Raymond Crowe Transcript

Why do you believe that magic has maintained popularity over time?

Magic still works because I think one of the things that magic has to offer that other performing arts don’t is wonder. That’s one commodity that magic should have, doesn’t necessarily always have. And I think that taps into something either from childhood or thinking “wouldn’t it be great if you could do that?” And there’s a delight in, sometimes people say that they enjoy being fooled, I think it’s probably more that they enjoy the experience of it.

My thing is I think that, in this high tech world, people like low tech. And most magic is accomplished low-tech.

Using methods that are hundreds of years old, usually, and they relied more on the performer. What I think when people see good magic and they have a good experience with magic, that’s when you hear that (breaths in) intake of breath. And you don’t hear it all of the time, but it’s neat. It’s really nice.

It depends on the performer and how they approach the subject, whether they’re the trickster, the all-powerful magician or whether they’re using it as a vehicle to present their personality – so instead of singing, they might use magic as their device to tell a story, offer an opinion.

How would you describe your style of performance?

With my hand-shadow routine I do, I think that is more magical than most magic. The reason that works is that not everything is shown. People have to fill in the spaces. So there was an argument – there was a wonderful magician who died quite a few years ago from the Netherlands, he was a theorisist, if that’s a real word (leans in, squeaky voice) I don’t even know if that’s real. He thought that magic had the opportunity to do what every other art-form does. It can be drama, it can be comedy, it can be dance-like.

So what I do? I’m the trickster, I’m the jokester. I have a love of silent movies; I studied mime for a number of years, so there’s a movement quality to my work that gives it a different resonance and a different attack. Our outlook now is (I say ours because I use a director as well) to try and find – we have a couple of pieces in the show that you will see that kind of get close to the (intake of breath) moment – but we’re not necessarily always looking for that any more. We’re becoming more an amalgamation of a lot of skills and avenues and that’s why we went for the title ‘unusualist’ rather than ‘magician’ because there is a lot of prejudice with people against magicians from either having bad experiences with semi-professionals or amateurs perhaps, or being exposed to bad magic tricks when they were a child, from their parents or something. (4:16) So I think at the moment we’re in a transition stage where we’re trying to find, we’re defining our direction, which way we want to go. So what you’ll see tonight is like a vaudeville show with lots of skits pieced together and we have a few linking elements, but it’s very vague, it’s not thematic. And again, I’m a great believer in accessibility in theatre and what magic has is, because it’s interactive a lot of the time, it has the ability to breakdown barriers. Often when people see magic, it is their first experience with theatre. And, although we’re not overly theatrical, we have theatrical elements: we have a theatre setting. At the moment, what we’re looking for is a charm, and most people who have seen the show say it is charming, it harks back to another time, it is nostalgic. I certainly wear coat and tails because I enjoy running around in those clothes so we have a resonance in the past which we love. We love vaudeville and we love corny tricks. I don’t think we have anything in there where I’m the ‘all-powerful-being’, because I’m not that character.

What is about magic that drew you in? What was the moment that you decided to pursue that as your career?

In my house there was a magic prop that a relative had left years before my generation of the family came along. And I used to play with that when I was sick. It was just some little blocks that changed colours in a tube. Then I liked puppets and I liked ventriloquism (speaks to his hand) “Did you?” “Yes, I did.” And then mum and dad got me a little magic kid for Christmas when I was maybe eight or nine and I used to do little magic shows at school, little puppet shows at school. And then, when I was about 15, I used to write to a magician. We have a piece in the show dedicated to a magician in Adelaide, Eugene Raymond who my son’s named after, Eugene. He would encourage me to read books and try to keep me away my magicians for a while, at least away from amateurs because he believed you had to do it yourself. He grew up in the depression, he only had one book of magic, nobody to teach him, so he wouldn’t to see if I was at least willing to work.

