Thursday, 24 January 2013

Penn and Teller Go Public

Penn and Teller Go Public.
This was the first TV (PBS) special by the dynamic duo, a filmed version of their off Broadway show of same name.  It was also the first show I saw of them. I was still so young that I remember being scared about the knife through the hand trick. I watched the show over and over as Dad and I recorded any magic related TV program. As Norway still only had one! channel back then the tape did not fill up so quickly, that is until they started showing Paul Daniel's series. Don't get me wrong I love Paul Daniels too, but there is a massive gap in style between him and Penn and Teller, and I was and some may say I still am closer to the dynamic duo's side of the fence.

In 1994 as part of a sweet little festival called Spontan Festivalen, (Spontaneity Festival) in my hometown of Haugesund I did a version (tribute... {on getting started, originality}) to Penn and Tellers straight jacket escape hanging from a tree having a friend reading a Norwegian poem. If you want to be good you got to take inspiration from the great. Hunter Thompson typed out the entire Great Gatsby, to feel what it was like to type a great novel...

What a killer first show! The routines they did back in 1985 already made them the most unique, eccentric and cool voice of magic.
"Penn reads "Casey at the Bat" while Teller escapes from a straight jacket, Penn does a not-wimpy card trick, Teller gives the illusion of reality with a cigarette, Penn eats fire, and the guys show you a trick you can do at home, if you don't mind taping over Masterpiece Theatre."

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Helpers, Healers, and Guides

It has always been true that, in seeking guidance, the many have depended on the few. In every time, in every place, there is always a "creative minority" to whom others turn for leadership, for guidance, for courage, for understanding, for beauty. These few who guide stand before the many, not as the ideal bearers of final truths, but simply as the most extraordinarily human members of the community.
The world's oldest profession is that of the shaman or first professional, the shaman is ancestor not only to both the modern medicine man or doctor and the religion is priest or divine, but also ancestor in direct lineage to a host of other professional types. It would seem odd that both the doctor, the most secular-minded, and the divine, the most sacred-minded of modern helpers of people, should derive from the same source. But we can readily understand the seeming paradox when we recognize the basic nature and function of the primitive medicine man of shaman.

The origin of Showmen are found in the shaman. The shaman was the first incarnation of the One Who Faces the Other Way. In these early prehistoric times men, and no doubt woman too, discovered the true power of shared attention. In developing and studying shared attention we as a species became who we are. The preoccupation eventually hard wired us for culture.

Showmanship: more than 'Mere entertainment' - a power to Change

That something "more" which is created in the interaction between a group, led by One Who Faces the Other Way, is a strange power. It is an example of something from nothing. Creatio ex nihil. A whole that become greater than the sum of its parts. All of this "extra" comes through process. Like when wood is ignited, an astounding amount of energy in the form of heat is released. In reality the heat does not come from nowhere, but looking at wood you would not believe such great energy could be released.
When the Showman masters the mere Attention grabbing aspects of addressing a group he can begin to grasp the deeper and more potent aspects of his Craft. As he steps beyond the how-to and technical sides of addressing the many a new and more potent level than 'mere entertainment' appears. 
 If tuned in certain ways this power can be used for healing purposes. In medical terms this power has been called placebo. It is the strange and elusive effect which gives as many as 1/3 patients relief from symptoms. {American Cancer Society.} In the past this tool was often the only thing that could be used in healing a particular sickness. I believe that as we get a better grasp on what the placebo effect is we will find that all alternative modalities tap into it in some way. Modern medicine have, for ethical reasons, a very limited use of placebo. I can imagine litigious patients should be able to make a case against a hospital if they were given homeopathic sugar pills. There is something inherrently dubious in giving someone nothing for their pain and then saying you gave them medicine and on top of it charging them as if you had administered some kind of active ingredient.

Psychic surgery.
The placebo effect is still relied upon in pentecostal and other religious settings. When a group gets together led by a Master Showman be it in the guise of a Filipino psychic surgeon, a revivalist preacher, an acupuncture or general healer including today's doctors this power can be harnessed and used to the sick's benefit. The truth is that individuals does receive benefits from these sessions. But in case of serious illness one should not rely on Showmen of the entertaining or religious/new age kind.
With the advance of science based medicine we have outgrown most uses of performance rituals to heal our pathological illnesses. Although much research is currently being done and more is needed to establish exactly what the mechanisms are for this effect. When it comes to the types of illnesses treated by today's psychologists there can still be found a use for the Craft of the Showman.

