Posts Tagged ‘performance magic’

Exploring the Outer Edges of the Mind

I had the good fortune last week of working with the School of Music, Humanities and Drama at the University of Huddersfield last weekend. The event is part of my role as a Visiting Professor of Performance Magic, which involves contributions to the Journal of Performance Magic, working with drama students, and performing my own material in evening shows.

This year, I worked with Nik Taylor and David Wainwright (FRSA) during the day with drama students in filming four short videos that explored a little known syncretic religion from Mexico, the medieval symbolism of the Tarot, the power of history through inherited objects, and the magical morality of Plato’s Ring of Gyges.

flaquita

La Flaquita explores the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte through offerings, transformations, and yielding to important messages. I had been exposed to this phenomena while in Mexico last January and became further intrigued after reading Andrew Chesnut’s fascinating Devoted To Death. I arranged for Andrew to give a talk on his book at Treadwell’s bookshop this summer and developed my own magical exploration as a result. A connection is made through the use of a pendulum, a coin mysteriously vanishes, tobacco transforms into wine, a prayer disappears over a candle to leave an uncanny message, and concerns of a young woman are revealed through direct  communication with La Flaquita.

The true origins of the Tarot are unknown, but many believe that the cards evolved from a game of the court to a set of medieval archetypal images that represent different phases in our development (the Major Arcana), accompanied by ongoing forces relevant to our daily lives (travel, health, romance, adventure, material wealth, etc. as articulated through the Minor Arcana). My own exploration of these ideas involved two young people, free choices and contemplation, which made themselves known to me, perhaps from the shared community of human minds. In the event, a the radiance of The Sun and the compassion of the Queen of Wands were revealed in a truly inexplicable fashion.

bequeathment-2

I explored the power of history through a set of inherited objects: a small book, a silver coin, a key, a ring, and a gold watch. These objects are introduced in the context of my grandfather from Leiden and accompanied by his photograph and letter. The letter explains that each object has a deeper set of meanings that transcend their immediate physicality. The book is a miniature version of The Tempest and signifies knowledge and magic, the silver coin is a Morgan dollar and signifies material wealth, the key signifies secrets, the ring symbolises trust and commitment, and the watch stands for time, order and progress. My helpful participant ordered them thus: watch, key,  coin, ring and book. He was keen to focus on the orderly aspects of life before using the key to unlock opportunities, before looking at issues of wealth, trust and commitment, and the hidden world of knowledge that awaits him. Other participants made hidden selections which were divined, and the final selection was predicted in the letter, but nonetheless chosen by our final participant.

ring of gyges

Deep within the pages of Plato’s Republic is a thought experiment on morality called the Ring of Gyges. The ring is found within the belly of a bronze horse and renders its wearer invisible. The question for Plato centres the kinds of immoral acts one would commit while invisible and the temptation to wear the ring knowing the immoral acts that are possible under such circumstances. Two participants were given the choice to put the ring on (out of sight) or to leave it in the box (and shut), while my own powers of perception divined their true intentions.

lifting the veil-1

The day was capped off with a performance of my show Lifting the Veil of ignorance. The Milton Theatre was full for an evening of magical exploration of fundamental ideas such that concern us all: epistemology, morality, justice, human rights, language, the nature of the modern state, and the role of practical wisdom. The evening was hugely enjoyable with many wonderful surprises from the audience as they made choices, imagined outcomes, and engaged with my mind games with a view to delivering a serious message about what constitutes the good life.

 

Staging magic…

Holbein, The Prestige and Venice

Over the years I have taken great pride in my magic stage sets for my various shows and wanted to share a few insights for those who are curious about designing sets for meaningful magical performances.

Overall, my set design choices have been heavily influenced by particular paintings, films, and styles. The key painting has been The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. The picture is simple and complex at the same time. It uses beautiful colours that are typical of the Renaissance period. It has symbolic references to a large set of perennial concerns of humankind. It is a large painting and it evokes mystery, wonder, other worldliness, science, travel, life, death, religion, war, politics, and power, among many other enduring concepts.

Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_The_Ambassadors_-_Google_Art_Project

The greens and the reds have featured heavily in my use of background images (and are consistent with colours in my family’s coat of arms), while the table littered with objects has become a mainstay feature of my shows. I have learned that a table full of props (artefacts) provides curiosity as my audiences sit in wonder throughout my shows thinking about what might happen with the different objects on the table.

