Approaching Magic by David Regal
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2008)
David Regal's latest book reminds me of the weather in London. Not that there's anything foggy or damp about it. But they say that if you don't like the weather in London, wait 10 minutes. Well, if you don't like the trick you're reading in this eclectic and wildly creative 500-page collection, wait 10 pages. Your weather is bound to change for the better.
Approaching Magic is a rich collection that includes more than 60 tricks and routines, a dozen sleights, another dozen theoretical essays, commentaries, and an interview (with Armando Lucero). Crisply designed, richly illustrated with more than 1,000 photographs, and skillfully written with clarity and focus, this is a magic book that is stimulating, thoughtful, and just plain fun to read.
David Regal has been a wellspring of clever magic ideas for more than 20 years, since the publication of his first book, Star Quality by Harry Lorayne. As Michael Weber illustrates in his succinctly focused introduction, that book included Mr. Regal's clever method for Any Card at Any Number as Mr. Weber observes, "presaging the current fixation by two decades and Mr. Weber points out that Mr. Regal's "four piece, signed card restoration 'Piece by Piece'" similarly predated the fascination for such a plot that was eventually ignited by Guy Hollingworth's "Reformation." Mr. Weber goes on to remind us that in 1990, David Regal contributed "Baby Face" to Spectacle by Stephen Minch, a trick which fundamentally amounts to Dan Harlan's "Cardtoon" but done with photographs, long before the Harlan trick had been conceived.
Mr. Regal has since produced books that have been consistently well received, both critically and commercially, including Close-up and Personal in 1999 (reviewed by this writer in Gen/7, June 1999); and Constant Fooling in 2002 (reviewed by Eric Mead in Genii, October 2002). Although he makes his living in the world of television, as a comedy writer, producer, and recently as a magic coach on the VH-1 series Celebracadabra, Mr. Regal also has significant performing experience, having made his living as a member of the core company of Chicago City Limits comedy troupe (in which he utilized magic amid his performance skills), during which time he appeared in some 2000 shows, including many college and corporate appearances. Since switching to television as his livelihood, he performs magic much less frequently in professional settings, although he continues as a longtime regular at The Magic Castle, where the Academy of Magical Arts has previously awarded him Lecturer of the Year, and this year has nominated him in two categories, both as Close-up Magician of the Year and Parlor Magician of the Year.
Thus Mr. Regal brings an unusual skill set to his magic. Although he knows what it means to be a professional performer, it would not be accurate to dub him a professional magician. Although he is most assuredly a successful show biz pro, magic is not his show business profession. Not to obsess over such labels and definitions, but rather to better understand the characteristics of his work and help to place those qualities in a useful context, it might still be fair, when all is said in done, to label Mr. Regal an amateur in the best sense as in the oft-explained meaning of the word, he who does something for the love it. Michael Weber makes the point in his introduction, and it is not a trivial insight, when he repeatedly declares: "David Regal LOVES magic."
Sam Sharpe, in his classic theoretical text, Neo-Magic, pointed out the important creative role of the amateur within the larger world of the art of magic. Along related lines, I long ago came to the conclusion that amateurs create and professionals select at least, the best of both groups provide these invaluable services for the rest of us. Much of the greatest innovation in magic often comes from amateurs; however, amateur inventors, fascinated by the task of creation, often are poor editors, and the quality of their output can vary widely. But when an amateur creates something truly great, more often than not it does not go directly from that amateur's hands to the larger community's. Rather, there is typically an interim process of selection. That is, it is often not until the professional mounts the finished product that the rest of the community (actually amateurs and, unfortunately, other pros alike) discovers the genius in the amateur's creation, and the trick now takes the community by storm.
Considered in this light, David Regal's work is perhaps best understood as that of an amateur, even though, as previously acknowledged, there is professional experience which informs and influences his work as well. But the bottom line from where I sit is that David Regal is one of a small coterie of magicians who has created significant quantities of useful, meaty material interesting plots, clever methods, and just plain good tricks that comprise a rich lode of potential source material for working pros. And I think the point of Mr. Weber's introductory remarks (and certainly the point of this writer's apparent digression) is to say this: If you haven't yet noticed this fact, but are hungry for interesting material that, with your own sufficient effort and investment stands an excellent chance of being turned into distinctive professional performance material, then it's time to wake up and get a clue that David Regal is the guy you've been looking for. And if you don't mine his material, someone else will and many already have.
