Fourth Draft Jitters Part 2

Just when I thought I was out . . . It’s not finished by a long shot.

Last week, I wrote about the novel I was writing. I was nervous because after a month of letting it lie dormant, I was about to dive into the fourth revision. I didn’t know what I was going to find.

The plan was to find a quiet place and read through it in one sitting. I started to read and after thirty pages I had to stop. It was too disappointing. Everything that had seemed so sparkling and trenchant a month ago was flat on the page, a dead thing.

Grrr.

A few days later, I read some more. I came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong that couldn’t be improved by pitching the first 150 pages into a burning tar hellhole of a pit.

Double grrr.

So. Decision. I can see the problems plainly. I can identify them. I can name them. I can put the proper colored tag on each one.

What I don’t know is whether I can fix them. That is, I may be at the limit of my skill and talent. Alternatively, I could seek feedback and educate myself further and see where that takes me. I expect that I would then be capable of making some changes, but not have the ability or talent to make others.  I may have to accept that this is where I am.

Or I could just scrap the whole thing.

Today, however, I had a more positive experience. I decided to sit down again and start reading from page 151 until I reached the end, some 200 pages later. And I was able to do it. Sometimes I was smiling, and sometimes I was giving myself mental high fives. I liked what I read in that latter part. I was compelled to keep reading up to the end. The patient was definitely worth saving.

I think I see the path I have to take.

The first third doesn’t work because it takes too long for my actors to become active. I need to chisel away the rest of the marble to reveal the action of my story. My protagonist needs to be confronted with her problem within the first few pages. Settings need to be clarified, chronology and seasons sorted out, cliches ditched, language sharpened. I think these are all possible, all within my skill set.

So my time line is extended one more time. They’ve pulled me back in. We can’t let each other go yet. I’ll be back at my desk again tomorrow, as always, trying to write myself out.

The Devil’s Staircase–An Important New Card Magic Book

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Usually when I talk about magic in this blog, I try to make it accessible to even the readers who are not involved with magic. But you’ll excuse me if I go magic geek on you today. This post is about a new magic book that I had a peripheral involvement in producing, and is primarily aimed at those already familiar with the technology of card magic.

Greg Chapman’s new book is called The Devil’s Staircase. If you do any kind of gambling material and know the difference between an out-faro and an in-faro, stop reading this post and go order it right now at: http://www.thedevilsstaircase.com

You must have this book. You will thank me for it later.  I’ll wait.

The rest of you take a look at this video: http://vimeo.com/111080641

If you have a belt handy, strap it around your head while watching the above video so your brains don’t fall out. No, it’s not trick photography.

Everybody back? Okay. Now, clearly the must-haves will love this book. But there is also a whole group of magicians who are the should-haves who will also enjoy and benefit from this book. I’ll describe who I think this group should be a little later in the review. But first, let me describe the book in more detail so you can get a sense of why I am so excited about it. (Full disclosure: I proofread a late version of this book. I didn’t know Greg beforehand.  It was hard sometimes to focus on the proofreading because as I read it, I got so engrossed. I realized it was an excellent book.)

In the first chapter, Greg introduces his weapons of choice for the cardician. They will not be unfamiliar to the practitioner: the stack, the faro, the run up, the false shuffle, the memdeck, the estimate, the glimpse, and the joker. In this introduction, Greg lays all his cards, as it were, on the table. He assumes the reader has the same tools available for use as well.

The next chapter takes us into a collection of FASDIU (from a shuffled deck in use) effects that are just knockouts. Learn the material in this chapter and you have an evening’s set of killer entertainment that you can do impromptu. Here’s a description of the first effect in the book, Snap Transposition:

Effect
Four kings are removed from a deck of cards. One red king is placed on a participant’s hand and the other red king is inserted face-up between the face-down black kings and held, spread at the fingertips. In a snap all four cards instantly change places. That is, the red kings are now seen to sandwich a black king and the face down card on the participant’s hand is shown to be the other black king.

It’s a beautiful effect, and an instant visible transposition.

There are several other excellent tricks in this section including Thought Card Across, a plot which has been explored by others including Bruce Bernstein, but Greg’s version has some decidedly superior features, and Searchers Undone which has a plot similar to the video above, but can be done entirely impromptu.

Greg’s teaching and explanations are detailed and clear; if you’re a fan of Simon Aronson’s books, you will immediately see Aronson’s influence on the way Greg takes such care with his explanations. As with Aronson’s books, you’ll find much to read and re-read carefully because sometimes what seems like a throwaway comment actually contains within it a door that opens up a whole new avenue of magical thought.

You’ll run across that in the next few chapters especially. Chapter 3 details Greg’s personal MD stack, one especially suited for those who enjoy doing gambling effects. However, even if you don’t do such material, it is well worth reading as there are certain concepts employed that are useful to anyone wanting to create her or his own stack. In the following chapter, you’ll find the Switchable Pairs concept, a simple but intriguing idea with some fascinating implications. This should lead the creative enthusiast to a field of fertile explorations. The Fixed Floating Key Card concept is another idea that could be very helpful to any memdeck worker.

