Spiritual Strength & Introspection

Do you consider yourself a performing artist, more a magician, or is there even a distinction?

I consider myself a hard-core magician.

Any influences as far as performance art is concerned?

I seriously studied the performance art movement in the 70’s and early 80’s. There were people like Joanna Went, the Kipper Kids, Laurie Anderson. I started reading “High Performance Magazine” and getting into the performance art scene in downtown New York. I went to the American Mime Theatre with performance artist Pat Olezko. I guess at that time I was searching for meaning in magic. A deeper magic. I didn’t really find it there. I also found that with the venues I was working — casinos and night clubs — performance art didn’t translate.

I was talking to Teller about performance art and he said, “Performance art has very deep, profound reasons to suck.” It’s not that it all sucked; some of it was very stimulating. I would see Eric Bogosian downtown before he became famous. It was a big movement back then. But I never really found a place in it for me.

It really wasn’t until I started exploring deeper magic, the history of magic and shamanism, that I found the source of power in magic that I was looking for. It wasn’t a political power or social activism — things that are of more concern in performance art. I found that the history of magic was deep enough for me to retrace and reconnect magic with its shamanic root. Then I would update it and put it into a context so that modern audiences could view it at a contemporary and sometimes commercial level. So, that was my performance art adventure back in the 70’s I put together performance art routines incorporating magic and did them at the clubs, but there was no interface between the performance of magic and performance art. The venues I was performing in — places like Atlantic City — just don’t want that type of performance. So, I was sort of split down the middle. I had to do my research on the side and continue doing commercial magic performances, but with more artistic underlying sensibilities.

There is an interview that you did in 1992 for genii magazine. In it you said, “Magicians would benefit by researching the history of magic before Hoffmann and Robert Houdin, thereby experiencing real magic.”

Yeah. “Real magic” is a buzz-word these days and conjures up a lot of different interpretations. One of the best books I’ve read is The Death and Resurrection Show” by Rogan Taylor. His thesis is that all performing arts, all contemporary show business, has its roots in shamanic practice. He traces the evolution of the magic show, the circus, and even contemporary rock and roll concerts to their shamanic roots. It’s a hard book to find, but it’s one of my main resources for reconstructing — I should say “re-empowering” magic — “re-enchanting” magic.

Magic is very secular and has sacred roots. This is a time in my personal life where I’m trying to reconnect to a much more potent form of magic theatre. If an audience at the end of my show asks, “How does he do it?,” I think I’ve failed my mission. The contexts for magical presentations these days — restaurants, conventions, dinner clubs, parties — are very secular and informal gatherings. I’ve been trying to express my search for initiation … my quest to find meaning in magic.

I think that’s the original intent of magic. When shamans create a ritual, the audience members become participants. It’s an initiating experience when they vicariously identify with the reenactment of the journey to Hell and back that the shaman creates at the fire. How real we make those experiences is a case of individual choice. The imagination is a powerful tool and it triggers certain processes in the human condition. When a magician is on stage, he is hopefully creating an alternative reality — an altered state of consciousness not only within himself on-stage, but with the audience. That’s what makes the magic show such a potent form of theatre. It’s a relatively safe space to journey into non-ordinary reality.

It’s a very intentional alteration caused by the theatrical techniques we employ: lights, smoke, flashy colors and costumes, and trance-inducing music help to create an alternative reality. The magician guides the audience. If they enter into the mythology of the magic show, they go on the journey and participate with the magician and other characters instate. I don’t know if many contemporary performing magicians approach this or are conscious of the power that they have with their magic. Then the question arises, “Where’s the magician taking these people on their journey? What are his intentions?” I think intent is the most important consideration in magic. What’s your intention in creating this magical theatre? One of the things that my show addresses is the manipulation of power … eventually becoming trapped in a mask of my own creation. These days, we are very aware of our persona, of our mask-making illusions of power in the mainstream, materialistic, very commercial world. Sometimes these are snares of our own creation that keep us from growing, keep us from expressing different parts of ourselves.

So, it’s a contemporary myth: the man trapped in a mask of his own creation. I think that my performance of that piece of magic theatre has been so widely accepted and enjoyed by audiences because they can identify with it on some level.

You’re speaking of that one with the mirror…

Yes. The mask and the mirror.

You touched on the second part of this question when you spoke of researching the history of magic before Hoffmann and Robert Houdin. But to sum it up now: What awaits the magician who does this actual research?

Initiation, self-discovery. I think that formal initiations, other than some remnants of magic club initiations, are lacking in the current magic societies. There is no time when young magicians, or people that are entering magic society, enter into deeper levels of magical learning. That’s why I think that many magicians’ performances are stuck at an adolescent level of “Please like me, mommy and daddy.” In contemporary society, there are no initiatory experiences that say “You’re ready for a deeper type of magic. You’re ready to move in and express other parts of yourself. We like you, you’re good enough.”

Initiation and self-discovery. How can all magicians benefit from this? You talk a lot about creating a magical experience. You certainly do that with your act. It is silent, set to music and very performance art-like. How can a talking act, say a comedy magician with a talking act, create the same feeling that you leave your audiences with?

I think that the first magicians were storytellers. They told a story with words. Words are powerful tools. I don’t like most comedy magic. I like humor in magic, but I don’t think magic should be the crutch that supports a would-be stand-up comic, which seems to be the problem today. People want to be the “funny guy.” So they do tricks to gain power over the audience and make them scratch their heads and laugh.

I think that good contemporary humorists are commentators on the present social situation. They can take people on journeys into the irony of the times. I think that laughter is good medicine. I include a healthy dose in my show. It’s nonverbal humor, but it’s a place where I transform the usual magician/audience participant relationship. Instead of it being a humiliating experience, I make this man a magician. When I do it with a small boy from the audience, it is very initiatory. At the end of my performance I even hand the young man a wand and initiate him as a magician … and that’s where I break my silence.

I think contemporary verbal magic humorists can gain a lot by learning the art of storytelling and telling great stories that are meaningful to people’s lives instead of just telling the joke of the week as you do the Professor’s Nightmare.

People’s lives are humorous. Tragedy is humorous. When we can see the humor in the darkness, that’s the greatest laugh. Laughter is enlightening. It’s the “a-ha” experience. When we laugh, we understand something. That’s why we go “a-ha!”

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