We’re back!

Blogging is a lot like dieting: one starts with the best of intentions but it is easy to fall off the track. There are simply too many distractions.

Fortunately for me, it wasn’t the chocolate cake. We’ve just been busy with many projects.

We’ve been working with the fine cast and crew at the Shaw Festival to develop a new illusion for A Touch of Venus, a musical written by Kurt Weil, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman. To crib from an old Penn & Teller testimonial – one that I believe they wrote about themselves – the musical can best be described as zany, brainy, marvelous and mad.  I don’t want to spoil the illusion by giving you too much information. Suffice to say, the team put lots of time into it, more than most people would ever imagine, which is the case with all great magic, and the results show. They have created a wonderful grace note to a fun-filled theatrical outing.

We’re also just back from Chicago where we hosted, as Artistic Director of Magicana, the 41st Annual Magic Collectors Weekend. Although we have produced many shows and conferences over the years, this was our first for the Magic Collectors Association. Fortunately, we had a crackerjack team, led by Julie Eng, Executive Director of Magicana, ensure that everything ran smoothly. There were many highlights – the presentation by Guests of Honor George Daily and Mike Caveney on their acquisition of Egyptian Hall, the presentations by Diego Domingo and Gary Hunt on “finding your man”, and a heartfelt presentation by Walter Blaney of his famous levitation. Walter, now 82, informed the group that he was performing the levitation for the last time. Julie Eng was his floatee. It was a beautiful illusion performed by a real gentleman. All delegates felt enriched by his stories and presence.

Finally, we’re now gearing up for Luminato, Toronto’s festival of creativity and the arts.  As you know, Magicana is producing “Masters of Magic” with Juan Tamariz, Max Maven, Mac King and Bob Sheets. Advance sales have been very strong. So much so, that Juan’s Sunday afternoon show is now going to be performed in English. Originally he was going to perform the first show in Spanish, the second in English, and the third in French. Tickets disappeared so quickly for the English-only performance, however, that the Festival asked for Juan to change the French-language show to a second English-only performance to accommodate the demand.

Many other exciting projects are in the works, and we will report on them shortly.


Magic Circles

It’s trite but true: things have a way of returning full circle.

I first became involved with the Shaw Festival, one of the four great English language theatre festivals in the world, in 1994 while developing The Conjuror with Patrick Watson. The first incarnation of the show premiered there at the Royal George Theatre in 1996. We were invited back for round two in 1997.

The Shaw Festival has a crackerjack crew of theatre craftspeople: set designers, lighting designers, scenic and prop builders to name but a few. I developed a very close relationship with the latter, and one of the their builders – XXX XXXXXX – remains one of the best kept secrets in magic. He has built a broad range of apparatus for me to use in my shows.

Well now, some fifteen years later, I have returned to the Shaw Festival, but this time as a consultant. I am helping them develop some magic-related special effects for a new production – One Touch of Venus – that, as Jay Marshal may have said, was so rarely performed, it was practically new. As is typical with the Festival, they have a way of uncovering these long-forgotten gems. The show features music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, the book by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman. The show was produced originally in New York in 1943 under the direction of Elia Kazan, with choreography by Agnes DeMille. It starred Mary Martin. It was turned to a film a few years later.

So, the first circle is that we’re back at the Shaw Festival. The second circle is the remounting of a show that is rarely remounted.

The third circle was running into Wayne, now head of the prop shop. Wayne built the Sawing In Half illusion that I used in The Conjuror. It was a based on the design that Alan Wakeling developed from the original illusion invented by P.T. Selbit circa 1920. (Jim Steinmeyer described Wakeling’s variation in The Magic of Al Wakeling.) Wayne mentioned to me that he had seen another performer do the routine with the same type of apparatus that I had used. He spoke to the performer afterward and the performer mentioned that he had spoken to me about performing the illusion. I was surprised, to say the least, as I had never spoken to this person, or remotely given him permission. Of course, he may have used the same source as I did in developing the trick. What is more interesting, however, is that Wayne developed certain details and incorporated them into the design he built for me. Wayne had added his own ingenuity, dictated by the demands of our particular production, to the illusion; and the copier, unbeknownst to him or his builder, had appropriated Wayne’s innovations.

The easiest way, of course, for him to do this would be to copy or download the promotional photographs for The Conjuror that depicted the illusion. He, or his builder, could then ‘scale’ the photograph, a technique often used by illusionists and their builders to reverse engineer the work of another. Sometimes it is a good thing, other times bad. For a person or performer who invents something novel and is using it in his or her business, it can be quite irritating. As many of magic’s greatest illusions were developed during the so-called “Golden Age” between 1875 and 1925, it is not surprising that copyists relied on photography and the scaling of photographs to determine the modus operandi of the competition. Often, the person doing the copying rarely understands what he or she is copying, and the reason for the technical developments. They just copy and assume that it will work.

Of course, in the hands of someone like Jim Steinmeyer – one of the great minds in magic – the technique can help him unravel the riddles inherent in the great illusions of the past, not only so he can restage them, but also so that he can extrapolate new ideas and applications from those principles. Jim, however, is a rare breed.

For me, it is a simple reminder of another circle: I was now part of a long lineage of those who, while performing one of the most pirated illusions of all time, was also the victim of piracy.