Tuesday, February 05, 2013



A few weeks ago, Pamela and I attended a screening of Teller's Play Dead* at the Aero in Santa Monica.  In case you are not in the know, Teller co-wrote a meditation on death with Todd Robbins that opened Off-Broadway in 2010.  Part magic show, part spook show it is a uniquely theatrical excursion into murky memento mori; a thrilling, funny, and at times deeply moving show.  I have it on good authority that Play Dead will have it's Los Angeles debut this coming fall.  DON'T MISS IT.

I'm a fan of Penn & Teller, but mostly Teller.  Way back in the pre-internet days of yore, a chance discovery of their PBS special, Penn & Teller Go Public ignited a wildfire in my teenage brain, propelling me to the microfiche stores at my high school library.  I read every article I could get my hands on.  One bit has stuck with me, a story Teller told about setting up obstacle courses for his friends.  He would blindfold them and carefully walk them through the course.  He got weepy recounting it; gifting his friends with an experience.

It's safe to say Teller rekindled my interest in theatre, and his childhood anecdote affected how I think about what theatre does.

Seeing him in person after the screening, answering questions about the show was a huge treat, and it has kicked off a "Tellerpalooza," as I revisit things he has written and spoken about magic, entertainment in general, the performer-audience relationship, etc.  It culminated in hearing his interview on Penn Jillette's podcast, Penn's Sunday School.

I thought I might share a few of these things with you.  Enjoy Tellerpalooza 2013!

First, Teller on Penn's Sunday School.  He speaks at some length about his production of Macbeth, and a production of The Tempest that he has in the works.  The latter sounds absolutely amazing, and I hope he's able to bring it out here.  He has some unique insight into producing the Bard.  His hard-won thoughts about rehearsal are well worth listening to.

Here is a talk he gave at the Magic of Consciousness Symposium in 2007.  He talks about the psychology of magic, and how magicians use our way of processing information to completely bamboozle us.  Very applicable to the theatre, and entertainment in general:

He wrote this amazing article for Smithsonian Magazine:  "Teller Reveals his Secrets," and was interviewed for same here:  "Teller Speaks on the Enduring Appeal of Magic."  Again, these are magic-specific, but there are lessons to be gleaned for other forms of entertainment.

This interview on NPR is a nice companion piece to the Smithsonian articles: Teller Talks: The Science Behind Magic Tricks.

"To compose a new tune in magic, you don't just write the notes, you build the piano." I riffed on this quote a couple of times last year (here and here.)  Here's the article where I found it: VOICES interview with Teller.

If you're a hardcore theatre nerd, you'll love his Macbeth production journal.

And of course, Play Dead.  Seek out this movie version of the play!  (The trailer is here.)

I wanted to toss Teller a Q after the screening of Play Dead, but the Q&A milieu is lousy for the type of in-depth conversation I would love to have.  How methodical is he in developing the tricks and special effects for his shows?  Does he develop (or select) the trick for the story, or build the story around the trick?  What tricks get cut?  Do they get cut for purely technical reasons, or has he had to cut something because it didn't work thematically?  How concerned is he with the audience's experience, and did he find it difficult to balance an evening about death?  I imagine the show could leave the audience profoundly empty.  It doesn't.

Teller is a master of his art, and he's sharing his secrets.  Listen and learn, folks.  I know I am.

"Start with the awareness that art is just good. People doing bad shows is better than people doing good murders and rapes. Art means people are celebrating being alive, even if they do it with Hippity Hop Rabbits." - Teller

*Technically, it was a double feature, the second film being the highly underrated Penn & Teller Get Killed.  Unfortunately, the wife and I had to step out after the Q&A.  I really wish I could have seen it on the big screen.  It's one of my all-time favorites.

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