Magic as Art - Thoughts by Master Magician John Carney

Comedian, actor, and sleight-of-hand virtuoso, John Carney is recognized by his peers as one of the finest close-up magic performers in the world. He has received seven awards as “Magician of the Year” from the Magic Castle, more awards than anyone else in their history. The Academy of Magical Arts bestowed upon him the prestigious Performing Masters Fellowship. On television, Carney has appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and the “Jerry Seinfeld HBO Special.” He has performed in theaters across the world.

 

John Carney - Photo by Kari Hendler

John Carney sees magic as an art form which opens the mind and changes one’s vision of the world. According to him, creating even just a crack in the way the mind sees the world makes the world a different place. In his spare time, he wrote three books for magicians on magic: “Magic by Design,” “Carneycopia,” and “The Book of Secrets.” 

CARNEY MAGIC, his popular stage show, will be at the Colony Theatre in Burbank from May 6 through May 8, 2016. He was interviewed on April 28, 2016, and asked about his views on magic, both as a performer and as a way of life.

 

Carney Magic at the Colony Theatre Poster

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WHEN DID THE PASSION FOR MAGIC TAKE HOLD OF YOU? WHAT FUELED YOUR INTEREST TO KEEP AT IT? WERE YOU SURE EARLY ON THAT IT WOULD BE THE CAREER FOR YOU? 

I started when I was a teenager. I think it helped a lot that I had the benefit of a few mentors who were willing to take me beyond the initial infatuation. Lots of kids lose interest after that initial phase, but I had a passion for it. As I dug a little deeper, I discovered one deeper layer after another. 

My greatest influence in magic was a man named Dai Vernon, probably the greatest sleight-of-hand master of the last century. He was a real artist, in the truest sense of the word. He taught me that good sleight-of-hand is more than just fast hands. Ideally, it’s more intellectual in nature. It’s about psychology, problem solving, choreography of movement...and it has elegant simplicity. Dai Vernon taught me so much. There were never any formal lessons, and no money ever changed hands. We would just sit and talk about magic for hours. We were kindred spirits, even if we were generations apart. 

When I began, I had no intension of going pro, so close-up magic was a way for me to perform for small groups without stepping foot on a stage. I would perform for friends after dinner or at parties. But, with a little thought to script and staging, sleight-of-hand magic can work on stage as well. You have to stage and script it so that it plays to a larger audience. 

Magic affects people in a unique way. It’s not just about “fooling people.” I want to affect people and give them a unique experience. If I can make them wonder, laugh, think, and feel, then perhaps, in my own humble way, I have found a purpose in life.

 

John Carney - Photo by David Darwin

HOW DOES “CARNEY MAGIC” DIFFER FROM MOST MAGIC SHOW PRESENTATIONS? 

It’s not just about “tricks.” I combine my love of theater, comedy, characters, and storytelling into my pieces. I want it to be fun, with people walking away happy, perhaps with a new perspective on their own beliefs and perceptions - and what is possible. Since I specialize in sleight-of-hand magic, the whole course of the performance is on my shoulders. Nothing is self-working or store-bought. I have only my skill and the simplest of props that can be found in any home. I like the challenge of making a theater of wonder out of simple everyday things. There are no backstage crews, boxes, dancing girls, or tigers. It’s just my hands, my imagination, and my wit. I fail or succeed on my own merit. It’s a tightrope walk; and, when it works, it’s always a thrill for me. 

John Carney - Photo by David Darwin

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF BEING A MAGICIAN? DO YOU TRY OUT NEW MATERIALS ON YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY? HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHICH PARTS WILL STAY AND WHICH WILL GO? 

I spend a lot of time working on new material. But for every ten things I work on, only one makes the cut. If it stays in after 40 performances - with all the technical challenges, script changes, and additions - then I will keep doing it. If it’s still in the show after 100 performances, it might be something I will do for the rest of my life. When a new piece is working, all the details are worked out, and the audience is responding, then it’s a very gratifying feeling. 

