Classroom Discussion

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by Eugene Burger and Larry Hass

Originally published in Linking Ring magazine

Eugene Burger has created an enviable, world-wide reputation as a superlative close-up magician and lecturer on both the theory and performance of magic. His television appearances and lectures in England, Europe and Japan have generated enthusiastic response. What is less known is that he has begun performing on stage and discovered that his special brand of magic plays just as well on stage as it does at your table. The very approachable Mr. Burger loves to interact with both magicians and lay people and this quality is very evident in the classroom give and take discussion which follows.

It is interesting to realise that Eugene is here speaking not to one but to two different college classes which were meeting together because of his visit to the campus. The first was a studio class in performance magic, taught by Larry Hass, and the other was a religion class, which was studying the relationship between magic and religion.

First, let me say something to the magicians in the magic class. One of the challenges of performing magic is coming up with a way to present it so the sub text isn't about how cool you are.

Further, most magic is presented by magicians as exposition. By that I mean the performer is simply telling the people what he or she is doing, "I am going to do this, I'm going to do that, now I'm going to do this, now I'm going to do that." My view is that this is okay for one trick in the show, but a whole show of exposition is just tedious beyond words.

I'm going to perform the same trick twice. First of all, I am going to do this as exposition: by that I mean that I am simply going to tell you what I am doing, and then I am going to do it.

(Card Warp, is performed.)

That is how most magic is performed and, again, my view is that it isn't that this is bad but, rather, that a little bit of this goes a long way. If I want to make my magic presentations more interesting, what shall I do? I think the best thing to do is to move into your own life and ask yourself, what is it that interests you? One of my extra curricular interests is religion. And so I set out to take the trick that you just saw and turn it into something that interests me. I think the students in the religion class may find this presentation of interest.

I call it "Highlights from the History of Christianity told with a Deck of Cards, Chapter 12, the Spanish Inquisition." (The trick is performed.)

By the way, I think a whole show of stories would be equally tedious, but one story can make your show much more interesting.

Question: Where do you get the story?

Eugene: As I said, the best place to find your story is out of your own personal interests. You have to ask yourself, what outside of magic interests me? The second version I performed, The Inquisition, is a political presentation. There is a political sub text there. What that trick is about, as I see it, is what happens when we give religious people political power: they very often want to kill the rest of us. So this is a political statement. If you'd like to incorporate a political statement in your magic, well then go for it! It seems to me that one of the implications of this presentation is that we all live in a pluralist world and westerners can't just go around killing people who are different and seem to get our way. I see that some of you have questions.

Question: When did you first get interested in magic?

Eugene: I fell under the spell of magic when I was about eight-years-old, and it continued until I went to college. In college, they convinced me that I should do something worthwhile with my life, and so for seven years I did "worthwhile." You can do that, but then you are not following your own dreams but someone else's.

My dream always was to be a magician and so at 39, I decided it was time for a career change. I quit my job and became a magician. That was in 1978, so I have been doing this for more than 20 years, and I have never looked back.

This points to a problem with much American education, because you all are encouraged to spend so much time with things that don't really interest you deeply, but are what other people tell you should interest you. You know in life there are offbeat occupations, and then there are more conventional occupations, and many people think the aim of life is to find some cubicle and work there for 40 years. If that's what you really want, what deeply interests you, go for it! My point is that there are also wonderfully weird occupations. One of the things I love about my offbeat occupation is that every day is different. I really like that. I like the novelty in my life.

So if you can graduate from this place and, during your time here, really discover what interests you, then you've found something most people in our society don't have. You have found a great treasure.

Question: Who is your favourite magician to watch?

Eugene: I don't have a favourite, but with stage magic I really enjoy Jeff McBride, Siegfried and Roy, and Lance Burton, and with close-up magic probably many performers you've never heard of.

Question: What about Penn and Teller?

Eugene: Penn and Teller. I'm a real fan of their work. For me, they are post-modern magic. I thought one of their greatest triumphs was producing the cockroaches on David Letterman's desk. That was a great moment.

Question: When you watch magic, do you usually know the secret to how it's done? Eugene: Yes, usually, yes. But not always. My friend Max Maven regularly fools me!

Questioner: Then how do you go about judging the magic that you see?

Eugene: Beyond the secret of the method lies the question how well a magician is presenting the magic. How well are they able to make magic out of that secret? That is one of the main questions I ask myself when I am looking at another magician's work.

Question: What did you think about the television show where they were showing how it was done? Eugene: Well, to tell you the truth, I felt creepy watching the first one. Frankly, however, I think more magic is exposed by inept performers than by television shows. So if you want to perform magic, you have a responsibility to do it well. If you're going to do anything, why not do it well? You know, it always amazed me, when I taught in the University, how many students would rather get a C and say, "I didn't even study for the course," than really study and get a B. What is that all about? Is it about fear, or magic, or what?

Question: Eugene, I had a question for you about repertoire selection. There's always this pressure on magicians to buy more and have more and more tricks, how does one go about making these decisions about what should go in one's repertoire?

Eugene: First of all, I want the magic that I do really to look like magic. Does this look like magic? Or does it look like I'm just messing around with those cards?

