David Regal photo: Leslie Davis Regal
Why We Need Magic
by David Regal
Interpreting Magic by David Regal
Of all the performing arts, none have suffered greater indignities than magic, and none were ever more deserving of them. While many occupations possess a negative stereotype, the designation “magician” is unique insofar is it conjures up multiple negative stereotypes.
The hopelessly out of step formal performer in black tie and tails.
The brash, smarmy man who manages to repeatedly offend by word and deed.
The harried trickster hired to entertain at a four-year-old’s birthday party.
The grinning, vacuous Vegas showman with his spangled model/assistant.
The clumsy uncle who refuses to stop attempting to execute the ponderous card trick he learned while stationed overseas.
The list could go on, but extending it would serve no purpose. This is a performing art so crusted over with a patina of ridicule that changing America’s perception of magic’s potential would seem nearly impossible. And yet, this is exactly what is happening in our lifetime.
David Regal, Close-Up Gallery, The Magic Castle, Hollywood, CA photo: Taylor Wong
Magic has never gone away, and one could argue that it was always here in the folklore of the supernatural and the practice of early religions. As years passed, the place of magic in American society continuously changed. It has moved from street entertainment to corner con artistry (Three Card Monte is not a game of luck), to sham spiritualists, to refined parlor entertainments for the monied elite. Before the advent of radio and television, the traveling magic show was a staple of entertainment that ranged from a truckful of tricks wandering America’s back roads and rural communities to a caravan of equipment, assistants, animals, and illusions playing the top theatres in the country.
As the venues that supported magic performances began to disappear with the death of vaudeville and, later, the vanishing of nightclubs, magic’s stature absorbed a mighty blow. Far fewer performers were seen in venues that spotlighted a unique individual or magnified a sense of spectacle. Instead, audiences were seeing once-commanding magicians squeezed between showings of a motion picture, standing beside road-worn props in a last flailing grasp for grandeur. It is human nature to mock the fallen, and none in entertainment were more overtly knocked from a perch than the magician. Contemporary mentalist Max Maven has noted that magicians of the 20th Century took something inherently profound and rendered it trivial. I feel performers were not wholly to blame, as they found themselves in a changed environment set in motion by outside forces, but yes, things were bad. To those who appreciated the art of conjuring the place to which it had sunk was a tragedy.
David Regal, Palace of Prestidigitation, The Magic Castle, Hollywood, CA photo: Taylor Wong
David Regal, photo: Damon Webster
What we have seen in the last fifty years is a slow reintegration of magic into an accepted place in the performing arts. It crept into radio (yes, I said radio) and television, with appearances that instantaneously chewed up material in a way that terrified old-school performers accustomed to working the same routines for years. Mass media also served to create copyists, as illusions could be more easily studied and replicated. With the influx of more imitators, magicians went from being show business personalities who could command high salaries to “The Magician,” a spot on a show that could be filled by any one of hundreds. Our society values what is rare, and the omnipresence of individuals all doing the same thing robbed magic of its allure and stature. Even more crippling was the loss of a sense of interpretation in the performance of magic. Interpretation is, after all, a requisite in the performing arts. It is an expectation an audience carries with them and something the artist delivers, for better or worse. No one has ever excitedly turned to their spouse and said, “Honey, put on your best dress. We’re going to see that singer who’s the same as every other singer…,” yet the performance of impossibilities went through a hideous transformation, center stage and in full light, to become The Magician.
Even in this environment some talented individuals, like seeds pushing their way through concrete, managed to find a place for themselves, first as guest performers on variety shows such as Ed Sullivan’s Talk of the Town and expanding from there. Mark Wilson created the television series The Magic Land of Alakazam in the early 1960s, which proved it was possible to format magic for multiple episodes, albeit for a young audience. Ten years later, Doug Henning and David Copperfield reached millions via annual television specials and touring performances, appealing to an older audience and, eventually, translating the spectacle of theatrical performance into the language of TV. Their level of popularity met or exceeded that of the magicians of the past, as proven by parodies of their performances that appeared in the cultural landscape. Parodies can only be successful if the object of their attention is a universal.
