In Search of Better Magic

The scenario: Romany takes to Las Vegas to spend 3 months polishing her magic cabaret act ready to host and perform an evening show in the Las Vegas Wonderdome to be attended by some of the world’s most prestigious magicians. Eeeek! And cor blimey!!!

One of my favourite magic teachers, Eugene Burger, says that good magicians are created one effect at a time. That’s one effect, scripted and rehearsed both with audio and video tape so that it exists as a finished work of theatre, however short. I totally agree that this is the way to go, but in 5 years of creating and trying to improve my magic, I still haven’t done it. My excuse is that as a jobbing performer, doing the weddings, corporate gigs, Xmas parties and street festivals, my time is spent gigging, packing/unpacking, maintaining costumes, worrying about not having work or panicking because I have too much. So it seemed one day that the only thing to do was to take a financial gamble on supporting myself without gigs for 3 months and to go take a flying leap into Las Vegas, the land of the successful and accomplished magi, get my head down and polish, rehearse and perform…. Vegas is where the world’s most prestigious magicians and magical artists – Cirque du Soleil, Penn and Teller, Lance Burton etc. live and hang out, a city of showgirls and showbiz folk. A city too of dreams – both of the entertainers who create their shows there as much as for the tourists who plunge their hard won dollars into the glittering and ever hungry slot machines…

So Feb 2003, I packed up props and costumes, organised accommodation and flew into the Vegas equivalent of La La land. Just on the off chance. Just hoping that it would be the right thing to do at the right time.

Funny really. It happens that the weekend I arrive is the very weekend that Jeff McBride and Eugene Burger are having a magic Masterclass. The McBride master class is a space for magicians to bring their work, show it to the class and receive feedback and teaching to bring it to a higher level. Some of you will know of Jeff McBride or remember his theatrical magical presentations at one of the past MIME festivals. He’s been touring the world performing for most of his life, has won most of the magic world’s highest accolades and is dedicated to encouraging other magicians to take their magic as far as they can. He’s also been my magic mentor for the past 5 years. So it’s cool that they are holding the master class just then and more cool that they invite me to attend as their guest. So I spend my first days in Vegas showing my cabaret act and getting feedback. “Finish the end of your sentences…you’re showing a finger break on those cards…punctuate the applause points…. use a yellow feather rather than purple, it shows up more…” Etc.

My cabaret act ‘Sequins and Loincloths’ was directed and jointly devised by myself and Sarah Brignall. Sarah trained at Lecoq, and one woman show etc etc

We spend a year carving out a 20 minute piece out of my 8 notebooks of ideas and frustrated attempts at magic and it turned out to be a comedy piece, much to my surprise. In it, the ‘Diva of Magic’ (the magical equivalent of Barbara Streisand and Glen Close), arrives to perform in Las Vegas straight from her last show at the London Palladium. Unfortunatley airport security have an issue with her suitcase of pyrotechnics…and she arrives with most of her show having been destroyed in a controlled explosion with a deceased wardrobe mistress and Simon the sound man just out of intensive care. It’s very much in the European tradition of clowning and my American teachers are dubious. But they go with it and at the end of the weekend, McBride asks, “Romany, how do you feel about performing your own show here in April?” (10 weeks away)

I gulp and reply, “OK”. then add, “I’m only saying that because I think I should, not because I think I can”

“That’s settled then.”

Oh good. Oh bloody hell. I’ve only been doing magic for 5 years, and here I am arriving at the city hosting the world’s best magicians and plan to put on a show with all new material in front of them. Hmmmmm, motivating. If that doesn’t get me to practise and rehearse, nothing will. Master class over, down to work. Jeff and Eugene both leave town. Eugene lives in Chicago and won’t be back and Jeff will be back a week before my show. I have props that need to be built, costumes to be made, friends to make, scripts to devise and technical magic to get right. And 10 weeks.

