Is it just me or is magic making a comeback?
The UK's coy Dynamo: Magician Impossible is now on our small screens. Cosentino, the self-proclaimed "Australian home-grown Houdini" won our hearts with his own TV special after achieving runner up in 2011's Australia's Got Talent. Even my personal favourite, UK's Derren Brown who prefers psychological illusions, is getting a run on SBS. And, of course, The Illusionists is an international stage show that just toured Brisbane and Adelaide.
I chatted to a couple of local guys who are making a living performing magic.
Twenty four year-old Brisbane-based performer, Jay Jay the Entertainer agrees that magic is undergoing a resurgence. He was initially inspired by US street magician David Blaine who took magic to the people and who is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the current rising popularity of the art form. "At a time when magic was all about the stage and the dazzlement, he brought it to the street, he made it raw. He took the magic to the people rather than the people looking towards him," he explains.
John Malakos aka Johnny the Jester performs mainly for children and also works in Brisbane. He agrees: "the average person at home three years ago wasn't watching a lot of programs on TV in relation to magic but now there's just an abundance of shows."
If Marilyn Manson was a magician, he would be Dan Sperry aka The Anti-Conjuror. Sperry's motto is "magic no longer sucks", which I find interesting. They say there is no such thing as a new idea and many of the cooking and talent shows we see on prime-time TV like Masterchef and Australia's Got Talent are simply re-dressed versions of the same shows we've been watching forever. Likewise, magic shows have necessarily evolved for current audiences. Andrew Basso aka The Escapologist performs feats of escape that Harry Houdini made famous over 110 years ago. Only the presentation has changed; the magic itself has remained the same.
While watching The Illusionists it became obvious that the entertainment comes not from the magic itself but from the personality and relatability of the performer. Brett Daniels is burdened with the illustrious title of The Grand Illusionist and is one of seven members of The Illusionists live show. Daniels arguably performs the most impressive and largest scale magic, yet it's Jeff Hobson's The Trickster who steals the show. Despite having less impressive magic tricks, Hobson's personality and wicked humour has the audience in stitches and makes him the spectacle.
Malakos highlights this point indicating that he uses humour, rather than just magic, to entertain. "It's more of a comedy based magic show. I don't call myself a magician. I'm an actor playing the role of a magician." Key to keeping his young audience mesmerised, he always makes them think they have the upper hand during his performance. "It's all about them showing you up. Full stop. If you can get them believing that they've got something over you, you have a successful show."
Breaking the Magicians Code is another TV show currently doing the rounds and features a masked magician (Val Valentino) breaking the magicians first law of never revealing how a trick is done. Valentino argues that the entertainment of magic shows is more in the magician's showmanship instead of the wonder of how the trick is pulled off. He also claims he's encouraging younger kids to get into magic. Many working magicians accuse him of threatening their livelihoods.
Malakos agrees that magic should be shared. "Someone taught me these secrets. If it wasn't able to be shared then I wouldn't know these secrets myself and therefore pass them on to anyone else." But he's quick to clarify that the secrets shouldn't be revealed to a huge passive TV audience. "It's got to be given to those who are looking for it. It shouldn't be forced on you. And that's the shame of it; the commercialism of it."
There's a cute irony about a Masked Magician who splashes sacred secrets about with reckless abandon while attempting to keep his own identity a secret.
Jay Jay isn't as concerned as he also teaches magic tricks on his YouTube channel. "Honestly, it only heightens magic," he explains. "It puts magic in the mindset of people. And I think people understand that just because some guy cuts a woman in half, when other illusionists do it on stage it's not necessarily the same way they're doing it. I don't think it ruins magic at all." He does acknowledge though, that if someone wants to learn about magic, they need to learn it properly. In other words, the Masked Magician can show you how a trick is done, but his TV show cannot teach you how to be entertaining. Or as Jay Jay claims in his training videos: "we can't stop you from doing magic, but we can stop you from doing bad magic."
Most magicians will admit that anyone can learn magic if they wish and are supportive of anyone who is genuinely interested. There are plenty of resources around once you start searching. But both Jay Jay and Malakos suggest that you should learn it properly if you plan to perform. Mistakes can happen during a performance but it's how they're dealt with that sets the professional apart. The pro always has an out. Some tricks are designed to look like the magician has goofed, so when an actual mistake is made the audience can't tell whether it's a genuine error or not. This doubt should be used to the magician's advantage. Instead, the amateur would likely blow their cover and admit their mistake because they're not prepared.
The other main difference between the pro and the hobbyist is personality. Malakos explains: "if you stuff the trick up, you can still get an out by entertaining the crowd. They may have driven home and said 'yeah, I figured out how he did that because I saw this or I saw that, but you know what, it was still a good show.' And that's the difference between me and uncle Bob."
Jay Jay has worked in stand-up comedy and says that humour is a more important aspect to his show than the magic. He also prefers not to be called a magician but an entertainer. "I love making people laugh. In 2013 there are so many problems. You look at the media, we get bombarded with negative information all the time. So if you can just show people something different and like, come on let's have a little bit of fun, you know."
So where does magic go from here? Jay Jay ponders this question and wonders if it will involve science. "I don't think stunts are going to come back because it's been done. I don't know, but it's going to surprise us. Someone's got the answer? it's just not me," he laughs. He mentions an illusionist called Marco Tempest who combines technology with magic and story-telling to produce incredibly compelling and magical illusions. Search for Marco Tempest on YouTube and prepare to be amazed.
Jay Jay concludes: "it's an art that will never die like a phase. It will only get stronger and cooler."
Jay Jay the Illusionist: www.jayjaylive.com
Johnny the Jester: www.johnnythejester.com.au
This article was originally written for the Outback City Express newspaper Feb / Mar 2013 edition.
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