The books needed about two thousand beautiful, technically-flawless illustrations. I needed an artist with serious commercial chops and the kind of high-end talent that our budget couldn't possibly afford. I needed someone smart enough to get the monster job done right and insane enough to actually want to do it.
I found him in the unique form of renaissance man, Tony Dunn.
Tony likes playing with strange ideas, and people's ideas about those ideas. He once designed a stamp dedicated to the art of cow tipping, which he actually used after having his home designated as an official post office and then, just for the heck of it, Tony ran a Wisconsin cow chip for President of the United States. The story ran in over two-hundred newspapers, and Tony was dubbed "The Meadow-Muffin Mogul."
When he's not toying with the culture's psyche, Tony does impossibly intricate illustrations for rocket engines and computers and massive top-secret machinery...along with all the illustrations and layout for the Linking Ring magazine. During his lunch breaks Tony performs magic in a way that makes you wonder why he bothers doing anything else.
Tony has exactly the right smart/insane quotient required for the Art of Astonishment.
He worked through every one of the over two-hundred effects to make sure each illustration was accurate...did all the layout and design and didn't yell at me once no matter how stupid my suggestions...(he's still trying to make me understand why fourteen different fonts on one page only looks good on a ransom note)...and after the work was officially finished... he spent an extra year or so to make sure everything was just right.
Tony finally tamed the beast and moved to Florida to recuperate and to be someplace far far away from me; where he now draws, creates and performs all things astonishing...although he won't hit the beach during the day for fear of frightening small children.
Everyone say hi to Tony...and his two grown-up kiddlings Harrison and Meredith...who with a dad like Tony will be smart enough to know the rules and insane enough to break every one of them with style and grace.
I've been talking to Eric for years about the moment of astonishment. What really happens when you strip a magic performance down to the bone so that the entire focus is on that moment? Eric bravely goes against his years of comic training and accepts the challenge to make a full-out attempt to push the art into the wildest edge of edges.
"Magic is what happens to a person's mind when a mystery is experienced. Magic is an inner experience, not an exterior, objective event."
André Hagen (editor) - Let's start with the main concept. Tell us what makes "The Gourmet Mystery Show" different from other shows you've done.
Eric Mead - Well, normally I do comedy magic. My show has a lot of strong magic, but the focus of the show is not magic; it's me. It's about my personality and my point of view...and how I interact with other personalities in the context of this humorous magic show. It really is "The Eric Mead Show."
The Gourmet Mystery Show is not about me at all. It's about astonishment—and beyond that it's about what's going on internally when people are watching really strong magic. The audience is trained to be aware of the feeling called astonishment. It's framed as a very positive experience. And then we evoke the feeling with a magic effect and the audience members try to extend and amplify the feeling. That's the idea.
Eric - I could bluff, but that's one of the things I'm working on. One thing that seems to work pretty well is to have the audience take a slow, deep breath as soon as they see something that registers as impossible. This extends the time gap between seeing the effect, and the mind working to "figure it out." It's a kind of stalling technique.
But what we're really trying to do is re-frame the whole magician/spectator relationship so that "figuring it out" is an inappropriate response.
André - And the correct response is to feel amazed. Totally astonished.
Eric - Exactly. But it's a really difficult thing to do, because everything we've been taught, and all our life experiences, condition us to search for answers and definitions for every perceived eve^t. "How is that possible?" You know, in this scientific age we don't even remotely believe in magic, so we intuit that there is a natural explanation for what we've seen. We don't like to have the unexplainable floating around up here. It's quite natural to see magic and say, "Maybe he has two of those red things and a hole in his pocket." And your mind is off and running...
André - And you miss the experience of astonishment. The audience actually deprives themselves of the most important thing magic has to offer.
Eric - Right. But it's important for us to recognize that most of the time it's us - the so-called magicians - who are depriving our audience of astonishment. We don't know how to frame "being fooled" into a positive and beneficial experience, so we take the sting out of it with humor and pacing, whatever else it takes.
We generally steal the moment of mystery away from our audience - or at least step on it and cover it up. The idea of this show is to really put across how great it is to be astonished, do something amazing, and get out of the way!
André - And the kind of presentations we normally do are standing in the way aren't they?
Eric - Which is all right when it's "The Eric Mead Show." But it's not so good when you're going for deep astonishment.
André - Like you said earlier, most presentations are about personalities and points of view. So if you strip away all the presentation they simply see the impossible.
Eric - We want to do the impossible after the audience had been trained to let the feeling of astonishment resonate - without grasping for the answer. It's really strong stuff. Definitely new territory for me.
André - But not at all new in the history of magic. S. H. Sharpe's 1000 Thoughts on Magic, Ormond McGill's Presentation of Miracles are past examples of this kind of thinking. Some are working with it today, and it goes way back.
