03 June 2013
“He was acutely aware of the inadequacy of all human means of speaking truth, but his artistic intuition told him that those means might be composed in such a way as to allow the truth to appear. Against his will, he found that to be an honest man he had to be a poet.”
- Richard Pevear, writing about Leo Tolstoy
26 October 2012
05 October 2012
I don’t even know where to begin this story. Every performer has their own Worst Moment On Stage. This is mine.
In my show, I perform an illusion called the Indian Needle Mystery. To summarize, I swallow a length of thread. Then I swallow a handful of sewing needles. Then I regurgitate the thread and all of the needles are shown to be threaded along the string. It’s an illusion I first read about at age 10 during my first foray into Houdini’s work (which consisted of checking all of the Houdini books out of the public library, reading them, and then stealing them so no one else in town could learn the secrets. I had them for years).
If you’re having a hard time picturing this, you can watch a performance of the illusion here (start at the 2:15 mark), but come back when you’re done so I can finish the story.
I have performed this illusion safely approximately one hundred thousand million times. As a kid I would practice with strands of dried spaghetti, broken into needle-sized lengths so I could practice the necessary internal needle-wrangling without having to worry about getting hurt. Even after making the jump to actual needles my safety record has been virtually unblemished.
Until last night. Last night something went terribly wrong. The show went well until the needle illusion, and then it became very miserable very quickly.
Now, one could reasonably assume that the most dangerous part of the illusion is when you, oh, I don’t know… swallow a handful of sewing needles. Like all of the other nights, however, last night I swallowed and regurgitated the needles without incident.
Here’s what happened instead:
Before swallowing the needles I always hand them out to the audience so that everyone can see that they are genuine. If I were a spectator in the audience I would suspect that magicians like to perform things that look dangerous but in all reality probably are not and, as a result, wonder if maybe the magician had taken real sewing needles and filed the ends so that they aren’t actually sharp. In order to preemptively destroy this suspicion during my show I go to some lengths to assure everyone that the needles are real and sharp and pointy and dangerous. If I am going to go to the risk of using real needles I would at least like to get the credit.
Last night, as I collected the needles from the audience after the inspection, one of them fell to the floor by mistake. As I had plenty of needles and didn’t want to disrupt the flow of the performance by stooping down to the ground and trying to find it, I just continued with the illusion, assuming that the needle had fallen harmlessly on the ground.
What had actually happened, however, is that the needle had fallen to the floor and, miraculously, stuck in the carpet with the pointy end up.
Before I go on, I want to point out that the odds of this happening… of dropping a needle from a height of four or five feet to the ground and having it stick in the carpet with the pointy end up… are ridiculously small. If you gave me a grocery bag full of needles and asked me to try one by one to recreate the feat I don’t think I could do it.
However, last night the universe conspired against me: the needle fell from my hand, embedded itself into the carpet, and waited.
I made it to the end of the illusion before accidentally stepping on the needle. When I did, the force of my step immediately drove the needle through the bottom of my shoe and into my foot. Deep into my foot. In fact, all the way. The weight of my step forced the needle so completely into my foot that the base of the needle was now just a small metal dot on the sole of my shoe. The sole is about an inch thick. The needle is two inches long.
It hurt. A lot.
My first response was to shout “Fuck!” really loudly. As the audience had just seen me successfully conclude an illusion and had no idea about the needle in my foot, this must have been somewhat confusing. By way of explanation, I elaborated by shouting “I have a needle sticking through my foot!” This, following an illusion that involved the swallowing and regurgitating of needles (an admittedly amazing illusion that could conceivably endanger the mouth, tongue, and throat but one that doesn’t even come close to involving the feet) probably didn’t clarify the situation for them at all.
Quickly – very quickly – I understood that removing the needle from the shoe would be impossible without a pair of pliers. I also realized that even removing my foot from the shoe would be difficult because the needle was effectively pinning my foot to the shoe. While I could probably remove the laces and lift my foot from the shoe, simply untying the laces and sliding my foot out wasn’t currently an option.
The immediate response of shock and pain and misery quickly fell away to the realization that the maxim that “The Show Must Go On!” is a cruel and merciless platitude that works well as a battle cry to rally flagging high school theatrical productions but doesn’t fucking help at all when you’re ten minutes in to a seventy-five minute show and you find yourself with a needle buried deep into your foot. And yet, what other choice do you have? For some reason, stopping the show to remove my shoe seemed unprofessional. Also, because the needle was so deeply embedded in the shoe I would have had to do my show in stocking feet. Upon reflection this doesn’t sound so bad but in the heat of the moment it seemed unacceptable. The first ten minutes of a show is no time to make apologies.
And so I went on. I performed the entire show with a needle in my foot, keeping as much of the weight on the outside of the foot as I could and, unless absolutely necessary, standing in one place on stage so I could take as few steps as possible. Still, it was bad. Very bad.
