Lately a lot of young magicians have been asking me for advice, which has caused me to remember one of the most valuable correspondences of my life: one of the most mind-blowing letters I ever received, chock-full of insights that to this very day guide my career and philosophy in both creating and performing magic.
This is a pretty long post, but with Teller's permission, I'd like to share with you the secrets he gave me 14 years ago to starting a successful career in magic.
First, a bit of back-story: Penn and Teller have been my heroes in magic since I was 8 years old. Back when I would watch just about anything related to magic, P&T were special because they were so damned cool. They'd connect with their audience, let them on the inside... even teach them some tricks to do at home. I was hooked.
By the time I was 19, I was a decent semi-professional magician, trying desperately to figure out both who I wanted to be onstage and what I had to say, when in the summer of 1994 I got my first chance to see Penn and Teller live. I drove three and a half hours with my best friend Gordon to watch the performance and (more importantly) get the chance to meet them afterwards.
As they've always done, Penn and Teller hung out in the lobby after the show to meet anyone who'd like to say hello. While we waited in line, Gordon and I started brainstorming ways to stand out from the crowd and make an impression on my heroes. Gordon had a hilarious idea that he was too chicken to try, so with his permission, I asked Teller to sign my three of clubs "...to my bastard son, Brian."
I was totally jazzed when this got a laugh from Teller, and positively giddy to spend the next few minutes talking to one of my heroes about how to get started in magic... Best. Show. Ever.
One year later, I was much more serious about magic, and much more frustrated as I was still struggling to find my own voice, character, and presentation. That's when I happened upon Teller's email address, and in a fit of frustration-induced bravery, wrote the following letter:
From Brian (on Tuesday, Oct 17, 1995):
Date: Tuesday, Oct 17, 1995
From: "Brian Allen Brushwood"
All right. I have put it off long enough. I told myself I would wait to write you until I had something meaningful to say, but I have been sitting on your address (figuratively) for months now, and am fed up with waiting.
The fact is, Teller, I am furious at you.
Not for offending anyone, for being outrageous, or for being so inventive with your magic, but because you were there first. In Genii magazine, you make a brilliant point of explaining that regardless of the true origin of a trick, whoever is most famous performing it OWNS it (I believe you cited your new "ownership" the bullet catch). Unfortunately, I don't believe you extended this idea far enough. This concept reaches all the way into the very attitudes and styles of performance. In short, because of Penn and Teller, I cannot be angry at magic, at least not on stage.
It seems to me, that just as you own the Bullet Catch, so do you own the ability to lash out at magic, to act as a vent for your audiences frustrations with the cruise-ship trickymen. Not to mention the use of blood and/or violence in a humorous way. Hell! You might even own the two-male duo! All this ownership has kept me from doing the kind of stage (and close-up, believe it or not) magic I want, for fear of being branded a copycat.
This summer, I attempted to tackle this problem by writing a couple of two male duo acts, trying my damnedest to keep the P&T out of my veins; it met with some success. One act, consisting of two comedy magic character peices (A drill instructor who performs the "coloring book", A gibberish-speaking samurai who performs a card-trick that ends in Hara-kiri) won the Texas Association of Magicians Senior Comedy competition. However, I find it difficult to follow your advice of "letting hate, not love, be your driving force" (which is absolutely true) and at the same time keep from becoming a P&T wannabe.
If you could offer any advice on how you established your own character and style, I would greatly appreciate it.
Brian Allen Brushwood
Just writing the letter was cathartic... I mean after all, who was I to Teller? I would have been perfectly happy to get a five word courtesy response, but to my absolute astonishment, the next morning I found the following mind-blowing essay in my inbox:
Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 3:40:27 -0500 (CDT)
To: "Brian Allen Brushwood"
My dear bastard son,
It is about time you wrote, my boy.
Now, calm down. 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?
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!
Without a doubt, reading these words set me on the path to where I am today. For anyone wanting to make a living doing something artistic, I hope his words are as helpful to you as they were to me.
Thanks again, Teller.