In Chapter 5, you’ll find memdeck effects that are stack independent. While the plots here are not novel,  the treasure is in the care that Greg takes to make every step seem absolutely innocent looking. He explains what he thinks some of the pitfalls of memdeck work are, and how to overcome them. If you do any kind of memdeck work, this chapter will improve what you do, no matter what stack you use.

Chapters 6 and 7 are for the hard-core gambling demo guys and gals. These chapters concentrate on the use of the overhand run-up shuffling system to stack hands. This will also enable you to get even further ahead with a memdeck. It is frankly quite technical material, but well explained and Greg strikes a nice balance between holding the readers’ hands and treating them like adults. In the right hands, it’s powerful stuff. If it’s not your cup of tea, you could probably skip these chapters for now, with the knowledge that if you do decide to learn this later, Greg’s teaching here is very good.

Chapter 8 uses Greg’s stack to illustrate the built-in effects possible with it. Some will be happy to know that there are two different plausible Texas Hold’em deals that are available. Also, fairly easily, the stack can be gotten into from NDO and back into NDO as well,  certainly a nice little way to end a set.

Finally in the last chapter, Greg spills the beans on the effect in the video above, Dirty Tactics. (You did watch it didn’t you? If not, go back now.)  Greg’s diabolical thinking is in full bloom here, and if your pleasure as a magician includes driving your fellow magi crazy, you will definitely enjoy learning this effect.

There are some magicians who are good technicians; there are some magicians who are good writers; there are some magicians who can illustrate their work well; there are some magicians who can create inventive fooling effects. It is relatively rare though in the world of magic to find someone who is all of the above.  I think Greg Chapman is such a magician and his book will become a classic in the field of smart, inventive, demanding but do-able card magic. If you like the work of Darwin Ortiz, Simon Aronson, or Dennis Behr, then this book is for you.

I have yet to meet Greg Chapman in person–all our correspondence has been through email. But I can say without reservation that Greg is a man who cares intensely about his work and has taken the care to produce a really excellent book of card magic. Highly recommended.

A Room With a View: Wagering It All on One Scene

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I have been working on a novel, and it’s always wonderful to see how the masters solved the problems with which I as a neophyte am still wrestling. A novel sets up certain expectations as the plot unfolds and the novelist must fulfill them. If the plot expectations are not fulfilled, it doesn’t matter what else s/he does, the novel will disappoint. Sometimes the success of that expectation hinges on the turn of just one scene. If that one scene doesn’t work, no novel.

I recently re-read E.M. Forster’s comic masterpiece A Room With a View,  and it is a perfect example of a novel whose success depends entirely on the execution of one crucial scene. This short turn-of-the-century novel, a social romp through the new 20th-century world of a rapidly changing society, is full of wry commentary and third person omniscient observation. The comedy of social manners of young people caught between the ways of their conventional elders and the almost-liberated woman was a popular subject of the time. With Women’s Suffrage movements as background, George Bernard Shaw and others were making a career out of writing plays about women who, much to the consternation of their elders and the men around them, were asserting their independence.

In a short time afterwards the hopes for change embodied in these plays and novels would turn sour with the aftermath of the Great War.  But in those pre-war years at the turn of the century, it was still possible to write humorously about the ways conventions could be overturned with a strong dose of Idealism and Passion.

Forster’s story is about a group of British guardians and their almost-of-age children who meet at at an Italian pensione during a sightseeing vacation. Conventions are upset by the unconventional socialists, the Emersons. They have the uncultured habit of saying what they mean. When the elder Emerson offers his Room with a View to the young filly Lucy, her older prudish cousin Charlotte is shocked at the impertinence and forwardness of such an offer. The younger Emerson, George, and Lucy have other ideas of propriety, and the rest of the novel very quickly becomes a vehicle for delivering the otherwise-engaged Lucy to her real love George. Unfortunately, Lucy herself is still bound to conventional ideas and is too scared to break with them. On her return to England, Lucy denies her love of George and instead sets off to marry the upper-class twit Cecil, in accord with her family’s expectations. But George and his father both know that Lucy is lying to herself and really loves George.

As the novel moves its scene from Italy to Britain, Forster has fun skewering the mores of the drawing room set. But ultimately the success of the book depends on whether he can pull off the culminating scene. Because delightful as the book’s whimsy, characters, and pointed humor are, if it doesn’t deliver on its obligatory scene where Lucy is confronted with her real feelings, then the book fails.

