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

How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way

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If Lenny Bruce were a magician, he would be Steve Spill.

Lenny has long since passed onto that great big comedy stage in the sky, but fortunately our friend Steve Spill is alive and well and has come out with a new book aimed at magicians called How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way. His first book, I Lie For Money, was aimed at a general audience and contained lots of advice on how to live a creative life. It was served along with large dollops of autobiography and spit-take funny stories about the people he met along the path while building an artistic life for himself. In this new book, Steve not only continues his general advice for would-be artists, but also gives up the details of a dozen of his most creative and hilarious tricks. It would be an understatement to say that I think everyone interested in performing magic should read this book.

It’s always a great gift when a wonderful performer tips the secrets of his act, but it’s an even greater gift when the performer himself does the literate and humorous writing chore. Because it’s in that act of writing that Spill divulges his biggest secret: the most powerful thing a performer can do is to find her or his own quirkiness and unique qualities and put them out on display in a performance-oriented way.

When you read one of Spill’s books, you instantly understand what he’s talking about when he says to trust your own personality, because the pages of his books are drenched in the unique persona which he has nurtured. While on the one hand it’s instructive to pick up a Dai Vernon book written by someone like Lewis Ganson, on the other hand, the fact that Ganson, not Vernon, wrote it deprives the reader of real insight into much of Vernon’s personality. With a writer like Steve, though, it’s all hanging out there, and it’s plain as day. You understand immediately that the twelve killer presentations that Spill has detailed are perfect for Spill. Those who are not Steve would most likely fall on their faces if they did his presentations verbatim, but that’s not the point. The point is…who are you?

There are so many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is the courage of one’s convictions. I read the beginning chapters twice, because the first time through I was laughing too much at the jokes to pay attention to the content.

But if you’ve got as warped and crazy a mind as Steve does (that’s a compliment, I think) there are bound to be doubts about whether anyone else will appreciate what you’re doing. However, Steve’s examples of himself being true to form, along with his constant brainstorming, testing, discarding, and revising of effects, serve as a model of what can be done, and act as a spur to one’s own creativity.

For each of the twelve effects Spill describes, he gives the background story on how and why he created it, and these stories are useful adjuncts to understanding how to create your own effects. The methods are tried and true, and for the most part they probably won’t surprise you with their cleverness after the fact. But that’s not what Steve is after—what will surprise and delight you is the way that Steve takes an effect from column A and a presentation from column Z, and juxtaposes them to create something never seen before, something to amuse and mystify an audience, which leaves them with the impression of a strong magical personality and experience.

What’s in the tricks section? Well it’s a compilation of Spill’s greatest hits—The Lemon thing, the Needle thing, The Himber Ring thing, the drug and hemorrhoid jokes, they’re all there, with full scripts and extra handling  and performance tips explained with loving care. The most audacious routine is one called “Abra Cadavers” which involves, well, a tale of cadavers wrapped in a personal story of tragedy. You would have to be nuts to perform it. I’m happy to report that Spill has done it many times, and tells you how to do it so that you too can be the object of abject speechless horror. I also thought that the presentation given for the UltraMental Deck was one of the best ideas for it I’ve ever come across.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the British magician David Devant expressed his appreciation of his audience with the tagline, “All Done By Kindness.” Likewise, Devant’s American contemporary, Howard Thurston, would prepare to go onstage by intoning in the wings to an imaginary audience, “Thank you, thank you for coming to my show tonight. God Bless You.” And now in the same spirit, as we navigate the twenty-first century, Steve Spill urges us to make love The Steve Spill Way. His love for magic, his love for his audiences and for his unique self are all part and parcel of How to Make Love The Steve Spill Way.

 

Tales of Highdini and More: Magician Steve Spill Spills the Beans

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Magician (and now author!) Steve Spill spoke with me about his new book I Lie for Money: Candid Outrageous Stories from a Magician’s Misadventures on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NY yesterday. The book is a fun read. In the interview Spill talks about, among other things, his days as Highdini, the Cheech-and-Chong inspired magician who opened up for rock bands in the 70s. You can read my review of the book here, and listen to the interview by clicking on the grey triangle above.