I got to be about 15 and then I found out that in my very street there lived another magician, an amateur magician, who originally was from the UK and moved over in the late 60s, early 70s with his family. He had grown up in a time in the UK when there was a burst of what they call close-up magic, sleight of hand etc. So I used to go down every night, knock on his door and borrow a book. And then I’d come back and pick another one. So I’d wait until I’d see his car, poor chap was a fitter and turner so he’d work all day, and I’d see his car drive down and I’d wait ten minutes and then walk down, (childlike voice)“Peter, can I have another book?” So he had a really good thing he did to me, actually, because he wasn’t sure that I was reading the books, and I probably wasn’t, I was skimming them. So he said to me, “In this book, there is a trick that is worth the price of the book, it’s one of the greatest tricks ever. Find it.” So I came back the next night and said, “Oh, it’s this one.” And he said, “No, it’s not.” So I’d come back every night and say, “It must be this one.” “No.” And then eventually he said, “There is no best trick, I just wanted to make sure you were reading it.” (laughs) Which is fantastic, isn’t it? And what’s happening now, because of Youtube and DVDs, people are now learning from watching other people and what’s good about that is that you get your skills up faster, but you end up imitating the performer. (8:54) I’m in two minds about it, because sometimes I’m jealous because I had to study through books, but through a book you interpret the work. You may not fully understand what the author has written and you come up with something new. And DVDs are a fast learning tool because you can see it again and again and again. It is amazing as a tool, but you end up with the same rhythm and the same pattern as the performer you are imitating. It’s like if you were learning music and you were only learning from one teacher, you would absorb their skills.

So with mime, what happens is when I was about 16 or 16, I went to Melbourne to see this magician named Ross Skiffington, who was really Australia’s greatest illusionist. He had a very theatrical style. I had never been to theatre before. He used all of these lights, sound, it was just wow! He did different characters in his show and he had a white-faced character. I have another friend, who is now my director, Doug, he used to do a white-faced character and I thought, “Oh that must be mime.” I didn’t know what mime was. I literally went home and I opened up the paper and there was a sign that said “Australian Mime Theatre”. And I thought “Wow!” So I rang up this lady (I was thinking of doing another course at the time which was a more general, sort of show-bizzy, light-weight course, but the man who ran it, who became a life-long friend, I knew could get me work if I went to that one. So I was debating which one to go to. Hers was twice a week, four hours a week. When I called her she screamed down the phone, she said “No! Children in my country, they work from five in the morning until 10 o’clock at night. And you lazy Australians cannot even do two hours a day!”

When I got there, she was this little, short woman, who was 60 something then, she’s now 95, and I thought I had been had because there were all girls doing ballet, finishing a movement.  Because it was a movement class, then there was mime for an hour. But it was the best thing I ever did because she gave my discipline. She was the first Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in 1938 to dance to the Prokofia score in Bruno in Czeslovakia so she came from that period where you just worked hard. Uncompromising, you do it until you get it right and you have to feel it all of the time. So she was really responsible for giving me a discipline and giving me a stepping formula to work through things. I’m still developing my approach, but I have a skill to fall back on, a trained skill. And that has been invaluable to my work as I can incorporate it. Every piece has a moment of that understanding and clarity. (leans in) It doesn’t always work. It doesn’t always work, but it gives you a base. (12:16)

I think anybody who is studying magic needs to go out, like singers have to learn movement, they have to learn to work with their voice to be competent. I don’t see why a variety performer, as a magician, should be any different. But what magic does, because you have to spend a long amount of time sitting in front of a mirror or a video camera, practising, “Where is the coin? Can I see it?” You become your own director and people can become quite defensive if they’ve never been in a class situation where they’re corrected. So that’s a shame, if they don’t get into a formal class where the teacher will say, “yes, you will do that now” and “no, that’s not good enough”. I think that would raise our level in Australia. Certainly it does overseas and it’s starting to happen here. I never get to see other people because I’m a solo performer, travelling.

Is there a certainly personality type that you find is usually drawn to magic?

Yes. Usually boys, although that’s changing now. They had the World Congress of Magic in China and certainly they had both male and female participants. But traditionally he was the nerdy kid who had no friends, and didn’t know how to talk to people. So, by doing a magic trick, he then had something that they didn’t know. Finally, he had something, or she had something, although usually girls are much more social creatures than males. So you find that usually they were lonely kids and this was something they could do that separated them out from the norm. So maybe they weren’t the Rugby player, or musical, so this gave them an opportunity to do something that made them respond: ‘wow, you must be clever’. So that becomes the problem too with magic, how you present it. Whether you present it as a challenge, or whether you present it as, “I’m smarter than you” which I guess a challenge is. But also, it’s the same thing I was saying about the DVDs, there are only so many people who are unique and individual enough in any field that will find their own way. (15:10) And there’s room for everybody. There’s room for people who do it just as they have seen, who imitate their heroes. And we all imitate because you can’t start from nothing. Same with everything, unless you’re a liar or you grew up on the moon (laughs).