Secondly, there's the great Lutheran New Testament scholar, in the middle of the 20th century, whose name is Rudolf Bultmann who said that it was important to exercise ruthless honesty when dealing with the New Testament. What a fabulous phrase, "ruthless honesty." One of the things that's required to be a good magician is to exercise ruthless honesty and decide what your skill level is, because most magic is exposed when people are trying to do something that's beyond their skill level.

So the first thing is, does it still look like magic? And the second thing is, does it fit within my skill level? If it's not in my skill level, then I could practice it, and get my skill level up to that?

Ultimately, however, I don't think that I have so much "chosen" the effects in my own repertoire. They have chosen me! They called out to me and I responded.

Question: How often do you invent tricks of your own?

Eugene: Well that's interesting, because I don't view myself as an inventor of magic at all. I don't invent tricks, and I don't think that is my gift. That's another thing for you all to find out. What are your gifts? And if you're starting in magic, what are your strengths? You can sit down and write on a piece of paper. What are my gifts? And what are my liabilities? It's really important to know that, especially if you're going into a performance art. What are your gifts?

My gift is not inventiveness. I think my gift is taking a trick that someone else invented and changing it around and making it mine. The Inquisition effect that I showed you earlier is the perfect example of that. The first version is the trick that any magician would do, and the second method is what I would do. I would take this trick that's about a card trick, and I would connect it to something that was interesting to me and my life.

Question: How do you see your persona? Eugene: A naughty and mischievous Santa Clause.

Someone in the audience: "That's how I described you to a friend, as a cross between Socrates and an evil Santa Clause."

Eugene: Yes! Give that man an "A"! Yes, that's how I perceive it. This was a good question!

Question: Could you talk about where you see your art form in the future? Especially with respect to a visual wonder created by visual effects in movie or other technological games which have created a great deal of wonder, at least the way they're able to do it right now. Is that going to impact on magic's audiences? Are people now going to watch the "Matrix" instead of going to see you perform?

Eugene: I think in the 21st century, magic is going to move in two different directions, with a few performers attempting to combine them. On the one hand, a large number of magicians are going to be moving toward bigger explosions, more fire, more smoke, and more special effects. The other movement is, well, what is the one thing on this planet that can compete with explosions, special effects and all that? The human personality. The human personality is the one thing that can stand up to special effects and still be interesting.

The "Matrix" was a delightful film, by the way, but we all know that a special effect on even a large screen is not the same as one that happens right in your hand. Again it's that personal quality that keeps magic going.

Question: Have you ever, like, messed up?

Eugene [emphatically]: Of course! Sometimes I think the best thing to do is just admit to it, and say, "Look, I'm sorry, I messed up." Sometimes you can save the day by switching gears, and start another trick that will hopefully work. But the happy news is, unlike brain surgeons who mess up, all I've done is lost your card. No litigation.

You know, learning magic is like learning many things. You have to fail in order to succeed. I suppose the question is whether or not you can keep going even if you've made some mistakes. I supposed that there are people who, once they've been caught the first time, just put their magic away, and take up stamp collecting or some other safer hobby.

Question: When was the last time you made a mistake? Eugene [laughs]: Last night. No, just kidding!

Question: I watched your performance last night, and I was impressed with the spirit writing piece. The final message was humorous but, as I was walking out of the theater, there were two girls in front of me, and one said, "He is so creepy!" And the other said: "I thought I was going to have to leave I was getting so scared." Eugene [interrupts]: Wonderful! That's the nicest thing any one has said to me all week. Thank you so much, you have made my day!

Question [continuing]: What were we supposed to think during that trick?

Eugene: What I wanted was, first, to show you that slate writing by the spirits is a pretty weird phenomenon. In the 19th century, slate messages converted more people to the belief of spiritualism than anything the mediums did. It was the big conversion tool. And though I see this as pure entertainment, I was hoping last evening that I could evoke a bit of that strange world of spiritualism for you. Second, this idea of communicating with the dead is itself really strange and, for many, scary. So, if the two girls leaving the show were scared, well then, perhaps I was successful in touching them.

Question: Do you ever get pulled out of the audience by magicians, or do you pull magicians out of the audience?

How do you deal with this?

Eugene: I really enjoy performing for other magicians. I pretend that they are not magicians. I pretend they are simply people who know nothing of magic. Question: And does that work?

Eugene: Yes. I think it does because, as in any field, there is a wide range of knowledge among magicians. Some know a great deal, but many, especially those new to magic, don't know very much at all. I don't deal with them as magicians; I deal with them as people in my audience.

In another way, of course, magic is different from other fields. If you started piano lessons today, you wouldn't have business cards printed next week proclaiming yourself a "concert pianist," because you'd understand that you were still learning the scales. In magic, the there are those who do buy five magic tricks and do print business cards that say "Magic For All Occasions." And, of course, when the national economy is down, there is even more incentive for this kind of thing.

Larry Hass [interrupts]: Well, Eugene I think it's about time. We have another class coming in here in just a few minutes.

Eugene: Oh, that's too bad. I was about to begin the goat sacrifice! Coordinated for Muhlenburg College by Dr. Lawrence Hass.

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Fundamentals of Magick

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