Saturday, September 18, 2010

An Interview With Dan Harlan


by Greg Koren

A juggler is being dragged to hell. He passes a room in which a magician is performing a card trick for a bunch of beautiful women. Seeing this, and knowing of his own fate, the juggler cries out, “That’s not fair!” To which the devil dragging him replies, “Who are you to criticize the punishment of those women?”

Dan Harlan tells that joke to point up the attitude many have toward traditional magicians, and to underscore the point he made during his recent lecture at The Magic Warehouse: that we magicians need to make our magic relevant to modern-day audiences.

“I think we can make people care about what we do,” Harlan told the crowd at the Sept. 14 lecture.

The way to do that, he said, is by paying close attention to three aspects of our acts: set, action and character.

The set encompasses the physical elements of our act, everything from the props we use to what we wear and the cut of our hair.

The action refers to what we do with those physical elements, how we handle them.

And the character concerns itself with the mood our acts create in the minds of the audience.

Harlan’s lecture, which included a performance of several of his tricks and routines, created a mood of shared wonder and enlightenment. Whenever possible, the Ohio native drew the audience into his act.

“High-five to the person who can tell me who created that switch,” Harlan said while performing his effect Penned In.

“Juan Tamariz,” said Alton Knighton from the back row of The Magic Warehouse’s cozy theater.

“That’s right!” Harlan said. He worked his way up to Knighton, and the two men high-fived.

A second high-five was award to Eric Hoffman, who correctly explained the significance of the year 1584 as being the publication date of the oldest book on the secrets of magic—The Discoverie of Witchcraft.

That’s Harlan for you. The creator of Cardtoon, countless rubber-band effects and other magical best-sellers went out of his way to make his audience feel an active participant in the evening’s proceedings.

“I’m not a magician’s magician,” he described himself. “My secret is I like people. I treat them as my friends.”

He also crafts his magic to speak to his audience as one would speak to a friend, with intimacy and empathy.

Take his routine for that magic-kit staple Grandmother’s Necklace. (You know the effect: three beads threaded onto two cords “melt” off the cords under cover of a silk.) Harlan began his presentation of Grandmother’s Necklace, with help from lecture attendee Wayne Bartholomee, by assigning a feeling to each of the beads—pain, doubt and fear—and then concluded it with a story of personal transformation based on American Indian wisdom.

“You are healed,” Harlan said to Bartholomee as the beads melted off the cords—not from under a silk—but into his hand.

Toward the end of the evening, Harlan performed his classic routine called The World’s Saddest Silk. This simple vanish of a small red silk using a thumb tip quickly escalated into tear-drenched histrionics made possible, in part, by a bottle of eye drops, which he used to deliver the punch line: “Visine. It gets the red out!”

Tired effects such as Grandmother’s Necklace and the thumb-tip vanish—which Harlan characterized as being little more than puzzles that often leave spectators feeling inferior—can be reinvigorated by novel thinking and a willingness among magicians to commit themselves to their character, he said.

Which is how he said we can make our magic relevant to the modern-day audience that can learn the secret to almost any effect on the internet: by coming up with fresh premises for our effects that have a clear beginning, middle and end, and by investing ourselves emotionally in our magic.

When George Bradley questioned whether most magicians could pull off the theatrics of, say, The World’s Saddest Silk, Harlan urged them to try.

“It’s better to do stuff that’s 100-percent your own,” he said. “But if you can’t do that, then go ahead and copy me. Copy any magician to learn his or her style. Then move away from that and make it your own.”

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