The Magic Table at FADO in Toronto, 24 September 2022

I’ve arrived in Toronto for rehearsals of “The Magic Table” with Marcin Kedzior. We’ll be performing this for the FADO performance art center at 401 Richmond Street West (4th floor) at 7PM on Saturday, September 24th. Tickets for this On the Table / Off the Table performance series are free, but you must register for a ticket here if you will attend. Hope to see you there!

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Magic Design Workshop — August 13, 2022 — Sebastopol, CA

“Orbit” performance (2019)

Do you love optical illusions? Are you a maker, artist, hobbyist or performer? I’m excited to be teaching an in-person magic design workshop in Sebastopol, California, on August 13, 2022 at Chimera makerspace:

I’ll be sharing tips, tricks and resources that I’ve used to make magic prototypes for Cirque du Soleil, an illusion installation for Burning Man, and other art that has allowed me to travel the world.

Click here to reserve your spot

This workshop is limited to 10 participants to ensure quality, hands-on instruction and a safe environment.

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FISM 2022 in Quebec City

Spectators gather before the Tuesday night show

FISM 2022 is in full swing in Quebec City right now. It’s exciting to be attending the Olympics of magic for the first time.

The FISM World Championship of Magic has been held every three years since 1952. This week over 2,000 magicians from all over the world are here to perform, teach, or share magic in one way or another. It’s lovely to be here, to be reconnecting with old friends, and to be meeting new ones.

Since this is my first magic convention since the pandemic began, it’s also an opportunity for me to practice masking and taking other COVID-19 precautions while still participating in a larger professional gathering. If you are in Quebec City and would like to see one of the shows this week or would like to attend one day in particular, various FISM 2022 passes are available online.

Many thanks to Renée-Claude Auclair, Pierre Hamon and the entire FISM team for all of the work they put in to make this event happen!

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Alternative United Voices

Earlier this year, teacher Colin Throness invited me to judge a magic-themed poetry and fiction contest for students from eight different alternative high schools in Montreal. This is such a wonderful initiative created by him and other members of the Montreal English School Board community to encourage and reward young writers. We announced the award-winning entries on June 22, 2021 during an online ceremony. I performed a magic show for the students and teachers on Zoom as part of the event. A free PDF version of the complete collection is available for download on the Alternative United website. Here is the forward to the collection:

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Circus Summer Seminar 2021

Thinking about circus with Dr. Patrick Leroux, Keely Whitelaw and virtual participants of ENGL 638: The Dramaturgy of Research Creation

The university and live performance are finally coming back to life again. Yesterday, it felt amazing to give a research talk “in-person” at Concordia University rather than from my home office laptop. There were three humans in the room for the “Balancing Art-Making and Scientific Analysis” session of Dr. Leroux’s fourth annual summer seminar dedicated to circus. The other speakers in that morning’s panel — Jonathan Priest (Bristol) and Gaia Vimercati (Milan) — along with student participants from around the world were projected onto a giant screen. This was a hybrid experience that felt much closer to the pre-pandemic exchanges of ideas that I’ve enjoyed during the last three summer circus seminars. Just having others physically present in the room as you listen to other presentations and deliver a presentation feels much more human than the many 100% virtual conference experiences that I’ve had during this pandemic. We were even able to have lunch afterward to continue the conversation. What a concept!

Professor Leroux began the seminar with a reflection on his experiences adapting Hamlet to tight wire performances with collaborators from Montreal’s National Circus School. Dr. Jonathan Priest then presented multiple tools, dimensions and registers of research creation that inform his activities at Circomedia in the UK. Gaia Vimercati followed with an overview of the current traditional and contemporary circus activities in Italy. She is co-director of Quattrox4, an exciting, new contemporary circus school in Milan. I presented last and gave a talk titled “Fascination at Burning Man: From Cirque du Soleil Prototype to Participatory Visual Art Installation.”

It feels so good to be collaborating in-person again. Now, it’s time to go see some Montreal Completement Cirque shows (July 8-18)! I’ve already seen Animal by Cirque Alfonse (the first in-person show at the TOHU since the pandemic began) and can’t wait to see more.

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Adaptation in the Age of Zoom

A screenshot from an ENGL 398.E Magic Languages lecture at Concordia University this fall.