So much for Mr. Regal's own approach to magic, comprising one aspect of the subtle duality of his title. The other aspect is the author's thoughtful desire to create material that truly approaches a magical experience for his audiences. Throughout the book, Mr. Regal attempts to explain and expand on his thinking, and even if at times one disagrees with his conclusions, one will rarely have to guess at his thinking, as he has invariably done his share or more of it before bringing the finished product to the stage and the page. In the first section of the book, for example (one comprising 11 card tricks that require nothing more than an ordinary deck of cards), Mr. Regal offers "Stand-Up Showdown," about which he points out that "This effect is designed to be performed without a table, standing across from a spectator who holds cards at various points in the routine ...(a) routine with multiple effects and phases ...that can be done with a borrowed deck." These are unarguably useful considerations, which do service to a commercial routine based on Vernon's "Cutting the Aces." This chapter also includes routines in which spectators cut to four of a kind; the magician cuts to four of a kind; a well constructed two-phase Ace Assembly with a kicker (not a plot particularly to my taste, but nevertheless this one comes with a clever handling I enjoyed thinking about); a second approach to this plot includes the creator's ideas about no less than four different styles of revealing the climax; a nice routine involving four selections along with four Aces that includes a deceptive control sequence; and a practical approach to the four-to-one transposition plot.
Next up is "Cocoa," a gaffed two-cup routine using mugs and marshmallows (one of which you vanish by eating it) that climaxes with the production of some liquid cocoa. This is not half as farfetched as it sounds; the routine is smartly conceived, mystifying, and sufficiently practical that Mr. Regal repeated it three times a night as his closer in The Magic Castle Close-Up Gallery Included here is the author's wise skepticism of the questionable practice of handing an object to a spectator for the express purpose of examination. The next item, entitled "Luck," is a three-phase routine in which the performer cleanly and repeatedly cuts to a higher card than does the spectator; a color detection sequence; and a concluding version of the "10-Card Poker Deal" in which the cards are readily dealt from the deck. This is a superb piece of material that requires more in the way of performance skills than technical ones, and that could readily serve as a professional caliber performance piece. The next item, prosaically titled "A Hook Up," is a simple system for using invisible thread that is permanently attached to a close-up mat. Two items applying the system are provided, an animated bill routine and a version of the "Haunted Pack."
The next segment, entitled "Remuneration," consists of magic with paper money and coins. This includes two practical homemade devices to vanish coins and other small items, the second of which will vanish a loose stack of coins quite effectively; a well-constructed multi-phase routine for the standard Copper-Silver-Brass gimmick (not a prop I am terribly fond of due to some of the eccentric and cozy handling requirements, but Mr. Regal does a very good job at least of avoiding the repetitiveness of most routines); a quick but convincing breaking and restoration of your own credit card; a nice routine with a mini-Chop Cup that uses a bill and the production of loose change as an ending (a vast improvement over the usual large-ball-that-just-isn't very-large climax for this often dubious prop); and two excellent bill-printing methods that are startlingly different from the norm.
The next chapter, "More Than A Deck Of Cards," includes some of my favorite items of the collection. It seems to me that when Mr. Regal starts thinking about adding things to playing cards roughing fluid, double-stick tape, scratch marks, secondary props the results are often delightfully effective. This segment includes "Ad Space," in which a spectator selects the only actual playing card from what turns out to be a deck of the double-sided advertising cards that come with every new pack; and a contribution from Jonathan Levit (host and judge of the aforementioned Celebracadabra series), entitled "Sanitized for Your Deception," a fully fleshed-out standup comedy card-in-impossible-location routine that still leaves plenty of room for individual customizing, but which could well provide the foundation of a staple in some professional worker's repertoire. Countless books contain not a single example of such potential; this book contains a quantity of them.
A section of mentalism includes 11 items, many of which provide utilitarian props, gimmicks, and approaches to standards that may readily be put to use by thoughtful students. "Window Replacement" is a method of ascertaining the contents of a pair of nested envelopes; the handling risks tilting a bit toward over-proving, but nevertheless the approach may well find favor with some. Several routines in this section rely on the classic one-ahead method, and Mr. Regal's clever thinking yields excellent results. I liked "Thinking Ahead" which seals written material within clear plastic trading card cases (as used for baseball cards) which are numbered with magic marker; "312" uses the oneahead with envelopes while allowing the spectator to tear the envelopes open; and a homemade version of "Mental Epic" done with props that appear believably ordinary (what are the chances of that?). "Will the Socks Match?" could be an entertaining platform routine with spectators psychically matching colored socks; a pure equivoque card selection procedure entitled "Hotel 52" makes a fine match with the author's marketed item, the "Disposable Deck"; "Porn In Your Pants," a funny application to a popular plot, delivers a simple and commercial prediction routine with three DVDs; and "The Impossible Envelope," a remarkable idea which provides a memorable final payoff to a running element in a mentalism act. While it might be said that Mr. Regal's tastes and style run more toward mental magic rather than pure mentalism (admittedly a historically fuzzy and controversial line), many of his methods, with some presentational adjustment, can be adjusted to serve either set of tastes and goals.
