M.Cís Introduction of Just Alan
Just Alan has been immersed in the world of performance magic for over 50 years. He is the 1997 winner of the Society of American Magicianís stage competition. Just Alan has literally traveled around the world performing and teaching magic. Those of you who have had the opportunity to see his performances know that he takes the art of magic seriously and to artistic levels of the highest order. Please help me to welcome Just Alan as he presents his lecture on "Transcending Technique".
I'd like to begin by thanking Messerís McMillan and Britten for inviting me to your side of the pond to participate in your wonderful conference, and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas about transcending technique.
Alan Eisenson is my name but everyone knows me as Alan ... Just Alan. I was born in New York City in the borough called the Bronx. 36 years ago my wife and I moved to a little upstate New York town located in the Catskill Mountains where we raised our two daughters and where I am recognized as the resident magician. The town is called Woodstock. Perhaps you've heard of it?
Since moving to Woodstock, my wife, Juliette, I, and somewhat later, our two daughters owned and operated a gift store and café, called Just Alan! We sold things nobody really needs but many seem to have wanted, from fine cigars to antique jewelry and whorish as it may seem I sold secrets. The secrets of our craft.
Perhaps not all that whorish after all. You see, in operating my magical department, I was quite particular as to who I would sell to. Frankly, itís my belief that magical secrets should be placed only in the hands of the reliable and trustworthy
As promised, my talk today will be about Transcending Technique and why should we bother? The effects you will be seeing during my lecture can be purchased in any good magic shop and the techniques required can be learned in a relatively short time. But understanding the importance of transcending technique and how turning simple but good tricks like these into something special requires more, and thatís what this lecture is all about!
No doubt there are many people among us today who this very weekend will be sharing and demonstrating some of the finest techniques to be seen anywhere. If this is like other conferences I have attended ... in some cases, there will be goings
So, those of you who were perhaps expecting such ... are ... respectfully invited to exercise your right to leave. I promise you wonít hurt my feelings. However, those of you who choose to remain may just come away with something far more valuable, perhaps, than another fancy technique, or method to palm and or double lift a card.
When you caught your first glimpse of me in my cape, which I llllllllove, you each had your own unique perspective of what might occur. As I began blowing bubbles, Iíd bet that some of you thought "oh ... not another wizard act, or Iíve seen this kind of thing before, or maybe simply ... how strange?
When I finally produced the little glass ball, Iím certain that no one was overly impressed. Everyone here knows exactly how I produced that little glass ball. The production surely wasnít what was special about those few moments we just shared together. I think we can all agree that what I did do was to take a very simple technique that required the most basic of basic sleight of hand, and wrapped it in this package ... me in my caped persona! I believe that illustrated a good example of transcending technique.
Chapter 1: Beyond Technique
To me, with regard to performance magic, the act of transcending means going beyond the limits of the customary delivery of surprise and wonder. Not that these elements are unimportant; oh contraire, but performance magic can, and in my opinion should, deliver far more.
Technique and methodologies have become the esteemed children of magical performers. Videos and DVDs promise umpteen ways to do fancy card manipulations and demonstrate the newest methods of false counting! Many magicians seem to always be seeking the maximum technique filled offerings.
My concern with all of this focus on tricks is that newcomers may neglect the actual experiences of their spectators in favor of technique and method. It simply isn't always true that what intrigues and captivates magical performers will do the same for spectators. Besides, spectators arenít supposed to know weíre actually doing anything but merely counting cards or producing a crystal sphere from a bubble.
It is my belief that what surrounds the technique is, in fact, more important. Why? Because your audience already believes that everything youíre doing required vast amounts of time and practice and therefore, you surely must be one of ... if not the ... most dexterous human beings on the planet!
A great magical performance demands that our audiences remain unaware of the fact that we are doing some secretive move or technique. That's in great part what makes what we do so A-STOUND-ING in the first place! Weíre magicians. Weíre supposed to make something ordinary, extraordinary.
In my view it seems people who seek out magic performances as a preferred entertainment choice above other entertainment options, really do want to transcend their day to day experiences and not merely be witnesses to our superior technical abilities ... which is what we magicians look for when watching each other! Spectators want to experience something more than just another trick. I believe it is my job ... our jobs ... to help transport them to a far away place of enchantment and wonder, without them having to actually leave their auditorium seats, or the close up table.
