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How To Crush An Artist

Art is hard. All of it.

It takes years of dedication and passion. It takes countless hours of practice, wasted materials, and occasionally some true heartache.

But all of it is worth it for the joy it can create. Real art generates an emotional reaction, and when you are striving in your art to create that you might very well be at your most intense, your most enthusiastic, but also your most vulnerable.

One of the measures of art is often set as the artist being so accomplished that they make the difficult look effortless. But the effort is there. It stretches backwards in time through all those countless hours of practice. It’s in every penny saved and scraped and carefully spent to acquire just the right tool, just the right resource, just the right material.

However, no matter what you do, there is still in some means by which the audience for that art can discern the incredible level of work and dedication it took to produce it.

No so with magic. With magic the goal of practice is not to display the skill, but to hide it. To make it invisible to detection, because in that invisibility the art comes out.

Imagine dedicating your life to an art whose very nature is that it can not be shared with it’s audience. Imagine the years of practice and developing skills one must go through in order to present mystery in a manner so apparently effortless that it defies detection.

Then, because what you are doing is still nothing without the theatrical experience that surrounds it, you take all of that skill and you hide it inside a whole other craft that you have spent as much time developing. You can show your theatrical skills, but your magical ones, the ones you are most in love with, most passionate about, must remain hidden from the intended audience.

Most of the time magicians revel in their secrecy. But on occasion the desire to show just how clever, or how complex some particular technique is can be hugely tempting and as a result hugely frustrating. The desire to revel in a particularly well developed routine might make a magician proud enough to want to crow about it.

And that is the moment. The moment when we are at our most vulnerable.

Because all it takes is one off hand comment, one joke at the expense of our art, to turn exhilaration in to frustration. This is true for every art. No matter how unintentionally hurtful the comment or joke might have been meant, if the artist is unready for such a thing then they are going to be hurt. They were putting the full expression of their joy out into the world and what they got back was mockery.

Most other artists are able to point back to everything they’ve done and express their feelings by saying “Wait! Look at everything it took for me to do this!” Magicians are not afforded that response. Not to the public at large. If we say “this is what it took to make this happen” they are giving away the very tools and secrets of their art. They are destroying it in the process of trying to protect it and their fragile artistic wonder.

This is how artists are crushed; having people they respect and admire treat their art in an offhand manner. This is what makes dancers less likely to take that next step. This is what makes a painter look with sadness at their brushes. One more rejection letter makes an author question their words, but an unkind comment from a friend might make them never write another word again.

And for a magician, being relegated to nothing more than mere ‘tricks’ and being worth hardly any world beyond ‘kids birthday parties’ despite years of effort makes them not want to put on the show at all.

There is a difference between being critical and being disdainful. A good critic, a truly rare creature indeed, will provide useful feedback that an artist can take and use to further develop their skills and craft. But a wise ass, a jerk thinking they are funny with some supposedly funny comment, is not showing anything but disdain.

Sometimes it’s the mentality of the heckler. Being unable to stand the fact that they aren’t getting attention, or feeling inferior they need to some how tear down the source of of their own discomfort.

Sometimes it’s pure thoughtlessness. The path that stems from “familiarity” breeding contempt. Instead of evaluating the moment for what it really is the thoughtless “friend” goes for what they think is a funny joke never realizing that the moment they have intruded on is just not the right time for humor.

Regardless of the motivations, it’s nothing but painful for any artist no matter the art in question.

This is why artists seek out the inner circle; friends, family, loved ones, who will be honest, who will be critical, but who will also be supportive and who do understand what you’ve done to get to where you are in your skills.

For most magicians there are magic clubs. For me personally these clubs are useless. Not because there aren’t talented people in them. But rather because in all the years that I went to any of them I found that they weren’t interested in what I was interested in, often not even being able to understand what I was trying to get from them or share with them.

But this is why I love going to the magic school I go to in Vegas. There everyone comes in understanding what they are there for, why they need each other, and most importantly how to be creative, supportive, and critical without being the idiot who crushes another artist.

And so dear reader, there is your lesson. If you want to crush an artist all you need to do is be disdainful of their art. Because nothing crushes an artist faster than showing that what they’ve devoted their passion to is utterly unimportant to you, the audience they want to give some measure of joy to.

But then, why would you want to crush the people who make your world more beautiful, more wonderful, and more magical?  We live in a world where we crave art, but far to frequently we crush the artist right in front of us.

No wonder the world steadily becomes more and more sterile.

Another Carnival Done!

carnival_AnS_2015This past weekend at Kingdom A&S we ran the Carnival of The Phoenix again.

This time we played the day a little differently.  The last time all we did was shows through out the day, basically every hour on the hour.  This time, because it was A&S, we reserved the morning for classes and the afternoon for games and entertainment.  My apprentice Ghislaine taught two classes, I taught one.  I believe she will be posting about her classes relatively soon on her blog; Prognosticating Cow.  Be sure to wander over there and check it out.  She taught on the history of Necromancy and on the psychology of Divination presentations.  Both classes were very interesting.

I taught my Theatrical Skills for Bards class again, but this time I had probably the best turn out I have ever had with that class.  The students were very responsive and I know that at least a couple of them really saw something valuable in what I taught when they showed up for the show later on in the day.  More about that later.

After the classes and through the middle of the afternoon we had our Carnival games out, as well as all the juggling gear.  Several people came by to play and learn to juggle so we did that for about two hours.  Again, a great deal of fun was had.

A slight digression though; it looks like I need to put out the same kind of general rule/announcement about the Carnival just like Page School.  Kids are certainly welcome, but there needs to be a certain amount of parental involvement as well.  The Carnival isn’t supposed to be a baby-sitting service.  A few of the kids had their parents there for a bit but there were far more children then there were adults to watch them and we got close to having the game broken a time or two because the kids weren’t being properly managed.  So I’ll need to do something about that.

But the games went over well.  It is time to build one or two more though I think.  I’d like to have a few more.

That afternoon, after the games were done we were graced by an opportunity to host a toast to one of our friends, Maestra Vittoria, who has recently finished a long journey in academia and emerged with her doctorate; a great achievement.  I’ve been friends with her for a number of years now and I have had the pleasure of watching her on her journey every now and again.  She is an amazing person and I am very happy for her.

From there we went almost immediately in to our evening show.

carnival_choir_AnS_2015We started with The West Kingdom Choir.  They performed approximately 20 minutes of material and it was really wonderful.  We had a nice shady spot under the trees and the sun was setting so we had the makings of one of those magical SCA moments we so often look forward to.  The Choir was in fine voice and everyone really enjoyed their performance.

From there a few of the cast from the last Golden Stag Players show performed a scene from “12th Night” which we performed at this past 12th Night.  The jail scene which is one of the most iconic Shakespeare scenes and was very well performed.  Although I must admit that I missed an opportunity when I introduced them.  I should have said “Cope” like we usually do but I was distracted thinking about how to introduce the next performance and about my performance following that.

And then Maestra Vittoria performed her translation of a 16th Century Italian story about Narcissus.  It was a piece we’ve seen before but it was fabulous.  She had been working on it and this performance was amazingly funny.  It is a great humorous piece and it was wonderful to have it given that it’s hard to say we’ll have another performance from her again.  Now that she has finished her schooling she is on the job hunt and it seems likely that it will take her away from us.  I wish her well of course, but I and the Carnival will miss her.

