On a recent Tuesday, April 18th, I flew to my native New York City in order to spend a few brief days working on a project with my friend, the wonderful magician, Asi Wind. The timing was fortuitous, because it gave us the chance to see four marvelous shows, three of them based around magic, and most of them involving the work of friends.
The non-magic show, on Wednesday, was actually a rehearsal of a new musical by Adam Gopnik and David Shire, The Most Beautiful Room in New York, which opens May 3rd for a limited run in New Haven. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend you take the opportunity to see it. That turned into a grand, ten-hour day, steeped in a milieu of arts and artists, and an inspiring kickoff to my trip.
On Thursday evening, we headed to Tannen’s Magic, to see Magic After Hours with Noah Levine. Noah is a talented young New York City-based magician whom I’ve known well since he was about fourteen. His show is a cleverly conceived notion, which currently takes place one night a week in the showroom of Tannen’s Magic, on the sixth floor of a midtown office building in sight of the Empire State Building. (In a remarkable historical coincidence, for many years and prior to Tannen’s moving there, Flosso-Hornmann Magic occupied the adjacent office space.) It’s about a ninety-minute event that begins with Noah serving as host, pouring some chilled Prosecco, and presenting an historical tour of the shop. This blends seamlessly into a performance for which, in the initial section, the crowd of up to about twenty is loosely gathering around the showcases, just as customers would during the daytime business hours.
But this is the nighttime, and with the addition of atmospheric lighting, (assembled by Tannen’s owner Adam Blumenthal), the store becomes a place of mystery, a bat cave of magic, with Noah as our nocturnal guide. The countertop performance features original and sometimes surprising takes on a couple of traditional “slum magic” items, and then moves on to several bona fide magic classics. Then the show transitions to seating around a more traditional formal close-up table, at which Noah performs some excellent card magic, along with several unusual sleight-of-hand routines that are rarely seen, even by magicians. Along the way we learn a bit about the history of Tannen’s magic, and about the nature of magicians and their work and culture.
As an up-and-coming professional performer, Noah has tackled the development of repertoire with a distinctly original approach. As a regular close-up performer at Monday Night Magic (which I did not get to visit this trip), and a recent on-stage opening act for that show, as well as now in Magic After Hours, Noah’s repertoire is a mix of classics (Egg Bag, Cups and Balls, Triumph) along with routines that are either strikingly original, or rarely seen oddities drawn from the literature. It takes time, and hard work, to develop a repertoire that reflects one’s original vision and personality, and that will serve to distinguish a performer from the crowd. And as I have long and often maintained, the act of repertoire selection should in itself be a part of one’s creative process. This is clearly evidenced in Levine’s work.
As to Magic After Hours, I can’t conceive of a more evocative setting for a close-up magic show, and Noah, the show’s creator and writer as well as sole performer, has brought a special and distinctive idea to life as part of the New York performance magic scene. Michael Close wrote an essay in the Workers Series (“Venue,” Workers Volume 5, 1996) about the problems of finding appropriate settings for close-up magic, and Eugene Burger once commented that, “Close-up magic is a form without a venue.” Noah Levine conceived of taking a retail store and, exploiting its fertile history, transforming it into a venue for a weekly show that is now regularly selling out, and at a respectable ticket price. There was no blueprint for this show; he conceived it, wrote it, and filled the space with it—and of course, it continues to develop as a creative work in progress. There are lessons in this original work for any thinking magician, and a night of engaging and entertaining magic for any who attend. It’s a wonderful show in a wondrous setting, and I highly recommend the experience.
On Friday evening we headed to the Daryl Roth Theater, to attend a performance of In & Of Itself, created and performed by Derek DelGaudio. I was fortunate to be able to see the show twice during its record-breaking four-month run at the Geffen Playhouse last summer in Los Angeles. Now the show has been remounted in a somewhat larger space in New York City, and has opened to rave reviews and significant press attention.