But Forster at the ridiculous age of 26 executes the scene so beautifully that this one scene in my opinion makes the novel a classic all by itself. Forster in the penultimate chapter of the book has Lucy, on the verge of marrying Cecil, running into the plainspoken father of George once more. In a remarkable monologue, George’s father talks to Lucy passionately of Truth and Love and Lying and Lucy breaks down. She can no longer run from her true feelings. She knows she must have George.

It’s a breathtaking and daring turn. The whole novel depends on whether the reader can be as persuaded as Lucy about the holiness of Love. If we don’t feel it, the novel, despite its other fine qualities, is a throwaway. In the otherwise wonderful 1985 movie, the filmmakers don’t entirely trust the moment. They end the scene too soon and Denholm Elliot’s wonderful performance as the father is somewhat short-changed. But Forster’s father’s full speech is a breathtaking tour-de-force and as a reader I was affected by every word. When I reached the end of that chapter, I felt as if I had been taken by the hand of a master and whirled around in the air, landing giddily with an exhilaration at hearing a truth so plain, yet so inspiring, that I was left, like Lucy, with the feeling of a renewed strength to face life.

Did Forster write that novel with that scene in mind first? I don’t know. But what a dare, what a wager, what an achievement. Set up the expectation, then brilliantly fulfill it. Lesson learned. Simple.

Stage Combat Part 3

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Last night they kicked me, punched me, pulled my hair, grabbed me by the ears and legs, then kicked me in the crotch. Then I got to return the favors. That was enjoyable.

Acting!

If you’ve read the last two installments of this series in Stage Combat Part 1 and Stage Combat Part 2 you know that I’ve been enrolled in a  Stage Combat class and I’m learning how to pound, punish, and pummel without hurting anyone or getting hurt. It’s an awful lot of fun.

But at first I ran into an unexpected difficulty. It was harder than I thought because of the emotional consequences the first week. Let me explain. The first week, I was paired up with a a young woman who was very serious. As the teacher explained to us how to simulate violence without any actual contact, I thought this would be a fun set of exercises. What I did not count on was what actually happened. We took turns being the aggressor and the victim. My partner was the aggressor to begin with. And as she raised her hand to me, a hand that would never actually hit my cheek, I saw in her eyes pure hatred. I was not prepared for this. The hatred flowing through her eyes was palpable and scary.  And then when we reversed roles, as I raised my hand to strike her, the look on her face of horror and betrayal was enough to jar me.

She is a gifted actor. Her emotions flow without blocking. It was not just a physical exercise for her, but an acting exercise. I was not prepared for that.

I thought to myself, oh these people play for keeps. In the context of a play, I readily accept that as actors we use our real emotions and that that is part of the job. I was taken aback, however, at the real emotion in this exercise. It felt much more raw than dealing with emotion within a play, because in a play you are sending and receiving emotion within the context of a character. But in this exercise I felt naked, emotionally naked anyway, and it was hard not to be affected by the strength of such emotion. We were involved in something we both knew was forbidden.

As the class was wrapping up and we were putting on our coats and so forth, I tried to make some small talk, just to try and defuse some of the charge in the air. But I felt the small talk was not reciprocated. We left and went our separate ways.

I was disturbed, but my pride said, okay, I’m here to act, I’ll play by actors’ rules, I’m not going to wimp out.

But this current week was much more fun for me. Something happened. Time? We were all a lot looser with each other. Shyness and distrust started to break down. What I felt was standoffish behavior, was just basic tentativeness in a strange new situation. We didn’t choose each other, we didn’t know each other. But now that we know that we are not going to really hurt each other, and now that we know that we are all actors who respect each other, we can leave it on the other side of the studio doors and relax and play.

Ooofff!!! Powwww!!!  Onward!

Morley: “If You’re Feeling Helpless”

Singing of pleasure and women of hope, the singer/songwriter Morley jazzes, sambas, and folks her way across the stage of Joe’s Pub in a sleek silver dress. Her generous spirit adds to the warm evening of song on a cold New York night.

Morley’s considerable talents project well in this venue.  Her voice is flexible and both her high and low registers are affecting. Her songwriting and singing are unique with echoes of Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman. Her writing when specific can be strong: “Unshackled” a new song she wrote about the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners in New York prisons is gripping. Her signature song, “Women of Hope,” is simple and direct in its imagery, especially with its references to protestor Aung San Suu Kyi’s  call to action: “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.” Some of Morley’s songs have a tendency to be a bit too generic in their lyrical sentiments but on the other hand, Morley can also grab onto a resonant phrase like Sever the Ties and make something special of it. In her best work, she finds an image and dives deep.

As a composer, Morley takes risks, and you can hear her jazz influences. She also plays with standard pop form. She might begin with  a/b/a/b, but soon she’s taking flights in the middle up and down the universe before returning back to home base. Those twists and turns allow Morley to go deeper and wider, a bird’s eye view of the world.