Finally I got to do my show.

The Carnival provides me with the kind of “stage” that I truly appreciate.  A medium sized group, close enough to appreciate the slight of hand when I perform it, but just separated enough that I can have the formal stage I have grown up with all my life.

I performed three story pieces, the first a bare handed production of a rainbow ribbon, the second a new piece where I link three borrowed finger rings from the audience, and the final piece a routine written around a bottle that was a gift to the Caliph from Sinbad the Sailor.  The first and the third are pieces I have had at my command for some time but the second piece was a new and this was it’s first outing.

I was truly amazed at the power of the piece actually.  It is a recreation of a routine done by a professional that I have a great deal of respect for but done with my own words and presentation.  His performance of it stuck with me but his words and rhythm would never have worked for me.  My recreation focused on the idea of the universal nature of music and its ability to create harmony in anyone.  The story was a strong one and it clearly moved my audience.  I was very happy.

But what was perhaps the best part of my day, as much as I amazed my audience, was the fact that after the show I was approached by two of my students (at different times) from my “bardic skills” class, both of whom said that having seen my performance it crystallized their understanding of the material I taught earlier and they were looking forward to putting my lessons in to action in their own performances.

That is success.

So A&S was a lot of fun, the Carnival was a success, the classes were a success, and for about three days after I was totally exhausted.  But I’m back on my game now and very happy for it.

Hypnotic Wizardry

This weekend I was in Vegas at a seminar on “Hypnotic Wizardry.” So, what is that? Well it was all about learning the art of Stage Hypnosis and using principles of hypnosis in performance magic.

Sounds cool doesn’t it? Well, it’s even cooler than you might think.

But let me start at the beginning –

I’ve been doing magic for “a while now”. But when I first got started I was practicing in isolation. There were no other magicians in my area and there really wasn’t an I.B.M. (International Brotherhood of Magicians) club or an S.A.M. (Society of American Magicians) club in my immediate area. The closest magic shop was about an hour a way, which is admittedly not that far but far enough to make just hanging out there not really an option.

I was learning everything from books and training videos. Early on I discovered the works of Michael Ammar who is one of the most respected teachers in the field of magic. I went to a few of his seminars and learned a lot of great stuff. Stuff that is still in my repitoire today.

There are magic conventions, just like there are conventions for damn near everything else. None of them particularly interested me. I went to one or two and all you get is a couple hundred guys (and about half a dozen women sadly – a different topic entirely) all trying to outdo each other with the latest card sleight. No thanks.

Then I saw Jeff McBride on TV. Worlds Greatest Magic. And he was doing some really amazing stuff. About half of it was card work, but it was the kind of thing that I found interesting enough that I wanted to know more. I was finding myself as a magician and Jeff was doing magic I wanted to do. (This is, of course, on top of long standing admiration for David Copperfield who I had been watching since I was a kid.)

Doing my research I discovered that Jeff ran “The Mystery School.” And what I read about that was amazing! But controversial! How? Well, here was an annual gathering that was limited in size, focused not on the latest and greatest card trick but instead on theater, storytelling, character building, and a healthy dose of mysticism.

Yup, Jeff and his crew were trying to put magic back in to magic. At least that was what everyone on the outside was thinking. Ads and reviews talked about Mystery School as being an “experiential retreat” and that there would be drumming, and dancing, and fire circles……

Sound familiar? Sound like something someone like me would be fascinated by? Damn skippy!

Mystery School ran for ten years. I got to go to the ninth and tenth years. And while I could go on and on and on about how amazing it was for me, no matter how many words I used you wouldn’t entirely be able to get it. And that is on purpose. That’s what “experiential retreats” are about.

But I will say this, and my wife can confirm it. I came back a changed man.

I know how overly dramatic that sounds but truthfully I mean it. I had transformative experiences going to Mystery School. Profound shifts in the way I saw my art and how much impact it could and would have not just on my art but on my life.

This first one I went to was held in San Diego. I was there for a week. I took the train home. When I got off the train my wife said she didn’t need to see me through the crowd because I was hovering over the top of it.

Since then I have spent years learning more and more from Jeff and from Eugene Burger, the Dean of Mystery School. Their words, their works, their advice, has informed so much of what I do that other magicians who know them can see their finger prints on my work.

Since then I have returned to transformed versions of Mystery School whenever I can. And every time I return I am welcomed with open arms like I’m coming home.

Which is a long introduction to how I got here, but now there is another introduction to come. You see, like anyone my life has multiple paths in it. My journey, like yours, is made up of many components. One of those components is a long standing interest in hypnosis and hypnotherapy.

When I was younger, I loved the show M*A*S*H. Still do and now that Netflix has it I have been happily devouring it. My favorite reoccurring secondary character was Dr. Sydney Freedman. His calm, left of center approach to the insanity around him always appealed to me. Then there was an episode where it was necessary for him to put a young soldier (weren’t they all young?) in to a trance and recreate a battlefield scenario for him in order to get him to break his amnesia and begin to heal.

That scene taught me a lot about acting (I learned how to make myself cry on stage whenever I needed to from watching that scene) but it also sparked a deep interest in hypnosis. I began devouring material on the subject and even learned enough to start doing simple hypnosis with my friends. I took psychology classes. I wanted to learn it all.

Over the years I have returned to that interest many times. If I hadn’t gone in to a career in the software industry it’s very likely I would have become a hypnotherapist. Even now I have not discarded that idea and have researched courses on the subject to become a certified hypnotherapist.

Enter Richard Nongard, the guest speaker at the seminar I just came from.

Richard is a magician. But he is also a stage hypnotist and he is also a fully certified hypnotherapist. And, in fact, he is so good at what he does in this realm that other professionals come to him when they need advice.

Richard offers courses to become a fully certified hypnotherapist. I’ve looked at taking those course for a number of years and believe me, the moment I can put sufficient funds together to be able to afford it, I will be doing precisely that.

Richard, as a magician, was a student of Eugene Burger. He was also a student of Jeff McBride.

See how the circles close in?

I began with Richards work, in the same way that I began with Jeff’s. Books, video training, and learning everything I could. And my skill set with hypnotism has increased from that. But now we’re here.

Jeff likes to keep in touch with his students past and present. He uses Facebook to check in on them. He pops up on occasion liking things or making a quick comment just to let you know he’s there and he cares about what’s going on in your life.

A few months ago he posted something on his own page that I commented on, and I guess that the comment was insightful enough that he decided to reach out to me. In that conversation he invited me to come out, made it possible for me to do so and with the help of my friends and family I returned to Mystery School, this time to learn not just from Jeff, but from Richard, a skill set which has always been of deep interest to me.

So, that’s my introduction to this weekend. Yeah, kind of wordy, but necessary for you to understand the depth of what I got here.

As it turns out I had remarkably little trouble flying out and back. Usually flying is not the best situation for me, but short flights (only about an hour) are easier and I was able to manage.

I got out, got to my hotel, settled in and then waited in anticipation of the first evenings festivities. Just a meet and greet, but when it comes to Mystery School there is never anything ordinary about what we do. I met the other students (there were nine of us), and we were treated to a show. Jeff has part of his house set up as a theater space.

And let me just say right now that the range of people who come to Mystery School is pretty incredible. One of the students who was there was a competitor on Wizard Wars and this week will be filming for another Penn & Teller related even which I won’t say more about other than – COOL!!!!