I’ve known Derek probably since his late teens, and among the cognoscenti he has long been considered one of the finest young sleight-of-hand artists in the U.S. if not the world. Derek has won multiple awards from the Academy of Magical Arts (Magic Castle), including this year’s Magician of the Year award. But he has also explored performance art far beyond the traditional limits of magic, having left magic for a time to explore more avant-garde pursuits in collaboration with Glenn Kaino, in their collaborative persona as A. Bandit, and mounting performances and exhibitions in venues far away from the conventional magic world.
But Derek came back to magic, fortunately for magic and the world, and developed his show, Nothing to Hide, initially at the Magic Castle (in collaboration with Helder Guimarães), and then brought it to the Geffen Playhouse for a successful run, directed by Neil Patrick Harris. It was Neil, as then President of the Board of Directors of the Academy of Magical Arts, who encouraged the Magic Castle to expand the performing schedule of the show’s early days in the Peller Theater at the Castle, which helped to build tremendous buzz for the project. I saw that show in its very first performance at the Castle, and in its subsequent iterations in later Castle runs and eventually at the Geffen. It was a marvelous magic show performed essentially with little more than hands and playing cards, and was one of the most deeply deceptive programs of magic I’ve ever seen.
But In & Of Itself is another beast entirely. Most of the press has respected the content of the show sufficiently as to refrain from describing it in much detail, and I will do the same here. (A pox on the few who chose not to, regardless of permissions granted or violated.) Whereas Nothing to Hide was a magic show, In & Of Itself is a genuine theater piece, a self-confessional storytelling performance that incorporates magic, resulting in what can only be described as a show about mystery.
The experience is filled with mystery from beginning to end—some magical, some personal, some human, some universal. The promotional tagline is “Identity is an illusion,” and that’s as good an explanation of the show as any, because it is about that, among other things, and while it is very much about the identity of its mysterious and vulnerable performer, it also becomes about the identity of every audience member, and the mystery of the self.
Derek has amassed a notable team of professional creatives to help mount the show, topped by Frank Oz as director (who discovered Derek when he attended a performance of Nothing to Hide), along with the aforementioned artist Glenn Kaino, music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame among other accomplishments), magic consultants Michael Weber and Sebastien Clergue, and the aforementioned lighting designer Adam Blumenthal of Tannen’s Magic, among others.
From Los Angeles to New York City, there have been no new pieces added, and indeed, one significant element has been (wisely, I think) removed. But interestingly, the show runs almost ten minutes longer, now clocking in at about 70 to 75 minutes. This seems the likely result of being able to take the experience of 120 performances in LA, and after a break and some time to prepare for remounting it in New York, allowing time for some contemplative reconsiderations and explorations between Derek and his director. The result is a show that feels slightly more aired out, a bit more explicit, a tad more accessible. This is all largely for the better, and while I frankly loved the show in LA, it’s fair to say I love it even more now that I’ve seen the latest iteration. Rarely have I experienced a show incorporating magic as a significant element that has had as much emotional power as this one. It is a show worth seeing more than once, because there are ideas that linger with you, and that you may feel and think differently about upon second viewing.
After the show, Asi and I met up for late dinner with Derek and his wife and a co-producer of the show, Vanessa. We were also joined by Jake Friedman, an independent alternative rock band manager and co-producer of the show, who has a strong background in magic, and whom I have known well since I met him at a magic lecture when he was a boy of about eleven growing up in Baltimore. (Among these multi-layered interconnections, Noah and Jake were both campers at Tannen’s Magic Camp, with Noah later becoming a counselor, and both Noah and Jake were my production assistants at all of my three-day Card Clinic seminars, held in various cities around the U.S. in the early 2000s.)
We were then joined by our mutual friend Prakash Puru, a fine New York City-based magician and another longtime friend, since he first emigrated to the U.S. in his early 20s, and developed in his early days as a professional performer at Monday Night Magic. The threads of deeply knit personal histories within these artistic and magical circles continue to make these few days resonate for me, even as I write this.
