mark lewis

Script, Schmipt

Earlier this week, Shane Cobalt put  up a piece on Scripting over at his site - Chasing Dovetails. His argument: don't script your material... at least not yet. Shane and I disagree over a lot. But he's well-read and thoughtful enough that they tend to be interesting disagreements (that is, agreements where it's not painfully obvious at the outset that one person is wrong.) Whether or not we actually disagree on this point probably depends on your definition of scripting.

In Scripting Magic, Pete McCabe advances a fairly broad definition of scripting. It's simply the words, written or unwritten, for what you're going to say in front of the audience. In essence, the script becomes the plan for your show; at least the audible portion. If you're going to subject an audience to magic, then thought and planning are good things and more planning should certainly be preferable to less planning. (Actually, some performers disagree with this statement that seems trivially obvious - I'll return to that later.)

For the past few years, I've been in the position of managing a show for the public. (Shameless plug - Magic Tonight continues through the summer at the Crimson Lounge in Downtown Toronto. Readers of this blog can use the code reality for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when purchasing online.) That puts me in the (very) unpleasant position of having to tell some people who would like to appear on the show that they can't. If I'm lucky, I can make a convincing case for their style not being a good fit for the show we've built and branded. But usually it's simply that the material is not good enough because they haven't put enough thought and planning into it. Where the unpleasantness comes in is if it's someone who has been at this longer than I have (in some instances since before I was born) then I find it hard to feel qualified to judge the quality of other performers' material. Well, really what qualifies me is the fact that I can spot the lack of thought put in from across the street, but that's not something I'm prepared to say to someone's face.

If you take an uber-literal definition of script — typing out what you say word for word — then I probably agree with Shane. There are pieces in my show that aren't scripted in that sense. They can go for months before I will sit down and actually write down what I say. When tricks are new, they tend to change often. New lines added, old lines shuffled, fat trimmed. What that doesn't mean is that I walk out on stage without knowing what I'm going to say. That would basically amount to experimenting on the audience. Just like the government has high standards for what drugs qualify for human trials, magicians should have high standards for what makes it in front of an audience's eyes. While it's true that new material doesn't appear fully formed and does at some point need to be audience tested(jokes especially need to be subjected to this acid test), most magicians underestimate the amount of planning and development that's possible entirely off-stage.

The Argument Against Scripting

The argument against scripting is usually seen as the argument against planning. Or, more accurately, the argument in defence of laziness. But as I've come to hear this defence from more people I've realized there's a bit more too it.

Magicians differ from most script-users in that most users of scripts are not the writers of those scripts. (If you broaden the definition of script to include more general aspects of planning, they can also include choreography, stage directions and even the method of the trick itself, since a lot of magic secrets are verbally driven.) Typically the reason you have a script in the first place is someone else is in charge of deciding what you will say and this is the medium they are using to tell you what to do. But if you're more like a singer-songwriter, then you have a lot more control over the contents of the script.

But since most great actors are not also great screenwriters, most magicians are lousy actors and script writers. So when magicians are asking for guidance, "Should I script my material", it's not a choice between scripting and not scripting. Rather, it's a choice between "badly written and dryly delivered script" and "whatever I can make up on the spot." In that situation it's less clear that the script is the preferred alternative.

Magic usually demands a fair bit of brain power. Between the hands doing sneaky things and managing the dual reality of what the magician sees and what the audience sees, there isn't often much left over for the spontaneous invention of snappy patter (or according to Mark Lewis' dictionary of British grifter-speak "the fanny"). That leaves most magicians in the Dunning-Kruger position of not being good enough at writing to realize that the writing they're improvising is not that good. The worst problem tends to be that the performer's brain is too busy coming up with what to say, it's not even registering the fact that there is dead time it's not filling.

This is the kind of magic that Chasing Dovetails is on a crusade against. I'm certainly not good enough to spin a magic script off the top of my head —and I know Shane isn't either — so I suspect we come closer to agreement that it would appear.

Moving On

Back in 2009, I took over the management of Abracadabaret (then Friday Night Magic) from its founders, James Biss & Dave Curran (as I've written previously). Since then, I've had the pleasure of working with a host of talented performers and genuinely splendid people from Toronto and abroad. At the end of April, I will be stepping down as the director, producer, coordinator and general boss person at Abracadabaret to explore some other projects. After five years, I am feeling the need to try something different. As explanations go, I realize that's not very satisfying. Much like the client that sounded like they wanted to book you and then decides they've "decided to go a different direction" which is code for anything from "you're too expensive" to "we've decided to dissolve the company and donate the proceeds to Rob Ford's re-election campaign."