Eric - I think that there might be one difference. I could be mistaken about this, but I think the McGill book is about presenting tricks as if they were real miracles. In the mystery show, we are telling the audience up front that they will be seeing tricks. The audience agrees to try to experience the moment of astonishment as a thing unto itself.
André - It completely does away with the feeling of "being fooled" by the magician, doen't it?
Eric - Yes, it does. Because I'm introducing a "balance of power" between me as the magician and you as the audience. If I know all the secrets and you don't, it's very one-sided. But if I can convince you that the feeling these "tricks" evoke is rare and wonderful, you no longer want to figure the trick out like a puzzle. How it's done becomes irrelevant. Instead, you try to be amazed. And instead of "fooling" you, I'm honestly trying to help.
André - How do you take someone off the street, "Joe Engineer," and convince him to try not to solve the puzzle?
Eric - That's a good question. I don't think there's a surefire formula that can work with everyone. And really, there are lots of people who just aren't receptive to this kind of thing at all.
Eric - I try to screen them out before we get to this point. If they do slip through, I tell them to sit back and enjoy the show, and not to disturb the people who are trying to experience deep astonishment. It's tough though, because one person looking at the whole thing as childish can ruin it for everyone.
André - If Paul's right, and astonishment is our natural state of mind, then deeply amazing tricks are, in a way, childish - or child-like in that it takes one back to a place of innocence.
Eric - That's very interesting. And it might go to support my theory that magic isn't really amazing to children. They love surprise and flashes of fire and color and sight gags, but I don't think they're amazed by the magic effects very often. Maybe I'm just not a children's magician, but I don't think that's it. I think you're right and everything is astonishing to children. So for them, magic is redundant (laughs).
André - At some point you have to stop theorizing and find a practical approach. I know that you're experimenting wijh the "Mystery Show" so maybe you could tell us what you're doing.
Eric - It started out when I'd have just a handful of people left at the bar (the Tower) at the end of the evening. Usually very late.
Eric - Probably not, but I don't feel amazing in the daytime. Anyway, I'd dim the lights in the bar down and do a few quick mind-reading effects with cards. You know, pure mentalism.
André - This a great place to start because this seems just inside the realm of possibility for a lot of people.
Eric - Even though they know I'm a magician, I talk about dowsing and hypnosis, women's intuition, subliminal, cues the collective unconscious and such. I try to get amazing stories from the audience.
André - It's astonishing, and yet it doesn't seem completely impossible does it?
Eric - Again, you meet a lot of people who just won't even entertain those thoughts, but I've had people ask me if this is real. They can't even conceive any method for such a thing. There was no manipulation or deception at all. And since it looks like telepathy, they start to wonder...
André - What do you say when an effect is so strong they ask if it's real?
Eric - I tell the truth. "No. It wasn't real magic, but it looked exactly like real magic would look." So from their point of view, what's the difference? Tamariz talks about that in The Magic Way.
André - This is the first step in convincing them that what they're seeing isn't a puzzle to be solved. That there's something better, or higher, available to them if they can see it correctly.
Eric - That's right. I talk for a few minutes about how great astonishment feels, and how rare it is in modern times. Guided imagery kind of stuff to put them in the right state of mind. Once they're receptive, it's magic time. I ask them to just pay attention to the feeling at the instant of magic. Take a deep breath and observe. Then I'd do a very fast and direct effect like "I hold a sponge and you hold a sponge. Mine vanishes and you have both."
Eric - No. In fact, that was virtually the patter I used. This effect must speak for itself.
André - Sponge Balls is one of the few tricks that's amazing to small children.
Eric - As much as that hurts us sleight-of-hand guys, I bet it's true. That's probably why it works here. But any quick and totally impossible effect is what you need. The other thing that's important is that the moment of astonishment has to be clearly defined. I tried using Fizz Master, because it's a totally amazing and wonderful effect. But because two cans are involved, and each is really an effect by itself, the moment is diluted and spread out over time. You lose the required focus.
André - So the effect you do is clearly impossible and also instantaneous. What is the reaction?
Eric - It varies, of course. But you don't ever get applause. In fact all the reactions and responses are way different from when I do my act. This was really hard for me to get used to, but when examining astonishment, clapping doesn't occur to people. It's usually really quiet for a while. A few people will take your advice and inhale deeply. And the quiet tension can be unnerving. To someone like me who's used to applause and laughter as a sign of how well I'm doing, it feels like I'm bombing. Our instincts as entertainers tell us to break this tension somehow - an applause cue, a joke -but you have to fight it. Here's where you get out of the way and let them stay with it as long as they can.
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