Public Fan Letters | Penn & Teller

I’m currently reading ‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon which ties in to my interest in what seems to be a changing consensus on the origin and process of creativity, art and copyright law. One chapter mentions writing a public fan letter. Here’s one of mine…

I love Penn & Teller, they are not only my favourite magicians but also two of my favourite artists. I love their open and honest opinions on life and their approach to work. I love their backstory, how they went from street performing carnies to Las Vegas headliners. I enjoy their outspoken (well Penn’s out spoken) views on religion, politics and rational thinking. I try and watch as much of their work as I can and I’ve managed to see them perform live a few times. Each performance is different and there’s always something new to experience.

A couple of years ago I performed at a magic convention in Vegas and was lucky enough to see and hear Teller deliver a presentation on Penn & Teller‘s artistic and technical approach to creating a new piece. It was one of the most interesting and inspiring things I’ve ever seem.

Here’s a nice segment from Teller from a different piece he sometimes gives…

Each week I listen to Penns podcast and when the chance arises I read his books which bring me to tears of laughter. I love listening to Penn argue his point of view which is always phrased in such a informally precise, logical manor and yet, it still manages to take me by surprise.

Their careers have decades of success, with such a wide variety of material and outlets. From an appearance on the West Wing (arguing the right of flag burning), to creating a TV series about (and entitled) Bullshit. From directing Shakespeare plays to producing their own films. They seem to have a tried and tested approach to producing well thought out opinion and conveying it in an original and thought provoking manner.

They are a massive inspiration to me and I can’t wait to see what’s next from them, you know it will be ace.

One of my favourite Penn & Teller pieces…

Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette: Simon Drake vs. Derren Brown.Russian Roulette

Both of the above performers produced versions of the Russian Roulette game/trick for British television. Drake’s was a 70 second routine for a closing act of an episode during the second series of The Secret Cabaret in 1992. Brown’s was built up with the actual stunt performed live as the closing 10 minute segment of an hour long special.

I find both of these performances to be masterly and beautiful pieces of theatre. These are magic acts made specifically for TV, and choreographed and directed perfectly for that medium. And I find that the massively differing decisions taken in each case in terms of that staging allow a (possibly) useful study. Well, they might. Let’s find out!

Simon Drake – The Secret Cabaret (1992)

Derren Brown – Plays Russian Roulette Live (2003)
(15 minute edit, with the complete live segment)

Despite the long length of Brown’s final presentation, both versions are staged in a minimal manner: so what differences come over when we compare the minute long piece to the hour long presentation?

Let’s start with “believability”. Which of the pieces is more real? Drake’s is certainly more of a “theatre” piece, allowing us the distance to simply watch and draw our own conclusions. Do we really believe he is in any real danger? Perhaps not, but I don’t find that this diminishes from the effect in any way (the same way as I know that Juliet doesn’t really die, yet I can still feel the emotional content of the play as if she did). Brown’s version on the other hand is set up to make it more “real”. He goes out of his way to convince us of how real it is. To convince us at every opportunity of the tricks fairness and danger.

It is far easier to dismiss Drake’s as “just a trick”, but is that an issue? Can we enjoy it more because we are given less information? Does Brown’s insistence on the fairness and truth of the situation actually give us more inclination to search for a method?

Both the performers act (and react) as if it were a genuine stunt, with a genuine risk of death (check their pre- and post-gunshot reactions!). But we accept the danger in Drake’s staging without having to have it explained to us. The music, sound effects, imagery etc communicate the danger. Brown tells us (literally) exactly what the dangers and risks are.

Brown’s presentation also led to a gentle backlash when it became clear that all wasn’t exactly as it seemed. A police statement claimed that despite the script, “there was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk.” Was Brown’s insistence on “fairness” and “real danger” too much?

How much information do we need to give the viewer? And perhaps more to the point in terms of circus, how much of that information is already there? There in the technique, or in the cultural history, or in the audience’s own experiences?

When the “story” of the act is as clear as in Russian Roulette, how much extra information do we need to put on to make the act even stronger? I can imagine that Brown’s version lives on stronger in the collective cultural memory: but this is also related to general popularity and famousness, of course. Is it stronger as a piece of theatre than Drake’s 70 second telling?

I find both these pieces to be incredibly strong works of art – and the massive divide between them in terms of running time simply shows the two extremes of staging. The actual trick, the act of Russian Roulette, loading a single bullet into a revolver chamber and guessing (with death being the result of failure) where the bullet lies, is a stark and reduced piece of magic. Simon Drake chose to highlight the feat by cutting it to the bare minimum, whilst Derren Brown took the opposite route – making each step as open and clear as possible.

When the effect (the trick, the act) is clear and strong, then the staging needs to be at least as lucid and direct. How we create that clarity is down to our own artistic needs and choices. And in these two extreme examples we see that staggeringly different presentations can create a similar emotional impact. What they share is clarity, directness, and simplicity in their final execution.

