Like many children I knew, one of my treasured gifts was a magic kit. You know what I’m talking about: the oversized box containing tiny plastic cups, a deck of cards and assorted props, along with a novella-length pamphlet purporting to teach you (yes, you!) how to perform amazing feats of sleight of hand and illusion. I think I gave it a month of practice and tormenting my parents with my shows before abandoning it to the professionals.
Besides, I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t conjure up a pet bunny.
The fascination with magic is timeless, with writings and art suggesting its practice throughout centuries of time. From escapologist Harry Houdini to the more recent big name theatrical performers – Penn and Teller, David Copperfield and David Blaine to name a prominent few – humans remain drawn to illusions and tricks. With the rise of internet technology and increasingly accessible information at our fingertips, one might think it would lose its lustre – entire websites are devoted to breaking down and teaching common card tricks, thereby destroying the mystery – and yet we still remain eager to be fooled, to be lied to.
It is upon this foundation that James Alan has constructed his new one-man show, Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks. As Alan explains, “There’s something very satisfying about knowing you’re being deceived and believing it anyway. Over and over again, the audience gets to feel these astonishing moments as they realize what’s really going on is completely different from what they thought. And that’s really what magic is about; realizing that the world around us is more than what it seems.”
Having seen Alan perform recently as the surprising and highly entertaining opener for Garbage in support of their new album, I was excited to learn of Alan’s new show, directed by James Biss and premiering at the Hamilton Fringe Festival. Alan has made a name for himself in the Greater Toronto Area, performing at corporate and private events, as well as hosting and producing Abracadabaret, a live variety and cabaret show. Two years in the making, Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks sets out to not only amaze but comment on art, truth and trust.
I had the opportunity to ask James a few questions about his upcoming show and magic itself. Read on for more about melons, suits, and why even a talented prestidigitator won’t mess with a casino.
OTM: I have to say, I’ve never been to a concert with a prestidigitator opening before. It was refreshing! How did you come to open for Garbage this May?
JAMES: I promise, if I ever figure this out, you’ll be the first to know! I’m not the first. I know of at least one other magician that used to open for Alice Cooper and Diana Ross. (I assume not at the same time.)
The idea, as it was explained to me, was that the technical requirements of the Garbage concert were more elaborate than what was common for the venue. So the goal was to have an opening act that required as little audio equipment as possible and somehow they came up with magician. They approached me and we worked out the details over the course of a few weeks. But I never did figure out who came up with the idea in the first place. Every time I think about it, I smile because it means even in a magic show, the magician doesn’t always know how everything works.
Was this your first time opening for a ticketed concert like this? How did you feel about the performance?
I’ve had ticketed shows of my own, but never something this big or involving a household name. Overall we were extremely pleased with how the performance went. The crowd was very excited to see something new and different. The strangest thing for me was performing behind barricades and security guards. I know that I was more nervous that I normally would have been. There were technical challenges that meant my timing was off and the show took about 25% longer than it should have otherwise.
In hindsight, we were able to come up with half a dozen ways to make it better for next time, but as far as we know that was the first time anyone had tried anything like that in that space.
My friend and I were curious: why a melon? One of our theories is that it leaves things with a pleasant smell on stage.
That is an amazing, complicated question and something I’ve put a lot of thought into.
First and foremost, I think fresh fruit is incredibly funny when placed out of context. But then the question becomes what fruit? Apples and oranges are not as funny as lemons, bananas and melons. A melon is also large, so that I can put it in full view for the duration of the show and no one can come back afterwards and say “maybe he somehow switched that melon for another one in his jacket.” It’s also big so people can see it in a big room like the Phoenix, and the image of the melon atop the pedestal with a knife sticking out of it is such that you won’t soon forget it. I was also inspired by an old stunt where a watermelon is sliced in two with a samurai sword while it’s resting on someone’s unprotected stomach. So far none of my attempts to work a samurai sword into the trick have worked.
And on the magic side of things, the trick is just easier with cantaloupe.
How did you become interested in magic? Did you always have a desire to learn?
My serious interest in magic sprung from an essay by Teller (of Penn & Teller) in their book How to Play in Traffic. Before that happened, I never really grasped that magic was something that regular people could learn the same way you learned to play piano or basketball. The appeal is mainly intellectual. Magicians solve problems without actually solving the problem, which to me is beautiful. I also have a huge love of math and science and great science has a lot in common with great magic tricks.
It became a profession out of serendipity more than anything else. I happened to meet wonderful mentors (also agents who would book me) in a relatively short space of time, just as I was finishing university and trying to move out of my previous job. I’m very lucky to be in the position that I’m in.
You’re what some would refer to as “old-fashioned” magic – your tricks derived from the old masters. For those unaware of the difference, can you explain what that means in terms of your style of performance?
Old magic is to new magic as Star Wars is to Spaceballs.
Spaceballs is brilliant on many levels but if someone had never watched sci-fi before, there are so many other movies you would want to show them before that so they could appreciate Dark Helmet in all his glory. Most of what magicians would call “new” falls under that category, where the average person, who may have seen a magician once, twice or never, couldn’t appreciate the same way a magician does. So I think the old-style (I’m often cheating and using some very modern methods) of magic makes more sense to most audiences.
Your one-man show Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks, is presented as more than a collection of random tricks. A sort of narrative thread carries throughout the show, and I noted a similar ‘story’ when I watched you as well. For you as a performer, how important is that thread when designing a show? Does it carry equal weight to the tricks themselves?
