Sometimes the Jokes are Just for Me by Master Payne
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2009)
So it seems that about nine years ago, the author of this book received a call inquiring as to whether he could provide a Harry Potter-themed magic performance at a local bookstore. He somehow managed to produce such a show in the three days between the call and the appearance. While Mr. Payne's previous performance experience seems to have been largely focused on Renaissance fairs, with their pseudo-medieval themes, and children's parties, in the years since his Potter epiphany he has spent a great deal of his professional performance time providing similarly themed and character based shows as part of programs to promote reading among kids, presented at numerous libraries throughout the Pacific Northwest region.
If these, or venues and audiences like these, are your markets, then I recommend Mr. Payne's book to you. He does a fine job of adapting archaic magic props to these venues thanks to a talent for language and a commitment to character. In these pages he describes his routines with props like the "Die Box," Grant's "Orange and Checker Cylinders," the "Multiplying Bottles," and so on, and the author has a knack for devising clever premises for these props, and accompanying commentary that is sometimes quite amusing. Along the way he provides much theoretical explanation and exhortation for the importance of presentation, character, story and the like, in the performance of magic.
While we've heard much of this advice before, and while I agree with much of it as well and it doesn't hurt to hear it again nevertheless, there is also much in these pages I disagree with and would caution the reader to consider skeptically rather than accept at face value, before trying to extend his counsel to other kinds of magic, for other kinds of audiences. To begin with, Mr. Payne has a habit of referring to these prop-heavy, mechanical tricks as "classics," but I would strongly dispute the term. The Cups and Balls and Linking Rings and the Egg Bag are classics, in that they have timeless magical appeal while remaining adaptable to the potentially infinite stylistic vision of individual performers; every generation continues to find their way with these pieces, and they can be seen in the repertoires of top professionals this very day.
But the "Square Circle," the "Rice Vase," and their ilk are not classics. They're just plain old. There are reasons that these Victorian era props have fallen by the wayside, remaining only amid dealer shelves and catalogs, kids shows, and well, Ren Faires, I suppose. That's because contemporary adult audiences find no mystery in these outlandish props, which are obviously doing the work of the magician for him.
I suppose that these outrageously archaic props can be justified to some extent by equally outlandish if creative stories of the sort Mr. Payne creates, in specialized settings like Ren Faires, with their pretense of medieval language and costumes. And of course we know that the timeless appeal of sucker plots like the "Die Box" will always win over audiences of children. But even though there are exceptions which test every rule, the fact is that, overwhelmingly, this kind of apparatus magic has little traction in the real world of magic performance for adult audiences in sophisticated settings.
Moreover, I would point out that while these kinds of tricks, presented in this manner, can be amusing, even entertaining, they are rarely terribly mystifying, and even if mystifying, they are invariably puzzling rather than truly magical. No one is going to achieve the impact, or the sense of mystery, of that achieved by Juan Tamariz, with a "Die Box." You can make a living, you can even be creative and original, as Mr. Payne delightfully and impressively is but let's be clear about what can and cannot be achieved artistically.
In his theoretical discussions, Mr. Payne casually dismisses the question of method the "how" of magic as being the "least important question ... and generally the easiest one to solve." This is utter nonsense, of course, but perfectly appropriate to an artistic style or vision that has little to do with mystery and everything to do with well, everything else. While the author is correct in suggesting that it is terribly important to figure out why one wishes to produce a red handkerchief, I would suggest that having answered that question it then becomes quite important as to how you might do so. That is, unless your entire concept of producing a red handkerchief is completely described in those four words: producing a red handkerchief. However, if producing a red handkerchief is to really have an impact and not just a purpose, no matter how high-minded then you also have to decide if it should be produced slowly, quickly, softly, crisply, covered, uncovered, or with countless other considerations. If one genuinely understands that method affects effect, then after one decides on the what and the why, one must also spend a great deal of time on the how.
I don't mean here to berate or even minimize Mr. Payne's talents. I genuinely enjoyed reading his scripts; I laughed at some of the jokes and absolutely admired some of the presentations. If you want a good book about how to create clever and amusing presentations for mechanical prop tricks for performance for children and Ren Faires, this is the book. But if you want advice about how to create performance for adults and the experience of mystery, seek guidance elsewhere. And had Mr. Payne made it clear that he understands these differences, I would not have found it even necessary to mention it, and this whole unpleasant business could have been put aside and replaced with an unqualified and enthusiastically positive review. It's nothing personal, and one day, if Mr. Payne and I manage to sit down together over ye olde brewski, I'll also explain what's wrong with his advice about "Zombie."