Works: Lessons and Learning
Magic as a Martial Art
By Vic Sussman
I was impressed the first time I saw Jamy Ian Swiss on stage. It wasn't merely that his magic was eye-catching or that his performing style was unique. What impressed me the most was that people were walking out of his show. Actually, they were stalking out, heads down, fists clenched, red-faced, trudging right down the aisle and muttering to themselves in anger.
I was enchanted.
Let me explain: Swiss wasn't doing his regular show for civilians. He was lecturing a room full of magicians, trying to introduce them to his ideas about the art of magic. Most of them would have none of it. They had come, after all, to learn new tricks. Next to discovering the philosopher's stone or a cure for cancer, what else matters beyond buying new gimmicks? The group mind - and I am being charitable suggesting such an entity - seemed to say, "Never mind that performance crap: Show us something new!" Swiss refused to capitulate. He is a man of profound passion, an in-yer-face, unreconstructed Brooklynite who uses words and inflection like a good boxer uses left jabs to set you up for a right hook you only hear whistling before it connects with your schnoz.
As is his inimitable style, Jamy had been pummeling his lecture audience bim-bam-bim with language and ideas and concepts and insights and allusions and unloading big chunks of magical history bristling with sharp-edged footnotes. Sometimes he even raised his voice above a whisper, rivaling a chain saw. After a handful of disgruntled guys made for the exit, I turned to a friend of mine I had brought along for the evening. This is a fellow who has only a passing knowledge of magic, and absolutely no grasp of its history or modern problems. Yet he turned to me with a light in his eyes: "This guy isn't just talking about magic," he said, "he's talking about life!" I've always been amazed that a layman got the message that night, while men who called themselves magicians headed for the door, incensed that Swiss hadn't expounded on New Dimensions in False Shuffles or shown them variation No. 4,720 of Coins Through the Table.
I had come to his lecture carrying my own emotional baggage, of course. Though I had been deeply involved in conjuring since childhood, and had performed frequently as a paid amateur, I had virtually dropped out of magic several years before. I had seen too many embarrassingly bad performers, cringed at too many yahoos doing the bra trick, and had attended too many magic club meetings - which had all the excitement of a Kiwanis klub with kard tricks. The idea of walking up to another adult and asking, "Wanna see a trick?" no longer appealed to me, if it ever did. What intrigued me almost immediately about Jamy's lecture was that he was not merely concerned about the sad state of magic -which he called "magic aversion therapy" - but he seemed to know what to do about it. Indeed, the central theme of his often manic lecture seemed to circle around two key questions for so - called magicians: "What are you doing, and why are you doing it?" No wonder people walked out. The questions, if not the answers, were painful to confront.
I guess that makes me a masochist, because it wasn't long after that that I became one of Jamy's students, a select circle, and not exactly a place for the faint of heart. At the first lesson, for example, he whacked me again with "What are you doing, and why are you doing it?" Only this time it came as an exercise: I had to make a list of all the tricks I regularly performed. Then I had to list all the tricks I wanted to learn. The latter was relatively easy to write. The former list, however was the equivalent of standing up at a twelve - step group and announcing, "My name is Vic, and I am a horse's ass of a magician." Obviously, I had never really confronted exactly what I was doing as a magician. The list rubbed my nose in it. Jamy asked why I did a particular trick. "Because, um.. ." I stammered, "it's cute." Swiss paused, fixing me with his very best Mephistophelean glare. "Why do you want to do magic," he said, his lips curling around the words, "that's ... cute?"
I left that night, nursing my self-inflicted wounds, yet more excited about conjuring than ever. Though it sounds simplistic, Jamy had pushed me into realizing an essential truth: It wasn't magic that was dopey or unfulfilling-it was me and my approach to this ancient art. Discovering this was not a particularly pleasant experience. In fact, studying with Jamy often reminded me of the many years I had spent studying and teaching Asian martial arts. Working with Jamy was very much like studying magic as a martial art. Whenever I failed to pay attention to a key point, Jamy pounded me into the (close-up) mat or scolded me like a drill instructor. One evening, I almost slipped and called him "Sensei." (Actually, I began to think of him as an urbanized Yoda, only taller and somewhat better looking.)
When the light dawned, I began to realize that I had been standing in my own light. I had spent my time learning to do tricks - like a trained dog - but I had neglected to master some essential tools. One, for example, is key to Jamy's teaching: Writing a script for every routine. This came as a revelation to me, which is odd, because I earn my living as a writer. It also struck me initially as irrelevant. Why script patter (I hate that word) if, like me, you can ad lib your way out of a burning building? The answer became apparent after I'd written my first script. Having the words down on paper forced me to think - about what I was saying, why I was saying it, and how my words and images either worked for or against the effect. And, as Jamy (and Eugene Burger, whose books I devoured at Jamy's suggestion) repeatedly emphasized, scripting is incredibly liberating. The script is to the magician what the melodic line is to the jazz musician - both a center and a point of departure. Rather than confining the performer, the script confers a sense of control. Once you know what you're going to say and why you're going to say it, you can more artfully free associate and improvise - or save your butt if a trick goes south. More importantly, under Jamy's tutelage I learned that scripting allowed me to choreograph my moves; keying my sleights, for example, to verbal misdirection and punch lines.
Although I no longer study magic directly with Jamy, he remains an ever -present teacher and close friend. He has given me back the magic I fell in love with as a child, coupling it with the perspective I required as an adult. Magic has finally become for me a true art, charged with intellect, grace, and purpose. I have learned to ask of every effect - how would it look if I could really do magic? And I have learned to respect my audience's intelligence, learned that while nobody likes to be fooled or made foolish, adults enjoy playfulness -and the suspension of time and disbelief that the well-performed illusion of magic can confer. What audiences don't want is to be demeaned in the process. In fact, if Jamy Ian Swiss teaches anything, it is to think less about your props and your cherished moves, and more about your intended audience and their needs.
After all, without them, we're nothing.