I respectfully ask each of you to consider your answers to the following questions. Let me hasten to say that there are no wrong answers, and I will be happy to share ... in fact it is my intention to share ... my answers and explanations with you. Perhaps when this lecture is concluded some of you just might view your approach to magical performances differently.
Here's my first question: Is having great technique really enough?
My second question: Is being able to do a series of flawless sleights and flourishes all thatís required of us if we are to put forth a truly magical experience?
My answer in a word is NO, Absolutely Not, No way and most definitely, Uh-uh. Well, Ok, that was actually 8 words with an exclamatory Uh-uh thrown in.
But, I digress. It is my feeling that often the ultra focus solely on the delivery of great technique can get in the way of a performerís responsibility and the ultimate goal of astounding, and in some cases mystifying, but in all cases: entertaining, sharing and delivering a wonderfully magical experience to and with our audiences ... whether they be made up of one, or one thousand ... spectators.
Let me share a story to illustrate the point.
I was hired to do close up magic during a cocktail hour for 1500+ guests at a very posh fund raiser held at New Yorkís famous Waldorf Astoria. The late Christopher Reeves (of Superman fame) was the guest of honor. Very quickly I realized that the people I was supposed to be entertaining (all of whom were famous in their own right) were more interested in being seen than in watching me. It became clear to me that whatever I was going to do had to occur in seconds. So, like the man of steel himself, I dashed into the menís room donned my cape and proceeded to blow bubbles and give out wishes in the form of the solid crystal spheres I had been producing from the bubbles. They were instructed to place them under their pillows and make a wish.
The point being that even without the implementation of any intricate technique, complicated sleights or involved and lengthy story lines, I was able to convey a truly magical experience to an audience that only had time, or were only able or willing, to give me their attention for the briefest of encounters. I managed to make it possible for many to be transported to a time when actually making a wish was simply ok. Of course, I cautioned them to be careful about what they wished for.
Chapter Two: Taking Risks
So how does one take the mundane and make it something special? Where does one begin in the creative process and what is A Creative Process?? Some might say it can be taught, bought or even borrowed ... with permission. Because to do anotherís original material without first obtaining permission isnít borrowing, itís stealing.
Then there are those who say youíve either got it, or you donít! Iím not one of those, as I sincerely believe that everyone can learn to tap into their own creative process.
By the way, with regard to risk taking, would you have been willing to risk walking out on the stage, in front of such an esteemed audience as yourselves, wearing a cape and blowing bubbles?
Do you take risks when selecting props? Remember ... props of any kind are not in themselves magical. There simply must be a magician to make them so!
I need to venture off and try new things. For me, creativity, innovation and transcendence take time to nurture and involve a lengthy contemplative process. Iíve learned to benefit from my apparent "failures" which have helped to stimulate mechanisms in me that inspire creativity. Transforming a mediocre effect into something great requires not just commitment and perseverance, but the dedication and motivation to really work out all the bugs!!
Creative people ... writers, artists, actors and entrepreneurs will tell you that being open to new, and sometimes outlandish Ö ideas (even those that others have given up on) is a sure step in the creative process. Sometimes you get great ideas, crazy ideas and vast numbers of ideas and sometimes you just get half vast ideas. When you get an idea, write it down! Later may be too late and the idea may be gone! Keep a magical journal in which to record all your fantastic thinking.
Consider what weíd all be missing if there werenít those who were willing to take risks and give those half-vast ideas a try. People like: Ben Franklin, Madame Curie or Maskelyne and Devant. One thing they certainly had in common was the understanding that great achievements more often than not involve risk taking!
While making assumptions can be useful ... strive to avoid passing judgments before some experimentation. In other words, find out what you donít know before taking action. Thomas Edison when interviewing prospective employees would invite them to lunch with him. Edison would take note whether or not the interviewee salted or seasoned his food before tasting it. If they did, it was very likely that they would not get the job. Why? Because Edison was seeking out people who did not make assumptions before taking action.
Chapter 3: Itís Time For a Little Magic
As a demonstration of transcending technique, Iíll be using a rather simple ... but impact filled packet trick by Phil Goldstein ... otherwise known as Max Maven. The routine you are about to see is a good example of creativity combined with my personal touch.It's really rather simple in terms of the dexterous technique required and hereís what you get: 4 cards and a set of instructions. Itís a great trick that works well just the way it comes. But then youíll be doing it exactly like hundreds maybe thousands of other magicians.
