Welcome to one of the best pages in the VOICES Archives, for here we are very proud to present our interview with Teller. This piece originally ran in our July 2001 issue.
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VOICES: Let me start with a very broad topic. If you will, assess the current state of magic.

Teller: I never think about this, really...I think about specific things Penn and I are doing, not the state of the art as a whole. That's the only way to help improve an art -- to do the best one can.

But I'll take a crack at your question.

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.

Of course there's an awful lot of bland, brainless stuff out there. The same is true in TV, movies, and music, but magic -- potentially one of the most thought-provoking art forms -- may be especially neglected. I cut magic some slack, since it's a terribly hard art form (as I have said often, to compose a new tune in magic, you don't just write the notes, you build the piano), but it still seems surprisingly short on true invention. The theorists who spout that there's no such thing as a new trick -- well, they are certainly talking about themselves - but belittling real, bold imagination seems wrong. That's where the future lies.

My favorite work is the old comedy masters, the Jay Marshalls and the Billy McCombs and the Johnny Thompsons, work that comes out of flesh and blood and vast knowledge, true urbanity, and thousands of hours on the stage. Second are the virtuoso closeup people (like my pals Jamy Swiss and Mike Close) who can do so much with so little, like a pianist who can sit at the keys with no sheet music and take away your breath with just his fingers and soul.

There are very few comedy people who really kill me, but Bob Read does and Mac King does, and I don't just say that because they're friends of mine -- they have a genuine poetry in them (oh, I know I'm missing somebody here, and I'll pay for forgetting 'em). People who use magic for genuine social good, like James Randi are heroes and should be revered as such.

There's a fascinating avant-garde movement afoot, too, with very smart people like Derren Brown in England, who are trying to smash the conventions of mentalism, expanding what drama it can lead to while mining the sophistication of mentalism's methods. I've seen scads of really fine magicians -- in fact just last year in India and China I saw some traditional work that simply blew me away -- so it would be stupid and unfair for me to try to enumerate them all. My least favorite work is the stuff where the performer seems to have read "Our Magic" once and think that draping a trick with a fantasy story makes it good; on the contrary, that kind of storytelling requires the utmost finesse, the perfect persona, and genuine inspiration or it comes off as shallow and schmaltzy.

The thing I dislike most in magic is piracy. I know how many years can go into one beautiful idea. And to see somebody simply lift that idea (invariably doing it badly or insincerely) makes my blood boil.

I like seeing more and more women braving the boys'-club mentality, and a lot of my hope lies in them. Just compare magic to music or comedy. Sure Richard Rogers and Jerome Kern, Henny Youngman and Lenny Bruce were important, but try and imagine music and comedy without Ella Fitzgerald and Phyllis Diller.

But I'm not really the person to ask this question. I live in my own little world, trying to conquer one challenge after another, hoping that every once in while, something really beautiful will gleam out like a penny in the sand. With absolutely no irony intended: that's what I live for.

Teller, you made a comment to me back in 1996 at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh that has stuck in my brain ever since. We were talking about why there are so many bad magicians in the world, and more importantly, why audiences seem to enjoy them. Your quote to me was "A miracle, even if it is a lousy miracle, is still a miracle."

Yes, even the lousiest magic act, if it fools you, automatically has a level of entertainment that bad guitar playing just doesn't. There is -- in spite of the dimwits who are performing it -- some intellectual content, the tension between what you know and what you think you see. Magic is intrinsically a fantastic form.

So my question to you is this: In general terms, what goals do you set for yourselves when creating a new bit? And on average, how high (or low) on the list does "fooling the audience" usually appear?

I like a nice mix of "fooling the audience" and letting them in. Unless you do it dully or insultingly, fooling the audience is a wonderful level to have working. A magic trick fooling you is like a movie star being very good looking or distinctive. It isn't enough, but it never hurts.

