Transformations: Creating Magic Out of Tricks by Lawrence Haas
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2007)
The academics are coming! The academics are coming! Shall we prepare to do battle as the colonists did when Paul Revere warned of the impending arrival of the redcoats or should we simply run for our lives?
As the second review in this column will demonstrate, we might want to run away or fight back, but for the moment, we should consider simply sitting back and enjoy the company which is a more likely response to this lovely and thoughtful book from Lawrence Haas. Dr. Haas is a philosopher and magician who teaches at Muhlenberg College, a respected Liberal Arts school founded in 1848 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In 1999 he established "The Theory and Art of Magic," an artist-in-residency program featuring visiting magicians who, over several days, present both performance and instruction to the public, to college classes, and to local magicians.
Although this is a book written by an academic, it is also written by a magician and that (in the words of Robert Frost) has made all the difference. This is not a book of ivory-tower theorizing, this is a book by a man who approaches both the doing and the teaching with equal commitment. As he writes in his introduction, "How can we create magic out of tricks? ... for me this is an extremely practical question rather than one of abstract theory. It is a theatrical and commercial question. Indeed, how can I leave my audiences feeling delighted, special, energized, wanting more, so that I will be hired back again?" (Emphasis per original.)
Who among us doesn't care about those questions? In the pages remaining to him, Dr. Haas attempts to provide answers to these questions offering the answers that have worked for him, and presenting those answers in ways that will be challenging and instructive for any student. I think this is the best any arts instructor or essayist can do: to deeply explore questions for himself, first and foremost; to carefully derive and test answers that work for him; and then to share those answers in useful, enlightening, and inspiring ways.
This does not mean that students are bound to swallow whole that which is dispensed to them, even by such thoughtful schoolmasters. The more an artist/instructor has developed his own particular point of view, and the more clear and unembarrassed he is about possessing such a distinctive perspective, the more likely it is that some students will differ on some points. But the purpose of studying such work and engaging in such dialogues is not to measure agreement and disagreement; the purpose is to attempt to better illuminate the student's path toward discovering his own truths.
And there is much light to be had in these pages. The author's first answer to the questions posed is this: "Tricks become magic through powerful presentation." And clearly, this is the emphasis of Dr. Haas's work. This is reflected in his excellent approach to describing magic; he does not separate method and effect and presentation and psychology, but has developed an interesting and holistic attack which incorporates all of these elements virtually at once, yet with great clarity and organization, doubtless the result of years of experience in analyzing and teaching such material. He presents complete scripts first, with sufficient description inserted to make the basic effect clear. He then breaks down all of the components of method, technique, psychology, and so on. His very manner of presenting the work is one of the most distinctive elements of the book.
And so the author presents as with 11 "performance pieces," along with seven essays. Many of the tricks are contemporary standards, like Juan Tamariz's "Neither Blind Nor Stupid," Paul Harris's "Ultimate Rip-Off," the "Ten-Card Poker Deal," and John Bannon's "Play It Straight (Triumph)." Most of Mr. Haas's choice of material reflects characteristics that these examples share, in that most of the book consists of card magic, and the technical demands, with the exception of an occasional Half Pass, are minimal. This latter point is pertinent to one of the essays, entitled "The Illusion of Technique," a piece which won an award from the I.B.M. when it first appeared in the Linking Ring in 1997. In this, Dr. Haas discusses some ideas of the 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. In essence, Heidigger and Haas warn us against the hazards of thinking about the world in pieces, breaking it all down into components, at the risk of overlooking a grasp of the whole. Hence while Dr. Haas does not by any means think magicians should abandon technique, he is concerned about what he perceives to be an over-emphasis on technique in the literature of magic, and asks us to further consider whether technique is "intrinsically significant."
It is worth noting that there has been a significant counterbalancing of focus in the past 25 years thanks largely to the impact of Eugene Burger's writings and lectures, and Dr. Haas is a confirmed acolyte. Thus many of the routines in his book will in fact be familiar to longtime Burger readers, since many have their origins in material that Mr. Burger has previously published, marketed, or discussed; he even contributes a presentation here (that he has been teaching in lectures for several years) for Tomoyuki Takahashi's "Fading Coin" (which was first published in Genii). And I think it's fair to say that Dr. Haas is, a generation after Mr. Burger's earliest writings, a powerful voice of reinterpretation of the ideas and influence of his artistic mentor. This is a worthy and valid task; just as Juan Tamariz and Roberto Giobbi have re-examined, interpreted, and communicated the ideas of Ascanio and Vernon for contemporary students, it is both interesting and instructive to see how Mr. Burger's influence has taken hold on the consciousness and work of another student and teacher.
That is partly the role of good theoretical literature to get people to pay attention, as well as to gain new insights, even into older ideas. And by the same token, it must be said that not every interpreter is a good one and I have seen examples of awful ones and so we can be thankful for the instructive and highly readable work that Dr. Haas presents here.
