Tales of Enchantment by Walt Anthony
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2011)
Walt Anthony is a professional magician who has carved out a unique commercial niche for himself. In his own words, he performs "classic effects of magic within the context of theatrical storytelling [emphasis per original] for parlor/platform sized audience of twelve to two hundred people, at upscale corporate events and private celebrations." He further explains that this approach "allows me to be a specialist rather than a generalist," and it is this clearly defined specialty which he describes in the pages of this interesting book.
Mr. Anthony and I agree on many things. We both believe that magic is an art, and therefore should be used artistically, and as a means of the artist's self-expression. We both believe that, as an art, there is no limit to the subjects and emotions that magic can invoke in performance. We both believe that magic can be used to "inform, inspire, enrich, and empower," although I don't believe it always has to do these things or needs to do all of them. We both believe in the importance of strict scripting and editing in order to create effective presentations, and we both agree that creating original presentations is very hard work indeed. We both believe that "Every magical effect ... has a story to tell if you listen closely to what each piece of Magic wants to say. The message is there whether you state it or not ... ." And we both believe that most magicians' tables are ridiculous.
That said, we part company on many of the ways we exercise these beliefs. Mr. Anthony emphasizes that he uses classics of magic—particularly of the apparatus sort—and so he performs tricks like the "Sucker Die Box" and the Lota Bowl and the Milk Pitcher, for adults. He then nicely redresses the props and presents them as cherished ancient artifacts, and tends to accompany these tricks with story presentations about druids and leprechauns and faeries. Some of these pieces he performs with rhyming patter. In all of these tastes we diverge.
I give Mr. Anthony a great deal of credit for a number of things, including his ability to bring elements of Bizarre Magick to the stage rather than the close-up setting, his general sense of care and attention to detail, his commitment to an original vision, and his success in carving out a unique commercial niche for his vision. And I think his approach might be particularly useful to performers who wish to bring more depth to their work for audiences of children, and I mean this as no slight; the author in fact provides a wonderful idea, "the cloak of great courage," for a piece particularly designed for children. But even though I agree that apparatus tricks like the Rice Bowls, "Rope Through Body," the Okito (rising) Doll and the "Haunted (Spirit) Key" can produce very mysterious effects for adults, I know few audiences in my markets, or in my social circle for that matter, that would be inclined to listen to these Dungeons & Dragons stories for very long, or would be moved by them. I also dispute Mr. Anthony's tone when he implies that his approach is somehow a superior one; that, in what has become the commonplace epithet from the Mystery School contingent, one must be either a conjuror, or a dreaded "trickster." When Mr. Anthony promotes mystery and wonder, I am all for it—and I believe we see fine examples of such art in the hands of performers like Penn & Teller and Juan Tamariz—who do not tell tales of witches and monsters in their work. And since I may risk sounding like a reactionary in this necessarily abbreviated commentary about an admittedly large subject, I am compelled to point out that I am actually a performer who has at times used very lengthy narratives in my own work, invoking ideas drawn from many subjects of interest to me, and even from my own personal history. But I have a taste for telling stories to adults that are about adults—because just like the stories I seek in theater and cinema, it is such real-life drama that moves me.
Roberto Giobbi, in his recent and quite marvelous Secret Agenda (reviewed in Genii, January 2011] writes, "Telling a story can be nice, if you have a good one and know how to tell it; but most of us don't, so let's leave this to professional storytellers." And Robert Neale, in his foreword to Tales of Enchantment, observes that, "Some of us in the areas of bizarre and story-telling magic are long on story and short on magic." I think it's a fine thing if you want to be a storyteller who uses magic as an additional flavor in one's work, as Mr. Anthony appears to often do. But I would offer a serious caution to those who would be too quick to try to emulate what are undoubtedly his unique and distinctive talents. Not only because I think it is terribly difficult to do, but I also believe that it is a magician's job to convince people that they are seeing something take place that they simultaneously know to be truly impossible—and frankly, that's a terribly difficult goal to achieve as well. When Peter Pan flies in a theater there is no need to hide the wires because the audience is not seeing a magic show, there is no claim of the impossible being proved. But when people attend a magic show and see the lady float, it's the magician's job to prove the impossible with the addition of that hoop pass; that doesn't render the levitation a puzzle, it renders it a miracle. And what's more, I accept that one of the many perfectly acceptable responses to such a fabulously provocative experience is the exclamation, "How the hell did you do that?"
You're not going to get that reaction with a Die Box—whether you be trickster or storyteller. As Eugene Burger says, the house of magic has many rooms, and I'm interested in thinking about most of them—but for every storyteller who considers himself superior to a trickster, for every mentalist who thinks himself superior to a conjuror, just remember: there are also a couple of kids hanging out at the magic shop who are certain that their recent mastery of the Elmsley Count has rendered them like unto a god.