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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A somewhat less than intimate interview with David Copperfield

Posted by on Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 10:03 AM

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From the printed record we surmised that magician David Copperfield wasn’t the easiest interview. The taciturn answers we'd read in most of the recent published pieces suggested a subject intent on his talking points—and, apparently, just not into most of the conversations.

But perhaps, I thought, that’s because no one poses the right questions. I mean, if everyone insisted on asking you the one thing you could never answer while still keeping your job—So, uhh, how’d you do that neat trick on stage?—you’d probably get a bit peevish yourself after a while.

So, in advance of "An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion," his performances Tuesday and Wednesday at DPAC, I started thinking about questions that might be useful—and even answerable—by a world-class magician.

Then we were informed that Copperfield would not be available for phone or personal conversation—a barrier seemingly lowered, almost like magic, for a stringer at one daily paper, but not a columnist at another.

We could, however, e-mail him.

And then wait a week for his answers.

So we did.

Ironically, for an artist interested in presenting something intimate and grand to the public, the experience was noticeably less than both.  

Below: the transcript of our e-mail exchange, and our conclusions at the end. I’d call it Exhibit A for the case against e-mail interviews, but you’ll be the judge. Nothing up our sleeves; the rest, after the jump.

Indy: The earlier publicist asked us to limit to a total of six questions.  I really have only two groups of related questions -- three in the first, two in the second -- that I'm interested in posing.   The first three require a bit of set-up.

It must get tedious, repeatedly fielding the same constellation of questions about how a magician does his effects. Let's acknowledge that your client is never going to answer those questions, not as meaningfully or as candidly as he might. Nor would we really respect him if he did. He must evade them: Ultimately these pursuits are a conversational dead-end.

So I’ll confess that, in terms of this conversation, I’m really a lot less interested in the “how” of stage magic as I am in the “why.”

I’m wondering if we can possibly talk about lies for a second. And please, let's suspend, for this moment, the usual negative value judgments that accompany the term. For an illusion, at its base is, among other things, a lie – something made to appear as one thing which actually is another.

My point here is that, on some levels, we love lies. In the South we’ve long claimed a particular fascination with the subject, but I think it runs deep through our whole culture. We tend to reward the art of hyperbole, exaggeration and fabulation in everything from live theater to bedtime stories, from tall-tale/storytelling competitions to politics.  Surely, many of us see the occasional “white lie” as a form of psychological or social lubricant.

The truth is, in a number of differing venues in public and private life, whoever tells the most imaginative lie, in the most effective way, “wins.”

My first three questions:  Do you see your work in performances as extensions of this tradition – exquisitely constructed, masterfully presented, the lie written large?  Why or why not?  What functions or needs do you think these particular lies serve with your audience?

To reiterate here, on the record:  I’m really not interested in the usual knee-jerk value judgments associated with the term “lie.”  I’m a lot more interested in exploring what these things actually do, both among us and within us.  My suspicion is that the real “magic” in your enterprise is likely somewhere in this line of inquiry. That’s why I chose it.

Copperfield: I don't agree with that premise.  The Art of Magic transcends all races, creeds, colors and nationalities.  I have performed all over the world, from the jungles of Indonesia to the arctic of Russia.  It is a human emotion to want to be amazed. Magic is the oldest of the performing arts, practiced in an unbroken succession from the earliest cave man days through ancient Egyptian times and the Courts of King Arthur to the present.  It's not a lie - but a universal language.

> What functions or needs do you think these particular lies serve with your audience?

(see above)

Last two questions:  What, specifically, makes an illusion grand?

The Grand Canyon, The Great Wall of China, The Vanishing Jet, The Orient Express, The Statue of Liberty, The Bermuda Triangle, The Fires of Passion ... those illusions come to mind when I think of "Grand" - larger than the physical limitation of a theatrical stage.  However, I think the impact is just as great with my intimate close up magic; which includes The Dancing Tie, The Magical Rose, The Baby Shoe and The Deadly Scorpions. I find that my audiences are equally divided with 50% loving the grand and 50% loving the intimate.

What makes an illusion useful, not useless?

If it moves people emotionally and gives them an opportunity to escape from today’s harsh reality it's very useful and quite therapeutic.  Even if just for a few moments  - it can transport people back to their youth to a time when a bit of child-like wonder is present in all of us.

= = = = = =

So, what’s the takeaway lesson in all of this? For me, as a critic and correspondent, it’s that e-mail interviews may be fine for small talk, but they’re frustrating when you’re interested in digging into deeper soil.

Readers perusing the three local articles can judge for themselves the degree to which the various interviewers were content with chit-chat, as well as the most substantive questions in the mix.

But one thing’s clear: When the back-and-forth of intelligent, penetrating dialogue examining an issue is replaced with a process where questions are posed one week and then – briefly – answered in another, something big gets lost. I’d call it the magic of incisive and probing conversation. It’s one of the things I live for as an arts journalist.

Surely Mr. Copperfield has experienced it in his life. I regret that I didn’t in this exchange with him.

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