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The Magician's Tale

December 1, 2011

The trick for these performers is using illusion to tell a story

A conjurer is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician.
—Jean Robert-Houdin

On a bright afternoon in early August, around 70 professional magicians crammed into a windowless, 60-seat room at the Magic Castle, an exclusive Hollywood-based magic society and supper club that is widely regarded as ground zero for the magical arts in this country. They were there to hear a lecture about the intersection of magic and theatre.

"A trick is a little puzzle," began lecturer Rob Zabrecky, a regular performer at the castle since 2002, who is known for combining mentalism (a form of magic that includes clairvoyance, hypnotism and other psychic elements) with a macabre sense of humor wrapped up in an eccentric-yet-strangely-approachable Norman Bates—like persona. "But the second we inform it with our point of view," he went on, "it becomes a piece of theatre."

Zabrecky is part of a small but growing enclave within the U.S. magic community that believes that great magicians are first and foremost theatremakers—and that their power lies as much in the way that they script, act, direct and design their performances as in their ability to deceive audiences with mirrors, mind games and dexterous sleights of hand. These theatrically inclined wizards are working hard to redefine what most people think of as a magic show, and in so doing are raising appropriately puzzling questions about the potential and limitations of magic as a theatrical art form.

"There's a tendency for the average person who doesn't know about magic to presume that it is something for children, akin to circus. While there is certainly a lot of magic that fits into that category, there's a lot that doesn't," Los Angeles—based illusionist Max Maven tells me in a phone interview shortly after my trip to the Magic Castle. Maven is an erudite magician who often peppers his mentalism-oriented performances with anecdotes about Pablo Picasso and Alexander Woollcott. In one routine, he reenacts part of a 17th-century Kabuki drama as a framework for unnerving audience members with his psychic powers.

The image of a tailcoat-wearing, wand-wielding magus dazzling audiences with flabbergasting stunts—pulling a rabbit out of a hat, causing a lion to disappear or hacking a bikini-clad lady into bits with a saw—still spring readily to mind when most of us think of magic shows. The Las Vegas extravaganzas of David Copperfield, Criss Angel and Siegfried & Roy, alongside the work of countless other conjurers plying their trade at corporate events and children's birthday parties, have been largely responsible for molding perceptions of magic for the past 70 or 80 years. The majority of acts at the Magic Castle tend to hail from this school. (According to Zabrecky, most lectures at the castle focus not on theatricality but on techniques for executing ever-more-complex tricks.)

The popularity in recent decades of magicians like David Blaine and Penn & Teller has helped to broaden people's understanding of what magic can do, and paved the way for the reconsideration of icons like Harry Houdini (a new exhibition, "Houdini: Art and Magic," at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum through Jan. 16, positions the escape artist as an edgy performer and "showman of raw physicality"). The bare bones, intimate nature of Blaine's "street magic" shows and his superhuman feats of endurance, like being encased in a block of ice for nearly three days, have shaken up standard notions of magic, as have Penn & Teller's canny exposure of the inner workings of illusions. But the activities of even these boundary-pushing performers share the same essential mission as their more traditional counterparts: to elicit amazement among audiences in response to a stunt.

Magicians who are steeped in theatre are attempting to place their focus elsewhere. "I think one of the obstacles to growth and self-expression in magic is that magicians tend to become fixated on the technical, deceptive elements—the sleights and moves and gimmickry—to the exclusion of all other aspects of the performing arts—scripting, lighting, sound, blocking, sets, costume, character," says the Chicago-based magician David Parr, whose shows include Visions of Poe, an interactive journey into the tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and Haunting History, which explores the intersection of history and folklore. "The techniques we use to mislead the senses are a necessary part of magic, but they're not the only tools that contribute to effective communication with the people in our audience. When the technical, deceptive aspects of magic dominate our discourse, and when they become the sole focus of our performances, the message of magic is limited to 'Ha! I fooled you! See how clever I am?' I think magic has deeper waters to explore."

Instead of making a trick the be-all-and-end-all of a magic show, in the same way a comedian treats the punch-line of a joke, magicians like Parr who are interested in exploring the theatrical process see their illusions as part of a larger whole. This approach usually involves the embedding of magical illusions within a strong narrative framework that often builds to a climax; the development of sustained characters or stage personas; and the use of dramatic metaphors. The goal is to provide the audience with a multilayered experience, one that seamlessly combines astonishment at the magical effects on display with a broader message about the world we live in.

For the solo shows of San Francisco—based magician Christian Cagigal, metaphor, narrative and character play at least as important a role as prestidigitation. In Cagigal's solo show Obscura, the magician adopts an understated persona akin to a fastidious widowed uncle, and gracefully weaves card tricks into a variety of quirky cautionary tales about ordinary people who play games of chance with the Devil and invariably lose.