The show consisted of some great magic from Jeff and a few visitors and a couple of the students. Some wonderful stuff really. Including a version of an David Copperfield effect I first saw several decades ago that is still one of the strongest effects in my memory, and this version was even better.

From there we simply enjoyed the evening and prepared ourselves for what was to come.

The next morning was registration, setting expectations, learning some magic and then learning the foundation principles of hypnosis. We got some great revelations.

Here is where things start to pay off for me. While I had learned so much about hypnosis already, I was now in a position where I could review that knowledge in a larger context and get a much better understanding of how all those pieces actually fit together and how to use them more effectively. I was given the tools I needed to actually bring my skills together, and I was given additional skills that let me start doing things I didn’t think I was ever going to learn.

Chief among those skills – the speed induction.

You’ve seen it. When the hypnotist walks up to somebody, snaps their fingers, says “sleep”, and the person just falls over in to a trance. Yeah. I can do that now.

Well, I can do it the way it’s actually done as opposed to the misunderstood “Hollywood Stereotype” way everyone thinks it is.

It’s the skill set that let me, that first day, put Jeff under hypnosis in less than fifteen seconds. Twice. In a crowded, noisy room.

How cool is this? It is deeply cool. You see so much of what I had read before on the topic was just unclear enough that the couple of times I managed it I was still uncertain of everything that went in to the process. Now I know. (Insert evil laugh here.)

The rest of the weekend involved learning more of the tools of the trade of Stage Hypnosis. It involved learning new magic that works on the same themes and can use some of the same principles. It involved building a deeper understanding of how minds work and how to work with people.

We also heard some “war stories.” Oh wow.

So a stage hypnosis show is all about “the things you get people to do that they wouldn’t normally do.” At least that is the basic understanding most people have. The classic “cluck like a chicken” comment pretty much sums that up.

But to give you a more precise idea, stage hypnosis is about creating hypnotic phenomena. What are hypnotic phenomena? Well that can be all kinds of things. Creating dreams, removing and blocking pain, time distortion, forgetting things, and catalepsy just to name a few.

So, what kinds of “war stories” do hypnotists have? Wow.

Let’s start, just at random with catalepsy. Here is how you can tell the difference between a stage hypnotist with insurance and one without insurance. The one without will do full body catalepsy in their show.

Turns out insurance companies that handle entertainers don’t like you to do things that might get people hurt. The typical full body catalepsy demonstration usually involves turning some small light bodied person into a board, setting them suspended between two boards and then sitting on them like a bench. Or some variation thereof.

Well, hypnosis can produce that full body catalepsy and a nice healthy strong body can become stiff enough to support a fair amount of weight. But what do you suppose happens when the person that gets hypnotized has a bad back? No way for the hypnotist to know that in advance.

Enough bad shit has happened that insurance companies call out “FULL BODY CATALEPSY” specifically as a reason they will not insure you or pay out a claim.

Let’s try something else.

Picture if you will, a row of people sitting on stage in a deep trance. In the center is a big biker dude. Sitting next to him is a tiny ninety-eight pound girl. While in a trance they have been told that when they wake up they will smell that most terrible smell they have ever smelled. It will be horrible. They will not get sick on stage, but it will be awful.

The hypnotist turns around, faces the audience, snaps his fingers and from behind him he hears a voice shout “OH MY GOD YOU STINK!” followed by the unmistakable sound of someone being punched in the face.

Yup.

Turns out the little girl jumped out of her chair, turned and punched the biker in the face and broke his nose.

And he had his nose broken so many times in the past that all he did was reach up, snap his nose back in to place and kept on going like nothing had happened.

Or here’s a good one.

First you have to understand something about hypnosis. You’re never really completely asleep. You aren’t sleeping at all really. You are just in a state of trance. There are only two things that can happen as a result of this. Either –

1 – You wake up.

2 – You fall completely asleep like normal and you wake up later.

That’s it.

However, because people who come to see these shows often don’t understand this (did you before I said it? You may have but that’s because I have a generally smarter readership.), they have been known to pretend to stay hypnotized looking for their opportunity to either get more attention for themselves or to even maybe sue somebody, probably the hypnotist.

One such case involved a teenager who ended up suing on the grounds that while being left in a hypnotic state from which he allegedly could not awaken he was also left open to being possessed by demons.

The insurance company settled that one.

One last “war story” that was shared with us.

The hypnotist who we went to see Saturday evening put on a hell of a show. And one of the things he advertises as part of the show is that every single show is recorded and if you want a DVD of the show (for instance because you were on stage) than you can buy one within minutes after the show is done. He has a full DVD burner set up where here is cranking out several disks in just a few minutes.

He keeps a disk of every show for himself. Now, a lot of performers record their performances for a variety of reasons. Archival, self examination to help improve the show. Things like that.

He keeps it because he has been accused of doing things that he has later needed video evidence of in order to prove his innocence.

As a stage performer I am aware of, and have had to deal with hecklers and other problematic audience members or volunteers.

Imagine being approached by an angry husband who is accusing you of being rude, nasty, and even potentially abusive to his wife.

“My wife says you called her names and threw her off your stage.”

“Well, sir, I did throw her off stage, and here is why.” Cue video footage of drunk off her ass wife making herself a total nuisance, disrupting the show, being politely asked to restrain herself, refusing to cooperate, calling the hypnotist nasty names, repeatedly being asked politely to restrain herself, getting physically violent with the hypnotist and being forcefully removed from the show.

Now imagine embarrassed husband shaking his head, apologizing to the hypnotist and leaving.

Yeah.

Other things we learned?

Hmm, how about, shake the hand of every person you bring up on stage. Why? Because if you do that you can take a moment to pull their arm slightly and twist their wrist up and look for cutting or needle marks. Yup.

How about, don’t bring up the painfully thin looking woman on stage. Why? You can tell the difference between thin and painfully thin, and the painfully thin ones are potentially anorexic which means they might trigger for a variety of reason, none of which you have any real control over but if they do on your stage then you know you’re going to have to, at the very least, defend that in court.

Don’t bring up the 350 lbs guy who broke a sweat standing up. Why? Because he’s going to pick a moment during your show to have a heart attack. And once again, at the very least, you’re going to have to defend that in court.

Now, lest you think that these things are a common occurrence allow me to reassure you. These are rare. These are “war stories.” Every performer has them. The point is that I got to hear them and I got to learn from them and I got to learn what to do about them. That’s what “war stories” are good for.

But the good stuff…. oh wow, the good stuff.

Here’s the thing. A hypnosis show is about the good stuff. It’s about helping a bunch of people on stage have the best damn time of their lives. How? Because what hypnosis does is it allows you to come out of your shell. It brings out the silly side.

Examples from the show we saw.

Two of the students from the class were on stage. They were on either side immediately around the big black dude sitting in the center named Chad. He was the anchor. Everyone, when they fell in to a trance leaned to the center because Chad could support them all, and he was awesome.

Remember that “everything smelling bad” from earlier? Know what happens when you tell everyone that the smell they are about to smell is the best smell they have ever smelled and that smell is coming from the person sitting next to you?

Everyone sniffs each other. Picture two small guys sniffing Chad in the center of the stage. Are you laughing? You should be. It was hilarious! And the next day at school, one of them walked in and said in a nice loud voice “that dude smelled really good last night.”