Luckily I am staying with wonderful people Patti and Badger, who apart from being calm, supportive and kind, have a house full off mirrored wardrobes – essential for rehearsal. Badger is a stage hand, leather worker and stilt walker and has a well equipped workshop where I can do the fiddly bits of prop-making necessary for magic effects. I find that Vegas has two abundantly stocked magic shops with friendly owners opposite one another 15 mins drive away and even better has a resident prop maker Chris Barnes who beavers away ’til 2am everyday and who can russell up tables and gizmoes quicker and more reliably than any prop maker I’ve met to date. I join the gym to maintain my fitness since no-one actually moves in this town other than to get in and out of their cars. Since this is Vegas the front rows of any class is full of blond leggy show-girls and retired prima ballerinas with their hair still scraped back and endless legs. I join the rest of the human race at the back.

Apart from leaping around there, I spend most of my time in my room with my laptop, writing and re-writing, then trying out the new script in front of my video camera or mini-disk recorder.There’s also the technical part to master, rather like any of the circus arts. It’s not just the presentation but the actual skill which must be thoughtless too. Eugene says “Thinking kills magic.” He’s right, it’s got to be as effortless as the ballerina’s leap or the thinking will signal to the audience not only the technique behind the deception but will also break the suspension of disbelief. I find the mastering the sleight of hand the hardest thing. Writing stories, creating costumes – easy. Mastering that nifty-grifty sneaky move – aaaagh, not. So I sit in my room, ignoring the wonderful Vegas sunshine outside, fiddling over and over with bits of cotton, with paper clips, with appearing flowers – that don’t appear…. bugger….back to the drawing board….

Weeks pass. I’m enjoying myself, getting into a routine of fitness at the gym, rehearsal, devising in my room and meeting up with the other artists and magicians that live in Vegas. They take me as their guest to the shows. Earl Chaney, the original Ronald McDonald clown and now owner of one of the magic shops takes me to Showgirls of Magic, Badger gets me into see the other showgirls at the Follies where he works as a stage hand. Eugene takes me to the Lance Burton show and introduces me to him after the show, “of course you know Romany…. ” Lance doesn’t but smiles anyway. It’s inspiring and motivating to be surrounded by show-folk. Then suddenly there’s only one week left before the show. My scripts are all written and rehearsed in front of directorial friends, most of the props and costumes are ready. I’ve publicised the show in the Vegas newspapers, at the magicians clubs and shops, to everyone I know including the gym crowd and every Starbucks I visit. There’s only a few things left to sort out. One of which is the running order of the show. Since McBride said that he would help me, I’m presuming that he will headline the show and do the final 20 mins. I figure that if he headlines, whatever I do will be overlooked by the general standard he’ll set by his act. I ring him on the Wednesday before the show on Saturday. He’s just arrived back from Singapore.

“Jeff, you are going to do the show aren’t you?”

“Romany, I can’t tell you yet.”

Ah. My security disappears. I’m missing a 20 minute headlining chunk of the show. But there is nothing to be done now but to get down to serious and panicky final rehearsal.

Thursday afternoon. The phone rings. It’s Jeff.
“Hey Romany, I can do your show.”

“Great. Can you headline and do the final 20 minutes?”

“No, I’ll do an opening 10 mins and you’re head-lining.”

Oh god. But I have a sneaky feeling that that was what I wanted all along…

Friday and a dress run. It’s terrible. I muff up the tricks and the lines and I wonder what I’ve been doing for 3 months. We finish the run and the tech crew start to pack up. I’m desolate and in total panic. Nothing to be done now before tomorrow. It will be a disaster and all the mega Vegas magicians and the rest of audience will cringe in their seats. Then Sylvia appears out of nowhere. Sylvia Braillier is a warm and creative friend, once dancer, acrobat etc and now theatre practitioner. “I heard you were rehearsing, so I thought I ‘d better get over here quick”. I am sooooo grateful. Saved from despair. I do another run, she gives me notes. Then Luna Shimada and Dirk Losander enter. It’s becoming more magical by the minute. Luna is the daughter of the world famous magician Shimado and a fabulous, charismatic stage magician in her own right. I’ve admired her for years. Her partner Losander is an equally talented stage magician. They sit down, I do another run. They laugh. They laugh! Thank everything that moves, they laugh. I need nothing more. Everyone goes and somehow it’s 5 pm. I’ve been doing dress runs since 8am and now I’m hungry, tired and still a little desperate. It’s definitely time for Starbucks. Sitting there reviving with sugar and a mega hit of caffeine, I write another list of what still needs to be sorted for tomorrow. Someone comes in and I look up, knackered, quickly changing it to a “everything under control” look when I see that it’s Jeff come in by coincidence to get some coffee. This guy has been my much admired mentor and supporter for years and someone that I really want to impress and do well for. Over a grande caramel macchiato he asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Funnily enough, there isn’t, it’s all done. Everything is organised and prepared, people are primed to work on the different crews, the other acts are hired and we’re ready to rock.

