Friday, November 30, 2018

A Philosophy of Magic: Memphis’s Newest Conjuror Has a Mission

A Conversation With Lawrence Hass

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2018 at 8:53 AM

Lawrence Hass
  • Lawrence Hass
"Let me tell you, it almost never goes up the sleeve." Veteran educator and practicing sleight-of-hand artist Lawrence Hass drops some information on the audience in a TEDx talk. The PhD and former professor is working toward a philosophical understanding of stage magic. He wonders how magic performance can be so ancient and universal without having ever been seriously addressed by Western philosophy.

Hass was professor of humanities at Austin College before moving to Memphis with his wife, Rhodes College President Dr. Marjorie Hass. In addition to academic duties, he's been known to teach magic to magicians at Jeff McBride's Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas. In his TED talk, he works toward a sturdy definition that separates magic from the the idea of "tricks." He asks if techniques developed by magicians are somehow more manipulative, deceptive, or dishonest than any other kind of art or stagecraft. Magic, he ultimately determines, is "The artful performance of impossible things that generates energy, delight, and wonder."

For Hass, who makes his Memphis debut at Beth Sholom Synagogue Saturday, December 1st, the live performance of stage magic constitutes a message of hope and transcendence. "As we live our lives, we constantly confront limits," he says, listing the usual suspects: sickness, loss, death, and transition —  things we want but can't have, and things we wish were true but aren't.

Then performers like Harry Houdini come along and show us we can escape. Illusionists like David Copperfield defy gravity and levitate. Magicians get their audience thinking big while working on a smaller scale. Hass is a prestidigitator, a card manipulator, and a conjurer, able to bring inanimate objects to life in his hand.

Impossible, you say? That's the point. "When everybody wins in the world, that's real magic," Hass concludes, after one of his online card tricks. It's a good line. It also seems to be a reasonable summation of this newly minted Memphian's performance philosophy.

Intermission Impossible: Memphis is still relatively new for you. How are you adjusting?

Lawrence Hass: We really love it. We came to Memphis because Marjorie was hired as the new president at Rhodes College. We came in June of 2017. Since then we've really settled in — both into Memphis, the larger community, and also the Rhodes College Community. We've been very warmly welcomed and just love the city. There's so much energy and culture and art. Memphis is on the rise, and we're really happy to be a part of it.
I was surprised to discover you didn’t take up magic until you were an adult with a PhD. And children of your own. There’s so much manipulation— so much manual dexterity required. I think of it like violin: Most of the folks who practice magic started training when they were very young.

That question’s very perceptive actually. You understand there's this whole physical level to magic. And it has to work at a very high level. I sometimes think of myself, as being like an athlete, or a musician in terms of, there's all this body work going on. And you have to stay after it pretty much every day. So when I came to magic, I was 34 years old. That's older than most people, as you say.
I learned over time that, I think I have uncommon coordination. At first I had no perception of it. But as I started teaching magic to others, I realized that I could very intuitively and quickly do things with my hands that other people ... they just didn't have the same facility for. The other part of it, I was a musician back in the 1970s. I played guitar and piano, so obviously that was part of the picture too. I understood practice and rehearsal. Also, I came to magic as a philosopher. I studied art and aesthetics. So already, I was ahead of the game. I had the dedication and discipline to really keep after it, and I also had a vision, or sense of what artistry was. From the very beginning I wanted my magic not to be commonplace, but artistic.

In the TEDx you're obviously connecting your ideas with narrative. But I also saw a lot of storytelling in your online videos. Is this exclusive to teaching magic or teaching people about magic, or is storytelling a regular part of the act?

It's a part of the act. Some magicians that we see, it's all about the props. Here's the cup and here's the ball and now the ball is gone from the cup, and so on and so on. And I find that tedious. It's all purely visual and, “Fooled you! Made you look!” From the very beginning I wanted my magic to be about things that matter to people. In the show I’ll be performing Saturday night, I will have two “Once Upon a Time” kinds of stories that are Illustrated with magic. But even when it’s not about stories, what I do hopefully inspires or affirms the ways in which everyone is a magician.


When I watched your TEDx, I was reminded of directing Ubu Roi at Rhodes several years ago, which is an unrealistic piece. I bring it up because students would sometimes fall into traps of “naturalism” and I’d find myself asking, “Why lie to the audience? Do you really think they believe you are this character? That this crazy stuff is really happening?" The challenge to forego pretense gave actors access to problem-solving tools they didn’t have before. And one of your main points is all about breaking down pretense — magic isn’t about lying to the audience, or tricking them — It's not suspending disbelief, but engaging imagination. I love this, obviously.