Video of the Week – Marko Karvo

I first saw Marko Karvo perform in the WinterGarten in Berlin several years ago and really enjoyed his act. I was lucky enough to see him again on Monday but this time a little closer to home, at the London Palladium. I was sat 3 rows from the stage and was reminded at how impressive the precision of Marko’s movement is, how expressive his face is and by his parrot that flew over my head!

Enjoy… (skip the advert)

Video of the week – Penn

Penn & Teller are my favourite magic act, their art is thought provoking, accessible and entertaining. I recently read Jillette‘s book ‘God No‘ which I really enjoyed and would recommend to anyone who is not overly offended by swearing.

Here is a nice interview with half of arguably the greatest double act of all time:

Penn & Teller: Fool Us

Yesterday I went to the filming of an episode of ‘Penn & Teller; Fool Us’. Sam Veale was kind enough to hook my up with tickets on behalf of Romany who was appearing on the show.

I was a great afternoon, got to see some great magic but I won’t spoil it for you as you will get the chance to see it when it airs!

At the moment I’m seeing a lot of live magic and I’m really enjoying it. It’s still a relatively new medium for me to watch so it’s still a bit of a novelty.

Off to watch the Shoebox UK tour tonight, which I’m pretty excited about. Been wanting to see one since it started.

The Importance of Being Selfish

I have been lucky in recent times to be able to work as a teacher/director in disciplines outside of just juggling. Amongst other projects, a few months ago I lectured on creativity and lead a workshop at a meeting of hand-to-hand acrobats in Stockholm, and even more recently I directed my favourite aerialist Petra Lange’s latest dance/acrobatics act.

And less far from my usual comfort zone, for his last two complete evening show productions, I have been listed on Ken Bardowicks‘ posters as “Magical Advisor”. Part creator, part director, part magician and part spectator. It can, and mostly does, jump from the most crazy brainstorming of impossible sounding effects, to the solving of the most banal of problems. Pulling techniques and methods from classic turn of the century sources, or as new as anything being thought of today, and finding solutions and workarounds to weak-points and logical inconsistencies.

And although it is by definition a work together, I am more than happy to acknowledge the purely selfish advantages that it brings to me.

More than anything in my own work, be it magic or juggling, I strive to create material that I personally would like to see performed. The reason I create is to fill a gap: a gap that should contain that which I want to see. I am certainly not alone with this approach to my art, with a pedigree of such people as the film director Tim Burton, or the juggler Jay Gilligan, to back up this standpoint. At the very least, there will be one happy person when I perform my work (me!). And as I do believe that we (the human race) as people have very similar needs and desires, so there is a reasonable chance that what makes me happy, will also make others happy. My contributions as Magical Advisor, or director to other disciplines within the performing arts, is an obvious extension of this selfish desire.

Through my work with Ken and others, I suddenly have so many more possibilities to see that which I want to see performed! No longer does my own technique set or performance outlets have to limit what I can see on stage! I can suggest ideas, and someone else will do them for me! A killer routine that I would be too lazy to do the set-up for every day? A beautiful effect that I could never build the apparatus for? No problem! And although sometimes the work is more about detailed corrections and choreographies, the excitement of seeing those wonderful effects that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see is what keeps the excitement present in our continuing working relationship.

In any relationship, compromises are necessary. Sometimes one must back off from purely personal desires or needs. And in this one specifically, it is Ken’s work, the effects, the show, that are the clear priority. Sometimes (but rarely) we search for solutions to something that doesn’t stir me in a particularly emotional manner, but most of the time, what I take is worth at least that which I can give. And sometimes it is good to remember to be selfish.!/cubecheat/status/55743767499640832

Juggling vs. Magic

The first section of this essay (the actual Juggling vs. Magic part) is basically an expansion of a post from the internet newsgroup rec.juggling (if you can’t plagiarise yourself, then who can you?): the original thread is here: . I feel I am further with my understanding of my viewpoint now, and with my reasons for keeping these elements separate in my own work, and thus it seemed like the right time to revisit this theme.

I will be making use of the phrase “hobby” magician or juggler, and I mean no offense with that. It is simply a useful definition (at least for me) of non-performer. I loved it back in the day when I was a hobby juggler and magician…
When I was 11 I bought my first magic book.

When I was 14 a juggling book followed.

I recently spent time (Mid-March 2011) in Rotterdam working with a juggler who is creating a new act combining magic and juggling. And this is something which I have worked on with a couple of different people, and at a couple of different times.

Yet all this time, I have refused to create myself an act which combines these 2 artforms.

I am often asked about the idea of juggling vs. magic, and to begin with, I wonder why this question is so often asked. Why juggling vs. magic? Why not juggling vs. trapeze? Or magic vs. opera? Of course, the connection has always been there historically, starting from the jongleurs of the middle ages; but the fact that this question is often asked I think implies some other things. Firstly, that the “magic” in question is in the direction of manipulation and skill-based magic, and also, that there is perhaps some crossover in the kind of person who appreciates practicing these skills. What I mean is, we are basing this topic on skill-based magic, rather than illusions.