While the title of the next chapter, "Packet Magic," is not the first thing I would turn to in any magic book, nevertheless the seven examples here, exploring familiar plots, generally tend to offer some legitimate raison d'etre as added contributions to the genre. My favorite element in this section is actually a facet of Mr. Regal's work that shows up throughout the book, namely his skills as a comedy writer. These are not lines for everyone, but consider some examples: "At that moment," says Mr. Regal in a color-changing backs routine, "his receptionist in the corner loosened a few buttons, exposing a lacy bra from Victoria's Secret. The receptionist was a thin Vietnamese man named Kenny." And subsequently in the same routine, "The doctor pressed a button, and Kate Smith ran through singing 'God Bless America.' She didn't sing it well but I cut her some slack as she'd been dead for twenty years." This stuff makes me laugh, and it's a welcome respite from reading about packet tricks.
The next chapter, comprised of three routines involving liquids, quenched my thirst for magic of other than the packet variety. "Amstel Heavy" is the production of a tall pilsner glass of beer; "A Drinking Problem" is a practical method for producing a bottle from a paper bag; and "The World's Greatest Invention" enables a genuine glass of beer to appear and reappear from behind or within a straw mat, the method for which is ingenious and may well provide fodder for other applications.
As the book draws toward a close, a section dubbed "Our Secret" offers several contributions featuring the use of double-stick tape as a method; "Change for a Five" is a Monte routine that begins like a genuine Monte relying on the traditional "hype" toss and switch, but then concludes with a killer climax in which all three cards change cleanly to Five-spots, without resorting to handling the deck.
"Three-Piece Band" includes three pieces with finger rings (get it?), and these are all merely excellent. The first, "The Power of Love," involves placing a borrowed wedding band in a simple ring box and playing a sort of Monte game with two additional boxes. Eventually the ring vanishes and after some comic byplay that greatly enlarges the scale of the routine, the ring is found in an impossible location. "A Distant Location" is a platform or stage version of a borrowed ring to impossible location; in this case the location is truly impossible and the method is as astonishingly simple as it is fun to read. And "In Darkness" is a mysterious item in which a borrowed ring manages to penetrate onto a rod under impossible test conditions a terse description that cannot do justice to the mystery quality of the idea, nor to a beautiful variation and presentation for same provided by Michael Weber. A concluding chapter provides a number of original card sleights along with some applications and routines.
Throughout, the author offers essays and theoretical discussions that are thoughtful and filled with sound advice. Some of my favorites include "Conditions and Impact," an excellent analysis of one of the values of clarifying and reinforcing the conditions of an effect prior to its final revelation a hallmark of the work of Juan Tamariz. An essay on "Visual Magic" points out why magicians' love of visual magic does not always produce the most compelling magical effect for audiences. A thoughtful interview with the marvelous magician, Armando Lucero, is additionally appropriate to this subject, as well as to other aspects of the art of magic that Mr. Lucero is well qualified to address.
In another essay, Mr. Regal discusses his increasing appreciation over time for tricks in which "One Thing Happens," an appeal that has grown for me over my years in magic as well. "Method and Effect" considers the different experience that methods both clever and crude can produce for the magician using them as opposed to the audience viewing them. And "Storytelling and Magic" is a short and simply beautiful elegy to the service that magic provides to the world.
I've expended a great deal of space to communicate why I think this is a marvelous book that occupies a rare niche in the world of magic literature and product Approaching Magic is a remarkable collection of original creations that cover an extraordinary gamut of prop, method, plot, and presentation, filled with raw material for amateurs who perform magic socially as well as for fulltime pros looking to add a new staple to their repertoire. The book is produced with great care and professionalism, and makes for an entertaining as well as informative read. Every page brims with the personality and distinct perspective of its author perhaps the rarest and most desirable trait of magic literature there is. Such books seem increasingly rare these days, and this reviewer, at very least, is grateful when one comes along.