One of the things that hangs up contemporary magic is the notion that it's about tricking people or fooling them.

Theater too, I think.

This is a very old, long association about magic, often from religious authorities and philosophical authorities who were trying to denigrate magic. When we shift to the recognition that magic is a theatrical art, and is engaged in creating astonishment, not lying to people or tricking them, everything about this changes. Because just like the actor isn't lying to people, the magician isn't either. What we're doing is using techniques to create an entire experience — a theatrical experience. I think what happens, both magicians and non-magicians confuse the con artist with the theatrical artist. So, when I teach magicians, this is one of the things I say: ‘You are a theater artist, not a con artist. If you want to be a con artist go out and play three card Monte in the street. But if you want to perform theatrical acts of magic, you need the skills that come along with the theater.’

Right. And obviously performers like Harry Anderson, who built so much of his act around classic geek shows and cons, instinctively get this.

Yes. The 'street thing' is the character. And Harry was so smart about that. Penn and Teller are the same way. Their show is about the con games and the fun of the con. But I happen to know Penn and Teller, and they are very smart, dedicated theatrical artists. That's just part of their presentation. I admire it greatly. My presentation is about helping people connect with magic as an affirmation.

Was that approach something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning, or was it something that evolved as magic came into contact with your other life in philosophy.

I believe the answer is, as a philosopher, I was always concerned with truth-seeking. I didn't always get there But I was always concerned with revealing more or less true things about the world and how we might live in it. So I never would have gone into magic if it was all about lying to people to take advantage of them. I have zero interest in that. But once I understood that magic wasn't about truth or lying, it was about creating a rich theatrical experience, then I realized those theatrical experiences could be inspirational and affirmational rather than, ‘made you look!’ And I realized that 'made you look,' aspect of it, which some magicians do, was really not essential to magic. It was a choice they made. So this grew out of my deep commitments as a philosopher. And just like Harry Anderson performed as a con artist, I performed as the philosopher magician. So it's a very different show from what other people do, because there really is no other philosopher magician.

I was also surprised by your discussion that, as ancient and universal as stage magic is, it's been so widely ignored by philosophy and academics.

It's such a fascinating part of the story. When you study the history of magic and how we got into this place where there is no academic department of magic, anywhere in the world, that is itself a mystery. Because, as you say, magic is an ancient and universal art form. It's very primordial in our psychology to conceal things — to make them hide and make them appear. Every infant plays peek-a-boo. Magic is primordial and yet somehow, it's absent. The story of that, I believe, is the story of authorities not liking the energy and delight, and astonishment that magic creates. Religious authorities, scientific authorities, philosophical authorities, political authorities ... and when we look back through the history all the way back to the Greeks, and even earlier than the Greeks, you can see magicians are distrusted. Magicians are held out as ‘the other,’ or the thing we don't want to be. There are some unbelievable tracts in the history of religion, and the history of science, and history of philosophy, that are polemics against magic. So the modern-day magician has a lot of historical baggage to overcome, to help people appreciate this primordial art form. I'll be very honest, it's part of my vision. It’s part of why I do what I do. Because magic — It's not just fine, it's great. It's energy. It’s delight and wonder.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Katori Hall Strip Club Drama To Begin Production

Posted By on Wed, Nov 28, 2018 at 3:36 PM

Katori Hall
  • Katori Hall
P-Valley, a Starz series adapted from Memphis playwright Katori Hall's strip club drama Pussy Valley, has been ordered to series, Variety reports. 

Like the script it's based on, P-Valley tells the story of a rural Mississippi strip joint, the girls who work there, the customers who visit, and Uncle Clifford, a trans man connected to the club. Hall will serve as showrunner.

Hall who served briefly as artistic director for Memphis' Hattiloo Theatre, was recognized as a writer of note in 2009, when her play, The Mountaintop, won an Olivier award. She's also the author of Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Pussy Valley was originally produced by Mixed Blood theater in Minneapolis in 2015. It has been in development as a Starz series since 2016. A Memphis area talent search was conducted in July.

Variety describes P-Valley.

It tells the story of a little-strip-club-that-could and the characters who come through its doors—the hopeful, the lost, the broken, the ballers, the beautiful, and the damned. It will star Brandee Evans as Mercedes and Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford. Shannon Thornton and J. Alphonse Nicholson will appear as series regulars.

