Monthly Archives: January 2016

I Wonderground

wondergroundIn case you didn’t know this, I fancy myself a magician. I know, big secret.

One of my biggest influences is an incredible magician named Jeff McBride. Jeff is a world class entertainer, magician, and teacher. Teaching magic is a passion of his and he does it well. I have seen a great number of his students go on to become well recognized entertainers and magicians.

One of the things that Jeff does so amazingly well is not just create magic but create magical venues. He finds ways to create space for magic to happen. And that is what Wonderground is all about. Wonderground is a kind of hidden treasure in Las Vegas. You can go to the strip and you can see all kinds of shows, and entertainers of all kinds. You can see big names and get in to crowded spaces with entertainment of every kind including, obviously, magic.

But magic as an art is best served in a somewhat more intimate setting. As awesome as big stage illusions can be, you rarely walk out of a big venue show having experienced the truest level of appreciation for magic. Which, by the way, doesn’t mean that I think you shouldn’t go. Far from it. The spectacle of a big stage show is amazing in it’s own right.

But imagine that you and a handful of your closest friends are no more than a couple of feet away from the magic happening right in front of you. Or that magic is happening right in your hands. The shear impossibility becomes that much more spectacular because of it’s intimacy.

That’s what Wonderground provides.

Every third Thursday of the month a little Mediterranean hookah bar and grill gets transformed into a venue where magic and art is all around. Four shows in the evening and every time it’s different because every time there are different performers. Never the same show twice.

So how did I get involved in this?

Well, as you all might remember I went out to Vegas to learn how to do stage hypnosis from Jeff and a professional hypnotist named Richard Nongard. I go out every so often because I need the recharge that being surrounded by these people gives me. It always gets me energized and enthused about my art. Every time I come back I am ready to tackle new challenges. (And yes, I’ve completed the courses in hypnotism. All I have to do is send in my test and get graded to get my certification. Very soon now.)

Well, after I came back from that adventure I got to thinking about Wonderground in general and so I reached out to Jeff and I asked “What caliber of magician are you looking for to be a part of Wonderground?” You see I had it in mind that I could use this opportunity to set the bar for myself. Give myself a training plan to help me get better.

I got a message back from Jeff saying “let’s talk.”

A few days later I’m on the phone with Jeff and 15 minutes later I’m signed up to come out and perform. Basically the conversation with him amounted to “You’re already good enough. When do you want to come out?”

Gulp.

Yeah, okay, I do think I’m pretty good at what I do. I certainly have plenty of people around me who love what I do and are always happy when I perform for them. I perform semi-regularly as part of my SCA activities, and I do take on gigs when I have the time and bandwidth to do it. I consider myself a professional in the sense that paid or not I am going to give the best show I can and always treat every performance as if I was, well, in Vegas.

BUT I’VE NEVER ACTUALLY BEEN A PERFORMER IN VEGAS BEFORE!

So, yeah, insta-nerves. Still, if Jeff thought I was already up to par then surely I was. He would know.

Wonderground works in a very vaudeville style. Multiple acts, every perform gets a set amount of time, and each performer fills their time accordingly. So it was decided that I would be ideally suited to be in the “Parlor” space, which is exactly right. I’m at my best when I can be up in front of an audience of thirty or so people. The material I like to do fills that size space and my voice carries well without the need of amplification thanks to a life time of theater experience. I was told to prepare material for a ten minute slot as the first act in that room.

The first thing I decided was how did I want to present myself. This is always my first consideration because depending on the venue I might be in medieval garb or I might be in modern dress. And lately I’ve been focused on recreating my modern look so it’s been something definitely on my mind.

But I also wanted to stand out from the other magicians and I knew that if I went with my medieval look and material than I would certainly achieve that. So medieval it was.

Next I spent time selecting from the material I do and carefully crafting the stories that I was going to tell. These were stories I already used, but I wanted to revisit them knowing that I was only going to have ten minutes of time. For some reason it never occurred to me that I could simply do less material. I had unconsciously decided that I was going to do three pieces because that was always the case when I knew I would be doing a short set. Usually I allow three to five minutes for each piece so that meant I could be between nine and fifteen minutes. That meant I needed to select carefully and to potentially rewrite my material to meet the ten minute limit.

So that is what I did. Two of the three stories I planned to tell got significant rewrites. The third (which was actually my opening piece) is actually a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, so I really felt that I couldn’t rewrite that, though it was already short enough not to be an issue either.

For months I have been rehearsing the stories in the shower, on my commute, and generally over and over in my head any time I found my thoughts wandering. Eventually I presented to the stories in front of a couple of test audiences and with one or two final tweaks I was ready to go.

Allow me a moment to digress while I wander in to an amusing side note. When I received the contract for this event there was a clause that caught my eye. The clause specified that it was necessary for me to bring a bag of M&M’s to the event. “Even a fun sized bag will do” according to the contract.

Naturally I became curious about this clause. I knew that occasionally some entertainers would slip things like this in their contracts in order to know that it had been read. So I assumed that this was the case and when I asked I was told that was precisely the reason and congratulations for spotting that, not everyone does.

Huh. Maybe it’s because I’m a software engineer in my regular life, or maybe it’s because my wife is a para-legal, but regardless from my perspective you read the contract.

But more amusing for me was to discover that when I arrived at Wonderground for my six o’clock call and handed over the bag of M&M’s to the wonderful young lady who was running things, she was actually startled and commented that no one had every actually done that before in the seven years Wonderground had been running!

Really? A bunch of entertainers, theater people, magicians, comedians, etc, and no one had ever brought the M&M’s? Well, happy to be the first!

From that point on the evening went very much as expected. There was some confusion about when and where I would be performing. There was a lot of energy and creativity and excitement. I got to meet some cool people and see some pretty great stuff.

Each of the two stage sessions were opened by belly dancers who were pretty fun. Belly dancing to some modern rock and roll was amusing. Belly dancing to The Monster Mash and the theme from The Munsters was hilarious.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the close up magic as it was happening at exactly the same time as I was performing in the parlor but I am told it was excellent.

As to the parlor, there were three of us, two of which were new comers to Wonderground. I opened with my stories and magic (video clip below), and was then followed by a young man named James who did some interesting stuff though to me at least I could see his nerves. Wonderground is a very welcoming crowd though and he was received well. Then a very definite pro named Chris Randel came in and he did some really wonderful and funny stuff.

I was complimented on my material. I was told that it was wonderful to see some classics of magic (read: stuff most magicians know how to do) done with an entirely new twist and very creative stories. I was appreciated for adding my own unique flair and style to the material. I was also complimented on the character I brought to the stage. One gentleman in particular commented that I surprised him quite a bit since he had met me earlier and didn’t expect such a complete transformation.

Jeff tells me that he too heard some great feedback regarding my act (he wasn’t there unfortunately, though being at The Magic Castle is a pretty damn good excuse, right? * smile *).

It was an amazing experience. How could it not be?

Will I do it again?

Yup.

After all –

Now, I’ve played Vegas.

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