Photo credit to ©Billy Baque
Michael and I have been friends for a long time, and I’m also a great fan. So I am happy to be asked to write this article. It gives me an opportunity to talk a bit about plot, character and back story in magic, and how I believe it works. Actually, I plan to talk a lot.
I am 65 this year, and have been doing magic since I was nine. I began working magic for money by necessity in 1968 by busking on the streets of New York City. I alternately went to school and traveled working the streets until 1973, including stints in Washington, DC, London, Edinburgh, and Jerusalem. My stories of this time and what I learned about performing are told in my book Stories of a Street Performer.
I was in my third year of seminary, studying for the Episcopal ministry, when a professor of mine, Dr. Reginald Fuller saw me doing card tricks at a faculty/student party. He called me aside and said, “Whitney! You light up like a fire-cracker when you do those little magic tricks. It is a joy to watch! Have you ever considered doing that for a living?”
I said, “Yes, professor. I have done it for a living—I loved it. But I want to do something relevant.” This was 1974. He looked at me over his little glasses and said in his soft cultured English accent, “Well, you know, it isn’t as if God needs you…”
I said, “I beg your pardon?”
Dr. Fuller smiled, “If God wants you to be a martyr or a saint He will call you, and you will rejoice to do it. Until that time, you should rejoice in whatever little loves God grants you. He is perfectly capable of saving the world all by Himself. But those loves for things in this world—those things that give each person some kind of pleasure or fulfillment—those are God’s greatest gifts. They are the gold talents in the story. They keep us going. They bring us and those around us joy.”
I found this extremely liberating. I left seminary a few weeks later, to do magic full time. I have been doing it ever since. I have been very happy. I have probably single-handedly saved the church at the same time.
My goal in magic has always been the same. To help people understand the love I have for magic. To make them smile and laugh and wonder the same way magicians had made me smile and laugh and wonder. I don’t want to make them into magicians, but to help them understand why I would want to be one. I want to share my joy in this peculiar little art.
The two biggest influences on my magic have been Eddie Fechter and Billy McComb, both of whom I met in the 1970’s. Brian Gillis was the first person to teach me truly professional-caliber card magic. He introduced me to his teacher, Eddie Fechter at the Forks Hotel. Eddie was such an inspiration, the way he handled a raucous crowd and the effortless, direct card magic with which he kept blowing people’s minds.
His routines were extremely well thought-out, with surprises covering moves, and important psychological subtleties that were often missed—until they were pointed out to us—because of his large personality. I learned the importance of using patter lines to cover a move, and to hook people’s interest in a trick with the correct sort of opening line.
Billy McComb was my dear friend and mentor, and he taught me a lot about comedy and performing, as well as magic. His act was much more thought-out both in character and as a performance whole than most magicians realized. He audio recorded every performance, even if he did three a night, and would listen to them that same night at home to see if he had made any good adlibs or the audience had come up with something new for him to prepare for in the future. He would change one line of a joke and watch for its reaction. He was a perfectionist.
Billy taught me that the magician was actually portraying two interesting characters at once. The character he played on stage, and the character the audience perceives to be behind that persona—the magician, and the gentleman up on stage portraying the magician. They must like and trust the gentleman behind the mask if an audience is going to relate to the onstage character.
Billy’s act in later years was a wonderful depiction of what the audience first suspects to be a doddering old man in a neat suit, who just wants “to get on with it and get done with it, just as you do…” As the show progresses, the audience gradually becomes more and more aware of the clever, witty and perceptive person behind the old man character, and just as they begin to realize the danger they are in, he fools the life out of them.
In theater, the actor most often wants to be largely subsumed behind the mask of the character, and the conman never wants to take off his mask in public. But the magician’s constant and deliberate slipping mask is what separates our art from other forms of theater. We are playing with the audience on many levels at once. It is this winking at the audience by the man behind the mask that distinguishes magic from charlatanry and theater. Our audience is not just an audience at a theatrical play. At the play the audience suspends disbelief and participates imaginatively in the story that is being shown to them. But in magic, the audience is part of the story. They are “witnesses” to an event. They are asked to check things, to make sure things are fair and aboveboard. The performance is modeled not after theater, but after scientific demonstrations, strong man stunts, side show and other “exhibition” forms of theater. The spectators are a part of the story. We don’t “show them” a story so much as enact one out with them, one that they can tell their friends: “I met this guy and he put a coin into a bottle!”
It is this story they will tell afterwards, the story of what they actually witnessed, that we want to carefully arrange in their heads. Part of creating the magic dilemma, which is the audience’s experience after witnessing the impossible, is to let the audience know that we are not completely serious in our claims—we are not charlatans. This can go a long range on a continuum from very serious presentation such as David Blaine’s to a tongue in cheek presentation of the color-changing handkerchief. In magic, we don’t ever really want the audience to conclude that we have “real” powers. Instead we want to open a place in the mind that is hard to close where fantasy and reality mix. The dilemma is this: “This could not have been real magic/There is no other possible explanation.”
I personally think that the tilt of magic in the last few years, since David Blaine, has been way too much to the serious claim, and away from the more fun, adventurous and nine-year old spirit of the Golden Age of magic. Neither am I inclined toward the Derren Brown approach, which I think was genius, that narrows the claim of the impossible to something “believable” like NLP in order to get the audience able to accept it “as true.”
I love and find joy in the preposterous! I want the audience to disbelieve and them carry them away in make believe, leaving them with proof of the journey they’ve been on. I want to engage the adult audience in play and adventure and fantasy. I want to do magic in similar spirit to the movie Indiana Jones, Buck Rogers, and adventure novels by Verne or pot boilers by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Fun adventurous fantasy—mind play.
Pop Haydn is a fantasy character. He has a history and a reason for doing this show for this group. I try to keep this back story out of the performance, but have it expanded on the internet on my website and on social media. (pophaydn.com)
I am working to create a show in which magic is real, and is a school kid’s view of magic—if you have that wand, you could zap something with it. If you had that crystal ball, why then, you could talk to Cleopatra, too! If you had that teleportation device…well, just imagine! Part of the fun is having the Sphere of Destiny, the Teleportation Device, and Giant Tesla Coils and other powerful items in the hands of a crackpot and conman…not to mention scatterbrain. That is the character and theme behind all my work close-up and stage.