The Showman's ancestor's task was to make occasions special. Not in the way of modern day when we Showmen appear in jaunty hats at children's parties, but to make a passage from one phase of life to the next. Birth, sexual maturation, becoming a hunter, a woman, a man, or in death, in victory and triumph as well as in defeat and loss of face the many (the Crowd), needs to stand together facing someone who can channel their attention and guide them. The One Facing the Other Way creates gravitas, he makes the occasion something more. Words will be spoken, songs will be sung, there might be dance, there might be tricks and magical appearances but most importantly the One must make the Many feel. Feel as one, and feel the experience. The hearts of the Many must be caressed and kindled hope of dreams fulfilled, of healing, of certainty in the face of chaos. The One is a light in the darkness of a cave shining as bright as any flame. 
Perhaps that is why so many feels it natural to include a Showman, in the form of magicians, jugglers, comedians, and musicians in their celebrations. They know that they belong, we know that we belong, but most have forgotten why. In the deep recesses of our neolithic minds we have the feeling that the fire we feel thumping in our chests does not belong in the corner entertaining the children, it belongs at the center stage, leading the Crowd.

This power speaks directly to our hearts and creates a loophole in the worlds organization. It is the trickster and the leader, the chosen one who against all odds pulls the sword from the stone the one who might become a charismatic leader. (The following is an excerpt from Sheldon B Kopp's book Guru.)

Charismatic Leaders

Among the best of the helpers, the healers, and the guides are those who can be described as "charismatic." To have charisma is to possess the gift of grace. The Greek origin of the word lelates to the Graces of mythology, those lovely godesses of talent who brought joy, brilliance, and beauty into the lives of men.
It is not enough then that a Guru be a gifted magician. His talents must not be used merely as a celebration of his powers, no matter how remarkable. His gifts  fin meaning only when they are used in the service of offering an opportunity to another. 
Max Weber introduced a sociological meaning to the concept when he developed his "value-neutral" image of such extraordinary men. He delineated three bases for the authority underlying leadership in a community. These included Traditional, characterized by "patriarchal... domination"; Bureucratic, a legalistic defining of authority; and finally Charismatic.
Charismatic leadership always stands over against the other two bases, as it is "strange to all rule and tradition." The charismatic leader comes to power as one to whom others submit because of their belief in his extraordinary personal gifts. He may be a prophet, a shaman, a magical sorcerer, or even a leader of hunting expeditions. His followers are committed to belief in his having qualities far beyond those of other men, qualities that in the past were valued as being supernatural.
It does not matter whether these extraordinary personal qualities of the charismatic leader are actual, alleged or presumed. Such a leader arises when the people need him, at a time when the old order is to be challenged, when he has reason to stand in opposition to the traditional powers.
Perhaps each in his own way can help to free the people whom he guides.
It is, indeed, the guru's own freedom that inspires others to be free and may point the way. One of the sources of charisma has been described as lying in "the apparent unpredictability of the leader's behavior and his seeming indifference to the most awesome obstacles and dangers. THis combination of unpredictable arbitrariness with naive fearlessness is very similar to the innocent spontaneity of the child...
...[T]he central quality in this spontaneity is that such a man trusts himself. It is not so much that he is responding i ways which are beyond other men (or lesser therapists). Rather it seems that he is past worrying about how he is doing. No longer expecting to be unafraid or certain or perfect, he gives himself over to being just as he is at the moment. He accepts his fear, lives with his uncertainty, finds his imperfection sufficient.
Unconcerned with being more than he is at any iven moment and satisfied to be able to do what he can, he is able to do far more than he could if he were still distracted by the question of how well he was doing. Of course, disciples of such a gifted guru will at first be awed by the difference between his seeming confidence and poiwer, on the one hand, and their own helplessness and inadequacy, on the other. The guru then tries to help his follower to see that there is no differnce between them, except as the follwer diminishes himself to give the power to the guru. THe follower maintains the imbalance to avoid the awful reponsibility of being equal to everyone else in the world and completely on his own, while retaining the hope that the guru will take care of him. To maintain his own freedom, the guru must try to free the disciple from himself.
Of course, any form of personal power is subject to abuse. The trust of others is a responsibility just because there is a temptation to exploit it. Some gurus are corrupt, and those that are not may become corrupt. In time any form of help that works, ultimately does become corrupt. Each type of guru can only be effective for a time whitin a given setting. The success of every kind of gifted guru inevitably contains within it the seeds of its own failure.
Yet, nothing else lasts. Why, then, should we expect more of those to whom we turn for guidance than we are capable of ourselves? In this ambiguous world, made up as it is of moments, fragments, bits and pieces, we must learn to take love where we find it. And then we must learn to grieve its passing so that we may make room for the next moment.

