Where Eagles Dare

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A couple of recent cool days here reminds me that as NYC is headed into autumn, summer is ending. Like Lot’s wife, I look back longingly and hope not to turn into a pillar of salt as I remember one of the highlights of the summer, a visit to one of the most beautiful spots in the world as far as I’m concerned, the Ashokan Reservoir in upstate New York. What made this visit particularly memorable was a bald eagle that flew by a few hundred feet in front of us.

The reservoir has a protected bald eagle nesting area on its banks, but rarely had we actually seen any eagles. On this particular day, however, we saw not only that one eagle close-up but, afterwards, several eagles high up in the air above us, easily identifiable by the flashes of their white heads and white tail feathers, along with their high-pitched call. What was puzzling to me, however, was that we saw those eagles actively chasing away some other large wing-spanned birds, which I took at first to be turkey vultures. With the naked eye, they seemed to be dark all over, including their heads and tails, and they rode the air currents as a vulture might. What I couldn’t understand, as my wife Linda pointed out, was that the darker birds seemed to be sounding the same call as the white-headed bald eagles.

Do vultures have a similar call to eagles? Not that I remembered; in fact I didn’t really think of turkey vultures having much of a call at all. So what was going on? I had one of those pocket high-powered zoom cameras with me, but the birds were too high up and moving too quickly and randomly for me to get a proper fix on them.

We got into the car saddled with our little mystery. We decided to take a lazy drive down a country road that we didn’t often take, and we soon found ourselves at the Olive Free Library in Olive, NY.  A relaxed place, there was an  advertisement for that Saturday’s guided Mushroom Walk, but alas, when I asked the librarian about it, the walk was already filled up. She did promise to put me on the waiting list, but she didn’t look hopeful. Disappointed, I rummaged around the rest of the library, looking for a Petersen’s guide to find out more about turkey vulture calls. But what I eventually found in the bird guide didn’t seem to match up with what we had heard. I was still confused.

Then I wandered over to the oversized book section, and there just happened to be a beautiful book of photography specifically about the eagles of the Ashokan Reservoir. I wish I could remember who the photographer and author of it was. It was such a lovely book. The author had taken gorgeous photos of a pair of eagles at the reservoir over a period of five or six years. They were always the same couple, as bald eagles tend to be monogamous. And then while turning the pages, to my amazement, I came across a photo of exactly the same scene we had seen a few hours before: white-headed eagles chasing away a bunch of turkey-vulture-looking birds. But the caption told us what was really going on: The darker birds were bald eagles too—hence the same call—but they were immatures who were trying to raid the mature eagles’ nests in order to get at the little eaglets, not ready to fly yet! The older eagles were protecting their babies, chasing the brash juvenile delinquents far away. Mystery solved and something learned. It feels so satisfying when everything falls into place like that.

We drove back to our little B’n’B and I sat with my eye on the phone the rest of the afternoon and evening, waiting for the Mushroom call, which never came in time. The disappointment, however, was ameliorated, some say, by the taste of a very delicious coffee mocha ice cream cone.

 

 

Little Girl Blue: Janis Joplin

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Monday morning, a blues.

When an artist has so much raw talent sometimes the skill and hard work are overlooked. Recently I watched the American Masters documentary about Janis Joplin and it really brought home just how intentional her work was. She knew exactly what she was doing and her idols were Nina Simone and the other great blues singers.

Her version of the great Rodgers and Hart song takes it into a different stratosphere.

Thanks to YouTuber TheJairo1710

High Times With Steve Spill

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Steve Spill is at it again—writing that is, and his books just keep getting better and better. It’s a shame that the title Lost Inner Secrets is taken, because this book is that. No, it’s not going to tell you where to put your left pinky when (at least not too much), but it’s a book that could supercharge a performance from just competent to extra special. I can’t imagine a better investment of your magic time than reading this book.

Steve’s recent retirement from daily performance at his Magicopolis venue, interestingly, has put Steve in a different frame of mind; you can feel it in his writing. There’s still the same love of humor, magic, and people—still plenty of funny jokes—but there’s something else this time around, something deeper, more philosophical…wiser.  With his new perspective,  he gets at what the real essentials are in this performing art.

