Matt Groening, pre-The Simpsons
More Matt Groening at https://www.amazon.com/Huge-Book-Hell-Matt-Groening/dp/0140263101
Andy is now well into year two of The Jerx, and Issue #4 of the JAMM monthly newsletter. While the first year’s blog had quite a number of very strong effects, some of which made it into The Jerx book, the second year saves most of the tricks for the newsletter. Now the blog is for the most part Andy’s attempts to flesh out a theory of amateur performance (interspersed with ads in support of his website). Leaving aside the newsletter for now, I thought I’d link to some of my favorite second-year blog posts.
A few things first, though. Number one: I have no idea what sort of human being Andy is in his other lives, but in his Jerx life, he has been, contrary to the expectations of many skeptical magicians, a model citizen. He has delivered everything that he has promised—two books, a monthly newsletter, other paraphernalia, and most importantly in my opinion, his blog—in a timely manner. While this is the normal expectation in most spheres of commerce, sadly, for some reason in the magic world, it’s too often the exception rather than the rule. So although Andy would probably cringe at the designation, he has been a man of integrity.
Number two: I’m sort of done with telling folks how good some of this stuff is. There’s enough for free on the blog to decide whether it’s your kind of thing or not. Andy takes a kind of cost-analysis approach to his magic that basically asks: what investment of time/money/practice will best improve the experience of magic for the audience? Andy’s real strength is that when he puts forth an idea, he really explores it and puts it into practice, rather than just giving lip service to the concept. But because improved audience impact often has nothing to do with issues of method, and rather results from focusing more on presentational issues, some will bypass The Jerx. All I can do is shrug my shoulders.
So, here are some of the Year Two blog posts I’ve enjoyed:
I had long known of Langston Hughes’s poems, but I didn’t know until very recently what a delightful speaker and storyteller he was. In this audio clip he is talking to a group of graduate students in Berkeley about his upbringing. What a lovely man. Click on the grey triangle above to hear.
The audio clip is just the beginning of a one-hour Hughes talk from an astounding collection of over 1300 hours of audio from the archives of Pacifica Radio. The collection is called Voices That Change The World. It’s not cheap, but on the 64GB flash drive (you get two for the price of one) there is an extraordinary range of audio from the most remarkable people of the last fifty years—singers, poets, writers, politicians, artists, scientists, religious figures, audio books. It’s an amazing resource.
And if you buy one, please mark down that you’re donating for the Arts Express program.
Othello demands from Iago the ocular proof, and I’ve spent the last month or so providing such, in a manner of speaking. I’ve been proofreading and copy editing an excellent new magic book, Details of Deception, by Greg Chapman, and I’m quite enjoying the process. That must seem a strange thing to say for such a potentially tedious assignment, but the book is so intriguing, and the author such a gentleman (not always the case in the niche world of conjuring), that I was glad to take on the assignment.
I’ve written before about some of the challenges of copy editing and writing a book of magic. Stephen Minch, one of the great writers and publishers of magic literature, has given magic writers a unique style guide. Because of magic’s technical nature, the text of a book about card magic in some ways more closely resembles that of a car repair manual than that of, say, a novel, so by all means if you are about to embark on writing a magic book, your first stop should be Minch’s guide. You can download it for free here.
I’d like to just briefly mention a few other practical things that I’ve learned to watch out for in an endeavor like this. Much of this can be applied to non-magic literature as well:
I hope these few pointers will be helpful. But more, I think if you’re a card person you’re really going to like this book. I hope you find it a good read.
Reading Lynda Barry’s comics always made me fell less weird, or conversely, more proud of my strangeness. The cartoons starring Marlys and her older sister Maybonne didn’t always make me laugh out loud, but they were the kinds of comics that stayed with me for a long time.
More about Lynda Barry at https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/greatest-marlys
acting, Borges, Everything and Nothing, Melinda Hall, performance, poem, poetry, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Sonnet Slam, Shakespeare's Birthday Sonnet Slam, sonnet, Sonnet Slam, theater, theatre, writing
Today is Shakespeare’s birthday. If you’ve never read it, this very short story about Shakespeare by Borges comes closest to describing the man who I imagine WS to be.
I had the pleasure two days ago of participating in the 7th Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. It was a drizzly, misty day that made all of Central Park look like a French Impressionist painting. The producers told us that if it rained hard, we would simply continue and gather up the audience to join us up on the outdoor bandshell stage in Central Park. It never happened, but it was a cozy thought to think about.
This was my fourth Sonnet Slam, so I knew what to expect. All 154 sonnets are read in about three hours. Producer Melinda Hall has a very democratic approach to the slam, and it’s fun to see the way professionals and non-professionals alike approach performing the sonnets. One reader brought her dog up with her, and another set her sonnet to music. Each year brings some surprise guests, and this year veteran actor Richard Thomas made an unannounced visit to read Sonnet 29, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…” It’s also always fun for me to hear others perform the sonnets to which I had been assigned in previous years. I feel a kind of special bond with those particular readers even if we’ve never met, because I can appreciate the struggle that goes into wrestling with those shared sonnets.
I’ve written about analyzing a sonnet before, but based on what I’ve learned this time, I’d humbly like to make a few suggestions about performing sonnets. These suggestions may seem sonnet-specific, but I believe they have wider acting implications as well.