Each story is more confrontational than the last, so that by the end of the hour-long show, the room feels almost claustrophobic, as if there is no escape from Satan's clutches. Cagigal's intermittent use of an old-fashioned wind-up music box underscores the innocence and naïveté of the average human being when confronted with forces he or she can't fully understand. The fact that all of Cagigal's card tricks are projected at close range from above on a video screen enhances the theatricality of the experience—watching the magician's every move up close, we, too, feel like we are being watched.

For Michael Fraughton, a magician based in the Salt Lake City area, metaphor is also crucial. Fraughton miraculously conjures water to extinguish a candle flame that comes to represent the "life" of a small Kansas town. The magician intends audience members to make the connection between the dousing of the flame and the disastrous flooding of the town.

And in Todd Robbins's Play Dead, a production directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller) that had a nine-month run Off-Broadway through July 2011 (it then played Mexico City and will have a 2012 London tour), Robbins couched ghoulish illusions within the framework of real-life ghost stories. Robbins's design team decked out the Players Theatre in New York's West Village to make it look like it was abandoned, which created a fittingly spooky setting for a show that used shock tactics to explore notions of death and loss. In one scene, the performer chewed a light bulb until his mouth bled.

"You can put magic in a theatre, but that doesn't make it theatre—that involves more than just telling stories while you do a magic trick," contends Robbins. 'The stories have to have some thematic meaning, ideally tied into an overall thematic arc so people have something to walk away from the production with beyond 'That was fun!' That's when magic goes from being a form of entertainment to a form of art."

The conflation of drama and magic isn't new. According to the Chicago-based magician Neil Tobin, the relationship has existed for thousands of years. "Though theatre scholars may be late in their appreciation, performance magic is one of the original forms of drama," Tobin points out. "Consider its use of metaphor: The fakir of centuries ago who thrust sword after sword into a primitive basket containing his son, only to have the boy emerge unharmed, was metaphorically enacting a primal drama—that of the triumph of life over death. He had only dirt for a stage and sold no seats, but it was powerful theatre."

In more recent times, the relationship has become explicit. In the 1870s, the magicians and theatrical impresarios John Nevil Maskelyne and George Cooke created a string of popular "magic plays" at the Egyptian Hall, and later, St. George's Hall, in London. Special effect—infused productions, with titles like Will, the Witch and the Watchman and Mrs. Daffodil Downey's Séance, served as climactic finales to evenings of conjuring featuring famous illusionists like Buatier De Kolta, Paul Valadon, Charles Morritt and Martin Chapender. "The scripts contain descriptions of interesting sets where people could go out one side and come in immediately on the other," notes the Bay Area—based magician Tobias Beckwith of these works.

Some of these magic plays toured the U.S. And before long, special effects started cropping up in homegrown productions. The 1927 production of Dracula on Broadway (an adaptation by John L. Balderston of the Bram Stoker novel, starring Bela Lugosi), for example, included a scene in which the title character disappeared "into thin air," his empty cape crumpling into the hands of his adversaries at the climax of a tussle.

More recently, magicians and the theatre community have collaborated successfully on many occasions. The conjurer Ricky Jay's long-standing partnership with playwright-director David Mamet is a case in point. Mamet has directed several of Jay's solo shows—Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, On the Stem and A Rogue's Gallery—and has cast the magician in a number of his films. The magicians Guy Hollingworth and Paul Nathan have had their magic-plays produced at the Broad Stage in Los Angeles and San Francisco's Climate Theater, respectively. David Hirata, another Bay Area—based magician, serves on the board of the Marsh Theatre, a 22-year-old presenter and producer of mostly solo plays.

Many recent theatre productions have relied upon the talents of conjurers to create spellbinding effects. The famous levitation sequence at the end of the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast and the scene in Broadway's Mary Poppins in which the protagonist removes unfathomably large objects from her suitcase were made possible by the skill of Jim Steinmeyer, a master magician and scholar of magic history. These effects not only create a sense of wonder in the audience but serve to move the plot along and develop our understanding of the characters.

Meanwhile, magicians are often key collaborators in productions of classic plays. Last summer, Cagigal helped create the special effects for the Marin Shakespeare Company's version of The Tempest. And Teller co-created a horror-theatre production of Macbeth with director Aaron Posner. The drama was co-produced in 2008 by Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J., and Washington, D.C.'s Folger Theatre.

Yet despite these synergies, the relationship between the "legitimate" theatre and magic shows has always been complicated and fractious. "Magic is a sort of bastard cousin of theatre," Zabrecky suggests, in an interview after his Magic Castle lecture. "The fact is that theatre people don't always view the genre as an art form."

"I love magic shows," offers Tony Taccone, artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. "But in their traditional configuration, they qualify for me as purely entertainment." So the rapport between magic and theatre ebbs and flows. As Alain Nu, a magician based in Washington, D.C., puts it: "I think it's something that trends in and out of favor, depending on a variety of factors, such as market demands, the overall respect for the art by the public and so on."