To my knowledge, what Steve talks about here just isn’t available in magic writing anywhere else: the information within comes only with the repetition of thousands of performances. It’s about hard-won expertise that is deep in the performer’s bones. And it’s not easy to articulate it without a lot of self-awareness and self-reflection. Reading, I felt I had a privileged view watching from the backstage wings, thinking: Oh, that’s what he’s doing, that’s how he’s getting that laugh. that’s how he’s making rapport with the audience, that’s why he does that move then.  If you’re reading this, you probably have shelves of magic books with tricks and sleights; you likely have near warehouses full of magic equipment. Those are not going to make you a better magician at this point. Leave them alone for now. Pick up this book.  It will tell you what you don’t know about performing, and will never know, unless you’ve performed as many times as Steve Spill has.

Steve starts off with persona. A magician, he explains, doesn’t have to be relaxed and carefree—but s/he has to give that impression. Magic is an aggressive art at bottom; there’s always the iron fist in the velvet glove. It takes a lot of time to find the right balance of mystery and playfulness to keep an audience from feeling abused. “It’s important,” says Spill, that magicians “not take themselves so seriously that audiences feel beaten over the head by the performer. I think a cultivated casualness is an antidote to the oft-perceived pomposity that comes with fooling people, and that can help whatever you do become more viewer-friendly.” And, a bonus of such apparent casualness: “Performing without a lot of affectation can conceal methods, and presents everything that’s said and done as something brought about without laboriousness.”

“Cultivated casualness” is a wonderful phrase and Spill goes on to explain exactly how to cultivate that casualness and how to use it to the performer’s advantage. First, there is a terrific section on improvising, which is unlike any other advice on improv that I’ve seen. As Steve points out, the improvisation techniques that a comedy magician needs to learn (and really the techniques here are good for all magicians, not just those committed to comedy) are different from the techniques that one learns in a theater improv class. Simply put, an actor works with other trained improv actors, but a magician is largely exchanging banter with audience members who are untrained.  Steve gives you techniques that make those interactions wittier, funnier and more engaging. I practiced his exercises for a single day, and I was already faster on my feet with other people. This chapter alone will improve performances greatly. It’s a real gift.

Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to comedy tags. Wait, I know—Dammit, Jim, I’m a magician, not a comedian! Okay, okay. But you know what?—Steve is giving you ready-made callbacks here, and if you play your comedic cards right, four or five-time callbacks. Even if you’re not a comedy magician, only the most dour of performance personas would find these suggestions out of character. Short of some Bizarre Magic approach (and maybe even then) humor almost always lifts a performance.

On to a chapter about doing magic for teens. As someone who’s worked with teens as an educator for many decades, I’ll tell you this: Steve Spill understands and appreciates the way teens think and act. He is exactly right about how to approach them. He gives not only a general approach, but also some very specific bits that work and carry him through a show. I like that Steve Spill likes teens. And oh yeah, if you don’t know how to deal with teens who love their cellphones—and they all do—once again, Steve comes to the rescue with both general and very specific advice.

Steve ends this section with some disarmingly frank advice about playing the long game:

Being a pro may be a labor of love, but is labor nonetheless. It is a job. Usually it is a fun job, but not always…Very few in our craft are ever in the position to turn down work. Some jobs are ones you desperately want—others you don’t want, but take just for the payday. In my lifetime I’ve given tens of thousands of performances. Some were great. Most were good. Some were bad. A few were really bad.

And then Steve goes on to say how he saves himself when things go South.

I really should stop the review here, because the book I’ve described so far is worth every penny to a person who repeatedly gets onstage for a living.

But duty says, continue. And it’s not really a duty, it’s a pleasure. Because the second half of the book consists of some wonderful unpublished routines from Steve’s repertoire, with their full scripts. It includes “The Mindreading Goose”—“Not bad for a goose!”; and “Broken Mirror,” a spirit slate routine done without slates, suitable for your favorite spooky holiday; then a lovely sleight of hand interlude done with a Cub Scout neckerchief slide; and a brilliant Torn and Restored routine that can be customized for special occasions. They are all effects that although not overly elaborate can play big and funny for a large audience.