By now, most readers will have a sense if this book is for them, and further details of tricks are not likely to alter that fact. While it would be unfairly simplistic to characterize this as a book of presentation, it is very much a book about presentation. Therefore, the fact of his inclusion of John Bannon's "Play It Straight (Triumph)" is not all that interesting; what is interesting is that Dr. Haas has devised a simple but engaging presentation that is significantly different from other presentations we have encountered for the "Triumph" plot in the past. That there is a description of the workings of the "Ten-Card Poker Deal" is not in itself terribly interesting; what is interesting is that Dr. Haas pro-vides a presentation and approach that turns the trick into an effective piece for professional walk-around engagements. Now, that does sound interesting doesn't it?
I described the author's presentation for Bannon% "Triumph" routine as "simple and engaging," and these words reflect yet another strength of Dr. Haas's material. One aspect of Mr. Burger's work that is often overlooked is the extreme efficiency of his scripts, a lesson learned from one of his own influences, Don Alan. For all that Mr. Burger could tell us, if he so chose, about Hindu mythology, the brilliance of his invocation of those stories for his presentation of the "Torn-and-Restored Thread" lies not only in the swift insight of the metaphor, but in the relentless editing of his prose.
Although I have long been an acolyte of Mr. Burger's approach to the presentation of close-up magic, I some-times fear the pendulum, ever swinging, has reached too far in some quarters, and that some students have made the mistake of thinking that any story is a good story, as long as you have one. Even Derren Brown, no slouch in the presentation department, expressed concerns about this in my interview with him for Genii (June 2005), commenting that, "I've seen a magician present a card trick and clearly think that he is touching on some profound issues that are really having that emotional effect on a spectator, and ... you can absolutely fool yourself as a performer into thinking you're having that effect or not. And it clearly was just a card trick and was treated as a card trick. And it was very interesting looking at that difference and seeing what the magician felt the impact was that he was having, and what the audience clearly actually felt."
So while Dr. Haas's theatrical style and preferences will doubtless not be to every student's taste, it is this echoing of Mr. Burger's efficient and pragmatic approach that will render the book useful to any serious student, especially beginning and intermediate students, because it is filled with practical advice about how to handle spectators, how to give clear instructions, how to engage with the audience, and much more useful guidance that, while we have seen much more of this kind of thing in the magical literature in the past 25 years, still remains ever welcome and invaluable. By the same token, Dr. Haas seems to imply, in his introductory remarks to "The Ultimate Rip-Off," that if you present magic in a straightforward way, you are automatically reduced to doing magic that is "about the props." I'm not so sure I buy this; sometimes the magic can be about the magic and that's not always bad, pro-vided you attend to the other elements that Dr. Haas so rightly focuses on, like engaging and properly managing the audience.
For me, the "price of the book" is well paid for the final two essays, "Ways of Wonder: Philosophy and the Art of Magic," and "The Delirium of Magic." In the former, the author makes a case for the linkage between his two specialties, philosophy and magic. He investigates the potential dichotomy in the claim that "Philosophy seeks the true; magic celebrates the false." Dr. Haas takes on Plato's polemics against art and magic the hazards of being a "lover of sight" and "victim of magic" and makes a case for the value of art and magic and, ultimately, wonder. And in this discussion, this contemporary philosopher goes beyond traditional platitudes about "child-like" wonder, and draws a more sophisticated portrait of the role wonder plays both in art (and in his following essay, science), and in adult life and experience. And indeed, he draws meaningful connections between philosophy, magic, and life, that might well be new to many magicians and that fact is nothing less than a damning charge against our art.
"The Delirium of Magic" is a next and final logical addition to the discussion, because here Dr. Haas takes on the connection between magic and childhood directly. What generally interests young children in magic is not of interest to me. and what interests me about magic is not of interest to children; hence I tend to be very skeptical when magicians begin tossing around words like "wonder" or "inner child" and similar blather. In his closing essay, Dr. Haas, drawing on ideas from the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, considers characteristics of childhood that can be used as sources of inspiration for magicians namely curiosity, imagination, and the capacity for pleasure. He points out that "magic is play and a wonderful, high form of play at that." Indeed, I would add, a distinctly adult form of play, in which we as magicians play with adults, and we encourage and engage other adults to play back with us, in a creative, imaginative, constructive manner. And Dr. Haas embraces the potentially troubling aspects of magic what I would say is the inherently provocative nature of magic at its best when he says, "I would much rather be asked troubled questions than hear such things as 'that's nice,' or 'that's really cute.' Nice? Cute? It was supposed to be a freaking miracle; back to the drawing board for that one!" I recommend that when next you approach your magical drawing board, you take Dr. Haas's textbook with you, and your magic and perhaps your life will be the better for it.