In general terms: we want a bit to have an original idea to it that we'd like to see on stage. Compositionally, I prefer plots with twists that build to an inevitable, logical surprise at the end. Sometimes we don't do this, but if you look down our roster of stuff, many of our best things have some sort of turnabout at the end and several along the way. We like it to be funny or make the little hairs stand up on the back of our collective neck.

How much does the audience bring to each performance?

The audience and the performer move together rather like a medium and a sitter at a Ouija board. Each affects the other without the other fully understanding how.

My favorite kind of bit is the kind where you, as audience member, don't quite know what is expected of you, laughter or tears. Any bit that reflects in both directions seems more alive to me than pure comedy or tragedy.

The flavor of your show also changes due to the fact that you utilize a number of audience members every night. One example that I remember vividly was in Washington when G. Gordon Liddy pushed his way onto the stage to assist with The Magic Bullets. Are there any other "volunteers" that really stick out in your memories that you can share with us?

Liddy was the most interesting. Generally famous people hate being dragged up on stage. I once walked into the audience to pick a man to assist on the Needles (while Penn spoke about my picking somebody trustworthy to watch from on stage) and spotted Walter Cronkite. I winked. He winked back and I picked somebody else.

Let's change direction a bit. Since much of this magazine is geared to bizarre magick, I would like to ask about something from your past. I have heard you talk about the seances that the two of you performed years ago, and I understand why you stopped doing them. But from a creative viewpoint, would you give a brief description of what was included in those performances?

The biggest advance we made was sitting down with the audience before the show and saying that everything we were about to do was a lie. Everything. From this point on, every word would be lying, but we'd say no more from then on, so that people could enjoy the make-believe without hearing a disclaimer every ten seconds.

Then we started in with some card clairvoyance, billet reading, psychokinesis, pornographic slate writing, and finally a scary dark seance. Aggravatingly at the end, people would still tell us, "Oh, we know the psychokinesis must have been a trick, but the part where you knew what was on my paper, well that was just real telepathy, and nothing you tell us will convince us otherwise." And they meant it, too. Even when we told them what we were doing, they refused to believe us. We got so disgusted with this reaction that we stopped doing the seance. We got a glimpse of how Houdini must have felt talking to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The billet reading was a real gem, from lots of study in David P. Abbott and invention by us. It was done with no pre-show work at all, just an intricate system of switches and peeks which enabled us BOTH to divine what was on the billets. I would say, "It's an animal, a gray one..." and Penn would say, "No, it's striped. A tiger." And I'd say, "You're right, striped, but it's not a tiger, it's a zebra, right?" And it would be right. All this would happen while the billets were sitting in a little bag on the table, sometimes removed by the spectators themselves. It was, if I do say so myself, quite baffling, and worked on the principle that no two "readings" would be done exactly the same way, even though each was apparently just a repetition. If I peeked at one, we arranged for Penn to one-ahead the next, and so forth. We had it set up so that one billet got "left over" in the bag at the end to our "surprise" and was removed by the remaining guest and read while it was still folded in that guest's hand.

Incidentally, anybody thinking of doing a dark seance in somebody else's house should keep in mind it's REALLY hard to make most living rooms dark. It takes a lot of work and your hosts will have NO idea that you mean honestly, totally, darkroom dark. So all the night lights will be on and streetlights will be streaming through the windows. Be warned.

Tell us a little about the Houdini Seance that appears in your act today.

I have always been fascinated with seance material. BEHIND THE SCENES WITH THE MEDIUMS is one of my favorite books. A while ago, the MIT Media Lab developed a "sensor chair," a chair with RF sensors built in that allowed a person sitting in it to trigger musical sequences by merely moving his hands in the air. Tod Machover wanted to write a piece for the instrument and brainstormed with us for ideas. We discussed the fact that in the old seance days, a chair like this would have been a perfect instrument for mediums to use in "spirit communication." You could be tied securely to a chair and "ectoplasm" would emerge and play the music. So we developed with Tod a whole 25 minute story line with very, very beautiful, but also exceedingly hard music, in which I'd be tied in a seance cabinet to the sensor chair and we'd call for the spirit of Houdini and instead get Margery who would mock us viciously. It required a LONG historical introduction and was terribly difficult to sing and play. We did it with great success at the MIT conference but found that it didn't play well in our stage show, mostly because it was so long and hard-to-follow and the audience assumed that any electronic music they heard wasn't being played by the sensors, but was simply on tape.

