Live Magazine interview 1
Interview in Live 2 Magazine
Socialist Conjuring - David Tushingham talks to Ian Saville
Magician and ventriloquist Ian Saville performed his first solo show, Brecht on Magic over 300 times throughout the U. K. This was followed by Getting Nowhere – Again with William Morris. At the time of this interview he was busy rehearsing a new show, Left Luggage
IAN: In 1978 I joined a theatre group called Broadside Mobile Workers Theatre which was an offshoot of Red Ladder. But we were more left. Red Ladder had gone up north to Leeds and taken the name. We had the ladder, we had the ideology. We kept very strictly to the principle of workers in struggle and we went into occupations and picket lines and all those sort of things. That's a very interesting performance situation, performing to a group of workers who are occupying a factory, where they have taken over this place they have worked in and now see it in a completely different way. The group saw my magic tricks as a good asset, for getting people laughing to begin with and for getting the atmosphere nice and jolly before we went in with the heavy political stuff
DAVID: And what was the reaction to the heavy political stuff?
IAN: It seemed generally to work OK, but there were all sorts of other problems within the group in terms of internal politics and structures and criticising ourselves. I mean we operated labyrinthine process of criticism and self–criticism and quarterly assessments and individual self–assessments – and then people coming in and criticising you for what you missed out while criticising yourself – all that sort of thing. I was judged not to come up to standards of the group eventually. I was reorganized out of it.
DAVID: Did this have anything to do with the magic tricks?
IAN: Partly. There was a feeling that I hadn't devoted enough attention to making my magic tricks as radical as they should be. I argued at that time it was actually impossible to make magic tricks more didactic and explanatory about the world because in the process of doing a magic trick you hide the way things work – so there's no correspondence between what is actually happening there and the theoretical idea that you're trying to put forward. But that was a rather weak excuse. Eventually after I left the group I developed the magic tricks more, trying to incorporate the socialist ideas into them. That was when Rock Against Racism and The Anti–Nazi League were starting up and I started doing magic at some of their gigs.
DAVID: Can you give me an example of that?
IAN: The classic example is the trick with the 3 pieces of rope which are different lengths. I developed it to be an illustration of the 3 different classes in society. They change and become the same length – and the audience applauds at that point. But I stop them – because there are still classes. The process has to continue until eventually I get one piece of rope which is a classless society. That developed quite early on. And it was always slightly tongue–in–cheek. It was playing about with ideas, which I think was the appeal of it, but in a way that wasn't hostile to the ideas.
DAVID: It's interesting that these very traditional theatre forms suddenly start to become very fashionable again
IAN: I am always looking for ways of incorporating old things in what I do. In the latest show I have quite a lot of very unconventional ventriloquist's dummies, they're not the normal sort of thing that you associate with ventriloquists. That came partly from looking at ventriloquism in the 19th century. This thing of having a single ventriloquist with one small dummy comes from the late music hall era. The cheeky chappie crosstalk act developed quite late. It's been the dominant thing in this century – but before that ventriloquists generally had lots of large dummies on the stage and they would act out a scene running between all these people rather than just having a crosstalk act with one.
DAVID: So it's more like a puppet show?
IAN: I think the question of lips moving or not was less important. Although actually it's never been all that important in ventriloquism. The most successful ventriloquists have been the ones who've been on the radio; Edgar Bergen in the States and Peter Brough and Archie Andrews in Britain.
DAVID: Did television distort that by making it more of a technical exercise, rather than entertainment?
IAN: Yes, although it was exploited then by people like Arthur Worsley who did this act where he didn't speak at all and the dummy kept challenging him to say things. That's where the bottle beer phrase comes in because the dummy keeps shouting at Worsley and insults him the whole time saying: I bet you can't say: A bottle of beer, you can't say: A bottle of beer, can you? A bottle of beer, a bottle of beer, a bottle of beer! And it builds up into a crescendo as you realise that this is the dummy saying -a bottle of beer while Worsley's sitting there, deadpan face, taking all this, not coming back at him. It's a beautiful position that the audience is put in.
