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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Conversations with David

So I get an email. Out of the blue. From someone who tells me three intriguing things. They tell me that they work for the American illusionist David Blaine, that he very much likes my work, and that he would like to speak to me about something. How odd, I think to myself. And fun. I reply that I'm certainly open to chatting to Mr. Blaine, and then, over the following couple of weeks, we exchange a few emails in efforts to arrange a suitable time for him to call me. This turns out to be tricky – we're both busy, one of us (the global superstar one) considerably moreso than the other.

During this period I give some thought to what he might want, and I think I figure it out pretty quickly. Doubtful that he's interested in me as a performer, no, but there is one thing I do that regularly gets mistaken for a magic trick. I reckon he wants my tablecloth trick. And while this strikes me as the most likely thing by far, it's still slightly strange. It's not really the kind of trick for which he's known. In recent years he's spent most of his time standing on top of poles, or under ground, or in ice, or – most recently - being continuously electrocuted, so, really, he doesn't often get within spitting distance of anything remotely resembling a “ta-da”.

If I were a magician, I'd probably be quite star-struck, but honestly I'm more curious than anything else. It's not that I don't rate Blaine – I totally do. More than anyone else, he dragged his artform kicking and cussing into the modern era, and pioneered revolutionary ways of shooting magic for TV that have been shamelessly ripped-off by pretty much everyone that came after. Don't mistake my lack of excitement for aloofness – he's a hugely important figure in an art that sits right next to mine in the cutlery drawer of variety. He also comes across as – and I don't think I'm speaking out of turn here – a little eccentric. A tad off-kilter. And I like people like that very much. I know folks who know him, and they all told me the same thing – that he's very smart and passionate and cool. As they days went by, the prospect of chatting to him was becoming more and more interesting.

So, I went to and fro with “his people” for a little while, to the point that I began to suspect that I might be being toyed with slightly. I considered the possibility that I was being tested to see how quickly I returned messages and phone calls, as a way to gauging my keenness, so I never called back, always let them make the effort. I'm stubborn like that.

And eventually, at a pre-determined time, I got a phone call. “Please hold for David”. I giggled to myself, and then he was on the phone, sounding exactly the same as he does on TV. A friendly, warm, ultra-relaxed New York drawl. “Heyyyy Mat...really good to talk to ya....biiig fan..”, and he starts talking about my tablecloth trick, and quickly I realise that I was dead on about what he wanted.

He tells me about a TV special he's preparing for. His last one ever, he tells me. With bigger celebrities than he's ever had, and he starts reeling off names, George W Bush, Woody Allen, Robert DeNiro, Will Smith, Kanye West.. Sounds great, I say. Then he cuts to the chase. He loves the tablecloth trick, and he wants to do it on the show. He'd like me to fly out to New York, stay with him in his apartment, teach him how to do it, help supervise the shoot, and then fly home. Would I consider it? I tell him that I'll give it some thought and we agree to stay in touch and talk next week. And I hang up.

I've never experienced anything like this, and at first it throws me for a bit of a loop. My initial feeling is no. The trick is something I created. It's one of my signature tricks. If someone sees a famous magician doing it on TV, and then sees me doing it on stage, who are they going to assume took it from who? Not good. On the other hand, attachment is bad – there's much more to what I do than one trick, however unique. Sometimes I do feel that much of my work gets sidelined by me being “the tablecloth guy”, and that's frustrating. And, besides, collaborating with him on such a high-profile project might well open some doors that would otherwise stay hidden behind fake bookcases. Pros and cons then.

So I had a week or so of late night kitchen table conversations with my wife, where it became apparent that this situation had brought something to the surface in me. A feeling of anxious fragility, perhaps. A fear that I might lose control of something that I made, and love. Obviously whenever you make something and show it to people, you're essentially throwing it out into the world to be used, misused, ignored, remixed, or whatever – being ok with that is part of being a maker – and yes, it's a struggle, but it's supposed to be - but this was a little different. This was selling it to someone, and I honestly didn't know how I felt about it.