The set was nicely shaped beginning with “Pleasure” (“I’m talking about spiritual pleasure, I’m talking about intellectual pleasure,” she teases as she seduces) backed by a strong band including Robin Macatangay on guitar. Her combo dwindles down to three then two then one as the evening becomes more intimate culminating in an Abbey Lincoln song, “Throw it Away,” followed by a new song called “Baldwin’s Wings” based on a James Baldwin essay. Other memorable songs included “Call on Me” and “A Life Fully Realized.” She rounded out the set by returning the band for a closing of “Love and Understanding” backed with a strong Latin beat. For the encore, she did an acoustic version of “Women of Hope” with the audience joining in on the refrain.

In the intro to one of her songs, Morley mentioned how the late choreographer Geoffrey Holder had said to her that art is this: you make a messy painting and then you find a way to make it beautiful.

Last night, Morley brought beauty along with love, spirit, and elegance to the evening.

Fourth Draft Jitters

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I’m as jittery as a three-wheeled caboose. I am about to face my novel again, the fourth draft to be exact. I don’t know what I’m going to find.

I’ve been working on a novel for the past few years.  In the last 10 months, I’ve given it more serious commitment. It’s become the most important part of my day. Three drafts done, the words finally sculpting a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

I worked through the drafts without much break in between. I didn’t want to lose the thread of whatever was there. I printed out the completed third draft, put it in a manila envelope, and buried it under a pile of bills by the window in the corner of my workspace. The morning street noises unconcernedly wafted over it.

One month. That’s the timeline I was giving myself. I was on forced vacation from the characters I liked and loved. The plan was to get some distance and come back for one final draft before letting a few others give their feedback.

I kept myself busy during the month (this blog, an outline for another novel) but now the time is up. Tomorrow I dig up the manila folder and start reading the pages again. It’s like meeting an old college friend. I hope we still like each other.

When my son was born I kept thinking how lucky I was to have such an absurdly beautiful baby.  Maybe Nature makes that happen for all parents. The parents look at their newborn and think no baby could possibly be more perfect. When I look back at the earliest pictures of my son, the truth is he looks pretty much like every other newborn baby. Even down to the identical funny little hats they are all issued at the hospital. It’s a wonderful protective mechanism we’re given (the parental pride, not the funny little hats).

But novels? I’m not so sure we get that kind of creator’s protection. We have to face the consequences of our lexical mistakes and bear the shock of whatever is really there. What if there’s nothing worth saving?

How bold will I be? Will I wimp out if it’s clear that the whole structure is rotten and needs re-modeling? Will I ruthlessly cut out characters who don’t add to the story line? Will I, as the advice famously goes, kill my darlings?

Not so fast. In previous drafts, my editorial self was tempted to take out whole characters and subplots. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t kill my darlings. And that mercy, I think, for now at least, was the better choice. As I found out more about my characters and my story I found a way to more fully integrate them into the plot of the novel. I think the novel is stronger for that decision.

The one thing I am happy about is that with every draft so far,  I’ve surprised myself with new content. It’s not just been about changing words here or there, but still working with something alive and pliable. Each round I’ve written something that surprises me, surprises my characters. I am grateful for that.

She steps off the platform with suitcases, the blue suitcase I remember. The turn of her shoulder. What coat is that? What hair? We walk towards each other with half a smile on our lips. I stumble on a rock.

I’ll let you know how it all went in the coming week.

Poem: Autumn

Autumn

Only the unbirded raspberries remain

To be picked by other fingers;

The last egg consoles itself in the refrigerator.

Look, between the two spruces in the yard—

That’s where the blue heron flew.

***

Unmount the classroom tables

Thirty-two scarred chairs.

Set the purple quartz and hawk’s feather by the

Pencil sharpener. Stuck between the windows,

A pigeon flutters.

Fumbling, Failing, Falling: Wild Mind–Living the Writer’s Life

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There are lots of good books about writing, but this one is still reverberating. The premise of this little book is that the essence of good writing comes from being able to access that part of us that doesn’t know what it is doing: the Wild Mind. We are lurching through a desert in a car with no brakes at 150 miles per hour, our eyes straining through the windows and our job is to write it all down as fast as we can. Better yet, kick out the car windows, feel the hot air rush against our cheeks, smell the sulfur night, hear the wolves bay.  And when we crash into the twelve-foot cactus that was hidden around the bend, at all costs hold onto your pencil. Your Monkey Mind has just crashed into your Wild Mind and the skid marks are your next poem or story.

Natalie Goldberg’s book is part memoir, part writing advice. She does not separate life from writing. Life is practice; practice, life.

She writes about the day she got permission. About how every artist needs that nod from another, more respected, artist which says, “It’s okay, you’re one of us, you have permission to continue.” Permission to fumble, fail, fall. Who would want permission to be in such a club! But the journey is helped with the encouragement of others.