2020 is a year of rapid adaptation for everyone. Like many, Zoom is now the default mode for my teaching activities. Right now I’m teaching at Concordia University and the National Circus School of Montreal (with some workshops and consulting thrown in). The first few online sessions were a challenge. A lot of technological juggling is required to connect to students, to deliver engaging content and to combat the Zoomified flattening of the teacher-student relationship. There have been some strange moments. I remember an embarrassing squeal of feedback caused by my computer at the beginning of a lecture. It sounded like a failed sound test at a rock concert traveling through a dystopian space-time continuum. I will also never forget watching a student join a course via smartphone while driving a car (“Are you driving?!” I asked. “Yes, but it’s fine . . .” was the response. I was able to convince this student to wait until getting home before catching up with us). We’ve all learned a lot since then. In a spirit of adaptation, here are three techniques that have brought more meaning and joy to my online teaching.

Meet Every Student

The first technique is a deceptively simple one that I learned from Dr. Linda Hutcheon (author of A Theory of Adaptation and intellectual force of nature). When I was a student crammed into one of her over-enrolled graduate seminars at the University of Toronto, I remember her preparing a sign-up sheet at the end of the first class for all of us to meet with her for fifteen minutes to get to know one another. “I want to know what all of you are working on!” She said. This act, going above and beyond the typical office hours to connect with each and every one of us, was a clear sign that she appreciated each one of us despite the size of our class. She wasn’t obligated to do this, she chose to. Do such one-on-one meetings demand extra time? Yes. If you multiply 15-minutes by 48 (the number of students enrolled in my ENGL 398: Magic Languages course), the result is an extra 12 hours of labor. The returns on that investment, however, are immensely beneficial for creating a meaningful relationship between teachers and students. I would like to thank Linda for modeling this for me when I was a graduate student. I would also like to thank Vice-Provost Sandra Gabriele and her Innovation in Teaching and Learning team at Concordia University for supporting faculty members as they pour many extra hours into their teaching efforts during this pandemic to ensure high-quality instruction.

Live Group Discussions & Google Docs

Another teaching tip that is excellent for building community in the online classroom, comes from Dr. Alexandra Kovacs (University of Victoria). After a 15- to 30-minute lecture providing context for a week’s readings and theoretical concepts, I share a Google document containing a question with all students in the course and give them the ability to edit that document. Participants are then randomly put into groups of 5-6 students to respond to that question and to record observations (one or two students typically become notetakers for their group). Students meet and engage with members in their community this way. The thoughts of each smaller group are visible to all of us in that document in real time, which means that they contribute to a larger collective discussion. This document can then be referenced later for inspiration when students are thinking through essay prompts. Perhaps the most important aspect of this, however, is the mixing, meeting and engagement of students with one another in class to alleviate some of the intense isolation resulting from the “new not-quite-normal” of 2020.

Visiting Experts

The last technique I’ll share in this post is focused on diversifying intellectual dialogue and comes from Professor John Mayberry at York University. When I was brainstorming online teaching strategies with colleagues this summer, I spoke to John on the phone who suggested inviting experts to join the class from time to time for a short 15-30 minute dialogue. This plays to one of the strengths of our current life online. It is much easier and more economical right now to transport ourselves anywhere in the world. Why have students listen to long monologues that risk Zoom fatigue, when I can introduce them to some of the very creative writers and authors whose work they’re studying? So far, I’ve had experts on Shakespearean witchcraft (Dr. Jennifer McDermott), colonial conjuring (Dr. Graham Jones), and the early trick films of Georges Méliès (Dr. Matthew Solomon) exchange with the students. These conversations are so intellectually meaningful and make me feel so good that sometimes I completely forget that I’m teaching online. More than a few times, I’ve turned off the computer feeling the rush of adrenaline that comes with being part of a live online panel, delivering a lecture, or interviewing a respected colleague in a way that I know is offering my students rare insights into specialized fields.

There they are. Three tips and tricks are crucial components of my current pedagogy. It’s also important to have good hardware for teaching online, of course. But rather than write about the gear that I’ve invested in, I want to share these fundamental communication techniques for digital instruction. We are all striving to connect with each other. These strategies are helping my students to learn and to exchange ideas online. What’s working for you?

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Jugging and Magic Interview w/Nathan Biggs-Penton

A “Sleight-of-Hand” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “dexterous trick or feat; a piece of nimble juggling or conjuring.” So, I was immediately intrigued when I saw that juggler and circus artist Nathan Biggs-Penton released the first of three club juggling videos with that title. Clicking on the next image in this post will take you to the youtube account of its supporter TurboFest where you can watch all four minutes of it.