We took it out of the show for a year or so, then returned to it with a new idea: Abandon the electronics and endless historical explanation and see if the actions and symbols of the seance were strong enough to mean something without detailed history. Gary Stockdale wrote us a new score in a sort of Kurt Weill chamber opera style. We compressed the whole sequence to twelve minutes or so, keeping the best moments of the original. We substituted a very plain raw chair for the fancy antique/high tech one, and developed the spirit cabinet stuff out of classic rope-tie material from Robinson's SPIRIT SLATE WRITING. We kept the Rosabel song and wrote new lyrics for the reprise.

I still consider it a work in progress, but I think it's close to its final form.

Now I would like to concentrate on inspiration and the creative process. So first, could you name several individuals that have inspired you in the field of magic? And could you explain what makes them inspirational to you?

Magicians are not my primary source of inspiration. I've never thought there's much value to "following in the footsteps of the greats". See, if you could follow in their footsteps, they would not be the greats. What makes them the greats is that they are inimitable. People who claim to be inspired by Houdini, who then do lame Houdini imitations make my skin crawl.

That said I'm a huge fan of some legendary magicians: Robert-Houdin (especially his fascination with use of science), deKolta (for devious methodology coupled with a sort of surreal outlook), Houdini (obviously), Cardini (depth acting used to give reality to sleight of hand), Germain (wonderfully poetic images and very smart methods). From what I've read, these were all guys who I think would have knocked me out.

I've seen some magic that I just loved. Richiardi's sawing really was one of the great coups de theatre I've ever seen. I bet Malini was a hoot. The Blackstone light-bulb trick is hard to beat as a perfect presentation of a breathtaking fooler. I loved Fogel's presence. I delighted in John Calvert's elegant presentation of cigarette productions -- so British Imperialist. Ricky Jay's TV shots are among the very best use of television. I certainly would be remiss to omit the influence that Don Alan's Magic Ranch and Mark Wilson's Magic Land of Allakazam had on me as a kid. Randi's influence can't be overestimated in P&T work and Jerry Andrus is, in a strange and disconnected way, rather inspiring as well. Eddie Fechter and Vernon both thrilled us, and Charlie Miller's sagacity influences everybody whether they like it or not. Jay Marshall, Johnny & Pam Thompson, and Billy McComb are our favorite practitioners of the art and the most generous consultants imaginable.

More than anybody else, my magical colleague David G. Rosenbaum (AKA D. Glenn Ross and David Glenn) was and is my foremost magical inspiration. First, foremost, and always, Rosey. He was my high school drama coach, a magician and a man with a vision of magic as theatre that I have been the instrument for furthering. His philosophy was simple: that magic needs to be underpinned by ideas, irony, and a level of reality, exactly like any form of theatre. He felt magic should be acted convincingly, not mugged and posed and tricks should have real content, not be arbitrary juggling-like feats that simply look nice.

Rosey coached me in acting and advocated "depth" acting, i.e. acting where you actually make-believe that what you're doing is real and present the actions with an inner logic. He helped me see the dramaturgy in Shakespeare and Sophocles and that has been an ideal for me ever since.

I also have several very brilliant magician friends with whom I've repeatedly brainstormed on new material and this has been genuinely inspiring. In particular, John Thompson, Jamy Ian Swiss, Mac King, Banachek, Eric Mead, Mike Close, John Carney, Kerry Pollock (I bet I've left out somebody and please forgive me). Recently I've encountered the work of Barry Richardson and Derren Brown and I'm very excited by their thinking.

These are all people who, like myself, tend to look outside magic for their inspiration and that's what makes brainstorming so rewarding. People who live entirely in the world of magic with no awareness of the rest of the world, well, rarely excite me.