He says, “You see, Romany, I had to back off, so that you could learn to do it yourself”. Suddenly I understand what he’s been up to. Not knowing whether he would be able to headline the show or direct it had made me work to carry it myself and now having him in it was icing on the cake. Plus I had now won the confidence to host and head-line myself quite apart from knowing that I could produce a whole evening show on a different continent.

But there was still the actual event to do. And this is where the cracks started to show. Cut to 4pm Saturday. I’ve arrived early so that I can get in and set up before my crew arrive. But Paul Daniels is doing a master class in the space and we can’t get in til 5.30pm. Well, its great to meet Paul and Debbie but time is now a little tight. I should have checked that out before hand. Usually when I perform, I do the one act, and have the luxury of just having myself to get ready. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of time needed to facilitate sound checks, questions about …oh, everything… nor was I prepared for the darkness of back-stage especially the space I needed to lay out 4 costume changes and accompanying magic props. I was trying to keep calm, to get the eyelashes on straight, to think of my script etc. but it was hard going. Wonderful people around, all helping, but I was struggling. Curtain up, and I wing it in front of a wonderfully friendly audience. The acts I have on the bill are top class pros so I don’t need to worry about them. I worry instead about getting into a different pair of fishnets and then I realise that ……oh god, I ‘ve left some of my props in the car that I need for the second act and where are the car keys??? This is now a nightmare. All my work, all the rehearsal of 3 months, the careful scripting, prop organising falling apart about me. I have a miraculously wonderful dresser who is steadfastly ignoring my increasing panic. My ‘feather to cane’ prop has disappeared, the car keys are found, but I’ve forgotten to dry the flash wool I need for a confetti launcher at the end of my act. I don’t deserve to be in the theatre, I don’t deserve to be in Las Vegas, I am a fraud…. Shoot me now and put my head on the city walls for all to see.

I go on stage. I drift off my script in the strongest case of jitters I’ve ever had but no-one knows the script and they laugh anyway. My sound man puts in 3 wrong sound cues, I get really annoyed at him but the audience just laugh more. There are some major magic men at the back of the audience and I fluff up my first magic sequence, but again people laugh. Sod it, I give up trying to impress anyone and relax into character and enjoy it ’til somehow, suddenly it’s over, they’re applauding and then…. They’re standing up. My first standing ovation. Oddly enough, my over-riding reaction is to be embarrassed, I feel that I’ve fluffed up my act and don’t deserve it. Someone comes up with a bouquet – real flowers! And more applause. I dreamt of this when I was little, dreamt all this… Still feeling inside that I fluffed it, I smile and take the applause. ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ as they say.

“Can I take my clothes off now?” I say to the audience, definitely off script now and head back-stage to change.

Out of costume, I return to the foyer and see my many new friends, people that have flown in especially to be at the show, supportive smiley magicians including those mega ones at the back and Patti cutting a huge chocolate cake with “Congratulations” on it… That crap performers thing of falling down into the pit of despair because in my head my performance hadn’t matched up to my hopes evaporated against what was really important – that the audience had enjoyed the show, had had a great evening, had laughed and been amazed, and was now hanging out, enjoying themselves post-show, chatting and laughing. Which I remember is all I ever wanted to help bring about in the first place.

And I’ve decided to go back and spend another 3 months from August devising the second half to a one-woman show. Vegas here we come…!

From Romany’s Journals:

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