And Cynthia. Oh Cynthia.

Cynthia was a short, somewhat overweight, mid-40s lady. And she’s got some moves. How do I know? Because she got up and danced like Britney Spears. And she loved it. Not just because she was told that she loved it, but because after she had been brought out of hypnosis at the end of the show the entire audience cheered her on for how cool she was.

And Brenda? Well, Brenda wasn’t on stage. She was sitting in the audience. Who is she? She’s Chad’s girlfriend. They were in Vegas for their two year anniversary. I don’t know a lot, but I know this – for the rest of the weekend, any time Brenda (and only Brenda) said the word “purple” Chad was compelled to give her a big kiss.

Was he really “compelled”? Well, you can’t make someone do something they wouldn’t really do anyway. But with hypnosis you can trigger them to do things they want to do without reservation that’s for sure, and from what the audience saw, Chad must be a pretty damn good kisser.

In the end every single one of those people on stage had a fabulous time. And in the end they were all given a great experience that they will always remember (because they were told to remember everything they did, and I’m sure there were some DVD sales at the end there as well), and they were left with post hypnotic suggestions that gave them energy and well being and joy.

Now, who wouldn’t want to be able to do things like that?

I certainly do. And now, thanks to my trip to Vegas, the generosity of my magic mentors and friends, all my friends and family here, I have a new skill set. And a new energy and drive to entertain and help people with what I’ve learned.

Would you like to experience hypnotism?

Then listen to my voice as I count back from –

–three–

–two–

–one–

Sleep.

Going to Vegas!

In a few days I will be heading out to Vegas to take a seminar on magic and stage hypnotism/NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming)!  I am really looking forward to this.

The magic portion of things will be handled by my favorite magic teacher and mentor, Jeff McBride.  I’ve been studying Jeff’s work for years and I’ve learned so much.  It’s been several years since I’ve seen him and his lovely wife Abbey, so I am truly looking forward just to getting out and renewing our friendship.  As an alum of Mystery School it’s a bit like a home coming for me.

The big portion of things for me is the hypnosis/NLP part.  I’ve been interested in the topic since I was in High School.  I actually have done it off and on for a number of years, but only self taught.  The person who is teaching this material is actually a former student of Jeff’s, a gentleman named Richard Nongard.  At this point Richard is actually so accomplished that he runs his own school(s) and provides certifications for professional hypnosis all the way up to clinical hypnotherapy.

I have spent the past couple of years trying to figure out when I could assemble the funds needed to take the full certification.  It’s broken in to parts and I’ve looked at acquiring them in stages, but given that it’s an actual license I’d be pursuing it is a bit more expensive than I’ve been able to put together.  (I’ve considered a ‘gofundme’ type request in the past.)

Regardless, being able to finally meet and learn from him will be an excellent experience.

I’ve seen a few stage hypnosis acts and I’m very interested in building one myself.  It’s more or less the ultimate “packs small/plays big” show since I don’t have to pack anything at all and all the props are people!  Life size!

Over the years I have seen a few such shows and I like them.  I also like the idea of being able to use those kinds of skills to help people.  Hence my interest in the whole certification program.  I have seen many people benefit from such work, and even with my limited skills I’ve helped a few myself with simple things.  If a good opportunity presents itself for me to gain more experience and get closer to pursuing such a certification I will definitely leap on it.

And when I get back, if you happen to look across the field at an SCA event and you see the entire Laurel or Pelican council suddenly slump in their chairs and then get up and start clucking like chickens you’ll know I learned some really great stuff!

Not Necessarily a Plethora of Options

timthumbFor the most part there just isn’t a lot of magic on television. I mean magic shows, magicians. It is, of course, something of a niche market and really a specialty item. As it should be.

But that does mean that when magic shows do come on television then magicians like me flock to them desperate to be entertained. We hunger for the opportunity to see something new and different, to see something that might challenge us or inspire us to engage.

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that there are two new shows on television for magicians to enjoy. The bad news is that you’re only going to enjoy one of them.

Well, that’s what I think anyway. And if you are anything like me, you want the bad news first so you can get it out of the way.

So, The CW is airing a show called Masters of Illusion. What a disappointment. In truth I only heard about this show at all because one of my mentors (Jeff McBride) will be appearing on it, so he announced it on his Facebook feed. I have watched four episodes so far and I have yet to see an episode where he appears but I am dreading it. Not because Jeff will be bad, far from it. In point of fact my feeling is that many of the magicians appearing on this show are probably quite brilliant.

The problem is the editing. It’s terrible.

Allow me to explain. Magic as an art requires at least a small amount of time for every magician to establish themselves and their character on stage. This can be done relatively quickly or it can take a bit longer, especially if you have information you want the audience to know before you start performing the effect. We need that time to establish the storyline and to create the right mood to build the effect.

Some years ago for about five years running at Thanksgiving a magic show aired called Worlds Greatest Magic (which was, by the way, the first time I ever saw Jeff McBride perform). This show would feature about 8 magicians and would take an hour to run. There would be a host and even some magic taught to the viewing audience. But because the format was as long as it was all of the magicians were given a decent slice of time to not only establish themselves and their act, but to be properly introduced and lauded for their accomplishments (winner of this award or that award, voted best magician by this group, etc, etc, etc), so that the audience could truly appreciate who these performers were and what they had accomplished in order to be considered among the “Worlds Greatest”.

The editors at The CW seem to think that they can take the same basic show and cram it into half an hour. No lessons, almost nothing in the way of introductions, no chances at all for the magicians to establish themselves or their acts on stage. Every aspect of the show is rushed and as a result nothing is particularly entertaining.

It’s clear that these are some talented magicians for the most part (okay, yes, a couple are really surprisingly bad from my personal perspective). And I’m sure that given a more reasonable amount of time they could, in fact, be vastly more interesting than The CW seems to be willing to allow them and that is a real shame.

Magic as an art form, as an entertainment can be one of the most satisfying not just for the performers but for an audience that really is drowning in the vast mediocrity of television options. Little would have to change right now for the show to be improved ten fold. Make the show an hour long and give those same magicians a nicer slice of time and they will do the rest. Guaranteed. The CW would have a winner on its hands.

But I did say there was good news too, didn’t I? Well there is and it comes in the form of yet another Penn & Teller show called Wizard Wars.

Competition shows have become a pretty solid mainstay of television fair right now, and SyFy has come up with a number of them over the years that have been just eccentric enough to win them some solid ratings. Well, SyFy has taken a chance on magicians this time with Penn & Teller at the helm.

Wizard Wars is a competition show where two teams of magicians come in, are handed a stack of random everyday objects and told “Go make a magic act using all this junk.” Then the teams come back, compete against each other for an audience and a panel of judges consisting of Penn & Teller and two other judges. The winning team moves on to the next round where they will compete against two of the four “Wizards” to create yet another original piece of magic with a whole new pile of random objects.

If the competitors win they get $10,000.

All of this takes place in a nice comfortable hour long block were we get to see each of the four “Wizards” do a little something, we get to learn about the competitors and what they do, we get to see four full acts from start to finish, and we get to learn a little something from Penn & Teller as well.

There has only been one episode of Wizard Wars to date and already I am totally blown away. And I think that the magic I’ve seen in Wizard Wars is significantly better than what I’ve seen on four episodes of Masters of Illusion.