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Can You Spell Fun? Theatre Memphis Hosts a Lively Bee

Posted By on Thu, Nov 8, 2018 at 10:29 AM

putnam_county_spelling_bee.avatar.jpg
The midterm elections are over — hooray! But nobody's catching a break from our national shit-show. The race for 2020 is on like Fox News in a waiting room! Jeff Sessions is out as Attorney General! The Constitutional Crisis Clock is now set at one minute 'til midnight. Everything only gets worse. Wouldn't you like to get away? Maybe spend some time in a place a little more like Norman Rockwell's America? Only funny?


I've seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee too many times. The jokes shouldn't work. But they do. The Tony-winning one-act combines all the elements of a traditional musical with all the unexpected surprises of improvisation and audience participation. It's the rare show that can be exactly the same from night to night while providing a completely different user experience from audience to audience

The musical's characters represent a broad spectrum of adolescent privilege and insecurity. Chip's been told he's not so smart. Olive made friends with a dictionary because her parents were never there for her. Even perfect Miss Marcy Park who plays piano, twirls baton, speaks six whole languages, and spells like a champion is struggling with the personal cost of overachievement. Angst, acne, and unfortunate erections are on parade. It's only a fraction of the freaky, geeky goodness packed into one of the most purely entertaining musical comedies of the past two decades.

Winners all. - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • Winners all.
Bee's an actor-driven show. It's the kind of thing a solid company of players could do well with almost no physical resources. But that's not how Theatre Memphis rolls. It's certainly not how director Cecelia Wingate (usually) rolls. This one's a monster of detail with Jack Yates' immersive set dropping audiences on the sidelines in a school gym so convincing you can practically smell the tube socks. Lighting designer Mandy Heath skillfully, and unobtrusively illuminates a good, old, cutthroat American spelling bee. If you ever went to school, you know all these kids. And you know right away, there will be blood. And hugs. And juice boxes.

Something about this modest ensemble show always brings out the best in character actors. Theatre Memphis' production is no exception. Jenny Madden, Jimbo Lattimore, Jared Johnson,  Ryan Gilliam, Javier Peña, Nichol Pritchard, and Miranda Tonkin all give fun, first-rate performances. But there's a little something extra that happens between Kevar Maffitt's unapologetically weird William Barfee and Jenny Wilson's nearly spectral take on poor Olive Ostrovsky, who seems to have fled some awful story narrated by Lemony Snicket. He's over-the-top. She's just barely there. Together they're perfect.       

Did I mention at any point that everything is awful? Because that's not correct. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is anything but awful. If anything, it's an antidote for awful. While you're watching it, anyway.
  

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Nightmare Before Christmas: Tennessee Shakespeare Closes Macbeth

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2018 at 2:28 PM

Michael Khanlarian (Banquo), Paul Kiernan (Macbeth), and the Witches. Through Nov. 4. - TENNESSEE SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
  • Tennessee Shakespeare Company
  • Michael Khanlarian (Banquo), Paul Kiernan (Macbeth), and the Witches. Through Nov. 4.
Hard as it may seem to believe, winter is coming. It won't be long before area playhouses roll out stock scenery and turn their attention to holiday favorites. Theatre Memphis opens The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee this weekend. And there are still a few more opportunities to catch Agatha Christie's enduring mystery The Mousetrap at Germantown Community Theatre. But if there's anybody out there who's not quite ready to put Halloween away just yet,Tennessee Shakespeare Company performs Macbeth through November 4th.

Shakespeare's witchy meditation on ambition and evil is directed by TSC's founder Dan McCleary and performed by a company of nine actors. How dark do things get? Here's what McCleary had to say via the TSC website:

“The witches are our masked Chorus, and a sacrifice is offered to cleanse a world of crimes against humanity. The sacrifice is a man who Shakespeare clearly defines as noble, generous, un-ambitious, indecisive, overly kind, incapable of lying with skill, morally incapable of imagining his own corruption or wrong-doing, courageous, patriotic, regretful, and a good husband and friend. Macbeth is the best of us. What is horrific is that we might be able to explain how he becomes the very worst of us.”
 

Very scary.

Thursday night's performance is Free Will Kids night. That means up to 4 kids (17 or under) are admitted with one paid adult ticket. 

Tennessee Shakespeare follows Macbeth with a  large cast production of  As You Like It Nov. 29-Dec. 6

General Admission tickets are $39. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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