However, the show will go on. A well-respected magician, psychic, hypnotist, children's entertainer and author, Mark Lewis, has agreed to take over. There will still be Magic@theCage twice a week, under Mr. Lewis' astute direction.

with Mark Lewis years ago at Friday Night Magic.
with Mark Lewis years ago at Friday Night Magic.

While I'm sure there will be changes, they can only be for the better. Mark is an extremely knowledgeable magician who has been at it for over half a century and cares deeply for magic as an art form. We're delighted that he is able to bring his decades of experience to this and other upcoming projects.

I'm not going far. I will still be performing (booking information is over at www.JamesAlan.ca). But as far as our public events go, you can get in touch with Mark directly.

See Mark Lewis performing as part of Wendy's Canada's #ExpectToBeAmazed ad campaign in 2013:

Pay no attention to the fact that this was posted on April 1.

All in Good Fun

When groups of magicians gather together, strange things happen. I imagine the same thing must happen if you assemble any group of likeminded individuals like artists, musicians or politicians. But this is especially true with the P. Howard Lyons Ring.

Where to begin?

The P. Howard Lyons Ring, sometimes known as Ring 99, is a chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, the world's largest fraternal organization of magicians. The club meets at a secret location known only as "The Usual Place and Time." The membership is a motley crew of magicians, mentalists, psychics, comedians, university students, philosophers and general dilettantes. The ring's objectives lie vaguely between "advancing the art of magic" and "perfecting esoteric techniques for the vanishment and disappearance of pub foods."

This is a group that doesn't take themselves too seriously and certainly knows how to have a good time. They also had the misfortune of having me as their president.

Awards season takes on a whole new meaning

At the close of the 2012-13 season, the club decided to give out two special awards, one of which was:

The Mark Lewis Memorial Award for Imagination, Integrity, Curmudgeonhood or Best Two Out Of Three

While I should point out that the award itself is completely facetious (see photos below), the individual it is named after does deserve some recognition.

Mark Lewis is a staple of the Toronto magic community. He performs as the elderly curmudgeon, and when watching others perform, he is as harsh a critic as one can imagine. He is also never one to shy away from offering an opinion, on any subject. He is decidedly "old school" and constantly pushing others to raise the quality of the magic they perform and to bring respect and honour to the art of magic. If something can earn a slight nod of approval from "The Great Mark Lewis" then you must be on to something. (Or perhaps, it is one of the seven signs of the coming apocalypse, who knows.) In addition to being a superlative children's entertainer, he is also one of the main characters in Ninety-Nine Fabrications Volumes 1 & 2.

Special mention is also due to Lisa Close who presented this "prestigious" award.Lisa crafted a speech which is probably the single greatest piece of magic verbiage since Bob Farmer's treatise on Wombats and Wildebeests (don't ask). She was somehow able to transition an award for James Alan into a roast of for James Alan so seamlessly we didn't even notice. Well done Lisa!

Lisa's speech, along with several other Ring secrets will be included in the forthcoming volume of Ninety-Nine Fabrications, because we clearly have too much time on our hands.

I'm honoured that the club would choose to present me with this prestigious (and infinitely practical) award. I will display it proudly in my home next to my other made up award.

Mark Lewis Award

The (Abbreviated) History of Abracadabaret

When I was relatively new in magic, enthusiastic and curious but not really performing for anyone. I wanted to attend a magic show. Top of the google search for magic in Toronto was a site called Magical.com and a show advertised there called Friday Night Magic. It seemed like a good place to start. The show is a kind of magic open-mic with multiple performers and a host.

I actually waited a while to go down and see it because I was in university and it was advertised as $20 ticket. So I was surprised when I showed up that no one asked me for a cent. That was where I first met my (now) friends James Biss, Dave Curran, Mark Lewis and Paul Pacific. In fact two things I saw that night inspired me to create something that I still perform today and had published in the first instalment of Seventeen Secrets. (I hope they don't take offence that it's a trick about crazy people.)