The more magical-minded can hear an extended version of the Magic Castle portion of the interview here.

Knights of The Magic Castle

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The Magic Castle is a legendary magic club in Los Angeles where magicians hang out and perform for the general public. Magician Steve Spill, who I interviewed for WBAI radio, has a new book out called I Lie for Money. In it, among other things,  he talks about his time as a a young teen performing and raising hell with the greats at the Castle. In the interview, Spill spoke with me about his experiences at the Castle, but in the editing of the piece for general audiences, some of the most interesting parts for magicians necessarily got cut out. You can listen to some of those missing outtakes by clicking on the grey triangle above.  WBAI should be running the rest of the interview in a couple of weeks from now, and I’ll post it up on the blog after its broadcast.

I Lie For Money

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He had me at ten-foot nose hair.

But let me back up  a moment. Steve Spill is a magician. Probably a lot smarter, harder working, and more creative than your average magician. And he’s written a ridiculously entertaining book about his life and adventures as a journeyman magician trying to make a living from his art. As it turns out, he’s been pretty successful at it for over forty years, and in the process he has built his own magic theater, Magicopolis, in Santa Monica, where he and wife, Bozena, star.

Now when I say successful, I don’t mean David Copperfield successful or David Blaine successful, but successful in that every night he gets to go out and entertain people with his art. Every day he gets to think about crazy ideas that he can add into his show. And lucky for us, magic fans and general readers will soon be able to read Spill’s account of his creative life, due out in May, called I Lie for Money: Candid Outrageous Stories from a Magician’s Misadventures.

The book is a trip through the mind and life of Spill, a man who has met everybody. Well, that is, if your idea of everybody is Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller and, Francis Carlyle. It’s certainly my idea of everybody. Reading Spill’s book is like sitting at a bar hearing entertaining stories told by a really good raconteur, and the more you want to hear, the more he tells. You know you should be getting on home, but you can’t resist one more drink and one more story. Though the book is about 250 pages, I read it all in one night. It’s very quick reading, and you’ll chuckle throughout. The book is well-written and well-edited. But above all, Spill knows how to tell a good story. Though I’ve never seen Spill in person, you can tell that he must please his audiences greatly with his quick wit and well thought out magic.

Back to the ten-foot nose hair. Spill has a chapter on his failed ideas. I really like this chapter because as Spill says, “Part of the reason I wrote this book was to share with those who wish to craft a self-directed creative life—be it an actor, painter, writer, comedian, magician, or whatever—and describe how one can survive in rarely profitable but rewarding professions.” That’s why this book is for the general public as well as magic aficionados. He talks about the relentless drive to create and improve, and that drive necessarily entails failing.

One of these (brilliant!) failed ideas was to put a tiny reel in his nostril and then pull out a ten-foot length of thread from it. As he pulls on the thread he complains that his damned nose hair is growing too fast again.

How could you not love the guy after that? He actually built a prototype of the reel and tried it out before audiences. They, unfortunately, were not as enthusiastic about the idea as Spill was. Philistines.

Other chapters in the book include “Out of Africa,” a chapter about his encounter with an African medicine man (spoiler: the medicine man steals Spill’s Bill in Lemon method for his own purposes), and in a final romantic valentine to his wife Bozena, he has a chapter touchingly titled “How Joan Rivers Got Me Laid.”

Spill drops more names than a Metro PCS phone drops phone calls, but it’s all in good fun, and hey, he’s entitled to it. Bob Dylan, Penn and Teller, Sting, and many more get mentioned. He writes, “I’ve tried to beat down my vanity, but anyone who writes about himself is apt to fall into the magician’s habit of peeking at the deck to find out where the aces lie. This tome is my fist full of aces.”

If you have any interest at all in any of the creative arts, or if you are just looking for some good gossipy fun, then I recommend you cut to the aces and pick up Spill’s book as soon as it comes out. Click on the above photo for details.

P.S. You can hear me interviewing Steve for radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC here and here