Other things I work on are just for the intrigue and the challenge of solving the technical problems, of making it flow. I do it for myself and for a select group of my fellow magicians who can appreciate the thinking that goes into it. But if it doesn’t please an audience, then it will never make it into a show. 

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FOR NEW ROUTINES? DO YOU WATCH WHAT OTHER MAGICIANS ARE DOING? WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE MAGICIANS TO WATCH? WHY? 

You may be surprised to hear that there are more books written on magic than just about any other performing art. Most of these are technical, and much of it is garbage. So you really have to dig through lots of materials and revisit it often to see if a fresh perspective will reveal a hidden gem. But if you have the discipline, an ideal, and a sense of taste, then you can take almost anything and turn it into something good. 

Everything in art is based on something that came before. It doesn’t matter if it is painting, writing, music, or dance. The idea is to build on what has come before, to try to add fresh thinking and a twist or a fresh combination that turns it into something new. 

I watch other magicians, but not with the idea of copying what they are doing. If anything, I would try to avoid what they are doing and do my own things. I’m a great admirer of Ricky Jay. He doesn’t follow trends, and he has wonderful taste in his choice of material. He has his own unique style. I would never think of imitating him, but I would aspire to emulate his work ethic and be inspired to do equally good work.

 

John Carney and David Letterman on The Late Show

YOU REALLY IMPRESSED DAVID LETTERMAN ON THE “LATE NIGHT SHOW (http://carneymagic.com/video/).” IS IT MORE CHALLENGING TO DO A PRESENTATION LIKE THAT, WITH THE CAMERA SO CLOSE AND MILLIONS OF PEOPLE WATCHING? HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH NERVES? 

That was a particularly difficult situation. They insisted that I perform under their conditions with no compromise. Letterman is known to be a tough audience, and he wasn’t about to give me a free ride.  With just a week’s notice, I had to adapt my entire routine to their situation, doing it under the gun and the watchful eye of five cameras, four of which were watching me from behind. Technically, it was a challenge, like asking a guitarist to play left handed or a juggler to work with one hand tied behind his back. 

As far as nerves go, I made the decision to just let it go and try to laugh and have a good time - and hope that it would all work out. Letterman was skeptical at first, but I could feel him loosen up when he realized I was a professional. That I wasn’t going to just roll over. Luckily, it all turned out fine. 

John Carney - Photo by David Darwin

WHAT ARE YOUR INTERESTS IN ADDITION TO MAGIC? 

I play the guitar and ukulele and sing at open microphone nights, just for fun. For many years, I took several different martial arts. Just like magic, I enjoyed the learning process itself, that sense of accomplishment when all those complicated technical things work their way into your bones...and it just happens. 

YOU SEEM TO BE A PRETTY VERSATILE PERFORMER. WHAT’S IN STORE FOR YOU AFTER THIS RUN AT THE COLONY THEATRE? 

I will just keep doing what I’m doing. I still work comedy clubs occasionally. I’m often hired to do corporate entertainment too. But my real love is performing in a beautiful theater. The audience is focused, and I can manipulate the environment with lights and sound. I can create the kind of atmosphere where I can do almost anything, from the silly to the sentimental. 

I don’t work at as many comedy clubs these days. When I do, I have to have a commando approach. Get in; hit them hard; and get out alive. I do well in the clubs, but they are drinking and expecting belly laughs - so anything subtle, theatrical, or sentimental is lost in the raucous atmosphere. 

I’ve produced several instructional books and videos of my original ideas, along with the psychology that makes it all work. These are not for beginners, since the techniques can be challenging, even for someone familiar with magic. I sell them to magicians only on my web site at CarneyMagic.com. 

My theater shows are listed on my web site at www.CarneyMagic.com/theater-show/. I also announce updates just a few times a year on Facebook (John Carney/CarneyMagic). 

 

CARNEY MAGIC will appear for THREE PERFORMANCES ONLY – Friday and Saturday, May 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 8, at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $39. For more information or to purchase tickets by phone, call 866-811-4111 or go online at www.colonytheatre.org. The Colony Theatre is located at 555 North Third Street, Burbank, CA. Parking is free.

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