Okay, so I don’t have a lot of options to watch magic on television, and I’ll keep watching Masters of Illusion because I’m fairly certain that The CW knows that my lack of choice guarantees them at least some audience share. But Wizard Wars wins this war in my opinion hands down.

BONUS: Penn & Teller ran a show over in the UK for the past couple of years called Penn & Teller: Fool Us which was another competition type show. Performers came on, did their acts and if they were good enough to fool Penn & Teller, then they got to come to Vegas to open for Penn & Teller in their theatre.

All those episodes are now airing here in the US. Yes, I watched several of them on YouTube, but they are here now on broadcast television, so one more option for my magic viewing pleasure!

The Phoenix Calmly Nesting In Ashes – West Kingdom Towne Faire

 

phoenix_014When I first thought of the idea of trying to create a kind of SCA Carnival, it was intended to be a show place for the entertainers who normally don’t get a chance to perform at events because what they do doesn’t necessarily fit around the classic ‘bardic circle’. That space is perfect for singers, musicians, poets and storytellers. I can compete there as a magician from time to time, but it isn’t exactly the right venue for me. (I talk about managing venues in the SCA in my article “Theatrical Skills for the SCA Bard.”)

So, to a certain extant, the creation of The Carnival of The Phoenix has been a selfish act, giving myself the venue I most want for my magic. But I am unbelievably fortunate to have friends who benefit from the same kind of venue, and this past weekend at the first ever West Kingdom Towne Faire I had the perfect opportunity to bring out The Carnival not just for myself but for those entertainer friends of mine. The end result was pretty fabulous.

Friday saw me on site first thing, even before the event coordinators. Considering how very loaded down my vehicle was I left early in order to give myself enough time to drive safely to the site. I was only early by an hour or so and that gave me time to sit and relax and enjoy the calm before the storm. I already knew roughly where I was going to be as a map had been made early on. The Carnival was given a rather premier space over all, being set at the end of one of the long crossroads, and actually mostly in a nice shady spot. We had the road noise to deal with, but all things considered we were actually pretty brilliantly set and if this event is done again I would most happily use that same space. It was ideal for us.

Saturday morning we set up our carnival games and my apprentice took her place for part of the scheduled time as the fortune teller. She had her own booth as well, just across the road from the Carnival so she spent most of her time there.

IMG_0462The games we set out were built by my friend Rory Jamesson and I. Though to give credit where credit is due, Rory did the bulk of the work including the research on the games and how they were to be played. The first was in essence a table top version of bowling called Skittles. The second was a table top version of shuffle board called Shove Groat.

The Shove Groat tables were set up so more players could be playing simultaneously, but I think that the Skittles table was a bit more popular. Both were being played more or less continuously and both were equally accessible to both adults and children, both as far as the rules were concerned and just the physical nature of the games.

We left the games running all morning and about half way through the lunch break. But it was definitely time to break them down so that we could set up the first of our actual acts.

Yukiko and her “Noh Hands PuIMG_0477ppet Theater” were reprising their puppet play “The Krakken Bell Brothers.” The first time we got the Carnival up and running it was a bit difficult as we were facing some extreme weather challenges, in this case extremely high temperatures. In fact most of the acts I had lined up had vanished on us and the only ones that made it through were the puppet play, my magic show, and my apprentice reading fortunes during a bard circle afterward.

We did have a bit of a weather challenge this time, but in this case it was wind threatening to blow down the puppet stage. Some quick thinking on my part and we had ropes and stakes set to hold everything in place. It worked extremely well and the puppet show went on.

It was quite the success. I didn’t take an actual head count (I wish I had thought to), but from what I can recall I would say that there were probably 15 to 20 people watching the show, kids and adults, and everyone clearly enjoyed it. And this was what I considered to be the first real hurdle – one of our “shows” and how much audience we could draw. Given the overall size of the event and the number of things we had to compete with I considered this to be an extreme success.

IMG_0484Next we had Inara The Minstrel who hosted songs and stories out of The Carnival. Although a stage space had been set up we decided for the comfort of the audience to bring them in to the sunshade and arranged them around so that they could all see and hear Inara just fine. Inara put on a heck of a show. Solo performers have their own special challenges. Inara rose to those challenges and definitely exceeded them. People got to hear songs they hadn’t heard before and I am sure I will remember and tell the story of “The Debate in Sign Language” because it was hysterical.

Again, it was definitely a success with another rough audience count of 15 to 20. By this point I felt that if we got the same kinds of counts for the rest of the shows on the schedule then we would be doing extremely well.

IMG_0511After that we we graced by the lovely Vittoria who regaled us with an adapted story from a historical source, because she is so good that way, called “The Ambling Nymph.” The story is adapted from Isabella Andreini’s 1588 comedy, La Mirtilla, and it was about a lovely wood nymph who finds a pool of water to take a bath in but upon seeing the audience thinks better of it. Seeing her own reflection becomes enamored and things get even funnier from there.

It was wonderfully entertaining and Vittoria, dressed as a wood nymph was charming and funny, especially with that blond wig on. Normally she has auburn hair and the wig totally changed everything. Some people actually didn’t recognize her at first because of it. She too had a good sized audience who were vastly entertained by her antics.

IMG_0524This brought us up to the next act which was The Golden Stag Players (GSP)doing their encore performance of “The Lunatic Lovers”, which is the Commedia dell’Arte show we did at 12th Night. The past few weeks we had a couple of pick up rehearsals and put a lot of energy into figuring out how to deal with being an an outdoor venue. It has been over 20 years since the GSP has performed outside.

I have to say that this worried me a great deal. Not that I didn’t think the actors could handle it. The brilliance of improve is that you can adapt to virtually anything. But at this point in the day the wind was kicking up and the curtains were proving to be useless. Also, the audience was going to be sitting in the sun and the show is long enough that I was a bit worried about that.

People adapt though. Many had brought parasols and hats. Many sat in the large communal pavilion that was right across the road from us on the opposite side as the Diviner. And all together I believe that the play had as many as 30 to 50 people watching, a tremendous audience given the conditions. Admittedly our 12th Night shows are much larger, but for an outside venue this was amazing!

At this point we took about two hours to have a bit of a potluck with any of the entertainers who wanted to be with us. It was not as well organized as I wanted it to be but that is entirely on me. It’s one of the planning things that simply fell through the cracks on my end of the world. I’ll cut myself some slack though given how much of this whole thing was riding on my shoulders to begin with. Everyone played their parts well, but if I had asked for a bit more help I’m sure things could have gone better. Control freak on my part.

IMG_0597Of course the real issue for me was that after the dinner break was my magic show and despite every effort on my part to plan, prepare and rehearse, I never got the opportunity to. So I still only had the roughest idea of what I was going to actually do. I knew where I was starting, I knew where I was ending and I knew on piece I was going to do in the middle. Everything else was improvised based on what I had with me in my bag of tricks.

Still I managed to put on a good 20 to 30 minute show (didn’t time myself) and everyone loved it, especially the fire eating end which happened just as things were starting to get dark. And I too had a good sized audience including The Queen!

Once that was done it was time for the open bardic circle. It proved to be a bit smallish but truthfully I liked that. And although Inara had not initially planned on staying so late (she had many things to do), she did end up staying and managing the circle and we made “sh’moes” (yes, I know they are s’mores, but we make them with fancy chocolate and sometimes even home made marsh mellows, so we give them a different name).