Her writing exercises are very practical but not at all like What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Start with “I remember” and keep writing. When you can’t remember anymore, start again: “I remember.”  Do this for ten minutes.  When you are finished, repeat, only this time begin with, “I don’t remember.”

I like her recommendations for revision as well. In order to keep the new material as fresh as the original, she suggests you make a notation next to the paragraph that needs revision. Then on a separate paper let yourself run free with that paragraph’s subject. It may go anywhere. The idea is to let your Wild Mind out so that even in revision the language is chewy and alive.

She talks of her life, how it is not different from writing, how lovers, family, jobs have disappeared and changed but the one commitment she could keep, she had to keep, was her writing.

The sickness and the cure are the same. Pick up the pencil, keep the hand moving.

Stage Combat (Part 2)

Last time in Stage Combat Part 1 I spoke about the relationship of theatrical stage combat to stage magic illusion. So, intrigued by the idea, I sought out a Stage Combat class. Here’s what happened.

The first session of the weekly class (an eight-week class) we are introduced to our teacher Gael, a small lithe woman who I am glad to see is closer to my age than to the age of the others in the class. I am hoping she will be merciful.

The class, she tells us, will focus on training in unarmed stage combat. The tradition she uses consists of techniques where no real contact will happen between combatants–it will only be the illusion of it. “No matter what anybody says, in the heat of acting passion, accidents can happen if you really slap, punch, or kick someone. If a director insists that you do it for real, just smile and go about using the proper technique that you will learn in this class. Remember one thing. The only one who cares about your next job is you. Get hurt on this one and there may not be a next job.”

After a few suitably gruesome cautionary tales about cases where directors helped to cause permanent injuries to their actors, we get started.

The warm-up begins. And so, though I am of an age where I get spontaneous offers of a seat when I am standing on a bus, I am soon rolling around on the floor with students half my age, stretching, bending, and kicking. Finally warmed up (and trying to hide my puffing and huffing) it is time to learn the basic techniques.

We start off with the most-used method called “wall technique.” We pair off, standing facing each other. I am paired with a young woman with dark hair and intense eyes. We are standing so that my back is to the audience, while my partner is facing the audience head-on. This time, I am the aggressor, my partner is the victim. We will switch roles afterwards. We stand an arm’s length away from each other plus six inches. I am to imagine a wall six inches in front of my partner’s face. Okay.

First, eye contact with my partner. Nothing happens before that. Second, a physical cue. I raise my right hand. That’s her cue to get ready. Third, I wipe my right hand in front of my partner’s face, brushing along the imaginary wall from right to left. I follow through with my hand, making sure that my right hand passes through the audience sight line on my left. This crossing of the sight line is crucial for the illusion to work properly.

Meanwhile, it is my partner’s responsibility to provide the sound of the slap. As my hand comes towards her, she “knaps.” That is, she makes a sound by hitting her two palms together in front of her body, clapping once sharply. Her action is hidden by a number of factors. First, because of the positions of our bodies relative to the audience, if she keeps her knap low, the sight of it will be blocked by my back. Second, even more importantly, the moment after my right hand appears to be croosing the line of her left cheek, she simultaneously turns her head to her right and brings up the left hand she just knapped with to her left cheek in one motion.

That’s the magic moment. That’s what sells it. Not so much the aggressor’s motion, but the victim’s reaction. Her hand to her cheek tells the audience where to look. That in combination with the sound is irresistible. The audience’s attention must go to that spot. The amazing thing is that the audience’s collective brain fills in the missing pieces of what it didn’t see as if it did and interprets the actions as a full-bodied slap.

Gael encourages us to take turns seating ourselves in the audience in order to watch the other pairs working. The illusion is perfect. The simultaneous sound and motion are compelling and fooling–even when we know that it is a fake. It’s just like good magic. I am thrilled.

But there is one thing I am not prepared for. The emotional consequences. More of that in Stage Combat Part 3, later in the week.

Rocco: The Art of Giving

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Rocco the magician walks among us like an ordinary man.  He offers you a friendly smile and nods towards the shelled peanuts in his hand, encouraging you to eat some of them.  He walks through the audience, an amiable man. He is not here to take anything from you—not your dignity, your intelligence, or anything else. Nor is he demanding anything of you, your loyalty or even admiration. After all, you have just met. He offers you some peanuts. Simple. Peanuts. You liked those peanuts? Fine. Here’s something else.

Imagine you are watching, as the famous French conjurer Robert-Houdin put it, an actor playing the part of a great magician.  He approaches the audience. You are nervous because you have been insulted by one too many performers who call themselves magicians. You are mistrustful because you are tired of the demands of the magicians’ ego for applause for their pointless “tricks.”

If you are watching Rocco Silano however, you feel differently. He is an artist. You will applaud not just because he has flawless technique—more of that later—but because he makes the kinds of decisions that other entertainers don’t think about.

