Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Magical Conversation with Peter Samelson

There are few magicians today who take your breath away. Not just because of their chops, but because of their sense of style and finesse. Peter Samelson is the epitome of that magician. I'm sure some of you have ad the pleasure of seeing Peter perform on video. Let me say, video simply does not do justice. You have to see him perform in person, and I urge you to see him at Monday Night Magic here in NYC, or if you are really lucky, see him at one of the conventions in a town near you. But for now, enjoy our Magical Conversation!

MK: Where were you born? Is that where you grew up?
PS: Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and raised between Princeton, NJ and Ann Arbor, finishing Jr. High and High School in Ann Arbor. Mid youth 4-8 was spent in Princeton, where my father was at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) for part of that time and while my parents were getting a divorce. My mother moved us back to Ann Arbor after my father moved back to teach at the University of Michigan, Department of Mathematics.
MK: What first drew you into the magical arts?
PS: At the age of six my Great Aunt Gertrude Sergievsky gave me a Magic Kit for Xmas. Initially thrilled, my disappointment that there was no real magic in the kit lead me to abandon magic, until, at the age of 11, I saw a magician perform at an elementary school assembly. I unfortunately do not remember the name of the performer, but the two effects that stick in my mind are the Lota Bowl and the Serpent Silk. I bugged my mother to help me find books on Magic and she, in turn, asked her friends in the academic community, which yielded a copy of Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic, a volume I still have in my library. I did my shopping for effects first at the local store, the Blue Front, where boxed magic tricks were on a spinning spindle situated right next to the adult magazine section. There was also the Johnson Smith catalog, where I could learn to “Throw Your Voice” and buy X-Ray Specs, which would allow me to see through people’s clothing. And eventually, of course, Abbott’s.
MK: Who were your inspirations when you first started, and if they have now changed, who are they, and why have they changed?

PS: My only exposure to Magic, other than that school assembly I mentioned above, was Don Alan on Magic Ranch and probably a performer at a birthday party or two. There was a very short period where the Magic Club I founded had some training from a guy who was temporarily in Ann Arbor, who did magic and Yo-Yo tricks.

MK: Did you join any magic clubs when you first started?

PS: Nope. I started Magic Clubs, founding one in Junior High School and then carrying on and establishing one at Pioneer High School. To the best of my knowledge, that club is still in existence. I have never been a joiner, perhaps a deep seated suspicion of organizations that comes from my family experiences in Europe during WWII and my time in the Boy Scouts and Summer Camp. I have always hated being told what to do and having others decide right and wrong for me. That said, I was a member of the Marching Band, Orchestra and the Junior Theater. In High School, my girlfriend’s father was a member of the local IBM so I had access to his library and met magicians through him, but never was moved to join either the IBM or SAM.

MK: Did you have a mentor? As we are always constantly learning, do you still have mentors or trusted eyes when trying out new material?

PS: Never had a mentor, but found inspiration in watching other performers, including magicians. I had given up magic, for all intents and purposes, during the late 60’s. I felt the government was doing a good enough job fooling people that I did not have to contribute to the confusion of fact and fiction. Up at the Magic Cellar in San Francisco I had the great good fortune to see Tony Slydini perform and he had the same effect on me that the magician at my elementary school assembly had had. I was inspired and energized. I had experienced the shock of real magic. No moves, no sleight of hand. Magic.

MK: Do you remember your first act? What was the lineup of illusions you presented in that act?

PS: The very earliest memories I have of effects include building a tip-over production box, straight out of Modern Magic, and some Adams pocket tricks including Coin in Cash-Register (coin slide) and a plastic sword that penetrated a round block of wood when it was inserted in a tube. Later was the Card Penetration Frame, the Hanson Rice Bowls, Temple Screens, and Zombie.

MK: It was great to see you perform at Monday Night Magic. How did MNM begin?

PS: Monday Night Magic began 10 years ago, when Michael Chaut decided that there should be a place in NY and called me up to see if I would help make it a reality. I said “yes.” I proposed that Michael bring Jamy aboard and he did. That lead to Todd coming along. And Michael had known Frank Brents for a long time, so Frank became part of the board. We started with a single night a month at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and four months later went to weekly. And that was ten years ago.

MK: Your performance showcased some of the classics of magic, proving that they still have the power to entertain, however, I feel that the reason they still worked so well, was due to your elegant style. How did you go about choosing your style and character, and can you elaborate on the choice of material in your act?