Continuing with the question of inspiration, how about outside of the field of magic?

Most of my inspiration comes from outside the magical arts. I think I got my fondness for the short-story-with-the-sting-in-the-tail from "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." My love of gothic ideas in modern dress seems inborn; I loved Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Poe short stories from the first page of them I turned. I frequently turn to the anthology "Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural" for pleasure and I imagine that's affected me, too. Bach sold me on the merits of building big structures out of well-defined and limited thematic material. Our show is staged with virtually no scenery because long ago I operated a spotlight for a production of "The Fantasticks" and fell in love with minimal scenery.

In my opinion, all great theater goes through what I call "creative evolution." To me, a performance piece is like the mirror in a fine telescope, which means it is never finished. It can always be ground a bit more to come closer to perfection. Could you give some examples of bits that have changed over the years?

I can hardly think of one that hasn't, really. The way we work is to get something on its feet: the trick works, there's a plot and a punch line. Then we do it. The beauty of live theatre is that we can do these bits hundreds, even thousands of times. We can refine the technique. We can add, subtract, change. Even bits whose plot points have remained relatively the same (e.g. the Needles, Shadows) have been refined, shaped, moments and jokes found, and technique improved.

If we could, let's take a look at a few specific pieces of your body of work. The first one is for me the definitive Penn & Teller piece, "Looks Simple."

Oh, dear. Very ancient history, since the first version of this was done in 1984 on our PBS special "Penn & Teller Go Public." To the best of my recollection the concept started in the Phil Up coffee shop in Minneapolis in about 1975 or 1976, when I was toying with a coffee cup and a napkin and found that I could fake putting the ball in my left hand, then fake putting it under the cup with my left hand while I secretly loaded the palmed ball from my right hand. In other words, I could use complicated sleight of hand to simulate commonplace reality. Well, that idea just hung around for a long time, looking for the rest of the idea. When we were hired to do "Go Public" we mined all our reserves and thought that a cigarette routine might be just the thing, and an "expose" seemed like the right way to go. See the show and you'll see how it worked out.

Then, a few years ago, we were engaged to do a series in Britain and we were searching the old American TV material and came across the "Looks Simple" idea and decided to try and improve it. We did. Now instead of using TV cuts to show how the trick was done, I devised a coin routine to serve as our illustration of the Seven Basic Principles of Magic (there are no Seven Basic Principles, but we thought it sounded good.) The routine was not bad, but not great. But now we were hooked on making it something really good. And then Penn said, "You know, it needs one more element. Maybe music." We hired Greg Cohn, a fantastic NY bass player and musician to compose the bass line, and I reworked the Seven Basic Principles section to work with a more visible prop, a ball, and we added the reprise of the action at the end. From there it was just a matter of refinement. Oh, incidentally, the hat came about because Robbie Libbon, who wears a Borsalino hat all the time, was our Director of Covert Activities at the time. The rest is mere refinement.

Let's move to a bit that I personally would love to see in the show again, "The Hand Stab."

I think we originally wanted to chop off a hand, then thought about impaling, which led to the card stab premise. It was actually rather hard to solve the problem of how to give the illusion of the stabbed hand, but once we worked that out, all the rest came in time and performance.

Tell us about "The Cups & Balls", and lead into "Liftoff."

Cups and Balls originated in another lunch-conversation where I was irritatingly messing with a napkin ball and a clear glass and noticed that if you do the move where you place the ball on the inverted cup and lift the cup to tip off the ball (loading the cup simultaneously) the move was so naturally deceptive that you really didn't register the arrival of the duplicate ball. That got us wondering if a swift routine would allow the audience to see all but apprehend little. As soon as we went four-handed, we knew it would work: all the dumb French Drop moves that make no sense on a solo magician (nobody hands himself a ball) -- these moves work beautifully once two are passing the ball from one person to the other. Rather than presenting it obviously as the beautiful curiosity it was, we thought that the "exposure" hook would be more interesting. The public (being baffled even at the clear routine) understood at once, but a few dopey magicians got really upset, which was a wonderful thing for promotion. Again, this ripened over the years.