We all talked about the show, and other shows, and magic and art and more for a couple of hours, dissecting and debating, gossiping and laughing, until it was late enough that Derek had to extricate himself so as to get some rest before a weekend of matinees and evening shows. We headed out into the night, another day of art and artistry behind me.
Prakash had joined us after just attending the first night’s preview performance of Derren Brown’s Secrets, which is still in previews in New York at the Atlantic Theater Company, where it will run until June 4th. The next night, Saturday, was our turn, and I attended the show along with my longtime friend and colleague, Peter Samelson. The theater was filled with magicians and Brown fans, who greeted him with a remarkable ovation as he entered the stage, apparently a repetition of the night before, according to Prakash’s report.
I’ve seen Brown perform live before, in his Something Wicked This Way Comes tour in England, where he is a widely known television celebrity. Having seen him in a 1500 or 2000-seat theater, the norm for him there, I was interested to see how he would adjust in the small, 200-seat house at the Atlantic. Brown is arguably the most famous mentalist of our time in the UK, perhaps comparable to celebrity British mentalists of their day like Maurice Fogel, Al Koran, and David Berglas, and perhaps to Dunninger here in his American stardom days. With years of television series and specials behind him, and multiple live touring shows, he has profoundly influenced the performance and popularity of mentalism around the world. On television, he adapted the “street magic” staging of David Blaine to a more articulate and deliberately theatrical style of mystery performance, and became not only a TV star in Britain but a YouTube sensation around the world.
The new show, Secrets, is a greatest hits sort of assemblage, borrowing material from a number of Brown’s television and live shows. It’s a wise choice, at least on the face of it; he gets to do polished material that he knows well, as he attempts to introduce himself to a new audience. The show is long—a running time of two hours and forty minutes is posted on the website, which include a lengthy intermission of about thirty minutes. The first half rockets along with a crisp variety of material, pace, and dynamics, and the time flies by. The second half slows somewhat, requiring a fair amount of procedure and prologue before getting to the meat of the performance, but the audience did not seem restless, and the multiple climaxes for which Brown’s live shows are known played well and garnered multiple standing ovations. Along the way, the second half is so dense with effects, one would be hard pressed to attempt to actually itemize much less count them precisely. This not only provides for a varied and textured show, but a corresponding density of methods that renders reconstruction impossible for lay audiences (and challenging even for knowledgeable insiders). At the same time, if the material is so convoluted that even an expert observer has difficulty recalling any structural logic to the string of effects, are the results a plus or a minus? Perhaps what is remembered is less important than what is experienced in the moment? Perhaps.
If there is a downside to any of this, it is that Brown comes off as polished to the point of slickness. There is rarely any sense of risk in the show, even though in reality it is filled with significant risks dependent on the behavior of his audience assistants. (At the show I attended, he was faced with a rather uncooperative onstage assistant in his opening routine.) But the risk of the real Derren Brown seeping into the show—whoever he may be—seems to be kept thoroughly at bay throughout. Despite a moment of personal confession in the opening minutes, it is a confession that the whole world already knows, and so is couched in safety and in fact dismissed by him as unimportant, lest anyone thing it matters or that there were ever any consequences in making it. (Is it really possible there were none?) But beyond that, Brown seems to use his persona as a mask, and even sometimes risks using his assistants as props rather than people, being occasionally less than mindful of the feelings of someone being dismissed from the stage (no matter how politely), or whose personal losses are utilized as borderline corny plot points.
And then, as ever with mentalism, there is the inevitable question of claims. In 2005, Genii magazine published an interview (combined from two conversations about a year apart) I did with Brown, perhaps the only in-depth interview he has done for any magic outlet, and certainly the longest. A longer version of the published version is buried on my website, here. The course and rise of Brown’s career is thoroughly recounted, and there is much interesting discussion of art and artistry in magic as well as mentalism. There is also extensive discussion of claims and disclaims, an area in which Brown’s perspective was still evolving, and indeed changes somewhat between the two interviews, conducted more than a year apart, from which piece was drawn.
Within that lengthy and thoughtful conversation, there is this exchange:
DERREN: I wouldn't feel comfortable now saying everything you see is the use of abnormal super psychology skill. There's no way I could say that. I may have hinted at that at the beginning, but not now.