We are in a little backroom of a bar, The West End in NYC. If a magician were to unleash all of his or her power here it would be too much. After all, we are just here nursing our drinks looking for a good time. We don’t want to be transported to Asia to ride the back of a Siberian Tiger. Let’s see what fun we can have here.

So Rocco and his audience eat peanuts. Then he pushes the remaining peanuts into his empty hand and when he opens his hand a brief second later, in it are peanuts in the shell. As if time had been reversed. It’s a startling moment. And now he offers you the peanuts in the shell. Then the remaining peanuts go back in the hand and it can’t be, but it is: a Snickers bar.  He gives it away. Then a pack of gum and he breaks open the pack and offers the sticks. Then the sticks turn into more packs like the parable of the loaves. You don’t like the green-wrapper kind, poof, here are the yellow kind. It’s something small, but he does it for us because we’re friends. Soon pretzels appear from nowhere, large pretzels, small pretzels, pretzel sticks, pretzel rings.

I am sitting three feet away from him. I, like most of the others here who are versed in things magical, know exactly what must be happening. And I am still mesmerized. Misdirection works whether we know about it or not when performed by a master.

His empty hands are the horn of plenty. Here’s a lollipop for you. Now an orange for you. A miniature bottle of vodka for the gentleman. A tube of lipstick for the lady. He gets what so many performers can’t seem to understand. It’s about giving to the audience and that’s what he literally does. Look, if you had the power, wouldn’t you do the same for your acquaintances? You wouldn’t rain down jewelry and money—that would make their lives too complicated and they would be too beholden to you; look what that did to Elvis. But, hey, a couple of drinks and eats for my friends when we got together—that’s exactly what I would do.

We’ve established our relationship, there’s nothing to worry about, now we can watch his stronger magic.There are some beautiful moments where he tears up a newspaper piece by piece and then restores it. And for the magicians in the audience he does a beautiful coda. He now takes the restored paper and tears that again into little pieces. The little pieces transform into a lit pipe between Rocco’s lips.

He closes, finally ready to show us a “trick.” A card is chosen, signed. He cannot find it. He pulls cards out of the deck, but they are all wrong, not the card. He throws the deck away and then plucks cards out of the air, one after another from nowhere. But they too are not correct. The venerable Magician in Trouble plot. How will he escape? He puffs on what is now a cigarette and then smiles. He removes the cigarette from his mouth. Behind his lips, is a folded card. There can be no doubt now. The card is removed from his mouth and opened up. It is the signed card. He has just given us the gift of the impossible.

Kish Kush

Six oranges; a pocketful of sand; a wall. What might these mean to a person? I went with 25 middle school children to see Kish Kush and find out.

As we entered the theatre space–a square with seating on all four sides–we realized that once seated, because of the three-foot high plastic wall bisecting the space diagonally, we would only be able to see half of the performing space from any particular location. As a natural result, we could see the actions of only one of the two men seated on either side of those walls.

We had only our own point of view, stuck behind a wall.

Isolation. Slowly, slowly, the man becomes aware of something. A sound? From where? Over there? Oh, this is a wall? There’s something on the other side? How could it be? Tentative experiments testing the shadows projected on the wall from the other side. Finally the bold ripping of the wall to reveal: The Other.

Tall and short. Mutt and Jeff. Abbott and Costello. Vladimir and Estragon.

Circling. Who is this Me-Not-Me? Sound. Then the Tower of Babel. One man is speaking English, the other some mix of Hebrew-Arabic. They are attracted and repelled by each other. They see each other’s possessions which they envy and covet. However, they also know if they are to survive with one another in this wall-less universe they must find some way of communicating.

Kish Kush is the creation of two actors from Italy, Daniel Gol and Alessandro Nosetti who call themselves Teatrodistinto. They have been performing this piece all over the world in many languages for over six years. One actor always speaks the language of the locality where they are performing, while the other always speaks a gibberish mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.

The actors play with humor and specificity, enchanting a roomful of young students and myself. When the wall came down in the middle of the 60-minute piece, members of the audience were able to look across the actors’ space so that we could see each other, and so, ourselves. Delight, whoops of laughter, understanding. Two artists engage and the children engage.

It is Samuel Beckett for children, only this time Didi and Gogo, perhaps, have some hope. Godot does not come, but they have found each other. The students later talk of miscommunication, love, difference, oranges, language. I think of Marx, Gaza, imperialism, Plato, loneliness.

Spoiler: the characters do not hang themselves. They do not sit waiting. They pull out crayons. They draw together, filling the empty space with color and connection.

Unshackled: Women Speak Out on Mass Incarceration and Reproductive Justice

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“Unshackled” refers to the fight against the practice of shackling that is daily policy in New York prisons: that of shackling pregnant incarcerated women. The women are shackled when they go to doctor’s appointments, the women are shackled while in labor, the women are shackled even after emergency Cesareans. There is a guard in the delivery room even as they are giving birth. This is happening now, in 2014.