Hereís what Iíve done with it.
As Iíve said, it's a good effect with incredible impact and great entertainment value.
Since its inception my routine has changed. At first, I used a card case instead of the much nicer leather wallet I use now, which looks like something anyone might carry and not some "special" magicianís wallet that suggests that it can do more than just carry cards. In fact, I also carry my business cards in it, making it easy to hand out my business card before or after the presentation. I believe that my routine transcends technique in that the end result empowers the assisting spectator. For one thing, they never get it wrong! Furthermore, I never take any actions to embarrass them and I make a big show of admiring and congratulating them for having such a wonderful imagination.
While the execution may appear simplistic and uncomplicated in many ways, I think the end result speaks for itself. Since I have carefully choreographed the piece, the cards themselves become unimportant as itís all about the spectator's great imagination!
Chapter 4: Commitment, Vision and Perseverance
Many street names have the word VIA in them. The literal translation of "via" is ... "the way". For our purposes, letís interpret this to mean "the way to being committed to the creative process." Think of it this way: VIA is the way to V(isualize), I(tentionalize) and A(ctualize).
I spend almost as much time (if not more) just thinking about what it is I want to do. Like good athletes are known to do, I spend time visualizing myself giving my best performance. I visualize doing so in variety of venues: on a stage, on a platform, with a lighting crew, with stage hands, with unlimited resources and with a bare bones set-up. This of course is the v in VIA!
Then I go about intentionalizing (the I in VIA) which means taking the steps and actions necessary to make my impressions and fantasy thinking come to life! Which leads to the end result, the A in VIA ... the actualization and the real time performance of the effect.
Let me caution you here. A common problem is getting stuck in this phase and becoming "mental magicians" -- myself included. Not mentalists, mind you, but magicians who get stuck in dreamland without ever materializing our dreams. While itís possible that what weíve been dreaming about may turn out just that way we imagined, we really wonít know until we take the necessary actions to test them out in "real time." Itís time for risk taking on another level! We simply must know when the planning stage is over and enough is enough and get on with it!
Chapter 5: Originality
"The principle mark of genius is not perfection, but originality, the opening of new frontiers." Do you spend as much time on being an original performer as you do on being a great technician? Think of as many of the best card workers you know. Letís say one after the other they perform the same perfectly executed effect and their technical abilities are equal ... itís possible. My feeling is that the performer whose focus was less about technique, and more on the desire to put forth the most original, entertaining and memorable presentation, would be better received by the audience. Iíd have to say they succeeded in transcending technique!
Hereís another effect that I infused with my own brand of originality.
Chapter 6: Houdini and the Trumpet
Psychic Escape is a nice effect and the props, while simple in appearance, are well made. What I like about it is that itís made from solid brass and feels quite substantial. For a long time after I opened the package and examined the contents, it lived on a shelf in my magic studio along with many other interesting things I knew I wanted to use but just didnít know how to make mine. I think the cylinder and discs have an interesting, familiar look, while at the same time not being quite recognizable or common place. I was stuck for a very long while on just what purpose discs like these might serve, and how I could introduce them to a spectator in a way that was believable?
Then one day a spark of originality was ignited in me. The discs reminded me of the stops on my fatherís trumpet, and the seeds of the routine you are about to see were sown. From this came the following original story about my dad playing his trumpet for none other than Harry Houdini.
Chapter 7: "Your Mind is The Key That Opens All Doors"
OK, I had an original storyline and what I believed to be a neat and plausible explanation of what the discs actually were.My next minor dilemma was that I didnít like just pulling the discs out of my pocket at the start. It didn't feel right. Why would I carry around a set of old trumpet stops? I donít even like carrying change in my pockets! I decided I needed to find the right container to help pull the routine together. I tried a silk pouch but that didnít seem quite right. I thought of an old trumpet case. But without the trumpet, it was just too big, and really doesnít make much sense unless the stops were actually attached to the trumpet ... an idea Iím still toying with.