JAMY: And there's no way you could say it, why?
DERREN: Because it would just feel ugly. It would take the beauty out of it. The beauty is in the illusion, and acknowledging that it's an illusion. I don't think there's an easy answer. I think that it's a line that I'll constantly have to work out, and there is some ambiguity about it in what I say, but I will acknowledge the fact that I'm being ambiguous on purpose.
I respect Brown’s longstanding thoughtfulness concerning the subject, which is far preferable to so many mentalists’ summary dismissal of the notion that the issues even matter at all. (“You don’t explain to audiences that the actors in a play are pretending!” is not actually an argument; it barely even qualifies as an idea.) Brown is smarter than that, and more self-aware. As such, he has used a simple disclaimer statement throughout his television career, and I believe in most of his live shows as well, to the effect (the wording has changed over the years, which is touched upon in the interview) that his work is accomplished with elements of “magic, psychology, suggestion, and showmanship.” That, at least, is something—perhaps enough for some, perhaps not quite for others, but nevertheless a topic worthy of consideration.
But in Secrets, I detected little in the way of such explicit acknowledgements. He does offer a whiff of a disclaimer of “mind-reading” in the opening monologue, and in the second half points out that psychic predictions of the future are unverifiable But while I don’t think audiences will go home thinking Brown is psychic or in touch with their dead relatives, the premise of “abnormal super psychology skill” seems the foundation of what Brown is putting on display. While magicians and mentalists will enjoy puzzling out methodology (much of which is truly ingenious), I suspect it is the rare layman who will come away with the conclusion of Brown anywhere “acknowledging that it's an illusion.” I can’t help but find that disappointing, and wonder how his perspective has perhaps further changed over the years.
In our interview, more than a decade ago, Brown speculated that the more successful he became, the more freedom he might have to tell the truth:
But there was definitely a shift in what I wanted to say, and the message I wanted to give out, between the early days of wanting to get established--when I think it does make sense to exaggerate your claims a little—and then to, once I'm there, then it was important to me to clarify the message.
Is the effort to be clearer just not worth it? Is the risk of diminishing the mystery too big a one to take? Has even greater success made the attribution of otherworldly powers too appealing to evade? We don’t know. But we do wonder.
Bad mentalism is a commonplace, with many performers doing the same small handful of routines, bogged down with dull, self indulgent scripting, coarse and sometimes transparent methods, and an often surprisingly fuzzy grasp of the nature of an effect and how to clarify and define it. But there is nothing of this in Brown’s show. It is clear from his entrance that Derren Brown is one smart, sophisticated guy. What’s more, he possesses a rare trait: taste. That is all too often an absent commodity in magic and mentalism, and while almost anyone can, with effort, improve one’s technique and even perhaps one’s scripting, it is almost impossible to learn taste if it is lacking.
This sophistication and restraint in much of Brown’s work renders him quite appealing. The work is powerful because he is comfortable assuming, portraying, and projecting power, without appearing to get off on it all that much. He is super human in some ways, accessible and charming in others. It’s a difficult line to walk, but he manages to balance it reasonably well most of the time, at least on the level of performance, notwithstanding the question of claims. How one portrays power, both in magic but particularly in mentalism, is a fundamental challenge in these arts, and far too few performers even trouble to recognize the problem, much less attempt to address it in meaningful ways.
Brown is engaging and accessible, and while it may appear natural and effortless to some, he is deliberate in his intentions to charm. There isn’t the slightest thing wrong with that, as long as the effort isn’t too transparent, and Brown does risk that at times. But it is a truism of any and most every live performer, and yet it comes to mind here because in contrast, DelGaudio is an anti-performer of sorts. He’s not quite a punk artist, who is disregarding or trying to altogether hide his artistic skills, but rather an anti-performance performer, who is trying to conceal his theater craft. He’s comfortable performing magic, as well as demonstrating breathtaking technical skills with playing cards (the only traditional piece in the show), but he is trying hard to suppress any appearance of “performance,” minimizing his delivery dynamics and range of overt expression; his expression appears more internal than external. This works surprisingly well and is particularly disarming as a counterpoint to the very nature of magic and extraordinary skills, both of which are on display in spades throughout the DelGaudio show.
