The Osterlind Trilogy by Richard Osterlind
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2008)
Richard Osterlind is a corporate mentalist who has received a great deal of attention and accolades in the magic world over the years, more so since producing more than a dozen instructional DVDs, and will require little introduction to anyone reading this magazine. He has produced far less written material, mostly in the form of relatively slight pamphlets and lecture manuscripts, some of which have been offered as expanded footnotes of a sort to his commercial DVD projects.
In the past five years he has also produced three theoretical e-books, entitled respectively Making Magic Real, Making Real Magic, and finally, Essays. He has now assembled these three works into a paperbacked collection. Two routines are also described therein; a memory demonstration and a drawing duplication.
Making Magic Real is largely focused on what I would call "method acting for magicians." Since the author has a sound background in conjuring (unlike many mentalists, much to their collective and obvious detriment), he can speak from experience about what it means to learn to retain a coin in classic palm while barely maintaining any conscious awareness of the coin. He addresses the necessity that a magician determine precisely how he is making the coin disappear not how he is executing a false transfer, but how he thinks he might be making it disappear, and how to then communicate that process to the audience in a meaningful and believable fashion. He discusses the need to understand the actual effect you are apparently producing; that is, if you perform the transformation of a card, is the effect that of a skillful exchange, a magical transformation, or a perceptual delusion somehow forced upon the spectator? These are questions that are terribly important for magicians as well as mentalists, but in mentalism they often become even more pressing because whereas in many magical effects, the method often determines the plot almost automatically, in mentalism where in the method is typically a way to surreptitiously obtain information the effect often remains to be defined by the performer if at all.
So far, so good. Much of what we have here amounts to a beginner's manual of magic theory magic theory lite, perhaps and with much of its contents being more about craft than real theory. And to the extent this book deals with such subjects in a basic and introductory way, it will be undoubtedly be valuable to some. However, the author has a tendency to veer into unexplored assertions and unsophisticated analysis that frequently fails to make his case, no matter whether one agrees or not with his premises. "Magic is an art," he tell us repeatedly, but he has precious little to say about what he thinks art is and what therefore makes magic qualify. He insists that magic is doing the impossible but not doing the illusion of the impossible, and pretends to support such claims with post-modern double-talk "reality is only what we believe it to be at a given moment" without any evidence that he has much idea of what he's talking about.
So under the heading of beginner's theory, it is excellent advice to suggest (in Making Real Magic) that "To treat magic as a simple demonstration of look what I can do and you can't is the supreme insult to our art." But to pretend that such insight is profound is a far cry from actually offering sophisticated insights. The author addresses the "Botania" trick and its origins in a few mundane paragraphs. I wonder if he has read Tommy Wonder's essay on the subject, which rather than pretending to profundity, focused on a specific issue namely the cost of pragmatism and delivered an elegant sermon on the subject. The author addresses the important issue of "Seeing Through the Eyes of the Audience," but offers little insight into the subject beyond promoting some of his own products.
Mr. Osterlind can drive a thinking reader to distraction with less than rigorous arguments and self-contradiction. On one page he derides a certain group of unnamed magicians and the hours they spend trying to "master every sleight they encounter without regard for its practical use." Why is it that in my many years in magic, I find these words are invariably spoken by only those who are sleight-of-hand incompetents? Yet on the very next page he exhorts us to "Learn all the methods," as if sleight of-hand methods are somehow not included in such a command. On page 108, we learn that "You need to feel as though you are of them [i.e., the audience]. ... you have to like them and want to be one of them." Meanwhile, on page 137 we learn that "You must always do your best to promote yourself as a step above everyone else ... You must spread the word that you are different ..." Now, I do believe it's possible to reconcile these apparent contradictions. However, the author makes little attempt to do so, and it might just be that he's not capable of figuring out how to do so- or perhaps not even aware of the obvious conflict.
Amid his Essays the author addresses the subject of "Love and Magic," declaring that "First, we must love magic." One wonders: Need we love it enough to master as many sleight-of-hand techniques as possible? Or don't those count again? We are told that "Only when you have an optimistic outlook on life can you create the joy and happiness that magic can bring." Plainly put, this is useless drivel, and no more instructive than the kind of watery pap that litters the shelves of the self-help section of the bookstore. Indeed, I would suggest that if an artist really wishes to break through to a fresh approach and an original vision, he would do well at times to love magic a little less, and try on some hate for a while. No one ever created a new wave be it in music, painting, or magic without hating and tearing down that which had come before, even while every artist also ultimately loves and respects his form and its progenitors. These subjects are complicated; this book, and its author's thinking, are not.
It's difficult to reach a simple judgment about this book. As an introduction to theory and performance craft for beginners, there is certainly much sound advice to be gleaned from a veteran performer. But one must take some elements of his advice with the proverbial grain of salt, because one must cautiously consider the source. Richard Osterlind is a corporate entertainer with a tepid style and a white-bread persona, who presents mentalism in a manner that some find dull. As clever as he can sometimes be about method, he can also be tediously lackluster in his performance. This may be a reason his work is so popular among amateurs: There are lots and lots of methods to play with, and the style makes it look like anybody could approximate a similar performance. That's not actually true Mr. Osterlind has a lot of stage time under his belt and it's never as easy as it looks but I've worked for plenty of audiences in my career who, quite frankly, would eat Mr. Osterlind for lunch and never even notice they ever had him in their mouths.
So the problem is that one must separate the bits of useful pragmatic advice read Tarbell, seek emotional connections with the audience, understand the effect with matters of taste. Because when it comes to taste, I would encourage you to ignore much of Mr. Osterlind's. His middlebrow, milquetoast sensibilities obviously suit him and his audiences quite well, and they might fit yours too but they should be accompanied by a warning that never seems to occur to him: they might not suit your audiences at all. What's more, the world of performance can be a hell of a lot more interesting than the narrow one which Mr. Osterlind tastes inhabits. He recommends that students look up the work of Red Skelton, Jack Benny, George Burns and Bob Hope. Now, I am an enthusiastic and knowledgeable fan of these performers. But in a book of advice for young developing performers, I would also feel it my duty to point out the following: Those guys are dead, dudes! And the fact that the author seems not to notice the significance of that fact calls the validity of his advice into extremely serious question. It suggests to me, in fact, that anyone purchasing this book might be wise to simply tear out the two-sided page that ostensibly addresses the subject of "magic and comedy" and flush it down the toilet, with or without putting it to useful purpose there first.
I am fond of a piece of advice I recall offered by Teller a man who knows a thing or two about both magic and comedy along the lines that when magic writers insist that all magic should be perfectly suitable to the ladies' tea luncheon, it might be perfectly good advice if your market is ladies' tea luncheons! If your market lies elsewhere, however, it could be terrible advice indeed. So if you want to learn something about comedy, and you are aware that it is the year 2008, speaking for myself, I would encourage you to seek out the comedy of the living, for starters. And if you do want to watch a dead guy, rent Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip. Oh, and while you're at it rent a copy of The Aristocrats, too but if you're seeking advice about comedy, Richard Osterlind is not the man I would look to. That said, however I certainly do agree with that thing about reading Tarbell. And as for mentalists, I would add this: It's never too late.