There’s no real lesson here, other than this: if you’re going to perform the Needle Mystery in your own shows, be careful not to accidentally drop one of the needles onto the carpet in such a way that it lands with the pointy end up. However, if you do, be sure not to accidentally step on that needle because if you get it at just the right angle and with just the right amount of pressure it could drive through the sole of your shoe and embed itself in your foot. This will hurt like hell. So be careful.
For those people in the audience at Mount Mercy University last night who might have been wondering about the random wincing, the profanity, and the general sense that something wasn’t right about the magician, now you know. Thanks for being a great audience anyway.
04 October 2012
Thirty minutes before showtime. This is a strange time of day for me. You would think that after seven years of doing this with some regularity I would grow accustomed to the pre-show wait and either become immune to this mix of deep excitement and deep hope and deep fear or at least teach myself how to deal with it. However, I have done neither. The fact that my handwriting here appears to be even worse than usual is a testament to the fact that for all of the high aspirations and all of the faith in the transformative power of a live performance, this experience still scares the shit out of me.
Here is my world at the moment: the sound of the audience on the other side of the curtain and the pulse of the pre-show music; the little bit of light that illuminates the stairwell where I’m sitting and writing; the checking and double-checking that everything is set for the performance; the knowledge that no matter how often you do this you’re never truly ready.
The fact of this situation is always the same: either I will be able to take this audience and show them what I want to show them or I won’t. Either I will be able to breathe enough life and love and urgency into these illusions to coax out of them some amount of magic that the audience can see and feel and understand or I won’t. It’s very simple.
Performers have a saying: you’re only as good as your last show. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done in the past. The only thing that matters is this show and this audience. No one cares that you woke up at 4:00 am to get here or that tomorrow you will pack it up and do it all again someplace else. For 90 minutes life becomes very simple, and it all comes down to one question: can you take this craft of deception and turn it into magic?
What a strange way to make a living.
03 September 2012
To begin, let me say this:
I recognize that I write a great deal about airports. As this is already well-plowed ground in the world of travel writing and I am not any better at it than, say, almost anyone else, I concede that my continual documentation of my life in and around these places might become tedious to the reader who (1) isn’t interested in airports or magic and (2) somehow is still reading this blog anyway.
The problem is that almost all of these tour journals are written in airports. These days on the road are so busy that the only time I have to sit down and write anything is either during a layover (like today) or back in the hotel after a show. As I am generally hyped up on the particular post-show cocktail of adrenaline, excitement, frustration, and lack of sleep that is unique to this line of work, writing in the hotel is tough. The after-show frame of mind tends to push my writing even closer to the abyss of Sweeping Generalization and Overstatement that is a constant threat to me here anyway. In short, it’s better for everyone if I write these things while I am sitting in the airport.
So here’s a secret about the Atlanta airport that you should know. The first four terminals are almost intolerable. Imagine the capacity of Yankee Stadium emptied into a hallway much too small for the number of people and add an entire fleet of Courtesy Shuttles hurtling through the terminal that don’t seem particularly worried if they Run You The Fuck Over and you get a sort of Running of the Bulls where everyone is as worried about preserving their own bodily safety as they are of finding a particular gate.
Like I said, it’s bad. But here’s the secret: the International Terminal in Atlanta is amazing. If you can escape terminals A, B, C, or D and make your way to terminal E, you will be rewarded with a secret garden of tranquility and goodness: a sprawling food court, free wifi, an almost frighteningly-polite wait staff (in a food court!) and, of all things, a grand piano. That plays music. By itself.
If this doesn’t sound like much, you haven’t been in Atlanta terminals A, B, C, or D recently. By comparison it’s as if Atlanta annexed a little piece of Eden and put it in the International Terminal.
Big show tonight. I performed at Eastern Michigan University a few years ago and the audience just about blew the roof off of the building. I have been looking forward to the show tonight ever since I saw it on my schedule over the summer and am excited to show everyone there the new material that I have added to the show in the few years since the last performance. I tend to judge cities almost exclusively by how my shows go when I’m in town. As I recall, Ypsilanti, Michigan is wonderful.
26 August 2012
I am becoming something of a regular here at the Caribou Coffee in the A terminal of Minneapolis/ St. Paul Airport. I have been here for four out of the last five days, connecting through the Twin Cities on my way from one place to the next while crisscrossing the country and on each visit I get a coffee, sit in this chair, and look out the window at the world. At this time in the morning the sun blazes through the large window in front of me and I am taking as much of it as I can get in an effort to convince my brain that it really is morning and time to get going. The coffee helps, too.
The fact that my Neighborhood Coffee Shop is about three hundred miles from my house explains way more about this profession than just about any other single detail.