Sheldon B Kopp

Friday, 4 January 2013

Talent and Theory

{The following ideas are inspired by Tommy Wonder's Book of Wonders Vol.1. See Mr Wonder in action here.

For those of you unfamiliar with these works they have been described as such:
Never has there been a more articulate manifesto declaring magic a true art. And never has one man offered a more detailed and coherent plan for achieving art by the practice of magic.

The point has been made again and again, with various paths of reasoning, that to theorize about the arts of the Showman is a waste of time. Talented Showmen don't need theoretical knowledge to create their acts. The good ones just know what's right. They simply go with the flow and follow what they feel is right. And no amount of theoretical knowledge will land you a great act if theory is all you have. In the following post we will examine these proclamations and the value of intuition vs theory.


These are valid points and are raised by Tommy Wonder in his first chapters. A certain amount of instinct, or talent, as Wonder calls it, is needed to get anywhere with your act.
Anyone can create an act but not everyone can create a great act. A great act excels not only in its originality, but also in its execution and in its connection with the Crowd. Great act are often described by those who have witnessed them with a feeling that words can't describe what they saw. They are experiences that you "really have to be there," to fully grasp. (Something which I believe, in these times of the internet, TV and radio has. The time for societies desire for live experiences by Master Showmen has returned again.)
After performing my signature act people often ask: How did you know that you could do that? As if they think the act was something I woke up one morning and did. But the truth is, Great Acts does not spring from nothing. There is no spontaneous generation of great acts. All acts you see are this way because of the hard work, endless shows and rehearsals of the Showman. The repetition of, for example magic tricks, make them into experiences of true astonishment in the minds of Crowds, no matter its size. No amount of talent makes for a great act without development. For talent is also not something that springs from nowhere. Talent develops. You can polish and amplify your talents and make whatever little talent you have shine. Tommy Wonder likens it to a diamond.
The raw diamond of talent.
"Talent is like a raw diamond. An uncut diamond is not particularly interesting, but once it is polished to perfection it becomes a thing of beauty. The same is true of talent. The more talent, the bigger the raw diamond, the better one can become. But it still requires polishing."
But what is talent? I guess it might be a cousin of Charisma, something we have looked into previously on this blog.
It is an elusive thing. Hard to pin down. It is that certain something that makes a Showman captivating. Be it his way of swearing and spitting but yet somehow being nice, the way he fumbles his way through his act yet remains in full controll, the way she makes people laugh at themselves by making you laugh at her, the thing that makes a joke told by one person bring the house down with laughter and told by another elicits nothing but groans. It is a person's schtick.
I think talent might be connected to truth, and truthfulness, (see Originality post for more on this). Talent could be what makes something appear as truth when presented by someone. It is that something that makes the Crowd feel like the material of the Showman springs from his heart.
It is the expression of the Little Candle of enthusiasm that burns in a young Showman's heart. When a budding Showman acts on this burning feeling to step up and face the others the first expression is interesting and captivating, like a toddler playing the violin or a precocious reader reciting Shakespeare, it has novelty and a naive truth. Something I recognize in myself when I look at early footage of myself performing. Many of the themes and feelings that I would develop and explore are already there, but only dimly and crudely.


Tommy Wonder does not believe that you can be a Showman without talent, but he also believes that everybody has some talent. Not everybody has been endowed liberally, but there is talent in everybody. To Mr Wonder it is important that a Novice Showman, not gets bogged down in how big their raw diamond is, but rather focuses on how to polish what they have to perfection. I find this a fascinating thought.
Mr. Wonder also warns Showmen not to use their supposed lack of talent as an excuse for not polishing what they have. For in Showmanship as in life we will get nowhere if we worry by comparing ourselves to others. You are but one person and the world is filled by many Masters in many fields, if you compare your talent to their talents in their respective fields you will always fall short. This is no Way to go through life. It is a game that can't be won. Instead we should undertake the challenge of finding and defining our talent and get to work on refining it. Polishing that Raw Diamond will make your act great and will step by step lead you toward Master Showmanship.