Then one day I saw an old cigar box filled with this and that and it hit me! I decided that my storyline would be about how I came upon the cigar box among my dad's belongings after he passed away. Itís true! "The mind is the key that opens all doors!" My story would tell of my surprise upon discovering not only my Dadís old trumpet stops but a treasured, faded and worn photograph signed by Harry Houdini.
Can you see how these little brass discs were transformed into items of personal value and interest to me? I not only had a pretty cool effect that could add minutes to my performing time, I also had an opportunity to share something personal and meaningful to me. I got a chance to pay tribute to my Dad and include magicdomís most well known personality.
Chapter 8: Going Further ("Every Idea Warrants Consideration")
I like to start my creative process with magical fantasy: I try to figure out what effect I would like to see. I think as broadly as possible and as though I had both an unlimited budget and unrestricted abilities. Allowing oneself to think in the abstract, even to the point of the absurd, stimulates the mind. Einstein said, and I quote "The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my ability to absorb positive knowledge." I couldnít agree more! I always strive to have my magic have some connection to my personal experiences. Itís kind of like good writing. Good writing usually comes from writers who write about what they know best!
As you follow the contemplative process, you may find yourself shifting focus from time to time. Let it happen! One moment you may be focusing on the props, considering one idea then another. The next day you may focus on the right music to go along with the effect and all the while be working on the script. I have to work at being disciplined. How about you? Do you take the time to write out exactly what you'll say and do? Are you able to put aside the props and handling and devote whatever time is necessary to practice your lines?
As you engage in this very conscious scrutiny, some things that first seemed so clever and appropriate will be neither, and some of what you thought was simply background will become central.This approach to magic forces me to be mindful of my own experience as well as that of the audience. Assuming you will be speaking during your performance, experimenting, coming up with and ultimately selecting the "right" words to suit the effect is, in my opinion, central to creating magic that is original and transcends. For me, originality occurs incrementally. That is to say, there will be times when I feel as though little or no progress is being made. During these moments, it is crucial that I remind myself to trust my instincts and the proven process.
I believe that we all are a potential source of infinite innovation. Of all the roadblocks to innovation, negative assumptions are the worst! They are insidious and can become habitual. They can stop us before we start. In the case of creating magic that transcends, numerous assumptions might get in the way: a magician has to wear a tuxedo and I don't own one, real magicians use birds and I don't have any, today's magicians use loud rock music and fog machines. Where can I get one of those? Other assumptions I've made have challenged my self-esteem. I'll look stupid (me and my cape) or people might laugh at me when comedy wasnít what I was going for. Trusting the process involves the willingness to take the leap of faith ... not once, but as many times as may be necessary.
It has been said that the best way to get a really great idea is to have a lot of ideas and then throw away the bad ones. All ideas from all sources are worthy of consideration. Not acceptance necessarily, but at the least, consideration. Be fearless with your imagination. It is an important factor that separates us from one another.
Chapter 9: Impossible Dream by Bill Pryor.
Hereís a really good effect by Bill Pryor called the Impossible Dream. Itís strong, visual, and appealing. It resets easily. It doesnít use thumb tips or reels, and,if you are ever so inclined, it truly can be done in your birthday suit.You get all the props (made of real money) and a clear set of instructions which will help you learn all of the moves. So how do we take the trick and turn it into something really magical? A good step towards transcendence and originality is attempting to achieve credibility when working in the absurd.
Chapter 10: Aunt Doris and Mom at Age 80
Time swiftly passes by. Practice, practice, practice.
I really love the changes the bills make right under the noses of my spectators. After I mastered the handling, I still felt it was too much of a "trick," and without the magical ambience I seek. It needed something. It needed to have a reason for being. Inspiration came out of my love and affection for my mother and her twin sister ... Aunt Doris.
My Aunt Doris really gave me a crisp, new "deuce" every birthday. I think she got a little carried away because she continued this tradition for almost 40 years! Receiving crisp, new, 2 dollar bills doesnít rate the same on the joy meter when youíre a 52 year old as it does when youíre a 12 year old. Still I do love traditions! Anyway, my mom never let me spend the $2 bills when I was a youngster but, rather, kept them safe for me.
My original version of this effect involved a birthday card I made up to look old. I would say to the spectator that I had found this among my mom's and dadís things. Iíd do the effect and the inscriptions would appear on the transformed bills. A really nice touch!