The next day was a slow break down. Usually the people who camp with me stick around to help break things down but due to some serious medical concerns they ended up leaving early (as far as I know all is well at this time), so it was just myself for the first part of the morning and then my apprentice helping towards the end. So it went slower than usual, but considering how tired and sore I was from the previous day, slow was just fine.

So I believe that this time around The Carnival was a complete success. It came together almost exactly as I had envisioned it. There were some hiccups along the way but anyone who has ever been in the theater can tell you that no show is perfect. This was, as I told everyone who would listen, my circus and my monkeys. They all made me proud.

But it’s time for this Phoenix to rest among it’s ashes, having burned with the brightest fires of creativity and theatricality.

The Carnival of The Phoenix will rise again but only time can tell us when.

The Carnival of The Phoenix Rises Again – West Kingdom Towne Faire

This weekend, at a brand new SCA Event called The West Kingdom Towne Faire we will have the opportunity to once again present The Carnival of The Phoenix!

And oh, what an event it is going to be. The whole thing is going to be unlike other SCA events. I expect it to be a very different challenge to run than any event has been done before. Rather than have an event centered around the activities of fighting, it is going to be centered around, well pretty much everything else.

Arts, crafts, entertainment, games, food and really all the other wonderful things that we do as an organization which don’t normally get the spot light.

As to The Carnival itself, well we have a very full schedule.

First we’ll be setting up the morning with games and our Diviner. Rory and I built a game table called Skittles (consider it a table top version of bowling), and we built a pair of two player game tables for a game called “Shove Groat” which is basically a table top version of shuffle board. Well, I say that Rory and I built them, but truthfully he put far more work into them than I did. He’s the skilled wood worker and he has done a fabulous job.

My apprentice is, of course, the Diviner. She will be spending the morning at the Carnival proper, but she also has her own booth nearby where you will be able to go and get your fortune told and even a proper medieval horoscope drawn!

Then, after the lunch break we will have a puppet show called “The Krakken Bell Brothers”! This is the puppet show we had when the Carnival last appeared. It is the fable of two Scandinavian brothers and the dreaded monster of the sea, the Krakken, that shaped their fates! It is fabulous!

Following that the lovely and talented Inara The Minstrel will be playing songs, telling stories and doing a bit of bellydancing for your entertainment! Inara really is a wonderfully talented variety entertainer and brings an amazing energy to her shows.

Another lovely and talented storyteller, Vittoria, (yes, I am a very fortune man with so many lovely ladies sharing their skills with the Carnival!) will then be presenting a tale called “The Ambling Nymph”, a comic sketch about the (mis)adventures of a strong-minded wood nymph. Adapted from Isabella Andreini’s 1588 comedy, La Mirtilla.

Did you miss The Golden Stag Players at 12th Night doing their Commedia dell’Arte performance of “The Lunatic Lovers”? Did you want to see it again? Well here is your chance! The Golden Stag Players are the Premier Acting Troupe of The West Kingdom. For more than 20 years now The Golden Stag Players have been providing entertainment at 12th Night, but now you can see them in a totally new setting which has brought out a whole new level of comedy and hijinks the likes of which you have not seen before! Now with 10% more jokes and 5% more laughs! Okay, just kidding about that part, (really it’s a lot more than that!) but trust me when I say you’ll love this show!

After the dinner break Master Magician Juan Santiago (HEY! That’s Me!) will be presenting a display of the Prestidigitory Arts to amaze and astound you. Years of study in both the medieval and modern arts of the magician have helped Santiago create a performance that has helped him achieve both his Laurel in the SCA and his membership to the prestigious Magic Castle in Hollywood and to The Inner Circle of Bizarre Magicians.

Finally, join us around the fire for an open Bardic Circle where all of you will have the opportunity to share your talents and your joy of performing!

It promises to be an amazing day and I look forward to seeing you!

For more information about the event please visit:

http://www.westkingdomfaire.org/

Our schedule for The Carnival of The Phoenix is:

  • 9:00AM – 12:00PM  – Carnival Games
  • 9:00AM – 11:00AM  – Madam Ghislaine, Diviner
  • 1:00PM – Puppet Show – The Kraken Bell Brothers
  • 2:00PM – Inara The Minstrel, Songs, Stories and Bellydancing!
  • 3:00PM – Vittoria’s Story TimeStory Time: “The Ambling Nymph”
  • 4:00PM – Golden Stag Players: “The Lunatic Lovers”
  • 8:00PM – The Magic of Juan Santiago
  • 9:00PM – Bardic Circle & Fortune Telling

Risa’s Stars Were Not Aligned

As promised, I am writing a post explaining the insanity I faced at my recent gig at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Let me say up front that the gig was actually really good. I enjoyed myself for everything else that happened. I made a bit of a reconnection with the local magic club and the people at the museum were friendly and easy to work with. Everyone I dealt with, audience, other entertainers, other exhibitors and the staff were fabulous.

But the people of Risa’s Stars were most definitely not. I should explain.

So the event was a members night for the museum where they decided that the theme would be ‘magic.’ This theme was being fairly broadly interpreted. They had myself as a strolling magician, they had the local club doing ‘stage time’, they had people doing bubble stuff, playing Magic The Gathering, showing films of magicians, people making magic wands, people teaching how to “cast spells” (yes, supposedly ‘real’ spells), displaying ‘the magic of physics’, talks about the magic of the universe and astronomy.

And astrology.

Okay, it is no surprise that I have little use for astrology and people ‘casting real spells.’ Yeah. Right.

But I will say right here and now that I didn’t go looking for trouble, I didn’t go looking for these people, I didn’t intend to interact with any of them. Not because of my disagreements with what they do but simply because I was there to do what I do, entertain people. I was in full on professional mode.

Here is the way this comes together. I was brought on early. I went to the museum about a month and half before the gig to talk with the events coordinator and to check out the area. This was a totally volunteer gig, I wasn’t going to get paid. That was fine. Doing free gigs every now and again is a good thing, and considering it was for the museum I felt pretty good about it.

If you haven’t been to this particular museum it’s pretty nice. It is three levels and at the very top there is an open air sculpture garden which I thought would be a really good place to entertain. At the bottom level was a stage area, on the middle level landing the local club magicians were set up and I was set to wander about and entertain any place I wanted.

The event was to run from five o’clock to eight o’clock. But, because we were all unpaid volunteers we were told that we could come whenever we wanted and leave whenever we wanted.

I showed up at five o’clock. I changed into my costume very quickly and got out among the already over full site. They had anticipated three hundred. Apparently they had about seven hundred.

I made a point of checking in with the event coordinator first thing and then proceeded to wander about. I found the local club group and made contact. I performed for a couple of kids and then I found myself at the top of the museum.

When I wandered out on to the open air sculpture garden I was impressed. Someone had decorated with strings of lights and put up a popup tent that had been decorated to be a kind of ‘meditation’ space. All around the space they had set up astrological signs – ie sheets of paper with a sign and the appropriate date range for the modern signs. They also had chalked up the pavement with a ‘meditation path’ and drawn a simply horoscope circle.

In other words nothing that particularly marked this as an exhibit instead of the outside space it was intended to be save the actual popup. No one was walking around the space explaining anything or offering up any interaction with the guests in order to make it clear there was anything there except stuff to look at, and mostly pretty boring stuff at that.