I’m curious to know what have been your performance highlights.

I think, for me, we did a magic conference in the Netherlands and we had a lot of technical problems in the show, we were very ambitious in what we were doing and I went to do my shadows at the end of the show and my screen fell down because there was a vacuum in the room. But we got through it and in the end we got a standing ovation which we didn’t know about until two days later because you can’t see on stage with the lights. So that was kind of cute and that was kind of nice because we really only had one magic trick that we did. It was a little ball trick which was a variation of what I do in the show now. That was great.

Another nice one was when the Youtube clip hit, that was just astounding because I didn’t put it out there, it just happened and suddenly the whole world loved it. So that was neat, the affirmations were great.

Yeah, I looked at the last night and there were over 1.5 million views.

There are lots of versions out there, so it will never peak beyond the number of the different websites. So if I had a dollar for every hit (laughs) I’d be very happy. But what it did, it did what you couldn’t do, was people emailed it to each other originally before it went up on Youtube, that’s how it got there, it got sent straight to the producers of Letterman, and they booked it within five days. People send their tapes for years to Letterman to try to get on there. Then a week later, the World Variety Performance in the UK booked it so I got to perform for the Queen. Which was not a big deal for me, I’m not a royalist, but all of my heroes had performed on this show so it was kind of neat. So as a variety show, and a variety performer, it just felt great. Because I wasn’t nervous because I know I can do the shadows, the difference from magic is that with the shadows, I can see it. I see what you see, well a version of what you see. But with magic, you have to imagine what I want you to see so, if I’m hiding something in my hand, I’ve got to be conscious of my angle, you know, muscle memory has to come in to play. You just hope that you’ve hit the mark, not always, but that’s the challenge. You go through the routine and when it starts getting sloppy you just go back to the rehearsal space and pull it apart, look at it again. Because also, the fear is that as you get older, and I’m in a transitional stage at the moment with my age, is that things that I was doing in my youth, physically won’t be possible in another five or 10 years. So at the moment, I’m just really enjoying the physicality of this show. And just thinking about slowing things down. That’s the thing as well, a mature performer doesn’t have to run around everywhere. It’s a really interesting thing because you get to design, write, although I employ writers sometimes, there are a couple of things in here that a guy in here, that a guy in LA, he’s a magician and comedy writer helped with commissioned works… He helped set up the structure for me. Every piece is like a little play. It has to have a premise, beginning, middle and an end… I think that’s one of our secrets, although I make no secret of it. We’re not afraid to bring someone else in. I’m not precious about the work, I’m the one who gets clapped at the end (laughs) I get to play it. But if I can get somebody who can make it bigger, make it grander, why wouldn’t you? Theatre does that, music does that, dance does that. But magic, because it has the solo performer, finds it sometimes hard to do that. It’s hard because you might work on something for a year and then someone says, “Well I can see it.”

It takes at least a year before a routine feels solid. Some people are naturals, but I’d rather work on it over time and get it right. And I think that’s the quality of magic from doing it again and again and again and again. You want to get it right. The other thing is, if something fails, nobody dies. When you’re starting out, if you’re trick fails, it’s death. Because you feel ruined, but really, “who cares?” it’s a magic trick, it’s not something that’s going to change the world. That’s the fun of trying to go, “oh, it’s going wrong, how do I get out of it?” because you don’t want to let the audience down.

Have you had any disasters?

Yes, all of the time. Well, not all of the time. When something happens you work out how it can not happen again and so the old, “you learn form your mistakes” is really true. You can rehearse something for ages until you get in front of an audience and then suddenly because it’s a different space, things don’t go smoothly. But fortunately, nobody dies and you just blame somebody else (laughs).

Have you ever been hurt physically?