A mentor of mine, David Ben, taught me not to be afraid of just doing tricks; a trick could be beautiful in and of itself. Had I done this show two years ago, it would have been a collection of somewhat random tricks. But I was also inspired by Asi Wind, Mac King and Max Maven whose shows all have very strong through lines. Ultimately, I’m performing for humans; pattern seeking animals. Even though we like surprises, instinctively we crave things that conform to patterns and expectations. We hate Deus Ex Machina. So my motto over the past year has become completely unexpected but in hindsight completely logical. It’s not so much a narrative in the traditional sense, but there should be a sense that we achieved something interesting, instead of just did a bunch of interesting stuff.
Let me give you the exact trick that opened my eyes (created by Chicago magician, Eugene Burger, whom I’ve actually invited to Toronto to perform in September). I used to perform a trick with little balls that multiplied. One ball would turn into two, which would turn into three. If you took one away there were still three. Then I placed the three balls in someone’s hand and when they opened their hand to find they had twenty one balls pouring out. Looking back, it makes perfect sense. The balls were multiplying and it could only go on for so long before things got out of hand. But what really makes it interesting is right before the ending I would come right out and ask “How many do you think you have in your hand?” No one ever got it right.
I’m thrilled with the through-line we came up with for Lies. Now a show that contains tricks involving lemons, eggs, herbal tea comes together to make something unexpected but in hindsight completely logical. Plus, if you thought what came out of the melon at the Phoenix was cool, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The press release asks us to consider the possibility of a magician knowing the secret to making money without working. Considering your skill with cards, would the answer be poker? I envision you banned from casinos after an incredibly good night.
I wouldn’t believe everything you see in my show. Re-read the title!
In a magic lecture by Juan Tamariz, he explained that magic was like a story with a climax but no denouement. My goal with the show is to make people wonder and, more importantly, think: was it true or wasn’t it? A lot of what I say is true and even more is almost true. But I never say what’s what, so you’re left with a feeling of uncertainty, or I suppose a better word would be mystery.
With respect to cheating at poker… not bloody likely. (At least I’m honest while not on stage.) Card games are designed to be hard to cheat at. This is even truer in casinos. And when you cheat people they make very bad things happen to you both inside and outside of the law. I can do a lot of neat things with a deck of cards, but cheating in a game isn’t one of them.
You’ve commented in the past on the importance of your suit from a prop standpoint, as well as its psychological impact on an audience. Is this something you picked up from studying the magic of others? Do you find that audiences respond differently to the same tricks when you’re wearing a suit versus more casual attire?
Costume – in my case a suit – has both a practical and psychological purpose. Practically, more pockets means you can have more magic on you during a performance. Psychologically, people treat you differently if you take the time to get dressed up. But I think it becomes less important the older I get.
It can be tough to be taken seriously as a young adult. Early in my career, there was a noticeable difference between the shows where I dressed up a little versus those where I dressed up a lot, especially when the audience was full of people that could have been my parents. With or without realizing it, I think they cut me some slack because of the extra visible effort I had made to put on a good show for them.
For the same reason, I used to always carry a thin silver briefcase even if all the props I needed were already in my pockets. It was just to show the organizer that I came prepared. Now I have more confidence in myself and my material to let the work speak for itself.
Now I find I can have the opposite problem. I was taught to always try and dress just slightly above what was required for the event. But occasionally I will be over dressed for an event, which makes me look too out of place, and that actually makes the show more difficult.
Nearly everyone has heard of Harry Houdini and his performances. Is there a magician that you feel is underrated or under the radar that magic fans should seek out?
It’s actually very hard to seek out magicians. Very few have shows you can buy tickets. Almost all of the magic that gets performed professionally happens at private events (30th birthday parties, wedding showers) or corporate events.
I’m particularly partial to the work of Eugene Burger who we’ve invited to Toronto later this year, and Asi Wind, whom we’ve brought up twice (2010 & 2011) for ticketed events so that other people get a chance to see them. I’m also a huge fan of the magic shows that have been part of Luminato over the past three years.
What’s the most frustrating or annoying question you’ve ever been asked?
It’s a tie:
The first is “Is magic real?” Lee Siegel pointed out the irony that “real magic” isn’t, and the magic I can really do for you, is “fake”. It’s frustrating when children ask because I feel guilty bursting their bubble. It’s worse when adults ask because I think it represents a real failure of society that not everyone knows the answer to that question. It’s a sad thought.
The other contender was “Can you pull a card out of my fucking underwear?” The answer, to my embarrassment, is yes.
Random question I ask everyone… The world is ending in ten minutes. You can choose one song to play during that time. What song do you choose?
Whitney Houston – “Greatest Love of All”
Last: In eight words or less, tell us why we should see your show.
Art, religion, irony, magic, melon and duct tape.
Thanks so much, James! You had me at ‘melon’.
James Alan will be performing his new show, Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks at the Hamilton Fringe Festival for seven performances, beginning July 19th, 2012. For details, show times and how to acquire the tickets that you’d be foolish not to rush out and purchase, visit the show’s page at the Hamilton Fringe website.
Not keen on traveling to Hamilton? That’s okay: James will also be performing this year at Summerworks Theatre Festival in Toronto this August. Click here for more details.