When I walked out the door and into the space I was actually very warmly greeted by the woman I presumed to be “Risa” of Risa’s Stars. After the fact, mind you. At the time she didn’t introduce herself or her exhibit. I’ve made the guess about her identity based on information gathered after the fact. In any case all she did was compliment me my costume and point out that I would go well with the tent they had set up, including pointing out the camel they had set up.

I thanked her for the compliment and then moved away rather quickly because there was another woman standing there with a burning smudge stick and it was rather noxious to me.

I walked over to the tent that had a small bench in front of it. I sat down, pulled out my bubble stuff and started entertaining the kids who had been running around and screaming like kids are want to do. When I pull the bubble stuff out they immediately gather and they generally settle down. The adults walked up behind and were smiling and enjoying what I was doing.

But after a few minutes the lady with the smudge stick walked over and asked me to stop because what I was doing was blocking the path. Which was true. The kids were sitting on the chalk path that had been drawn on the ground. So I wrapped up and cleared the path. Makes perfect sense.

So I got up, walked around a little bit and noticed three women sitting on a bench. Still doing what I was brought on to do I approached them and asked if they wanted to see a little magic. They said yes and I began performing one of my favorite card tricks.

When I was finished the woman I have tentatively identified as “Risa” of Risa’s Stars came over and proceeded to chastise me. She literally got in my face and began talking to me like I was a child. She was extremely rude. She tried to tell me I had no right to be there. She told me that I was being rude. She yelled at me that no one told her that I was going to be doing what I was doing.

She also tried to tell me that this was not a personal attack. Yeah, right. Someone gets in your face and tells you that you have no right to be doing what you were actually ‘hired’ to do? Someone who, by the way, has trapped one of the guests (the other two managed to get out) and forced them to sit through this childish tirade instead of trying to be professional and having a calm discussion about the situation.

Her biggest complaint? Apparently what I was doing was taking away from what they were doing. Which, as near as I can tell, was sitting on their asses and doing nothing because, as I mentioned before, no one was actually interacting with the guests who were there. No one was being told what their supposed ‘exhibit’ was even about.

At one point during her incoherent rant she tried to get a rise out of me by accusing me of ‘smirking’ at her while she was yelling at me. What I was doing was controlling myself and keeping my calm and professionalism in place. Many of the things this idiot complained about were so irrationally sad I could have easily taken her apart without even trying.

At another point she asked me “you understand what I’m telling you?” I responded, literally, with the phrase “I see what you are saying” and she actually yelled back at me “NO, DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I AM TELLING YOU?”

Now, here is the beauty part of the fact that since this is my blog and I can therefore say pretty much anything I want on it. What I responded to her with was “yes, I understand.” What I wanted to say was:

FUCKING BITCH!!!!

I was literally stunned with how incredibly childish, rude and utterly irresponsible this woman was. I was straining to keep my professionalism as much as possible, speaking softly, maintaining my composure and trying to figure out how to get the poor guest who was still trapped there out of the middle of this.

But “Risa” at this point tried to threaten me by saying she was going to go talk to the event coordinator, a threat she attempted a couple of times prior in her rant. I simply responded with “yes, lets go talk to her” and Risa then left.

At this point I turned to the poor woman who had been trapped through this whole thing and apologized profusely to her. She was amazingly gracious, complimented me on my handling or “Risa” and on my skill as a magician. I thanked her and then headed off to find the rest of the magicians who needed to be warned that if they were going to do any strolling as well that they should stay away from the “astrologers exhibit.”

By that point I turned around and the lovely woman who was the event coordinator was standing there and apologizing for the rudeness of “Risa’s Stars.” She told me that this group was a last minute addition to the event and that they had been problematic from the word go.

I told the event coordinator that I was fine, that I wasn’t worried about the whole thing and that I was sorry she had to deal with the whole thing. I stayed away for the rest of the event and had a really great time.

All that being said, let me just say the following things:

  1. First off, the actual people at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History are pretty cool.
  2. From where I stand astrology is a joke, a bag of pseudoscience that can easily be debunked and has been time and time again. If you want to talk to me about this position I am open to debate.
  3. Go to the Museum.
  4. Risa’s Stars isn’t worth dealing with even if you are someone who thinks there is value in astrology. Any group of people who would act so irresponsibly in a public venue should not be trusted.
  5. Go to the Museum.

In all my years of performing I have dealt with a wide variety of people. I’ve been heckled. I’ve had contract problems. I’ve dealt with unappreciative audiences. I’ve dealt with drunk audiences. I’ve competed against bands. I’ve dealt with bad promoters. I’ve dealt with a lot of crazy crap.

I’ve never dealt with anything as bad as “Risa” of Risa’s Stars.

Criss Angel, Jackass.

I have never exactly been a fan of Criss Angel.  I have been willing to give him his props.  I mean, lets face it, the guy is on TV and he has a permanent theater at The Luxor in Las Vegas.  Clearly he’s doing something right.

But not for me.

He’s been doing magic all his life, but when he first really rose above the sight line that I am aware of, he was doing very heavy, very dark presentations.  He had a really strong “Heavy Metal/Goth” vibe going and he was doing things that had a lot of scary themes and graphic visuals in it.  And, again, to give him credit, he was pretty darn good at it.

He just didn’t appeal to me, though I know in those early days of his broader public appeal my apprentice really did seem to enjoy what he was doing.

When he got to his “MindFreak” days on TV, he was doing each episode as a collection of magic effects ending with some really big escape stunt after the last commercial break.  Which, of course, was being hyped through the entire show.  A reasonable formula, but since I generally am not interested in escapes as magic (I like escapes I just don’t think they are ‘magic’), I was rarely interested in the last part of the show.  As the escapes got bigger they didn’t really get better, they just got bigger. And in some cases, stupider.   (Surviving inside a crate with some C4.  Really?)

This latest television series he is doing is called “BeLIEve”.  Yes with the funky caps.  Notice that the word “believe” contains the word “lie”.  Yes, there is a deeper philosophical and non-performance magic related discussion there, but I’m going to stay away from it for now.  You’re welcome.

The point of “BeLIEve” is that he is attempting things which are supposed to be done purely through physical training and skill.  I’m not sure what the means exactly since that is just as valid a definition for what we magician’s do as well.  The big point is that he’s supposedly doing all this stuff “for real” instead of using any trickery.  For example the first episode, called “Blind”, saw Criss walking a suspended beam 30 feet in the air which had a two food wide gap in the middle he would have to traverse while blindfolded.

He kept making a big deal about the idea that “no one had ever done this before” but blindfolded tightrope walkers have been around for a long time.  His “gap” in the middle is an interesting twist, but not exactly something I would call spectacularly different.  But again, credit where credit is due, this is an interesting spin on classic circus skills and would require some pretty serious training.

In fact we know it took serious training because Criss had help from a friend who does a tightrope act for Cirque Du Soleil.  Well, “friend”, sure.  Or maybe a guy they hired, I don’t know.  And boy did we get to see all the training.  His big deal sticking point was that he was absolutely determined to do this stunt without a safety harness.  So through the whole episode we heard “no harness! no harness! no harness! wah, they’re going to make me wear a harness” which seemed utterly ingenuous to me because I just can’t imagine any place that would let him do the stunt without safety gear in place, or that The Luxor, which has invested millions of dollars in Criss as a property would let him do something that would truly be that stupid.  So the harness thing seemed very trumped up to me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were also all the ‘tricks’ that Criss did while the episode was working it’s way up to it’s big stunt finally (sound like the formula is familiar?  Yeah, I noticed it right away too.)