It was good, but I still needed it to be something more. I wanted the piece to have a personal texture and to be framed in a way that is consistent with my approach to magical performance. By adding the wallet, the stamps and the changes in the photos going from young to old the routine finally came together for me. It's plausible and has a credibility about it that I could feel and be moved by. With the photo changing "young to old" I was also able to create a dual surprise.
Chapter 11: Self Awareness
As Iíve already said, every person is unique. We should all strive to develop and cultivate those things that make us individuals.Some of us have more than one thing that's special: A love and appreciation for music and dance, an artistic ability, organizational skills or an understanding of computers and technology. Me? Well, I am both a very tactile person, and quite visually stimulated. I like texture and color and a sense of elegance combined, whenever possible, with a preference for the exotic. It's just my style. It's who I am. This self awareness is an important step in helping me to transcend the technique I am presenting, and it helps me create a special surrounding to further my audienceís ease in being transcended.
Iíve also found that having the right set design helps me to stay in character. Most of my stage props are "old" friends, collected over many years and many miles. I sometimes travel with so much that Iíve been dubbed the Sultan of Schlep! So, whatís special about you? Do you have a love of history, music, humor, physical comedy, costuming, dance and / or movement? Do you use those things that are familiar to you? Do you try to expound upon them? Are you appreciative of the value in continuously learning and experiencing new things?
Think of it this way, the more you know ... well, the more you know! And, the more you know, the more you can apply what you know to everything you do. Not just your magic.
Chapter 12: 1st Place Stage Competition
Sometimes, while you're on your way to a dream; you get lost and find a better one. In 1997 I asked a respected and very well known personality in the magic world to help me find a venue to premiere my newest work. His suggestion was for me to enter the upcoming S.A.M. stage competition. He went on to say that while I might get into the competition, I shouldnít expect to win, as he felt that my work might be too esoteric. Well, I did get to show my work and I actually won 1st place in the 1997 S.A.M. national stage competition with my performance of "The Sands of India," which I will be presenting this evening at the Gala show. It really is a perfect example of transcending technique.
Part of being able to transcend technique requires that performers be able to roll with the punches when those unexpected glitches occur. Listen carefully, I didnít say if those things occur. I said when because believe me, if you perform long enough, something will eventually go wrong. Avoid rigidity! Transcending technique may mean being able to continue with a performance when your music stops, the thread breaks or when the trunk containing all your equipment disappears! Will you be able to handle the unexpected?
How will you know when your performance level transcends your technical abilities? I find it helpful to review my work not with the eyes of a magician, but rather with the eyes of a spectator. If you can manage to do this well enough, you will experience your work in the same light as your intended audiences. Be as objective as you can manage when answering these questions:
Am I enjoying the performance? Does this "performer" draw me in? Am I being transported? Are the costumes, props and staging appealing to my eye? Does the performer speak clearly and articulate well enough so that I fully understand the patter and storyline? If humor is being employed, is it appropriate for the target audience? If you get more negative answers than positive, it might mean youíre on the wrong track! Welcome change!
I found that creative collaboration with others, who may have a different background, be it educational, professional, or cultural, has proven quite productive. Cultivate partnerships with other magicians and trusted lay people. A "civilianís" point of view can be very helpful in ways that might surprise you. After all, you're not interested in creating merely a nifty visual effect or clever puzzle. We should be constantly striving to achieve our goal of creating something imaginative, something original, something worth watching!
Wind Up Summary
My hope today is that I've answered the question why we should bother with Transcending Technique, and that you're all encouraged to explore this practice further. All routines that have been performed by me this weekend, as well as my lecture notes are available as my gift to the magicians of the McMillian 2007 Conference, and those of you who have dropped by my website, JustAlan.com, where they can be downloaded.
Let me leave you with these thoughts: You must have vision, commitment, perseverance and be willing to take risks. All ideas need to be considered. Every person has at least one thing that makes them unique. Remember your mind is the key that opens all doors.
I thank you all for deciding to remain and not leaving when you had the chance. Be well, be safe, be happy. Thank you!
|Reviews||Magic Routines||History of The Sands||An Encounter with Sam Schwartz|
|Read the Just Alan story, as told by the Woodstock Times|
|Home Page||Kyudo||Magic||Antiques, Showcases and Merchandise|