Stage set from the Milton Theatre, University of Huddersfield

Stage set from the Milton Theatre, University of Huddersfield

The most influential film has been The Prestige, both in terms of the structure of routines (i.e. the pledge, the turn and the prestige), as well as the look and feel of the Victorian stage. Indeed, I grew up with Hoffmann’s Modern Magic and have always loved the illustrations of the boxes, vases, and props in that book. Between that book, the film and Holbein’s painting, I have sought to create my own ambience on stage, which evokes mystery, intrigue and maybe even a touch of fear.

hoffmann

My final influences come from Italy. I taught for seven years in Venice, where as a Visiting Professor, I was given my own flat near the Grand Canal, rode the vaporetto to the Lido and lectured in the magna aula of the San Niccoló Monastery.

Our graduation ceremonies in Venice always took place in the Palazzo Ducale adjacent to St. Mark’s Square, and I used to love sitting on the dais with the other professors in our robes surrounded by the Tintorettos on the walls and ceiling. Life in Venice teaches one about real magic and the power of history, while the architecture, food, coffee, and labyrinthine streets and canals provide a feast of influences for any serious mystery entertainer.

My latest work is grounded in philosophy and imagines a ‘philosopher’s box’ that would be used to instruct pupils to think about life’s deeper questions. The show draws on political philosopher John Rawls and is called ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, which is being staged at Wivenhoe House Hotel on 17 October 2013 and the Milton Theatre at the University of Huddersfield on 26 October 2013.

initial setup

 

Recapturing the Essence of Magic

I am delighted to have been appointed as Visiting Professor of Performance Magic at the University of Huddersfield.

The post was launched on 13 October with a performance workshop with drama students in the Milton Theatre on the main campus of the University. The evening featured my show with Paul Voodini, The Edge of the Unknown to a sold out crowd who were taken on quite a mysterious journey influenced by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

~

The workshop is entitled The Magician, the Mentalist and the Mystic, and explores different performance styles that are popular today in what Prospect Magazine has called ‘The New Magic’ (see my blog post The New Magic is the Old Magic). The participants experienced three very different short performances at three different ‘tables’:

  • The magic table involved classic close-up illusions using cards, coins, cups and balls, and a series of locked boxes;
  • The mentalist table used nothing more than a few envelopes, some dice, and a drawing pad to create hard hitting mind reading with numbers, names and choices that were seemingly divined out of thin air;
  • The mystic table was replete with books, crystals, boxes and a discussion of all things metaphysical as a route to quite a different set of experiences.

After each performance, participants were able to discuss their impressions and the impact of what they saw and experienced. In keeping with the Magician’s Oath* methods were not discussed, but the time was used to reflect on the framing of each performance experience and the different contract that was established with the audience.

The rich qualitative data gathered during this event will be combined with other results of research that I have been conducting on magical performance over the years and will appear as a scholarly article in the near future.

~

The workshop participants then attended the evening performance, which begins with the question:

‘Is it deduction, deception, or something more?

The question is never answered, but the audience is asked to ruminate on it as they experience over 90 minutes of uncanny demonstrations involving mind reading, coincidences, alienism, psychology, visualisation, past life regression, and spiritualism among other enduring mysteries.

~

The Professorship is also associated with the new Magic Research Group and the Journal of Performance Magic also based at the University of Huddersfield. There is a dearth of scholarly study of performance magic as an art form and a key aspect of popular culture. The public figure of the magician has evolved from the Rennaissance ‘magus’ and ‘cunning folk’ to sophisticted stage magician and now the ‘new’ magician embodied in such fugures as David Blaine and Derren Brown. The group and the journal are dedicated to the scholarly study of this popular art form in all its many guises and permutations.

~

In additon to the roles and responsabilties associated with this new post, I am also pleased to be working with Marina Warner and Elizabeth Kuti at the University of Essex on a board to supervise fellow Magic Circle Member Will Houstoun (consultant on Martin Scorcese’s Hugo) on his PhD thesis that explores the social history and impact of one of the most famous magic books: Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic.

~

*“As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic.”