Behind the Curtain

Although space at 31 Faces North is limited, we have always tried to expand the reach of the conference by helping Magicana stage lectures and workshops for those locally with a passion for magic. These workshops and lectures are by performers who rarely, if ever, lecture or perform in these parts.

This year there are three!

First up is Rafael Benatar with both a workshop – limited to ten people – and the first half of a lecture double-bill. I’ve only met Rafael once, and that was a decade ago, but I have followed his creative output closely. Rafael, although from Venezuela, is of the Spanish-school, being a close-confidant of Arturo Ascanio and, of course, Juan Tamariz, two of the most influential magicians of the past quarter century. Rafael travels the world, and by doing so, sees and hears the latest wonders, all of which inform his own work. Rafael is also a great communicator. Fluent in several languages, he knows how to explain both the essence and the detail required for creating and performing superb sleight-of-hand.

Gaëtan Bloom is the second. I have known Gaëtan since the mid-1980s, and have seen him perform and lecture both here and abroad. I have invited him every year to 31 Faces North, and I am ecstatic that he has finally found the time to join us. It has been ten years since his last visit to Toronto, and for someone like Gaëtan, that was a million ideas ago! So, I’m pleased that we have the opportunity to catch up on his fertile imagination. Gaëtan is not only a superb inventor of subtle secrets, but he is also one of the most entertaining performers – one whose magic is the high watermark of visual deception.

Rafael and Gaëtan will be presenting a double-bill of magic in Montreal on August 14 and in Toronto on August 18. Rafael is also doing an intensive card workshop in each city.

Jim Steinmeyer is the third. As an author, inventor, magic historian and creative consultant, Jim has touched the lives of all of us interested in the art of magic. His lectures are few and far between, and I have traveled far to see and hear him in action: Louisville, Chicago, Los Angeles and London. For those in Toronto with a passion for magic, you now you have the chance to listen and learn from him in your own backyard.  It doesn’t get much better than that!

31 Faces North

I shouldn’t complain, although I do: too many projects, and all of them interesting.

As soon as the Masters of Magic Series finished – it closed the Luminato Festival – I was on an airplane to perform in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  It was my first visit to the Rock, but one that was all too short.  I was on another plane the next day to do a show that night in beautiful Banff, Alberta.  Although not coast-to-coast, something I’ve done before – a morning keynote presentation in Boston, an afternoon keynote in Vancouver and then back to Toronto for the evening – it was a great reminder of the size, beauty and diversity of the country. Signal Hill and the Banff Springs are both as majestic as the mountain ranges on which they are situated.

I am now, however, on to another project – 31 Faces North.  This is an invitation-only assembly of 40 of the world’s premier performers of sleight-of-hand.  This will be our 8th year co-hosting the conference with Allan Slaight, the Canadian media mogul and magician.

I’ve certainly spoken or performed at hundreds of conferences over the course of my career. 31 Faces North, however, is unique. Allan and I were inspired to host the conference by the late P. Howard Lyons. Howard was a prominent accountant by trade, but one with a passion for jazz, science fiction and magic. Allan and I first met some thirty years ago at Howard’s conference, “The Ibidem Event”.  The conference was named after an avant-garde magic magazine – yes, there was such a thing – that Howard published called Ibidem. In addition to the eclectic and thought-provoking magic, each magazine featured a cover created and individually silk-screened by Howard’s wife, Pat Patterson. Howard died in 1987.

Howard’s idea for a conference was to have three gourmet meals a day, and an open bar for four consecutive days, and minimal scheduled events. Delegates would just sit around, eat, drink and share knowledge. The event was staged at the Oban Inn at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the delegates took over the entire inn. I was invited when I was quite young because Howard believed that it was important to broker knowledge. It certainly changed my life as I met many people there who not only became fast friends, but who also mentored me personally and professionally.

Well, fast forward to 2002 when Allan and I were discussing Howard, and the “Ibidem Event”. It was time, we thought, to resurrect the concept. Although many in the magic community believe we called the event 31 Faces North in honor of Howard and Allan’s magical muse Stewart James, and Stewart’s legendary feat 51 Faces North, the truth is that Allan and I set up chairs in the room and discovered that it could comfortably accommodate 31 people.  As all of the chairs were facing north, the name became 31 Faces North. The play on Stewart’s title was just a lovely coincidence.

We expanded the facility in the intervening years, and now accommodate about 40 attendees. The spirit, however, remains the same.  It is four days of the world’s best magicians – and a handful of the next generation – hanging around, sharing sustenance and secrets, and all for the love of magic.

Table Magic

“You go with the table that brought you.”

That was how Ron Conley, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on preventing casino fraud, responded to my question about the type of table surface he wanted for his demonstration of card handling. Ron was attending 31 Faces North, a conference that Allan Slaight and I co-host with Magicana where many of the world’s great inventors and performers of magic congregate to exchange ideas and libations. He was about to demonstrate the real deal, so to speak, when it came to defrauding a casino with playing cards.

I had asked the question because many magicians can be quite picky when it comes time to selecting a performing surface. They have become accustomed to ‘close-up pads’, mats that provide a soft surface, one with ‘give’, on which to perform. Gary Ouellet, often the triggerman for the powerful lobby firm Government Consultants International, used to set up a micro-stage – a close up mat on stubby legs – and speakers on each side, to demonstrate his intimate work.  (Gary was the triggerman in the sense that he always offered to take the picture rather than be in it, a rather astute move particularly when some of his colleagues would have to testify years later about their activities before government inquiries.) Conley, however, was much more pragmatic: professional card cheats have to be able to work on any surface.

My favorite performing surface is a beautiful white tablecloth, the type found in restaurants like Il Posto, a local haunt.  Of course, it is not just the tablecloth. It is also the ambience created by the cutlery, the stemware, the cups and saucers, and the breadcrumbs scattered across the surface that make the magic appear real, real in the organic sense.  Magic is always stronger when it ‘just happens’.  This applies not only to the sleight-of-hand technique used to animate it but also to the environment in which it takes places.

Magic performed in the close-up gallery at the Magic Castle or on an unadorned card table at a magic convention can’t compete with magic that grows out of, and uses the resources available from the environment.  Knives, forks, glassware, sugar, tablecloth and other articles found on or around the table are for me the earth, wind, fire and water used by alchemists to turn base metal into gold.

Just make sure you save room for dessert.