The first thing is this, and it’s not as minor as it may sound at first: You have to pay allegiance to the final couplet’s rhyme. In the rest of the sonnet, the interpretation can spread over line breaks and rhymes, but if you don’t hit the rhymes in the final couplet, there is a real sense of incompleteness for the listener. It’s like a piece of music without the final resolving chord; the rest of the sonnet can be performed beautifully, but if you don’t get the final rhyme stressed, you haven’t closed the deal. Rhyme, even at the expense of sense or archaic pronunciation. (“Love” doesn’t rhyme with “prove” anymore? It doesn’t matter. Make it rhyme in your performance.) Go for the rhyme.
The second thing to remember is that the vast majority of these sonnets are love poems. They are meant, in the end, to win the heart of someone special. So while actors are wont to build little mini-dramas of the sonnets—not a bad thing—it should be remembered too that objectives such as to woo, to praise, to kiss, to seduce, to reassure, to flatter, should take precedence over objectives such as to scold, to complain, to dismiss, to chastise. Not that there aren’t elements of the latter, but in the end, the sonnets are love poems and should end up that way. So humor and self-reflection about the more negative aspects of love are in order, even though the anger may seem flashier to perform.
Finally, make every noun, metaphor, verb as visual and specific as you can for yourself. It’s Acting 101, but it’s especially true in playing Shakespeare that one should not lapse into the generic meaning of the words. The first line from Sonnet 70 should suffice to illustrate:
“That thou be blamed, shall not be thy defect.”
“Thou”: Who am I talking about? What does that person look like? What is my relationship to that person? Where are we?
“Blamed”: Blamed for what? In what manner? By whom? To what end?
“Thy defect”: What form might that defect take? How has this affected my lover? How has it affected our relationship? What do I want to do about it?
And so on. The wonderful thing about the fourteen short lines of a sonnet is that they allow you to do this kind of close work without getting overwhelmed. The important thing that I learned for myself here is that it’s not enough to make intellectual choices, but to pick vivid images that will spur feelings and imagination. Make the metaphor real.
Well, one more nice thing about Shakespeare’s birthday is that it comes around every year, and if the producers so wish, so will the next Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. So if you’re in the NYC area next year, consider signing up in April for one of the sonnets at www.shakespearesonnetslam.com . You will have a wonderful time.
The past few months I’ve been enjoying a number of magic books, old and new, which I’d like to share with you.
First is St. George’s Hall: Behind the Scenes at England’s House of Mystery by Anne Davenport and John Salisse. This is a fairly specialized book, but it’s very well done. It’s a history of the London theater venue run by several generations of Maskelynes, starting with the patriarch, J.N. Maskelyne, in partnership with the magician David Devant from 1905 – 1935. Devant of course, along with Nevil Maskyelene, wrote one of the seminal books about the theory of conjuring called Our Magic. That book was unique in that it understood that conjuring was part of the theatrical arts, but at the same time also had its own particular requirements. Devant and Maskelyne, perhaps more than anybody before or since, delineated just how the magician should best walk that fine line between theatrical narrative and conjuring necessity. St. George’s Hall makes clear with its extensive details and photos of thirty years of St. George’s entertainments, that the theory of Our Magic was borne out of hard struggle and daily practical knowledge of what worked and didn’t work. Many of the entertainments were short plays centered around an illusion that Maskelyne or Devant had created and worked into some fantastical plot. The most surprising thing in the book for me were the photos of Devant in the various costumes for his plays; it is clear from the variety of characters and make-ups that he used that he was as interested in the techniques of acting as he was of those of conjuring, and saw them both as allied arts.
I like the idea of having little magic pamphlets to read on a subway ride, and recently I came across an old pamphlet called Bunny Bill. The booklet by Robert Neale is an easy to follow origami project that teaches you how to fold a dollar bill into the shape of a top hat. When you squeeze the sides of the hat, out pops a little paper rabbit. It’s all done with one bill without any cuts, tears or tape. Cuteness factor is high, and children enjoy it.
Magician Dai Vernon was the greatest influence on close-up magic in the twentieth century, and for over 25 years, Vernon contributed a column to Genii Magazine called The Vernon Touch. His columns have all been collected in a compilation also called The Vernon Touch, brought out by Rickard Kaufman. The Vernon Touch had an extraordinary run considering that Vernon was in his seventies when he began the column, and he was over ninety when he contributed his last one. Much of the column was devoted to his reports on the scene at The Magic Castle, where he was in residence. Lots of history and anecdotes, along with many insights into the Vernon conception of magic, but I liked the photos the best, many not published before, of Vernon with his fellow magicians, and Vernon’s Harlequin and Chinese acts. If you subscribe to Genii you can purchase the book at a bargain price.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to be involved with the proofreading of a wonderful book of card magic called The Devil’s Staircase by Greg Chapman. Fans of that book will be very happy to learn that Mr. Chapman is about to release a new book of card magic, kind of a companion piece to TDS, called Details of Deception. It’s an excellent title, because in this book Chapman focuses on the fine details of what makes a sleight, and a performance of card magic, deceptive. As in the last book, most of the material is gambling-themed, but a careful reading of the book will be highly instructive for any intermediate-to-advanced card worker. There are some excellent memorized deck effects, poker demonstrations, an extensive section on estimation with information which to my knowledge has never seen print before, and a large chapter on the second deal which gives detailed instructions of how to do several kinds of push-off seconds, along with some killer tricks that utilize the sleight. While most of the effects are difficult—the ability to do three perfect faros in some routines is taken as a given—there are a few effects for the mere mortals among us, including a very clever ACAAN routine. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking to improve your card magic, if you’re a memdeck guy or gal, or if you just want to see how deeply a guy like Chapman can think about card magic.