The Correctional Association of New York, an excellent prisoner advocacy group (see their website here)  put together an event about the issue which I covered for an arts magazine-type radio show called Arts Express with host Prairie Miller on listener-sponsored WBAI 99.5 FM and WBAI.org on the Internet.

The CA’s event consisted of artists and formerly incarcerated women who sung and spoke about their experiences. Toshi Reagon and Morley were kind enough to lend their tremendous talents to the very powerful program.

You can listen and download the piece here: Unshackled

I think you will find it very moving. If you’d like to take further action, or simply find out more information, I urge you to click on the link for the Correctional Association.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Elephant (Part II)

TOURISTS MARVEL AT ELEPHANT ARTIST IN THAILAND

A few days ago I posted a fantastic story of an elephant who appeared to be drawing realistic self portraits. You can see the amazing footage here in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Elephant (Part 1).

It seemed too amazing to be true.  With some further investigation it turns out that what occurred is indeed amazing  but not quite what it was purported to be.

Desmond Morris, the zoologist who at one time had a bestseller with a book called The Naked Ape, got curious, so curious in fact that he went to Thailand to see the elephants in action. You see, it turned out that there wasn’t just one elephant with artistic talent, but several; it was becoming something of a cottage industry.

Morris reported his findings some years ago in the British Daily Mail. I’m going to link to the whole article because it is somewhat lengthy but well worth reading: the entire thing.

After you read the article, I hope you do not suffer from disillusionment.  To my mind it is an amazing achievement and says much about the skills of the elephants. Look where the elephant begins each time. How does s/he know with such accuracy? I am still astounded.

Combat! (Part 1)

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When I was eight years old, my mother found me in front of her make-up mirror, my forehead, cheeks, chin, and hands covered with large swatches of her green eye shadow and brown eyeliner.

I was trying to look like Vic Morrow in the World War ll television series Combat! Tough guys had green and brown mud on their faces. Anyone who watched Vic knew that.

Fast forward to this February. I had stumbled into acting a small part in a production of Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan. There were a bunch of young actors who had worked together before, and several of them were quite proficient in armed and unarmed stage combat. We were a modern dress production, so we had knife fights along with the usual slaps, kicks, and punches.

I was enchanted watching them work the fights. It was everything I loved about the theater; that part of the theater which overlaps stage magic. We were creating an illusion and the illusion looked so real, there was real doubt as to whether the violence was genuine or not.

The magician and the actor work at different purposes with regard to “suspension of disbelief.” The actor asks us to accept that the cardboard trees in the set function as if they were real. No one thinks a play is unworthy if the interior of a house is indicated with a few blocks of wood.  We expect emotional truth, but not necessarily physical truth. The audience is expected to play along.

But the magician has a different task. S/he doesn’t care about “suspension of disbelief.” In fact the magician challenges the audience not to suspend its disbelief. Even if you remain skeptical, I will still fool you says the magician. It doesn’t matter whether you want to play along or not, you will be forced to confront the fact of the woman who has just been cut into two–and your eyes will not be able to disprove it.

So stage combat and special effects make-up belong to that specific realm of theater which seems to duplicate physical reality and hence fools the spectator whether s/he wants to be fooled or not. This has always been a delightful aspect of the theatre for me. I loved the stories of the teen-age Paul Muni dressing up as an old man in make-up and character so convincing, that when he rang the front door of his house, his own mother didn’t recognize who he was. There were leading men, and then there were character actors who could do the transformation. I always most admired the transformers.

Which brings me to this past week. I found a place where I could take a class in stage combat. I had my first class. I’ll tell you more about it later this week in Part II.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Elephant (Part I)

An elephant that draws. How can that be? Not just abstract blotches we agree to call “art,” but real recognizable drawings of, well, an elephant. A self-portrait of sorts.

Evidence of self-awareness we could never have predicted or is something else going on?

The magician Ricky Jay, besides being a world-class card magician with two Broadway shows to his credit, is also a respected historian of the strange. One of his books is entitled Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric, and Amazing Entertainers. Therein you will find true accounts of Toby, the Amazing Pig of Knowledge who was able to add numbers; a goose who was able to perform card tricks; Clever Hans, the psychic horse; and a bevy of Singing Mice.

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But to the best of my knowledge, not even Ricky Jay has documented the phenomenon of the artist elephant.

So what is going on here? Other than footage that was sped up from the original, there is no trick photography. Your intrepid reporter will tell you his findings in Part II, later this week…

The Actor Who Made Me Gasp

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In 1974, Hume Cronyn was on Broadway in a Noel Coward play called A Song at Twilight. I had standing room way back of the theater. Unlike most of Coward’s plays, this one was not a comedy.

Cronyn’s role was of an older married man. At one point in the play, his wife, played by Jessica Tandy, finds an old letter of her husband’s and reads it to herself. She then runs out of the room, crying. We, the audience, already know from a previous scene, what was in the letter. Curious to know what was in the letter that made his wife react this way, Cronyn picks up the letter.