But my favorite routine here is Steve’s version of the Slydini “Paper Balls Over The Head.”  The piece should win some kind of award for the most brilliant comedy magic script of the decade. This thing is a comic masterpiece. This is one to bring down the house. Okay, remember what I said about the first half of the book being worth every penny? Forget that. Because for the right person, this script alone is worth every penny. Seriously. It could be a reputation maker.

Overall, the book is bursting at the seams with fantastic performance advice and magic routines. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The icing on the cake is a back cover photo of Dai Vernon that I assure you, will have you laughing out loud.

You’ve got an uncle in the business. His name is Steve Spill, and he’s telling you everything he knows. Thank you, Steve, for one of the most entertaining and useful books of magic I’ve ever read.

You can order it at https://stevespill.com/products/magic-is-my-weed

Heart Of The Country

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Josh Turner and friends cover the Paul McCartney ditty from the Ram album. I really enjoyed the extended banjo, fiddle, bass, and drum chorus at the end. And how the heck does Josh do that video editing, keeping all the audio in synch?

More Josh Turner at Josh Turner Guitar

The Power Of Satire

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Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about parody and satire. A poster on one of the magic boards I follow declared that he doesn’t like satire; and he mentioned that Penn Gillette of Penn & Teller magic fame also felt this way.  Penn wants a comedian to just “Come out and say it,” comparing Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal unfavorably to George Carlin’s comedy. Penn feels they make similar points but Carlin is more direct. Well, of course historically, unfortunately, people have paid a heavy price to just “Come out and say it” directly. Now, why Penn, a very intelligent man, would gloss over that point is interesting, but I don’t want to get into that in this essay (maybe I’ll expand on this in the comments area). Instead, I want to share some thoughts I’ve been kicking around concerning how parody and satire actually work.

Satire is often conflated with its humorous kin, parody, but I don’t consider them synonymous.  I’m not that interested in making a semantic argument, scolding for misuse—use the words as you wish—but I do want to distinguish between two distinct categories of comedy, no matter what one calls them. And so for convenience, I’ll refer to the two categories as parody and satire. Though they are both categories of humorous critique, there are some important differences.

Oddly, it might be easier to understand my definition of satire, if I first begin talking about parody. Both parody and satire embody a subject of humorous critique presented in a given form. In parody, however, the subject of the critique is the form itself.  Let me give a few examples here: Mel Brooks is well appreciated for film parodies such as Young Frankenstein. The pleasure we get from watching Young Frankenstein is in how Brooks takes the tropes of the classic horror movies of the 30s and pokes fun at them: there’s the hunchback, the inarticulate monster, the creepy castle, and so on, which all trigger memories of what we loved about those kinds of films. We laugh because these are familiar elements, but in addition, Brooks jokes with the form by unexpectedly breaking with its conventions: the inarticulate monster, out of genre, puts on a top hat and grabs a cane, performs a Broadway soft shoe dance, and so on. The subject, then, of Brooks’s horror movie is the form of horror movies. We see a similar dynamic occurring in other Mel Brooks movies, such as High Anxiety, Spaceballs, and Blazing Saddles. The subject of each of these movies is a critique of their particular forms—the thriller, the sci-fi movie, the western, respectively—the target being the absurd aspects of their forms.

One more parody example: the current wave of literature parodies which somehow manage to shoehorn zombies into them. So, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, takes the form of a nineteenth-century Jane Austen novel of manners, but subverts the form by importing characters from a completely different kind of genre. The humor is in the discordant clash of forms. Again the subject of the parody in this case is of the form itself. It’s not “about” anything other than the comedies of manners and the tropes of zombie tales.

But satire works differently. While satire takes a form of an already recognized genre, its subject is not solely about the features of that form. The subject of satire is something apart from its form, but talks about the relationship of the subject to the form; and in the best satire, the form indicates how the subject uses elements of that form to gain, consolidate, or maintain power.