DelGaudio is appealing, to be sure, with his boyish face, and a brown suit that seems made for a grownup other than himself. But his charm lies in his absolute and uncompromising authenticity, his genuineness in performance and sincerity in speech. It seems like he’s not trying to get you to like him, but rather, simply allowing you to, if you wish. It’s him presenting himself on his own terms, and it works. The tremendous response to the show is evidence that indeed, audiences do come to like him immensely in the course of the show. Above all, they trust him—and if this were not true, there is material in the show that would simply not work, or worse, would work against him.
(In fact, as an aside to magicians who see the show, I would pose a question to consider: Why is his story about his family background an absolute requisite in the show? The answer points to why a slightly spectator-invasive piece in Brown’s show seems somewhat more potentially offensive than a far more deeply personal one in DelGaudio’s.)
Brown is, on the other hand, very much a deliberate performer, actively trying to charm the audience throughout, and in this he mostly succeeds. Whether he is “too British” for American audiences remains to be seen, but I hope that’s not the case. I suspect that the presence of the DelGaudio show may skew some of the New York theater critics somewhat against Brown, who may hold his practiced showmanship against him when compared to the anti-showmanship of DelGaudio. But I hope that both shows succeed, because both deserve to, and exposing the public to high quality magic is the best possible thing that can happen for the art. Showing people that magic and mentalism can be performed by intelligent, tasteful, and indeed sophisticated performers is the best possible way to enlarge its audience, and perhaps the only lasting way.
What lessons can we, as fellow mystery artists, glean from these shows? They are there, but most are not simple or obvious. Max Maven, the most groundbreaking and internationally renowned American mentalist of our time, has often said that in art, the only rule is that there are no rules. This is unarguably true, but it is also true that learning the rules is the artist’s first requirement; as Penn Jillette has said, one must learn to color within the lines before deciding to color outside of them. (Or as Whit Hayden says, that for beginners, “Originality is overrated.”) Each of these performers has learned to play by the rules: Levine has been a scholarly researcher at the Conjuring Arts Research Center, as well as a retail magic demonstrator. DelGaudio came up within the magic community, studying the literature, seeking out mentors, performing at the Magic Castle. Brown did hypnosis shows in college and beyond, and was still working as a close-up magician, doing card tricks in restaurants, when his first special aired.
And having built those fundamentals for themselves, each has broken out beyond the traditional limits of their foundations. Each has, throughout their lives and work, remained engaged with and interested in the world beyond magic, worlds of arts and intellect beyond magic. And with the aid of this eclecticism and ever expanding curiosity, they all managed to develop a genuine sense of taste, which while it may appear trivial at first blush, I would suggest serves as an important element in their boundary breaking artistic originality and creativity.
In short: None of these men are hacks, or were ever in danger of becoming so. None took the easy way out of slapping together a top ten surefire bound-to-get-reactions repertoire, and then printing a business card to start booking it. Each learned the real lessons that mentors can offer—the value of classics, the importance of skills, the lessons of the literature—without becoming mere copyists of their predecessors.
So if the question is how to create a theater show unlike any other, or how to become a television superstar, then the answers will escape you, as they do not really exist. Tommy Wonder said, “Celebrity and riches are not goals. They are rewards you receive for achieving real goals.”
But if the question is, how do we make our work better, and become better artists? Then the answers are simple, and perhaps after all, obvious. I have long said that in order to become an artist, one must do three things: Consume art. Create art. Seek qualified critique.
So, set real goals. Keep doing the work. And the rest will come. And as for consuming art: if you get the chance, get to New York City and see the work of three great artists. Part and parcel of consuming art is seeking inspiration. You will assuredly find it in Magic After Hours, In & Of Itself, and Secrets.