The show was not a new thing when I first showed up there (it was either 2006 or 2007). It had been going for a few years, run by James Biss and Dave Curran. Friday Night Magic itself was a spinoff of The Magic Arts Festival (2000 or 2001) which was an attempt to flood a section of Toronto's downtown core with magic shows just for the fun of it. While nobody remembers it today, I assume it was something that was fun to do, lots of work, but at best financially neutral. Before that, the show had its roots in another Toronto production called "A Little Night Magic" which ran for several years and ended in the early nineties.

I attended the show regularly and eventually something strange happened. Two of the three performers were not there; one was ill and the other was trapped in bad weather. The usual host, James Biss, had worked all day Friday and spent most of Thursday night at an event that ran extremely late. I remember exactly what he said to me. "You could watch me, in this state, for forty-five minutes, or you could give me a break and do ten minutes in the middle."

I was on the spot, but too young to appreciate how not ready I was. But enough people were suitably impressed and I finished my first public performance ever. It was an experience I was happy to repeat.

Over the next few years, I became a regular performer and worked with several of the other performers on different projects. By 2008, James Biss was ready to move on to other projects, including a TV pilot (that didn't go anywhere) and a book project (that did). I was left running the show.

When I took over, the show was having difficulty. We had been running a free weekly magic show more or less continuously (with summers off) for upwards of six years. And we had a somewhat regular audience which create a lot of pressure to produce "new" (meaning unseen) material. At that point, we were well past B and C level material. I remember more than once seeing things that people had just come up with that afternoon. We were also catering to the regulars a bit too much, and the in-jokes were starting to overpower the regular jokes.

We changed to a monthly (more or less) event and put some more effort into planning who would attend. We came up with the name Abracadabaret (largely with the help of David Ben, Julie Eng and a large paper table cover we scribbled on at lunch one day). We started a fresh website and got to work.

We tried a few venues, largely through the efforts and connections of David Grossfield, looking for the right mix of ambiance, visibility, convenience and seating capacity. The Charlotte Room had a beautiful ambiance and a great menu, but few seats and a rather awkwardly placed pool table. Zemra had an even better menu, but a very awkward layout. The Trane Studio was perfectly designed for performances, but was incredibly inconvenient for scheduling (we even showed up once to find a 5-piece Brazilian jazz ensemble setting up on stage, accidentally scheduled to go on at the same time as us.)

Then we took a break for a while. I got distracted planning theatre shows including ones for Asi Wind, Eugene Burger and my own. At the same time, Bobby Motta and Chris Westfall were both organizing events on a regular basis and the fact that there were quality alternatives available didn't do much to curb my laziness.

Last fall, I stumbled across our new venue at The Winchester, through a Fringe colleague, Victoria Murdoch, who was performing her one-woman show Dairy Free Love there. While she was performing, I sent her a text message saying "I am so stealing this venue." I was a bit disappointed when, after the show, the owner came out and announced that they were trying to grow their dinner theatre performances and if there was any performers or producers in the audience, they'd love to hear from us... so much for being devious.

I had a very successful - but short - three day run there in January and was invited back. So in addition to doing a few more Lies shows there Abracadabaret will be returning to its roots at the end of the month with a new variety show. I'm very excited to be back at it. It's nice to know that the same show where I had my first "serious" performance is still around and will continue to give the opportunity to more young performers. (Which reminds me, we love having new performers on the show if you would like to contribute something, let me know.)

If you have an opportunity, please subscribe to the Abracadabaret Mailing List or do the Facebook or Twitter thing for more regular updates.

I know I probably have the chronology of that slightly wrong. I'm tempted to go back through my files and post a collection of our past show posters. Then again, part of me is embarrassed by the very early stuff, which I believe was designed using Powerpoint, and doesn't want anyone to be reminded. If anyone is truly curious, I'm sure a little bit of Facebook creeping will turn them up.

With love and thanks to the performers of Friday Night Magic / Abracadabaret past & present including but not limited to:

Bill Abbott, James Biss, Keith Brown, Ryan Brown, Dave Curran, Matt DiSero, Gerry Frenette, David Grossfield, James Harrison, Jeff Hinchliffe Alex Kazam, Mark Lewis, Duncan MacKenzie, Bobby Motta, Mysterion, Paul Pacific, Jason Palter, David Peck, Anastasia Synn, Rob Testa, Dan Trommater, Chris Westfall

Join us for our next show, Sunday, June 30 at 7:00 PM. Click below for details.

Poster