Oh yes. Not necessarily during a performance, I’ve been quite lucky. Oh once I was doing this trick where you jump in and out of a box and your partner will be locked in a bag inside of a case and you stand on top of the cloth and you go “one, two, three” and then she’s there and you’re not. One of the first times I ever did this was 20 something years ago and once I was disappearing down, I hit my leg, I still have a scar somewhere, and I thought I had broken it. But fortunately that was in rehearsal, so I thought oh well I won’t do that again (laughs). And the other thing you don’t think about is that you have to rehearse in your costume because things on you affect where hidden things are. On that same night, we had a trick where the girl had to secretly come out of this box underneath this cloth and grow and then she would appear, but the theme was a Cinderella Ball so there was this pumpkin that would float up, up top and then she would be there as Cinderella, you see, so we hired this dress, but we didn’t check it with the dress. So she had this (23:33) bow on it and as she went up, the bow got caught on this box that she was climbing out of. So she was trapped! But we were naïve; we just didn’t understand that you have to account for things like that. So that’s why now when we rehearse, we have to have everything set up, in place, so that physically we know how things will go. Like any stage show, but certainly with magic it’s a little more precious. Because you’re dealing with mechanical objects and your sweat and all of these things come into play, into effect as well as your adrenaline.

Where do you get your inspiration for the tricks that you include in your show?

You just work on ideas. With the shadows, for example, I played with shadows and though, oh that could be fun. And I used to do it a 1920s version of Paper Moon, which is an old 1920s song. But I only performed that for kids in a school show I was doing. But they didn’t understand the song, its meaning had passed in time. I needed a song that would encompass animals and things like that. One day I had to do a performance, and they wanted something big without much set up time. I had avoided ‘What A Wonderful World’ because at the time there were adverts using it and it was really an abused song and I thought, “oh, I’ll just do it”. And I just improvised to it and I just improvised the baby’s hand on the day and I went (gasp) because it’s my son’s hand and I just kept up with that. Now that was 12, 13 years ago. So that’s how long that routine has been going on. And I keep finding new moments in it.

Psychology of magic?

I think that for each performer of magic it’s a slightly different story everyone may use slightly different methods. I have been around magic for so long that sometimes I forget people are trying to work it out. For me it’s not about the trick anymore it’s about what we’re trying to do. We’re either using it for comedy or we’re using it to say something or we’re using it because it’s a really net thing. And so that’s why we put a couple of bits of magic into this show that were fillers. We use them as fillers just to make the time up. One of those is a very easy trick with a coke bottle. And it went really well. And I was talking to the director and we had forgotten how people perceive things. We have to go back to the basics again and the secret is simplicity. The plot has to be clear, precise and if you’ve got all of the elements correct then they shouldn’t see it coming and we’re moving along fast enough that we’re hoping they’re carried away with the story, of the joke or whatever and they’re like, ‘oh, he got me again!’

We’re more interested in the visual aspect of the show: things that float, things that evolve, things that are not necessarily just cards…

Magic tricks are a little bit like jokes because of the surprise ending. You think it’s that and then it’s something else, usually, but not always, sometimes it can be just what you’re thinking.

Sometimes you read old books. I read old books about magic because there’s lots of stuff hidden in there.

… SHOW technical director, nick who does lighting and sound.

… We love the simplicity of what we do and that’s the charm of it. You see David Copperfield and it’s astounding, but it’s a huge light show, with amazingly designed boxes or contrivances, it’s beautifully done.

8 billiard ball trick…

Virtually everything in the show I have designed and made. So we’re at a really interesting point where we only have two or three tricks in the show that anybody else does. So that’s really great because it’s a hard slog to try to be original. Even though we feel like we’re something from the past, we hope it’s got a freshness and innocence about it, rather than a snideness. We’re still sophisticated, but that’s our hope anyway, whether we achieve that or not is another question.

What do you strive for when you’re performing?

Consistency… to keep the focus, to make sure that mechanically things are working, although that’s a minor thing for me now. My mime teacher used to say, “Ray, you must feel it, or it is empty.” And I think that’s what the shadows have. The shadows have a heart, and certainly an ideal. The song is such a beautiful song. I don’t know if magic can achieve that because magic is inherently sneaky. So, with the shadows there is nothing to discover. It’s two hands and a light, you understand that. You want to make sure that you’re in the moment.

“It’s not whether or not you win, it’s whether or not we win.”

“It’s a nice opportunity that the shadows have given me, to be able to dream a little bit wider.”



  1. […] Raymond Crowe Transcript Posted by: Melany | August 30, 2009 […]

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