How to Polish

The best way to make the raw diamond shine is to do shows. Perform the act as much as possible. Under as many different conditions as you dare. As innocence turns to experience you will develop a feeling for what is right for you. The more experience you have as a Showman the stronger this feeling will become. Developed enough you should be able to form ideas for acts and how you should do them simply by imagining it. As you then take the stage with your new ideas you will feel whether your thinking was right and what you should do to improve. This experience becomes you guiding compass and you choose your way by a feeling that doing it a certain way is "just right" as Wonder calls it. It's as simple, yet as complicated as that. Its the wisdom that only comes from doing it for 10.000 hours.


Many performers does not go beyond this indistinct feeling of things being just right. It is unclear to them why what they do is working or not. They are inventors of the Edison school rather than Tesla. Both get there in the end. The feeling is absolutely necessary for any showman that wants to become a Master of his Craft. It is as mentioned his compass. But there is more to exploration and journeying than the compass, there is the map. Maps are drawn out by those that have perused these landscapes before. It is those that have not only topographically understood it but also knows the ways and more importantly knows the shortcuts. The sum of collected and well thought out recounts of experiences and previous explorations of your chosen territory have always been tackled before. General ideas and skills which has been synthesized by early Masters and these maps are the theory. Another invaluable tool in the Showman's toolbox. 
The development of your inner compass is absolutely essential on the way to Mastery and it must always be developed with more direct experience, ie. doing shows and practicing.

Your compass will guide you through the territory of theory. But if your compass is already pointing out the way what good is the map of theory? If you think you have nothing to learn that others can teach you, you obviously haven't read enough or met enough people. Theory can help you understand why something you feel is right is right. There are patterns and lessons that synthesizes structures of routines, ways shows should run and tricks should be learnt. Without these lessons you will be stabbing in the darkness all alone. You might get there, but often you as you get there you realize there are Showmen waiting for you that could have gotten you to the top of the mountain much quicker and thereby given you the opportunity to spend your time and energy to climb beyond them rather than catching up.
"After your intuition tells you what to do, theory can become a great aid. Once you have decided that something feels particularly right, thought guided by theory can give you important insight concerning your decision. Understanding why something feels right can lead you to more precise or effective utilization of your insight. ... Intuition is a great step towards accomplishing good magic, but intuition alone is unlikely to achieve the full potential of the ideas it generates." {T. Wonder}

The seed comes from you

Let your compass guide you to where you want to go. Then study what you can about the matters to get as far as you can with your idea.
Let it start with your feeling. When your idea for an act feels just right you will know you have something to work with. Theory and suggestions from elders and others will not make a great act without the initial input of your feeling and belief in your idea. Your feeling for what is right for you is the foundation upon where to build your finished act but theory is needed to fully form and finish it.

Intuition first; theory second. This progression is essential!
 It is important to remember that theory is not just something you get from others. It is not some infallible wisdom passed down as religion and to be taken dogmatic. You yourself create theories by analyzing why your own work works. If you take a step back and look at what your favorite, or your audiences favorite, routines and comparing them you might be able to gleam some piece of wisdom from them. Your creations are not just random events. They are the way they are due to the pressure of natural selection with your audience serving the role of death. If the crowd doesn't like it, your acts die. With experience you will be able to see why your material is working and what it is in each act that makes that work. Is it what you say, how you say it, the way you use your face, the way you interact with the Crowd, all this knowledge is the building blocks of your own theories. The theories only you can perfect, the theory of what made you a great Showman. Polish your talent and your theories.

Don't just do, think about what you do. This makes the Crowd think.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters and Ricky Jay

Any magician worth his salt is a little bit on the sideline, not in the main stream. And you bring him in when you want to be entertained or you want to be healed or helped but you are not going to consort with him on a daily basis. He is a little bit to strange and too scary. 
Bob Neale
"Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters and Ricky Jay" is a documentary about a Master Showman. A prestidigitator of world class. He is a gentleman, showman and scholar. A performance historian author of such inimitable tomes as Learned Pigs and Fireproof Woman and Cards as Weapons as well as Jay's Journal of Anomalies.  

He does a few tricks, others talk about his skills and knowledge in awed and glowing terms, including Steve Martin. Simply another forgettable 'TV spot' style film. But the documentary travels this familiar path until somewhere into the second half, when it suddenly asks the question of what type of person might be a magician.

And bam, it tugs aside the curtain and gives you a peak behind the facade, behind the showmanship. A momentary glimpse into precisely the type of person that Ricky Jay is. And it ain't pretty.
It is closer to the end than half way and its dark and strange... Yet strangely compelling and beautifully intriguing.