PS: Pack small and play big. Find effects you like, dig into them to see what they are about, and write a script that is magical, theatrical and gets your point of view across.

MK: How important is it to you for magicians to perform original material as opposed to performing proven material with their own presentation? Or is it important at all?

PS: Lead or follow. As you point out, I believe that there is value in the classics, but push against the boundaries by trying to create effects that reflect my vision even when it exceeds or strays from existing effects. Often it turns out that someone has already thought of it, but learning it for yourself is important... Then find out what others have done. In college, I produced a version of Macbeth in the style of the Japanese Noh Theater. Only after I had begun this journey did I discover that Kurosawa had already created Throne of Blood. As soon as I had finished our production, I tracked down a way to watch it, to see what I could have added to the version I had created, not through imitation, but through inspiration. Ultimately, it is about what it is about.
MK: How do you go about creating an original effect?
PS: Find an effect I like, dig into it to see what it is about, and write a script that is magical, theatrical and gets my point of view across. Getting to an idea takes different paths. Sometimes it appears out of an image generated by a story or a piece of music, and sometimes the effect comes first, followed by the exploration of why it speaks to me. Both routes can lead to an original effect or an original presentation. Or both.

MK: If you could have a conversation with any magician who has now passed away, who would you choose, and what would you ask them?

PS: Don’t think about it. Would rather have a conversation with my parents who have passed away.

MK: Do you have a favorite magic book?

PS: For beginners, Bill Tarr’s Now You See It, Now You Don’t is a great way to get going. The Magic for Dummies book is great and for more advanced workers, Tamariz’s Five Points of Magic, which was recently republished by the Hermetic Press.

MK: Do you feel with the direction both magicians and magic dealers are taking with the fry your audience with one trick at a time, the art of building a routine is dying? And how do you think this will impact magic in the future?

PS: Fry once, rinse and repeat is only useful for some types of street performers, but those who make serious money build routines, whether they be street performers, close up workers or stage magicians or mentalists. One trick can get a quick video reaction but a performance needs to be built. That takes structure and understanding or incredible instinct.

MK: How has performing at The Magic Castle changed or helped your career?
PS: Yes and no. One might argue that performing there helped put me on the cover of Genii, but working out there only reinforced friendships I had already established. Some work came my way from the West Coast, but almost everything that was significant grew out of my friendships in the Magic World established on the East Coast. That said, I was thrilled to be able to work for the Professor and meet some of the legends out at the Castle, and the Close Up Gallery is one of the best performing venues for Formal Close Up in the world.

MK: You performed before Princess Stephanie, how did that come about?
PS: Performing for the Rich and Famous leads to performing for the Rich and Famous. I was working the World Cruise of the QEII and met a family from Paris that was traveling in the Queen’s Suites. They had four. Each was listed as $340,000 for the whole cruise, and they were doing most of it. I was invited up for dinner and did a private performance for them after coffee and drinks. It would have been my pleasure to do the show for them, as they were generous in other ways, but they insisted on tipping. And tipping very well. Later in the year I got a call asking if I would fly to Paris to work a surprise birthday party for the younger brother who was turning some year in his 20’s. I flew in a couple of days early and checked in to the Hotel de L’Opera, where they had me staying. The party was held at a private club, and was filled with celebrities such as Alain Proust and Nikki Lauda (Grand Prix drivers,) Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top,) Princess Stephanie, astronauts and others. They wanted 20 minutes of Close Up and I worked it hard.. Many parties followed, and they included me in them all. Truly an iceberg of experience of which this is just the tip.

MK: Are you performing magic full time? If so, what was your last non-magical gig? If not, what is your daytime gig?

PS: Although I am performing professionally, in close-up and stage for both the private and corporate markets, I am not making my entire livelihood from Magic,. I run a company, The Afterglow Group, that does consulting for corporate clients and production of multi-media content for on-line and interactive use. This material uses video, Flash, Director, and various graphic sources to deliver advertising, identity and training solutions.

MK: What’s the one piece of advice you have for a person starting out in magic?

PS: Get absorbed by all elements of culture. Spend as much time learning about theater, dance and social interactions as you do about Magic. Find Magic you like and try to learn as much as possible about it as you can. Find all the variations, learn one or two and then find a professional worker who can help flesh out your understanding of the moves, timing and thinking.

MK: Any closing thoughts?

PS: Monday Night Magic has been a wonderful opportunity. It has kept me in touch with the Magic World, even when I was pulled out of the limelight. I urge everyone to come down and see what we have going on.

No comments: