The Element of Surprise

A really insightful email from Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, where he responds to a struggling magician’s request for advice on how to develop his stage presence and style.  A couple things to note: first, Teller is a celebrity, if not in the mainstream certainly in the magic world, and yet Brian’s email elicits a 45-minute response.  A great example, if a bit lengthy, that a targeted question will usually get you a response.  Second, for a guy who makes his living by not talking, he sure does have a lot to say.  Awesome guy.  Third, his advice is universally applicable.  Surprise delights wherever it is uncovered.

Remind yourself of a few things.

I am 47.  I have been earning my living in show business for twenty years.  I have been doing magic since I was five, which makes it 42 years.  And I had the good fortune to (a) meet Penn and (b) become an off-Broadway hit at the exact right moment in time.

When we started we HAD no style, no understanding of ourselves or what we were doing.  We had feelings, vague ones, a sense of what we liked, maybe, but no unified point of view, not even a real way to express our partnership.  We fought constantly and expected to break up every other week.  But we did have a few things, things I think you might profit from knowing:

We loved what we did.  More than anything.  More than sex.  Absolutely.

We always felt as if every show was the most important thing in the world, but knew if we bombed, we’d live.

We did not start as friends, but as people who respected and admired each other.  Crucial, absolutely crucial for a partnership.  As soon as we could afford it, we ceased sharing lodgings.  Equally crucial.

We made a solemn vow not to take any job outside of show business.  We
borrowed money from parents and friends, rather than take that lethal job waiting tables.  This forced us to take any job offered to us.  Anything.  We once did a show in the middle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia as part of a fashion show on a hot July night while all around our stage, a race-riot was fully underway.  That’s how serious we were about our vow.

Get on stage.  A lot.  Try stuff.  Make your best stab and keep stabbing.  If it’s there in your heart, it will eventually find its way out.  Or you will give up and have a prudent, contented life doing something else.

Penn sees things differently from the way I do.  But I really feel as if the things we create together are not things we devised, but things we discovered, as if, in some sense, they were always there in us, waiting to be revealed, like the figure of Mercury waiting in a rough lump of marble.

Have heroes outside of magic.  Mine are Hitchcock, Poe, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Bach.  You’re welcome to borrow them, but you must learn to love them yourself for your own reasons.  Then they’ll push you in the right direction.

Here’s a compositional secret.  It’s so obvious and simple, you’ll say to yourself, “This man is bullshitting me.”  I am not.  This is one of the most fundamental things in all theatrical movie composition and yet magicians know nothing of it.  Ready?

Surprise me.

That’s it.  Place 2 and 2 right in front of my nose, but make me think I’m seeing 5.  Then reveal the truth, 4!, and surprise me.

Now, don’t underestimate me, like the rest of the magicians of the world.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that I’ve never seen a set of linking rings before and I’ll be oh-so-stunned because you can “link” them.  Bullshit.

Here’s how surprise works.  While holding my attention, you withold basic plot information.  Feed it to me little by little.  Make me try and figure out what’s going on.  Tease me in one direction.  Throw in a false ending.  Then turn it around and flip me over.

I do the old Needle trick.  I get a guy up on stage, who examines the needles.  I swallow them.  He searches my mouth.  They’re gone.  I dismiss him and he leaves the stage.  The audience thinks the trick is over.  Then I take out the thread.  “Haha!  Floss!” they exclaim.  I eat the floss.  Then the wise ones start saying, “Not floss, thread.  Thread.  Needles.  Needles and thread.  Ohmygod he’s going to thread the need…”  And by that time they’re out and sparkling in the sunshine.

Read Rouald Dahl.  Watch the old Alfred Hitchcock episodes.  Surprise.  Withold information.  Make them say, “What the hell’s he up to?  Where’s this going to go?” and don’t give them a clue where it’s going.  And when it finally gets there, let it land.  An ending.

It took me eight years (are you listening?) EIGHT YEARS to come up with a way of delivering the Miser’s Dream that had surprises and and ENDING.

Love something besides magic, in the arts.  Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer.  You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller.  But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, we’ll THERE’S an opening.

I should be a film editor.  I’m a magician.  And if I’m good, it’s because I should be a film editor.  Bach should have written opera or plays.  But instead, he worked in eighteenth-century counterpoint.  That’s why his counterpoints have so much more point than other contrapuntalists.  They have passion and plot.  Shakespeare, on the other hand, should have been a musician, writing counterpoint.  That’s why his plays stand out from the others through their plot and music.

I’m tired now.  I’ve been writing to you, my dear bastard son, for 45 minutes merely because, tonight, I’m remembering that evening I first met your mother in Rio, during Carnival…ah!…and how we loved!




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