Live Magazine Interview 2
Interview in Live 2 Magazine - Section 2
Socialist Conjuring - David Tushingham talks to Ian Saville - part 2
DAVID: So how much does a trick cost?
IAN: Well, people can pay thousands and thousands. A lot of the most effective things I do are very simple, cheap things. The magic trick that I do that attracts most wonder is where I tear up a newspaper and restore it to one piece and that's something that I got from a particular book and I re–make every time. I don't give it away. But it's something that's very cheap and certainly one of the most effective tricks that you can do. The thing that magicians often neglect is the performance aspect. It's very easy to get carried away into making the things more and more elaborate instead of thinking about: What is the plot of what I'm doing? What is the story that's going to interest people? Houdini's skill in doing his escapes was not at the centre of his theatrical gift. It was the fact that he could find new challenges and set up a dynamic with an audience. Not just the audience in the theatre but the public at large – all these elaborate challenges saying: I'm going to challenge the police force in Britain, you can find the most difficult cell for me to get out of in Scotland Yard! Creating that drama was much more unique than the technicalities of how he did it. Generally I'm not all that in favour of giving away how the tricks are done
DAVID: I'm not asking you to.
IAN: I know, I'm just explaining why. Because anybody who really wants to find out can find out. I have a different attitude to people who come up to me after I've performed and say: Oh, I wish I knew how that was done. I won't go into it, but sometimes kids come up to me and say: I'd like to do magic and I'd like to find out how things are done, how can I find out? And then I tell them which books to go and look at and so on.
DAVID: So you feel the extremity of the trick, the kind of force of the illusion for it's own sake, is not something one's terribly interested in.
IAN: That's why the magic tricks that I do always carry with them a narrative. There's a sequence of things that happen. Sometimes you can do things where things just vanish or appear which you then have to put into a narrative to make it meaningful. But generally the trick has within it a structure that you then have to find your own meaning for. You know, you get the audience to take a card. The card gets lost and you say you're going to find it. You don't find the right card. It gets lost. Is it here? Is it there? Is it here? Is it there? It's in the least expected place in the end and it's the same card, it's sealed away somewhere. This is almost an archetypal story. Which Freudians might say would have particular significance in terms of development. Is the card really the mother going away? Probably all those ideas are involved with many tricks. But the point is that it gives a structure to what you're doing.
DAVID: And what happens if suddenly in the middle of a performance that structure falls apart and something goes wrong?
IAN: One of the things that I like about doing it is that within the structure you can create the illusion that things have gone wrong. And that's often part of the appeal of the magic trick. For one trick I borrow a ten pound note like many magicians do and set fire to it accidentally and then I'm going to find it in a fruit but it's not there. . . And the whole process of acting a magician who's done it wrong, trying to actually work it so that the audience really does think it's gone wrong, is quite interesting as well. How do you actually do that? I think I do succeed with quite large proportion of the audience.
DAVID: Is part of the attraction of being a magician that of exerting a genuine power over the audience similar to the power which you suggest on stage?
IAN: The power to surprise people.
DAVID: Like a before and after – take one sad person and turn them into a happy person after seeing the show.
IAN: Well, I suppose that's true of any performer isn't it? It's not necessarily a happy but a changed person you want. All the theatre I've been involved in I've wanted people to come out of it happier or changed. At the end of Brecht on Magic I get a note from Brecht, who has left me, saying: I told you at the end of your show people should leave the theatre and change the world. Well you're half way there: they do leave the theatre.
IAN: I think we all aspire to some change, some thought, however fleeting it may be, in the audience.
DAVID: Maybe from the audience's point of view the idea of, the image of the magician provides them with an example of that process which is essentially what they want to happen as well, that is: clear, swift, effortless and irreversible.
IAN: Yes, oh I think so, I think there's a sort of fairy tale sort of appeal about magic as well – and there's the appeal of surprise and the appeal of things happening before your very eyes that you didn't possibly think could happen. I enjoy doing that.
I think the thing about magic is it forces you to do an open sort of style of theatre and even if you're doing ventriloquism as well, speaking to another character, it's still Brechtian in the sense that you are making a performance and it clearly is a performance. You don't get locked into the world that's created by those characters talking to one another. You also know that the audience is also on the look–out beforehand for the technicalities of this, is looking at it as a process rather than as a piece of reality being presented to them on a stage.
DAVID: It's a way as well of extending your own discourse. It works very well in situations where there are things that you want to say or it's not quite the done thing to say or you're not quite allowed–
IAN: Well of course ventriloquists have always been portrayed by films as having these terrible split personalities, the dummy who murders the ventriloquist or whatever. You do see ventriloquist's dummies as a separate identity. I have sometimes been surprised by what the dummy has said to me. Because you're obviously using a different bit of your brain there to–
DAVID: Is it difficult when the dummy starts to become the star of the show? There are only 2 of you there. . .
IAN: I've never experienced any pangs of jealousy about that I must say. No, I don't think so. I think the dummy is almost bound to be the more compelling character. As a ventriloquist you take the pleasure that the audience gets from the dummy as your own and a lot of ventriloquists have always deliberately made the dummy a much stronger character than the ventriloquist.
There have been ventriloquists who have been – I think Edgar Bergen was a bit strange about his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. He had to have the original Charlie McCarthy. There was a time apparently when it got lost or had to be repaired so he had to use the spare and there's a story that somebody told about coming into the dressing room and seeing him looking at him and saying: When the real Charlie McCarthy comes back, you're going to be in trouble, the way you've been performing out there. And his daughter, Candice Bergen, the actress, she talks about having had a very strange upbringing with this dummy.
DAVID: So what sort of life do your dummies have off stage?
IAN: The two big dummies that I have of Bertolt Brecht and William Morris mostly are kept packed away. Occasionally I'll get them out and do a bit of practising with them, play around. I do use them actually because they're quite big and put them so that their back is to the window in our front room.
DAVID: As a burglar deterrent?
IAN: Yes. Anybody who just glancing in thinks there's somebody sitting in there so whenever we go away we don't take them with us.
IAN: Of course they could get stolen.
DAVID: Mm. Are you particular about letting other people touch them?
IAN: Only to the extent that other people do with props. I suppose I do feel like they have characters that I've created vested in them in a way. If other people use them it does seem a bit odd because the voice doesn't come out right. But I don't know, puppeteers are very protective of their puppets as well. It's another form of puppetry isn't it? Mostly my family complains about just the mess of all the stuff that's around, not that I'm talking to them too much. There was one ventriloquist who got a divorce and his wife cited the dummy as co–respondent – in America this was – and the court upheld it. When they had friends round he would get the dummy out and the dummy would say nasty things about the wife. That was deemed mental cruelty. But no, I don't have those problems.