The thing about “street magic” on TV is that it isn’t really street magic.  It’s safer to say that it’s impromptu magic.  Everyone you see on the TV already knows that they are about to see some magic.  They’ve already been approached by a manager, in some cases they’ve taken the time to get some paperwork signed, and generally speaking they have been prepared to see some magic performed.  Let’s face it, if suddenly a camera crew appears around you than you probably know something is up.

At best you can say that they may have no advanced knowledge beyond “hey kids!  Let’s watch the magician and we’re going to be on TV!”

Watching the stuff I watched however, I find it almost impossible to believe that any of those tricks being done were anything other than staged effects with shills everywhere.  The production value of the presentations made me absolutely convinced that these people were on the payroll.  And that’s to bad, because much of what we saw during the “MindFreak” episodes was actually much closer to “street magic” then what we are seeing in “BeLIEve.”

So, we get to the end of “Blind”, Criss has walked the I-Beam of Death(TM) and now it’s on to the next episode.

The next episode, “Cement Grave”, is clearly some variation on a buried alive effect.  The crappy tricks are still staged crappy tricks.  The artificial two week deadline to get the effect ready is over hyped.  And Criss engages in “training” himself to be able to do the things he needs to do, one of which is be able to hold his breath for an extended period of time.

And here it is, folks.  Here is why I now think Criss Angel is a total Jackass.  Every nice thing I said before, every inch of wiggle room I gave with regards to “well, he’s good but just not my taste for entertainment” goes flying out the window.

You see, in order to train himself to be able to hold his breath for extended periods of time Criss gets in contact with an ex-Navy Seal buddy of his and he has himself water boarded.

That’s right, Criss Angel is getting himself water boarded ON F*CKING TV!!!!!

This abhorrent, disturbing, despicable form of TORTURE is being used as a “training” method to get ready for A F*CKING ESCAPE STUNT!!!!  How many people across the country were suddenly having to turn away from this horrible site they were suddenly confronted with?   Because there was no warning.  One minute we’re listening to Criss talk about getting some help to learn how to hold his breath and the next minute we suddenly looking at TORTURE!!!

WTF?????

Okay, maybe, just maybe, there was a reason the could be given to justify this as a method for training oneself to hold their breath.  I don’t believe that such a reason is likely to be valid since I know there are plenty of far less violent ways to train yourself to do the same thing.  But let’s just say that this was the method that had to be used.  Let’s suppose that all other avenues were exhausted and there was a damn good reason to use water boarding.

It doesn’t change the simple fact that water boarding is a terrible thing.

It doesn’t change the fact that you would have to be a blind ass moron to not be aware of the impact it’s had on us in terms of legal questions and psyche questions.

It doesn’t change the fact that the choice to put this on television was a deliberate one.

There is only one reason that someone would stoop so low as to put that on TV as “entertainment.”  Shock value.  Well, I’m shocked alright.

And for that particular bit of transgression Criss Angel has dropped to the very bottom of the heap for me.

I am done.

Sexuality in Magic and The Picture I’ll Never Look At Again

cups and ballsEver have one of those moments where your perception of something changes so drastically that you will never be able to see it the same way again? Yes, you have, whether you realize it or not. A simple example would be if you were to try and go back in your mind to a time before you knew that 1+1=2. There was such a time, but once you learned about numbers and math your fundamental perception changed so completely that you simply can’t imagine going back anymore. You can’t unlearn what you have learned.

Take a look at this picture at the beginning here because I’m going to come back to that perception later on.

Art, really of any kind, will touch on some pretty powerful themes in order to be “art.” Every real artist I know or have read about seems to share that perspective.

Sex and sexuality are very definitely powerful themes to touch on.

My apprentice and I have discussed this on any number of occasions. We’ve considered the idea that magic is sexist or that certain effects in magic may be more masculine and some may be more feminine. We covered the idea that even certain props might be more “masculine” or more “feminine.”

The most obvious, of course, is the magic wand, a very definitely phallic symbol. And in fact, from a historical perspective that is precisely what it is; phallic. Especially when one realizes that it descends from ancient ritual practices in the hands of “wise women” and “priestesses” and was often used in acts of “sexual magic” such as a way to test virginity. (1)

A perhaps less obvious example would be the cups used in The Cups and Balls. However the cup or chalice is recognized in ancient cultures to be representative of the womb.

In modern magic there are many presentations which essentially “victimize” women. Pretty much any “Sawing” illusion for example. Or really any illusion where a woman is seen as a manipulated focus of the magician’s power. But the same focus might be considered sensual more than exploitative.

I give you, as an example, one of my all time favorite David Copperfield illusions.

You decide, is it sensual, is it manipulative, is it something else? (Feel free to respond in the comments below.) I will say that my reasons for calling this one of my favorites is not because of the “sexuality/sensuality” aspects of it, but rather the technological aspect, ie the use of water to provide a kind of “framework” for how the levitation is accomplished. For me it is a visually stunning example and perhaps in that respect does qualify it as “sensual.”

But there are examples out there which take things way to far. The below clip is not for young viewers. It does contain nudity and a certain amount of crudity.

(I apologize but this video doesn’t embed here as it’s not from YouTube.  This will open another window instead.  Stripper Girl Magic Trick.)

I find this example to be overtly terrible. But necessary to the point I’m working my way up to. (Again, feel free to leave comments below.)

While it seems easy to find examples of sex and sexuality badly portrayed or addressed, examples of a more positive nature seem to be fewer and further between. I am not opposed to the use of sex and sexuality in my art. Let me make that perfectly clear.

As long as that use is done with the kind of respect I think the topic deserves. And I will go even further and say that while I do not like the above video of the female magician, it is entirely possible that she sees this performance as some kind of ironic statement on sex and sexuality. If she does I’m not clear on what it might be, but it is possible.

Regardless she clearly feels perfectly comfortable with her performance.

Now, admittedly “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” (thank you Dr. Freud) and a wand is just a stick and a cup is just a cup. In fact that’s true most of the time for most magicians in my experience. Certainly it was true some twenty years ago when I took the above picture.

That picture was taken by the same photographer who took the pictures at my wedding. It was studio time that we got as part of the package. The arrangement of the cups and balls on the table in front of me is the final arrangement in the routine that I do. I have always looked at it as a nice display, well balanced, well arranged. And for twenty years it has remained just that and nothing more to me.

Today I can no longer see it that way.

A person who had also been seeing this picture for roughly twenty years, and who had been seeing it that same way all along, had a sudden change in perspective triggered by some errant thought.

So now take a look at that picture again with the filter (or lack of filter?) that the concepts of sex and sexuality bring to mind. Do you see it? If you don’t I envy you.

But for me, I’ll never see that picture the same way again. At first I was deeply annoyed by that, but now I’m just philosophical about it. Clearly it sparked this post considering just the surface of what is ultimately a very interesting topic. There is a lot to be dug up in the midst of this mental minefield of art and sex.

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1 – The Magician’s Wand: A History of Mystical Rods of Power, Joe Lantiere

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