I started developing ventriloquism because I thought that was a good way of introducing Bertolt Brecht into my act and that's when I devised the longer show, moving on from the cabaret act and making it more of a theatrical show with a plot. The basic plot was that I was a socialist magician and I was going to tell the audience how I'd become a socialist magician. And that was by introducing this Bertolt Brecht dummy.
DAVID: Could you perhaps explain briefly the theory of socialist conjuring? The way I remember it is that capitalist conjuring is about tricking people, about cons, it's about deception. But socialist conjuring, gives you the deception but also the explanation.
IAN: Yes, it's using mystification to demystify people about the world. I start off by showing people the difference between a socialist conjuror and a bourgeois conjuror by showing the––bourgeois conjuror doing a trick in which a red handkerchief turns blue. And I decide to do the dialectically opposite method of subverting this trick – and in the process I make the blue handkerchief turn red and go through the motions of showing the audience how it's done. But in fact they don't see how it's done. So there's a bit of playing with the audience about the nature of the fact that they're being fooled on one level, but on another level I'm telling them real things that I believe are true about the world. So they're not being fooled.
I tend now to be aiming less for, you know, getting people to go out and change the world immediately after the performance than I think I was at one time. It is much more complex than that and I think the process of seeing things happen in front of you, the performance arena in itself, is more important than I had maybe given credit for in terms of thinking about political theatre. There's a danger in thinking about theatre related to political action that you think of the important thing happening after the theatre has finished. But what happens in front of you, what is actually happening there with the audience, is the thing that interests me most, the way in which people enjoy and are stimulated by performance at the time.
DAVID: And is this reinforced by your own experiences as someone in an audience seeing other people?
IAN: Yes, I think it is marginally, yes. What I get out of seeing performances, what I enjoy most about that process is the sense of heightened being that you get from performance, that actually being there in that place and enjoying it and being with other people and sharing their ideas.
DAVID: Have particular magicians inspired you?
IAN: The ultimate comedian magician of course was Tommy Cooper – I saw him live when I was 14 at Bournemouth – he was absolutely amazing and he was in some ways an inspiration to me, the level of humour, the level of playing with an audience, but he did it without any self–analysis or thinking about it, it was just an amazing ability to be here and now and to manipulate an audience without thinking about it. I remember when I was young seeing an American magician called Tony Slydini – I went to sort of club for young magicians at that time – he came over and did some close–up magic. He's sort of acknowledged by magicians as being one of the experts on misdirection and actually doing what is the real magic. That really did impress me a lot. I think what he does is very interesting for actors as well in terms of understanding about how an audience's attention works and how one's own attention works. The central thing in magic is misdirection which is, when you start looking at it, very similar in some ways to some of the things that Stanislavski was talking about, it's looking at him through a different angle. The circle of attention for the actor is similar in some ways to the way in which the magician manipulates the direction of attention of an audience. I think there is a lot to be learnt from the way in which magicians approach an audience. They have to be conscious of the naturalness of movement and reproduce it while doing something else at the same time. It's not a question of – as people think – the quickness of the hand deceiving the eye, it's the naturalness of the movement. It's being able to observe how people do things in real life How would you hold a card in this situation? Because if you do it slightly differently, the audience will know. Even though you have to do something else at the same time. So you have to observe those details very closely – which are important to actors as well.
DAVID: The question of magicians revealing their secrets is an interesting one too. I suspect when people tell you they're revealing the secrets they may not be – it's a different, more refined trick. And in a way this leads on to what I wanted to ask you about your relationship with other magicians. Whether people do go around and see each other's acts and sort of try to adjust their acts and develop them as a result?
IAN: Oh yes. The magic world is strange in a way in that most of the members of the magic circle are not professional magicians. It's a hobby world to quite a large extent and a lot of the people who do magic and get very, very good at it wouldn't dream of ever going on stage and performing – certainly not as a career. So magicians do share ideas and moves and bits of things that you can do with bits of equipment. There's also quite a commercial set up in terms of selling tricks as well to people at quite high prices.