Such a fun show last night. A good show is a feedback loop of attention and energy and goodwill between the audience and the performer and the group of students who came to the show at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania turned out to be one of those wonderful Perfect Audiences who do everything right. For any of you who were there, thanks.
18 August 2012
Solid show last night. The actual performance felt rusty but the material is now strong enough that I was able to rely on the craft that has gone into each of the illusions to pull us all through the show. I’m not sure whether this suggests that I have improved as a magician or stagnated as an artist but it saved the show last night for sure.
The new illusion went off perfectly and fit in seamlessly with the new material. Generally I debut new material in the middle of the show: if it completely dies I will have already built a strong foundation at the beginning of the show and can avert complete disaster with a strong conclusion. However, last night the new illusions went so well that I’m going to move it back in the show to the final act.
I spent some time reading through the previous entries in this tour journal and noticed two reoccurring themes: the difficulty of travel and almost-constant state of exhaustion. While these are fundamental aspects of life on the road, let me just say also that I love these shows more than just about anything. It takes a lot to justify the 3:00 AM wake-up times and the two-hour drives to the airport and the long flights and the short nights and the all-consuming effort of putting a show on the road, and if the shows meant less to me this whole thing wouldn’t be worth it. But I love the shows. I love the fact that I get to share my work with audiences all over the country and I am grateful to everyone who helps make this possible. To my family, to my agent, to the people who run the venues and organize the shows and sell the tickets and to all of you who have or will someday sit in the audience, thank you.
That being said, it’s now only 8:30 in the morning and with an early wake up time to catch the first flight out of Charlotte (I am now waiting for my second flight of the day), it has already been a long, long day. Boarding the plane now. More soon.
17 August 2012
One would think that the process of going on tour would become second nature at some point, but even though I have been doing this for a while I’m not really there yet. It’s disorienting to wake up, drive to the airport, and load yourself into a winged metal tube so that you can be launched across the country to perform a magic show. “Tour” is another world entirely, and now I seem to be back in the middle of it.
At least for today. This is an interesting fall season for me in that I won’t be doing a full-on performance schedule. For the past nine months I have been working on a ridiculously exciting Secret Project and this fall it is taking up time that is generally spent on the road. As a result, the schedule is a scattered collection of dates more than a cohesive tour.
More on that later. Tonight my season begins at Methodist University. This is one of my all-time favorite venues in the country and a great place to kick off the tour. Or at least the micro-tour. Wish me luck.
16 August 2012
So much to do before the show tomorrow night. I am adding a new piece to the show, which means that I have been tweaking and adjusting and trying to account for every contingency to ensure that it goes well on stage tomorrow night. However, I am also aware that you can only take things so far in the development phase. The real learning begins in the crucible of a live performance when you see what burns away and what survives the fire. It sounds melodramatic, but that’s how it feels.
Designing illusions is an interesting process and I wish that I could share more about it here without revealing the secrets of the craft. You begin by imagining yourself in the audience and trying to envision what you could see onstage that would feel truly extraordinary. It’s not so much a process of choosing the most spectacular or impossible feats but rather the one that creates the particular experience that you want to give the audience. I have a notebook that I have used since age 11 that is filled with impossible moments that I want to include in the show. Some of them are now pieces I perform regularly, some of them are about half ready, and some of them are still a complete mystery to me.
I know a few comedians from the college circuit and am continually amazed by their ability to invent a joke at dinner and try it out in the set that night. The new piece that is going in my show tomorrow has been in development for about three years. Artistically, this makes it harder to present magic that represents the aesthetic choices that I would make today because almost all of my material has been somewhere in the development pipeline for at least a few years. I think that one of the reasons that magic often feels so dated is that it is really difficult to invent new illusions: when you have one that works the temptation is to just stay with it rather than continually turning the show over.
However, this can’t be an excuse for stagnation. There is that Bob Dylan line that keeps me up at night: Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn/Suicide remarks are torn/ From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn/ Plays wasted words, proves to warn that he not busy being born is busy dying.
A warning, that.
21 September 2011
I have a few days at home now before heading out again. This is excellent. I have been invited to give a TED Talk on November 11th and need to spend some time clarifying in my own mind what it is that I want to say.
If you’re not familiar with TED, here’s the link.
The talk is (obviously) supposed to be about magic. The problem is that my job as a magician is to give people the feeling of magic and a feeling is much different than a thought. It’s one thing to do my show and make people feel a certain way; it’s another thing entirely to talk about that process in a way that resonates with an audience that might not have any interest at all in magic or magicians.
The plan is to talk about wonder and astonishment and the way that magic tricks can be an incredible tool for stripping away all of the bullshit and creating a moment of genuine experience. The challenge will be to wrap this up in a package that connects with the TED audience.
Anyway, I really want to get this right. Locking the door now and turning off my phone. Wish me luck.