The letter, in fact, was an old love letter from another man to Mr. Cronyn’s character.   The two had had a deep relationship, but Cronyn’s character had tried to forget about it.

Cronyn, alone on stage, read the letter in silence for a good three, four minutes. An enormous amount of time to be on stage saying nothing. There was not a sound in the audience. And then as he was reading his face turned beet red–I could see it from all the way in the back of the theatre. He was blushing.

I will never forget that. And he did it eight times a week. Pure belief in the truth of what he was doing, thinking, and feeling.

Daily Rituals: What are Yours?

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Writers, painters, and other artists often live outside the 9-5 office life. Still they must structure their days in some way in order to produce their creative work. I’ve always been fascinated by the different approaches people take. The book Daily Ritual: How Artists Work by Mason Currey is a wonderful compendium of approaches taken by over 150 famous artists from the last few centuries.

Stephen King, Jean-Paul-Sartre, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Benjamin Franklin, Patricia Highsmith–it’s an eclectic, eccentric mix of capsule creative work biographies. The styles of getting the job done are more varied than you might think.  Some set work quotas, some set time quotas, while others work intensely for a period of months and then don’t work at all for the rest of the year. The book is a quick fun read and it will probably give you a little boost of confidence that your way is no crazier than anyone else’s.

But there is one area that the book does not address: what about performance artists who do not work in solitude? An actor, dancer, or musician might be onstage tonight, but what is happening during the day? Even more to the point, since even successful performing artists can have long stretches of time between gigs, how do they structure their time so that they can continue to perform at the necessary level?

We might keep in mind the difference between “rehearsal” and “practice.” Rehearsal is what an artist does in order to bring an intended performance piece to fruition. Practice is what an artist does to keep her or his skills at an optimal level. There’s a lot to be explored here. For example, just how much practice does an actor do compared to a dancer, musician, or magician? And what does the practice of each of these different kinds of artists look like? It could make another very entertaining book as well.

“When the goldfinch cannot sing,
When the poet is a pilgrim,
When prayer will do us no good.
‘Traveller, there is no path,
The path is made by walking…’

Beat by beat, verse by verse.” –Antonio Machado

Misdirection

In magic, one of the first principles the practitioner learns is that of “misdirection.” In its crudest form, it exists when the magician distracts the audience pointing to the right and saying, “Look over there!” while the elephant is ushered onstage from the left. But over the centuries magicians have developed the technique of misdirection to a fine art. As I’m writing this shortly after Election Day, I’d like to take a look at some of the more refined techniques of misdirection while keeping in mind their use in the public sphere.

The late Tommy Wonder , one of the great thinkers and do-ers of magic (see the video above), objected to the term “misdirection.” He thought it should be called “attention management.” Several ideas were encompassed in this nomenclature. First,  if magicians don’t have the attention of the audience in the first place, they can’t misdirect. So the first obligation of magicians is to train the audience to pay attention to them. Establishing rapport always comes first, before anything else.

Second, the term “misdirection” itself misdirects. The magician does not just want the audience to be negatively pulled away from one stimulus, but rather to be positively moved in the magician’s desired direction. That is, interest and attention are manipulated in such a way that the audience never feels that their attention is being distracted away from something else; they believe that they are following their own interest all the time. In the ideal case, they are never aware that there is something from which they are being distracted.

How is this done?

1) The magician starts with  initial conditions different from what the audience believes the situation to be. That deck of cards pulled from the card case was secretly set-up beforehand, for example.

2) The magician performs  in-transit actions. That is, secret actions are performed at a moment when the action is not contextualized by the audience as belonging to the magic performance. For example, in the middle of an effect, the magician appears to be sweating and so drinks a glass of water that has been sitting to her left. In that action however, she has loaded the previously palmed spectator’s card under the glass for later discovery. The audience deletes those actions since they were outside the framework of the expected performance.

3) The magician plants false memories. Before the magician makes the final reveal, the fairness of the conditions are stressed. “Now you chose a card, put it in the middle of the deck, shuffled, so there’s no way I could possibly know what your card is.” Well, no. The spectator cut the cards several times, but never actually shuffled the deck. And that makes all the difference.

4) The magician performs a secret action at a time when attention has been relaxed. Magicians call that moment the off-beat. Typically, if a magician can make the audience laugh, at that precise moment there is an opportunity to perform a secret action in an undetected manner.

5) The audience’s eyes will follow the performer’s eyes; if the magician addresses a spectator in the audience, that spectator will look at the magician and the rest of the audience will look at that spectator. At that moment, secret actions may be performed in an undetected manner.

How do these principles of misdirection apply to political performance? I’ll leave that as an open-ended question for the reader. I’d love to hear what your ideas are.