Juggling, research and video : Nathan Biggs-penton in collaboration with Turbo 418 /
Images : Cami Lapage Acosta / Music : Dog Head (https://thedoghead.bandcamp.com/album…)

Magic is a language. Sleight-of-hand is one of its dialects. What I love about this virtual number made during lockdown is how the micro-movement it focuses on is inspired by the physical vocabulary of magic as a performing art. Biggs-Penton manipulates two clubs effortlessly with his fingers, hands and wrists staying loosely in contact with them. There are some excellent toss juggling accents when clubs leave the body to be switched or trapped, but they’re so subtle and smooth that we almost don’t feel them. The emphasis remains on the hypnotic swinging of the clubs that is so light and open-handed that it often seems they manipulate themselves. This effect is particularly strong during sequences like the one from minute 2:20 to 2:25 when the juggler looks away and the objects carry on.

Jugglers and magicians are all object manipulators. And though its true that during the last 150 years or so the definitions of the word “juggler” and the word “magician” have become more compartmentalized and discipline-specific, it will surprise most to learn that from 1100 to 1857 in the English language “juggling” was defined as “the practice of trickery or deception.” For 757 years the name was shared and the connection remains. Look no further than the hand movements of Slydini manipulating two cigarettes (instead of two clubs) to some equally smooth jazz:

The takeaway, I hope, is that the aesthetics of close-up magic can be applied to other props and circus disciplines in an artistically meaningful way without making those props vanish, appear, transform and so forth. Though it’s great when that happens too.

Videos number two and three of Nathan Biggs-Penton’s series are also available on the TurboFest Facebook page . I hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I do. (A few more links mentioned in the interview are posted below . . .

***

Acting for Climate

“Paysages dynamiques” collective performance

Incredible Flying Objects in Winchester Virginia

Jay Gilligan’s juggling research

“Nightingale” by John Witte

A magical juggling act by Yann Frisch

L’École de Cirque de Québec

FISM – the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques 

The Magic Play teaser

In & Of Itself by Derek Delgaudio and Frank Oz

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Engl 398: Magic Languages at Concordia University

El malabarista o El juglar by Remedios Varo

In just a couple weeks, I get to begin teaching what would have been a dream course for me when I was an undergraduate.

“Engl 398 — Magic Languages: Written, Oral and Visual Traditions of Conjuring” is open for registration at Concordia University’s department of English.

This special topics course examines how individuals express and experience magic through various storytelling media. Texts related to conjuring by Reginald Scot, Shakespeare, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Adelaide Herrmann, Jorge Luis Borges and others will be explored with conceptual tools from theories of adaptation, postcolonialism, cinema studies and performance studies. A special emphasis will be placed on the so-called Golden Age of stage conjuring in the West (1880-1930) and how scientific technologies, exoticism, and colonialism from that period are at once present and questioned by contemporary performance today.

I’ve spent over 100 hours designing this course, curating its reading list, and confirming the participation of experts from diverse fields related to everything from 16th- to 21st-century magic. I cannot wait to see how Concordia students engage with this material and respond to it with their own voices. If you know anyone who should be in this course, please share this post with them.

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Signor Falconi in Quebec City: A Conjuring Performance in 1808

Excerpt from theCourier de Quebec 26 October 1808

Today’s magic history find is evidence that Signior Falconi (1780-1816) gave some of the earliest stage conjuring performances as well as a phantasmagoria show in Canada when he visited Quebec City in October, 1808. Ads, reviews and letters from the Courier de Quebec newspaper indicate that he performed from October 15 to October 25 that year at the Union Hotel.

Falconi emigrated from Italy to Santo Domingo and performed sophisticated conjuring shows that showcased scientific principles in Mexico and the United States. This is the first evidence that I’ve found of him making his way to French-speaking Canada. I am indebted to the BANQ digital database, Charles Joseph Pecor and Harry Kuntz for helping me to learn more about him.

Union Hotel, Quebec City, c.1900
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Lost in Translation

This morning, I completed a longer annotated translation of a magic text from French to English. It’s only a first draft, but I’m excited to share this news as a glimpse into one of the projects I’ve chosen to focus on during the COVID-19 pandemic (the photo offers a tiny hint for magic fans).

As a kind of therapy for the cancellation of many shows, classes, conventions, collaborative projects and other in-person exchanges that were planned for these past five months, I’ve spent significant time happily lost in the act of translation. I’ll save the details and reflections on what I’ve learned from reading and thinking about the art of translation for the actual publication of the text (hang-in there, folks. The ETA is roughly one to two years from now). In the meantime, this is a short post to mark a personal milestone.

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