To clarify, let’s begin with Penn’s example, Jonathan Swift’s classic satire, A Modest Proposal. The writer proposes that the solution to starvation and poverty among the Irish poor is to let Irish parents sell their children to the rich as a source of food. Now the subject of the piece is clearly the exploitation of the poor by the rich; but the form of that satirical piece is the political statement of a rational man serving the people. Here Swift takes that form and shows how the form of rational political discourse is used to advance monstrous conclusions by proceeding from unjust premises. So the essay is not just a critique of the position of the Irish poor in Swift’s time, but it’s also an illustration of the forms of discourse that had helped to maintain such an unjust power relationship. In other words, in A Modest Proposal, Swift is in effect saying, “This is how rich people think and act. And these are the forms of twisted rationality they use to advance their cruel arguments to make them seem less self-serving.”

Or let’s take another, milder, satirical example, an excerpt from a recent article from the satirical online newspaper, The Onion:

2020 Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Announces Bold Plan For 2,500-Mile Intercontinental Riverwalk

SOUTH BEND, IN—Touting the benefits in tourism and business revenue that such a project had already brought to his hometown, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, IN mayor Pete Buttigieg announced Thursday a bold plan for a 2,500-mile intercontinental riverwalk. “At a time when Americans are more divided than ever, what this country needs is a riverwalk that will provide people from all strata of society with continuous strolling, dining, and festival opportunities,” said Buttigieg, gesturing to a watercolor architectural rendering of the Intercontinental Riverwalk that he described as his “core campaign plank,” which would revitalize the country’s heartlands by attracting sorely needed coffee shops, clothing boutiques, and artisanal cocktail bars in riverside locations stretching from coast to coast. […] At press time, the Indiana mayor went on to unveil diplomatic plans to broker a pact between Mexico, Canada, and the United States for a Transnational Farmer’s Market on Saturday afternoons.”

https://politics.theonion.com/2020-presidential-candidate-pete-buttigieg-announces-bo-1833302082

The Onion is not as sharp as it used to be, having to constantly churn out humor online, but this is a nice low-key satirical example. The subject of the satire is Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign bid. The form is the inbred local newspaper or Pennysaver giveaway press release article.  The piece is not just making fun of smalltown papers and Buttigieg’s campaign. What it also does is show how Buttigieg’s campaign (the subject of the critique) deliberately uses the tropes of the SmallTown America® press (the form) as branding to push its candidate forward. In an actual Buttigieg press conference or debate, South Bend, Indiana becomes the center of the civilized world; all knowledge, wisdom, and experience flows from there. Plain old front-porch common sense in partnership with local business leaders will solve all the world’s problems. The Onion piece catches the flavor of the campaign perfectly—by utilizing the form that it does.

Analyzing the differences between parody and satire in this way is useful in that it also allows us to see what factors might make for a stronger piece in both categories. Because in parody the object of humor is the form itself, the best parody tends to exaggerate features of the form, like a caricaturist might do with a person’s features in a cartoon.  But satire, on the other hand, works much better when the form is left alone; indeed when the form is a pitch-perfect imitation, but filled with the content of the subject of critique. That way, one can see how the subject uses the form to its own advantage.

So, while like Penn, I much admire the direct form of comedy as exemplified by George Carlin’s work, it’s important to understand that parody and satire allow for other kinds of humorous critique and observation to come into play. Parody and satire allow us not only to understand the subject of its critique, but also to understand the power that form, less visible and apparent,  holds over us as well.

 

Math and Magic

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While sorting through things at home, I came upon this illustration of me done by a former student, Jian. Wish I could remember his last name. I taught him math, and he knew I liked magic, so he included math and magic symbols in the background.

Billie Holiday: The Last Interview

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This new compilation of interviews with Billie Holiday has an introduction by journalist and writer Khanya Mtshali. Listen to my conversation with Ms. Mtshali, as broadcast today on Arts Express radio on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, as she explains why Billie Holiday was not the person you thought she was.

Coriolanus: The Nihilism of War

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Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.

It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.

It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?

Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.

Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL.  He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s  the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows.  And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty,  that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.

Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them.  It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.

And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.

This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.

In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius  has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement.  No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.

In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.

Get Your Plane Right On Time

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It’s not enough that Josh Turner plays perfect guitar and the best Paul Simon covers you’ll ever hear, but the freakin’ guy actually does the Artie Garfunkel part for “Only Living Boy In New York” as well. Just amazing.

The reverb is courtesy of a tunnel in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. And stay tuned for the announcement after the song. Wish I could hop on a plane.

More at Josh Turner Guitar