs a rope trick to present a metaphor about collaboration and universal harmony.

When May sincerely invites the audiences to give him tips on how to improve either the presentation or the information of his new “Magic of Water” show, the crowd is not shy. “Water is a contentious issue,” one attendee offers, and notes that in one trick May insisted we do all we can to save water, while in the set-up for another one he blithely let droplets of water spill on the floor.

You could call this a tough crowd for any magician. The lunchtime show was largely attended by graduate students and some of CJ’s friends. Only two children were in attendance. It was also one of May’s first attempts at the new act. He had the performance filmed so he could use it for promotional purposes, and also so he could study it and improve the finer points of his prestidigitational craft.

It’s fitting, he feels, that he begins the process in the Elm City. “Before there was a term for Green marketing, we were doing it here in New Haven.” Doing trick-enhanced presentations about recycling made May realize that “magic can be used to talk about water issues as well. So I just gathered a list of water-based magic tricks and used that as the basis for an informative show. Ideally, it’s about both environmentalism and magic.”

CJ May, the Resourcerer
(203) 737-0475

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

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