The effort among contemporary magicians to "legitimize" their craft has its roots in the rise of the "bizarre magic" movement in the 1970s, which has since been shaped by changing cultural tastes and economic trends. (Last month in Connecticut, the Inner Circle of Bizarre Magick held the latest in its series of annual conventions.) Bizarre magic is a branch of conjuring that employs narrative and wordplay to a much greater degree than traditional magic shows, while de-emphasizing a performer's technical dexterity and complex props. Major exponents of the genre, like Tony Andruzzi and Eugene Burger, developed a following for their intimate and dark approach to magic. Often unfolding in a small space in a close-up format, bizarre magic shows employ storytelling as a means to establish an otherworldly mood and entice audiences to believe in spirits.

"Bizarre magic came about as a rebellion against what magic had become—frivolous entertainment, something to accompany a cocktail during the dinner hour at a corporate event," reasons Robbins. "Some magicians decided to put the content back in, so they came up with this whole new form that was more theatrical and story-driven. It demanded people's focus and attention rather than a noisy environment with a DJ in the corner."

Just as the original bizarrists reacted against the relegation of magic to "sideshow entertainment" status, so the present generation of theatrically inclined magicians is reacting against the big Las Vegas—style spectacles of Copperfield and company. Their reasons are partly artistic and partly economic, and are in keeping with other countercultural trends that surfaced in the early 1990s, like grunge music's rebellion against saccharine pop tunes.

"As money sinks and magicians are scaling back, and the love of glitz for glitz's sake seems to be ebbing for the time being, many magicians have been asking themselves, 'What the hell is the point of all of it?' and, 'So what if I can do this big illusion, what does it mean?' " says Cagigal. "They want more out of their routines and shows and themselves."

Many contemporary exponents of theatre-oriented magic have serious theatrical backgrounds—Robbins holds a degree in theatre from California State University—Long Beach; Parr co-founded an experimental theatre company in Milwaukee; the San Francisco—based magician Walt Anthony was an Equity actor in Chicago for 20 years before deciding to merge his passion for magic with his stage career. Despite that, melding theatre with magic isn't easy. Efforts in this direction often fall flat. As such, magicians who seek to use theatrical elements like storytelling and character as a means to create a work of art face multiple challenges.

One key issue lies in the wildly contrasting ways in which the two genres handle the expectations of their audiences. Admittedly, even the most basic trick includes such elements as the establishment of a relationship between a performer and an audience and the creation of a stage persona, and many magic shows also include spoken text, a plot, lights, a set, costumes and props—but the two genres place very different demands upon audiences' understanding of reality that are often difficult to reconcile.

In most forms of theatre, audiences understand that they are witnessing a make-believe world, but choose to suspend their disbelief in order to enter fully into that world and potentially be transformed by it. Magic, by contrast, requires audiences to completely buy what they're seeing on stage as hard reality: They have to be convinced that it is truly possible to saw people in half and put their bodies instantly back together again, or for an illusionist to read the secrets of their minds. "In the theatre, a special effect is designed to be subsumed within the fantasy of the production," writes Steinmeyer in his 1998 book Art & Artifice. "An illusion seeks the opposite. It starts with a basic reality and attempts to make it deliberately special or surprising. In a magic show, there is no willing suspension. The magician cannot risk the audience ignoring his illusions or accepting them as a part of a larger context; they must be held apart and treated as unique."

So when magicians focus on storytelling, stage metaphor and other theatrical elements, they risk sacrificing the very thing—the "wow factor" that a skillfully executed illusion elicits in the spectator—that often draws in audiences off the street to see a magic show in the first place. "So much of the work of a magician is to convince someone to believe," Ryan Majestic, a magician based in Los Angeles, tells me during an interview in a West Hollywood café. "With theatre, you have to suspend your disbelief. Overcoming this obstacle forces a magician to work extra hard."

Majestic has become so disenchanted with magicians' current love affair with the theatre that he tries to remove the trappings of stage performance from his work whenever possible—including, curiously, the audience. Every night for nearly two weeks in April 2010, the magician broke into an abandoned house in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles late at night to perform his act. Majestic deliberately didn't tell anyone about his activities. "I did the show at midnight each night regardless of whether anyone walked in or not," Majestic says. "I hoped that if someone did come by, it would be a truly organic moment rather than feel fake, like a theatre performance."

Majestic's experiment didn't work out as he expected it to. Even this most anarchic and anti-theatrical of illusionists found himself yearning for the most fundamental characteristic of the live theatre experience: the relationship that exists between a performer and his audience. "I realized that I wanted people to come," admits Majestic of his lonely nights spent doing magic tricks before an invisible audience in a derelict building. "And when they didn't come, I felt ashamed that I wanted it so badly."



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