In the 1980s Penn & Teller’s successful Off-Broadway show exploded people’s preconceptions of what a performance of magic was, and in one fell swoop contemporized it. In the 1990s, Ricky Jay (with the aid of playwright/director David Mamet) reinstituted magic performance as a top-dollar theatrical experience for the educated and informed. Magic wrestled its way back to being perceived as a craft that possessed masters. More recently, we’ve seen Derek DelGaudio sell out theatrical runs on both coasts with his autobiographical, magical meditation on identity In & Of Itself, later made into a film by Frank Oz. This solidified magic’s rebirth as an art that can reach a place of greatness in the hands of a great interpreter.
For those, like myself, who love magic, these changes were palpable and a deep relief… as we need magic.
When a skilled magician performs, he or she is doing more than baffle or confound the audience members. What the magician is doing, in the subtext of the performance, is confront core beliefs, such as:
I understand the mechanisms of my world.
I comport myself within a set of barriers that I cannot change.
My ability to achieve is shaped by these known limitations.
When beliefs learned through life experience are challenged, there can be resistance. A skilled practitioner of magic circumvents the resistance to reach a spot in the spectators’ psyche that is seldom touched. It is common to see, say, a stolid Captain of Industry watch a performance of close-up magic and start to giggle. When that happens, I’m reminded of an infant on a changing table. We tickle the baby’s feet and it giggles in the same way. There is nothing intellectual about that laugh – it comes from an open and delicious surrender. Later, as we gain knowledge and experience, laughter becomes a thing married to conceits and comment – uncorrupted pleasure becomes a rare thing. When magic is done well, it becomes something other than an intellectual exercise, a puzzle to be solved. It brings to us a sensation of weightlessness, of falling with nothing to grasp onto, but with no accompanying fear. In place of fear, joy.
The human experience is one of discovering boundaries and attempting to defeat them. This is behavior learned as a toddler and carried with us from that time forward. It is the condition of being alive, and we often define self-worth by the level of success we achieve in the destruction of these boundaries – economic, social, creative, or intellectual. We envy people whose lives seem to have fewer boundaries than our own, and we’ll toss and turn at night when boundaries seem to be encircling us. Adding to these tallies is an unassailable truth that lingers in the background: Boundaries will eventually defeat us. We will age; we will grow ill; we will lose relevance and, eventually, ourselves.
Approaching Magic by David Regal
And what is the experience of magic?
Magic tells us, with admirable efficiency, that the hard-earned knowledge we have gleaned regarding boundaries is faulty. The evidence we have used to dictate our lives and determine whether we are happy or sad is corrupt. Magic say: “Things you assumed were true are not true. What you saw as a limitation doesn’t exist.”
When a performance of magic reaches a place where something deeply known is shattered, the result is more than astonishment, it is delight. It’s like swinging open the cell door of a caged prisoner. It provokes a giddy sense of relief as the spectator enters a different place, one where inescapable fact turns liquid.
Perhaps the best definition of magic is that is it a demonstration of breaking boundaries. We know a solid cannot pass through a solid… so a magician passes a solid through a solid. We know a human being cannot float in the air… so a magician levitates a body. We know our thoughts are private… so a magician tells us what we are thinking. (Yes, mentalists are magicians. If this comes as an unwelcome bit of information, I apologize.)
What magic tells us, in essence, is there are possibilities. It tells us there are ways around limitations that we were unaware of, and that is good news. When we sense possibilities, how do we react? We are hopeful. We see a way out of our confinement, a way through the maze.
Magic means possibilities. Possibilities equal hope. Therefore, magic equals hope. And it is ironic that an art devoted to defying logic makes sense of so much.
David Regal is behind magic seen by millions of people around the globe. He was head writer and a producer of TV’s The Carbonaro Effect, where, over the course of six years, he created and collaborated on hundreds of original effects. He has written for, and designed effects for, performers seen on television, Vegas showrooms, and Broadway stages. His television writing credits range from #1 children’s shows (Rugrats) to #1 sitcoms (Everybody Loves Raymond) and he is responsible for some of the best-selling tricks and instructional magic books of his generation. In addition, he is a two-time Magic Castle Lecturer of the Year and the recipient of the Creative Fellowship awarded by the Academy of Magical Arts. https://davidregal.com