But after a while, we come up with a deal, the details of which are unimportant, but that would compensate me financially for lending him my trick, while crediting me publicly as the creator of it, and tying him to a one-time-only use. I email him the deal, and then we chat on the phone, and he says, basically, no. But he says this while telling me again that it's going to be his last ever TV special. He reels off the list of celebrities one more time. He tells me again how much he loves the trick. And I feel a little pressured. But I've decided that this is too important to me to be flexible on – this whole process is so weird and scary that I feel that the only way I can do this while keeping my mental shit together is to stick to my guns. So, I tell him that it's a shame we couldn't come to an arrangement, and we say goodbye and hang up.

He called one more time, and during that conversation I hoped to get a definite closure on it (mainly so I could write about it here), and he ummed and ahhhed, reeled off the celebs again, and said that there might still be a way to make it happen, and lets not write it off completely. It was all a little vague, so I thought it best to keep schtum. But the TV special aired a couple of weeks ago, so I think it's safe to talk about it now.

And that's that. And I still don't really know how I feel about it. On one hand, I'm glad that the trick is still all mine. The months and years I spent designing and perfecting it means that I do feel protective over it, and it's nice to still have exclusivity. If Blaine had done it on TV, I honestly don't think it would have impacted much on my day to day life, but my relationship with a piece of circus arts that has been a part of my bread and butter for a very long time would have changed, somehow.

But still.. he's a fascinating guy, and it would have been a blast to hang out with him in New York, and I'm sure working with him would have stretched my mind in a few very interesting directions. Oh, and there would also have been a metric assload of money, into the bargain, so there's that.

I think, though, it brings up some interesting questions about the nature of ownership of a trick. It's much more common for magicians to buy and sell tricks, rather than circus folk and street performers who tend to, for want of a better word, steal. As a magician friend told me, there are magicians who perform only to give a shop window to the tricks they have designed – selling those effects is where they make the real money. Then there are the less ethical – those who watch someone else perform an illusion, and reverse engineer it, so they can sell it themselves. There is theft in magic,of course, but there's also a well-established marketplace, than just doesn't really exist in my world.

In my show “Vaudeville Schmuck”, I talked about the joy of finding an old trick that hasn't seen a stage in a while and using it as inspiration for something new. “Take something old”, I'd say, “give it a spit and polish, put a twist on it, make it into something new, and then pass it to the next performer down the line”. That's how to advance an artform, and that's how I came up with the reverse tablecloth.

That's why I've always said, if you see someone do something, and take it for yourself, you're a hack. If you use it as inspiration for something new or different, you're an artist.

And Blaine, clearly and obviously, is no hack. He had enough respect to get in touch and ask, which is very much to his credit, and makes me think that my friends were right about him, and that he is a smart, cool guy. Staying and working with him in New York would, I think, have been ridiculous, inspiring fun. I'm happy with the way things ended up, but still allow myself a little regret for the adventure that didn't pan out.

I'll be performing my latest one man show "Showman"
as part of the London International Mime Festival,
from 21st - 25th of Jan 2014, at the Leicester Square Theatre.
You can find out more about the show, and book tickets, here.
I'd love you to come.


Jonathan Sharples said...

Fascinating - when you say the details are "unimportant", do you mean that, or are you not willing to share them? Because if you were willing, I'd be very interested to hear what was the dealbreaker both for him and for you.

Scott The Magician said...

Sounds to me like you did the right thing.

Were all performers and artists as ethical and honorable as the two of you...

Miss Honey Bear said...

What a wonderful post. I admire you for your integrity in keeping the act yours while also offering a fair deal to Blaine should he have gone ahead and used it. This is inspiring for those of us in other fields too.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Mat. I can't imagine how it would have felt for someone I've rated (and who is regarded so highly in the public sphere) to take a personal interest in my work. That said, and this is the part that wound me up about some of "Fool Us", I don't feel I could part with one of my pet routines for hard cash.

If Blaine had changed his pitch each time, rather than restating the initial pull, do you think you would have come to a different conclusion?

Miranda B said...

Wow Mat - that is so incredible but I definitely think you did the right thing and its amazing that he contacted you and all credit to you that he wanted your trick. Who knows what might have happened if you had decided to go along with his plan. Will certainly try and come and see you in 2014 in Leicester Square or elsewhere?! Happy New Year to you xx