"Liftoff" was a deliberate magnification of the same principle. In it, as I recall, Penn kept saying, "I want a lot of trap doors" and that's what we worked out. Oh, I remember working on this in midsummer New York heat in a shop in Westchester, dragging my sorry ass to and fro on a variety of skateboards until we came up with the way we now have me slide.

Please tell us about your classic "Shadows."

Started in my room at the age of 16. I was (being a creep) playing with Playskool Blocks (still one of my favorite toys) by candlelight. I built a tower, then noticed its shadow on the wall. I reached over and touched the shadow and simultaneously flicked the shadow with my finger. The blocks clattered to the surface of the desk. A chill went through me. I made notes on this for the next ten years and finally one day the whole rose-plot popped into my head. Originally I "pricked" my finger on a rose thorn, but the audience never quite understood, so I changed the final cut to the knife. Originally I used a candle, but that doesn't work well in 2500 seat houses. Over the last 25 years, I've changed the method significantly in several evolutionary stages, but the effect remained the same.

When it comes to creating new routines, describe the process. Where do things go after the basic idea strikes?

There is no real pattern or formula. Once we have the basic idea, we sit and talk about it to establish the "beats" of the trick; so that we can see it as a progression or plot. We then take whatever the next step is to put it on stage: experimenting, building props, etc. in the full and certain awareness that the details may change significantly. In Flag, for example, we started with the notion of a dye-tube inside the Bill of Rights, but that seemed cumbersome when we actually built and tried it (the dye-tube had to come from some place and go to some place and we really didn't want tables or big body loads in this). Generally, we have to do at least three "drafts" of the details of the idea before we get what we want. Sometimes early audiences see the "second draft" (we played the "second draft" seance for about six months before scrapping it; we did the "single" bullet catch for a year before moving on) and we learn from performance what's missing. The beauty of live performance is that when something is just not working, we can go back and refine it and subsequent audiences get the benefits of this refinement.

I would love to hear your thoughts about "Flag."

Simply put, it is our development of Jamy Ian Swiss's inspired notion of doing a Flag-burning as a magic trick.

Penn and I had been working on this for several months, writing and rewriting to convey -- within this complex context -- our passionate patriotism and reverence for the Flag and Bill of Rights. Mystique Magic silkscreened us special extra-large flags on a sumptuous silk-satin fabric. T. Wiley Bramlett designed and built (with Bob Keber) a brilliant secret prop that doesn't look like a prop. And we all (especially Nate Santucci, Johnny Thompson, Burt Bramlett, Robbie Libbon, and Glenn Alai) worked together to get the apparently simple bit of parlor conjuring to be amazing and beautiful.

Paul Provenza had also been there for several days, collaborating on this and some other things, and directing and inspiring us on many pieces in the show. He sat in the theatre with Wiley and the two of them worked with us on the segment, Provenz concentrating on the verbal and Wiley on the visual, though there are no rules in our company and everybody freely contributes
creatively on everything.

From our first performance it was clear that this is a jewel. You could feel the theatre fill with tension and joy. The audience applauded three times during it and laughed where they were supposed to. The rhythm and plotting, the layers of political and personal meanings, the deceptiveness of the trick, the humor, and the beauty and economy of the staging all seem to me to show that our team has reached a kind of rich maturity that I've always aspired to be part of. I suspect Flag will be in our repertoire forever.

Tell us about Penn.

He's big, brilliant, funny, and a very, very good partner.

My final question: When it comes to the creators and performers in the world of conjuring, if you could wave a magic wand and give each of them a single trait, what would it be?

Really, all I require of a work of art is that it takes me some place new. So if I could wave a magic wand over the whole population of magic, I would fill each magician with a passion for originality and a willingness to work the endless hours that turn ideas into realities.

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