A starting point to me seems to be the question I occasionally hear of “why are there more famous magicians than jugglers?”. Well, the famous magicians of old were famous because of their stage shows. And later, for their TV specials (and television of course enabled magic shows to move away from the big old illusion shows, because even small effects can be shown clearly). Add to this the pure strength of the emotional impact of magic, and that generally one can quickly create more material in a shorter time, and we have a pretty simple answer as to why jugglers are less famous than magicians. And also as to why trapeze artists or dog-trainers are less famous than magicians…

I mentioned emotional impact, and although I love juggling more than magic, I have to say that the emotional content which is possible with magic is something that makes it far stronger and more accessible to an audience. I do believe that the strength of genuine emotional contact through magical bafflement can not be reached by juggling. I would go so far as to say that even acrobats and trapeze artists can reach that better than us jugglers can. All a pretty girl has to do is to fall halfway down a rope for the whole of the audience to gasp and miss a breath. It is incredibly difficult to reach that level with juggling, and I can think of no single act that can consistantly get that kind of reaction with any audience. With magic it is the same: some effects can create that gasp, and others simply leave such a large hole in the audiences senses that they are speechless.

The statement “magicians need an audience, jugglers don’t” has been put forward as a key difference between these arts. But there are many hobby magicians who practice just for themselves, and many performing jugglers who don’t neccesarily enjoy juggling in of itself. Whether you need an audience or not depends on the person and what they want, not on the field. Personally speaking: I was a magician before I was a juggler, but I hated performing magic until more recently. I had fun practicing for myself, not in performing. Juggling, on the other hand, I was performing (and enjoying!) 6 months after learning a 3 ball cascade.

What is certainly true, is that the hobby magician learns about performance, whilst the hobby juggler does not. Good performance skills (even if only in theory) are part of magical learning. And good performance in this case simply means precision and clarity. Even if they never perform, a (good) hobby magician is aware of every detail of his skills. Jugglers are often not. I learnt so much good stagecraft from magic. Basic theatre theory and practice, which one doesn’t learn from reading juggling books or going to juggling meetings. Which leads to misdirection…

I find the whole misdirection arguments (“magicians misdirect, jugglers direct”) misleading. Misdirection is a misnomer. It is historically badly named. It should be called direction. And direction is simply good theatre. When I make my Erdnase top-palm in my Poker act, I am not MISDIRECTING attention from my hands. I am DIRECTING attention to somewhere else. And I am (trying to!) direct attention to one single specific point every moment that I am standing on stage. Whether I am juggling, performing magic, or clapping in the finale, I am trying to get the audience to react to me in a certain way, and to shift their focus because of that. To repeat myself, (hobby) magicians learn this as a matter of course: (hobby) jugglers do not.

So are there any similarities? Apparently yes, if only because of all the people (myself included) who enjoy both fields. The biggest part is probably the skills involved. It is a reasonably special set of people who get off on practicing juggling, close-up magic or stage manipulation (or Rubik’s Cube, dice-stacking, Sport Stacking, yo-yo, kendama etc etc). So there is presumably a mental set-up which is required to do these things well (and which also, presumably, aids in an interest in writing (and reading) boring essays on the subject…).

So, given these differences and similarities: WHY DO I HAVE SUCH A STRONG IMPULSE AGAINST COMBINING THEM IN MY OWN WORK???

My performance work consists basically of my “straight” (non-funny) 6 minute juggling act, to music. And then of about 30 minutes total “funny” speaking material, of which around 20 minutes is magic acts. I have always had that distinction: magic is speaking, juggling is not. Which makes sense for my magic history (close-up was my first love, classically always performed speaking), but not for my juggling (my first performing was comedy street shows). But at some point in my development, it was important for me to make that distinction, perhaps to push myself stronger in the Varieté direction that I love so much.

But still, why not then make a music based act on juggling and magic? Well, firstly, I don’t “need” a second act to music with juggling. If anything, then I should work on my magic act to music (I have had a semi-finished manipulation act for quite some time now). But there must be a more fundamental reason.

I love simplicity. Simple images, simple props, simple statements of intent. Perhaps I am scared that having TWO (oh my God, think of it!) skills on display would be too complicated or confusing. Is he a juggler? Or a magician? Again, not such a strong reason…

Actually, my work in Rotterdam was the first time that I began to understand and imagine a way to combine these two arts. The student managed to make some magic material which was ONLY POSSIBLE because of his juggling technique. So simple, but a breakthrough, at least for me. My problem was revealed to be the logic that was always missing to me. Why juggle three balls, and then have them vanish and reappear? Well, who cares “why”, AS LONG AS THE TECHNIQUE IS RELEVANT!

I feel so stupid that that simple link has for so long eluded me: especially as that thesis is one of the fundamental statements within my performing. I still don’t know why I have put up those walls between my juggling world and my magic world, but slowly I start to tunnel through.

(Cologne, December 2007 / Seattle, March 2011)