I’ve always had a soft spot for New York. I am sure it comes from watching multiple episodes of Taxi, Differn’t Strokes and Cagney and Lacey as a burgeoning adolescent. So you might imagine how excited I was to be in New York a couple of weeks ago. One of the many joys of NYC is simply walking around manhattan and ticking elements off of your mental checklist. There’s always a corner that you’ll turn and bosh! There is a view that you’ve seen many times in a movie. Chrysler building, check! Empire State, check! Steam issuing forth from a drain in the road, check! Cop with donut, double check! Stretched limo, fire truck, tinfoil hat wearing hobo, Times Square, mad lady on subway, well dressed elderly woman with ridiculous yappy dog standing under awning talking to a doorman with a peaked cap…checkity, check, check! And my particular fave: grouchy deli sandwich maker annoyed that you stood for five minutes in the line and you still don’t know what you want!
I was working on 8th avenue delivering drama workshops but also had an ulterior motive/ mission which was that I had manged to finagle a slot on manhattan’s prestigious Monday Night Magic. A mighty magical institution that is New York’s longest running thaumaturgical theatre experience.
So how did it go?
Well, I learnt a whole lot, that much is certain.
1) As my friend Sherri Sutton has oft told folk ‘don’t make fun of Jesus’
2) know your Americanisms, know your crib from your bassinet, your hourglass from your timer.
3) Get on with it! That is to say, you got twenty minutes, that’s all you got!
The staff at the venue were absolute diamonds, Ryan and the tech crew were effortlessly organised and lovely. I got to meet a fair few Magi as well including Bobby Torkova, who astonished me and made me feel that wonderment that I hardly ever feel about magic anymore. He was a gentleman and a consummate professional and just a joy to watch. I only wish I had had time to see him perform some mentalism because the gentleman exudes quiet charm and confidence. Also on the bill were Peter’s Samelson and Kougasian the former, the headline act and the latter, the MC for the evening.
I should also at this point say a grand and fulsome thank you to the producers of the show and in particular Michael Chaut who so kindly allowed me to take the stage.
A little bit about what I did.
Well, I tried, for better or worse, to do something different from perhaps what the audience are used to. I have a show that is two hours long end-to-end (with an interval!) and I’m used to establishing a connection, some rapport, with my audience. My mentor Ed, has always preached the importance of being likeable and he’s right as usual. In fact, I was lucky to get some excellent albeit brief feedback from the great Ken Weber, author of ‘Maximum Entertainment’ and I immediately went back over the book upon my return to the UK and he makes the point too, but more on KW later.
My problem therefore lay in a twenty two minute set. On reflection, I should have done an Osterlind and got straight down to it. Less preamble, less chat. I’m a natural talker and I like to chat on stage, it’s part of me and part of my show however, this wasn’t my show, it was a slot on a magical variety bill.
I decided upon a multiple mind read whereby I read ten people’s minds. When I get it wrong (and I do get it wrong, and that’s part of me too!) I like to give myself an incentive not to get it wrong again by a painful reminder, which translates as either a staple from a Staple gun in my arm or sometimes a mouse trap on the tongue. This horrified some of the audience (important point) and it would seem that American audiences are a little more squeamish than their European counterparts. During my time in Edinburgh, I performed a variant of this routine and an eleven year old girl volunteered to come on stage and pull the trigger on the staple gun! No qualms whatsoever, however, the audience at MNM were unsure about what I was about. One criticism I received was that it didn’t work because I hadn’t contextualised it enough. Fair comment. I shall work on that.
I then followed with a hypnotic segment which went really well. I hypnotised a complete stranger and whilst in trance was able to ascertain a word thought of by another audience member. I was very happy with the hypnotic subject and the way the mind-to-mind link played out.
Ken Weber as I mentioned before, gave me some solid gold comments whilst giving me a lift back to midtown. Anyone who performs seriously can benefit from reading his book and I have certainly percolated on his advice.
After watching the other acts, I noted importantly, that success was evident and threaded throughout the evening, magical success. This is perhaps a reason why I wasn’t such a good fit for the evening with my election of material.
I quite like to fail. It doesn’t bother me unduly, other than the staples, that I don’t always get things right. I don’t believe I could do what I do and get it all right. I present mysteries and part and parcel of that is allowing the mystery to run it’s course. For me, it is what keeps my performances vital. That is not to say that there isn’t a plan or indeed a structure, as anyone who has seen ‘Your Place or Mind’ will understand, however, I factor into my shows spaces where for want of a better expression ‘stuff can happen’. And stuff has happened. Participants going off on little unplanned journeys of discovery. Folks divining things they couldn’t possibly know without my help or any suggestion, dumb luck or providence striking clearly like a bell- I love it.
I realise that last sentence may be a bit loose or suggestive of what magicians like to call woo-woo. I suppose it is, but it is also a desire to make the live event, exactly that; a live event. No two shows are the same. There will be familiar materials, there will be process and scaffold but the building should come out different, even if only slightly, every time. My background is very much in theatre. It’s where I grew up. I don’t care for acting ‘tricks’ to make a performance seem fresh because it hardly ever does it for an audience (even if the performer feels so). An act of theatre is an act of communion between the performer and the audience. Whether It is tacit or overt communication, we are ‘en rapport’ or should be. For the same reason I love the word ‘script’ but hate the word ‘patter’, because patter suggests something you trot out (even if it has been meticulously crafted), that it is an adjunct to whatever you are attempting, as opposed to a script, which whilst carefully assembled allows you to riff off it, to throw yourself into the darkness knowing eventually you’ll hit a net. I suppose a criticism that might be honestly levelled at this approach is one of ‘who cares about what you want’ but what I want is connection with the audience, they are the focus and I want them to share something which is temporal, a one-time deal, mine and theirs only. So I don’t like performances delivered so fluidly that they lack connection. I don’t like disjointed or by-rote performance either. It’s a thin line. One of the joys over the Fringe Festival for me, was to talk to Frankie (my technical manager) after the show and go over what had happened that particular evening. It was always different and lovely to talk to participants afterwards too, to hear their version of what had transpired.
If you’re still with me, then I guess the point I am making is that the next time I play a twenty minute slot, it will be a different me. The next show I’m going to create will be theatre where magic happens and not the reverse. And lastly, I loved every crazy second of it. It was wonderful fun and I got to meet some of the heavyweights in my world like Tony Razzano and Nick Belleas, who, by the way, you should avoid going with to Irish bars when you have to catch a flight in a few hours!
New York’s Finest
Mid-town mayhem with Mr. Belleas.