Page 13                                                   Summer 1985


Juggling in a magical context


by Joel Fink


January 20, 1985. The Super Bowl game between San Francisco and Miami was the topic of the day. But, at the L.A. Stage Company, Penn and Teller were about to kick off their matinee act for a small but enthusiastic audience.


The small turnout on Super Sunday did not represent the packed houses that have enthusiastically greeted this team, billed as  "the bad boys of magic. " Although small in number. the audience was quickly caught up in the duo's special brand of performance.


Part of the fascination of the act is the unexpected "juggling" perspective that Penn GilIette and Teller bring to magic. Magicians usually work to conceal their "real" skill from an audience, impressing them instead with the illusions that they create. For the juggler, on the other hand, there is no sleight of hand. In order for a trick to be appreciated by the audience, the juggler's cards are all put openly on the table.


Similarly, Penn and Teller demystified the illusion of certain tricks, leaving the audience all the more awed by their skill at manipulation. Ironically, those tricks that did depend on illusion became all the more magical with this approach.


The juggling routines were similar. Penn began by announcing that the juggling tricks were the weakest part of the show, and so he would get them out of the way first. This disclaimer was the only part of the performance that struck a false note, though realistically it was probably true. Penn's three ball routine was simple and clean and he explained each move he made, cueing the audience when to laugh or applaud.


Juggling routines in the show give credibility to later tricks. With juggling they say, "we do the standard things," and with the magic they say "here's what else we do." Juggling, therefore, provides a context for the whackier and more exotic parts of their act.

In a confession during a later interview, Penn revealed that the "bad boys of magic" actually have a bad attitude about juggling, too. With several exceptions, such as Michael Moschen, Penn believes that no one has anything much new to say about juggling, and he finds most acts too long and uninteresting.


Praising Moschen's work, Penn said, "Michael chooses to do something about the problem, while I choose to complain." He believes that excepting special talent, "Jugglers should keep it short and not miss. "


His attitudes about magic are similar. He said most magicians degrade themselves and insult their audiences. Consequently, Penn and Teller try to bring new perspectives to their act and continually attack the audience's expectations of what magic is. At its best, their magic forces us to take a new look at "reality."  I was left wondering what would have happened had Penn and Teller decided to explore juggling as they have magic!


As it stands, their show includes two additional juggling routines. Penn eats an apple while juggling, but gives the routine a special dynamic through his very real slobbering and spitting of the apple all over the front row. Tissues were politely handed out! The routine continued with use of another apple, which Teller ate while Penn juggled, giving the routine "social significance", to use Penn's term.


In another instance, when he Juggled three large knives, Penn developed a routine which ended with the knives juggled around a hooded audience member.


During the show's final section, a fire­eating act, danger and its relationship to the act was explored by Penn in a quiet, somber speech by candlelight. Juggling sharpened knives became more than a simple entertainment when reviewed in the flickering light of our darkest expectations or desires. Perhaps one can read too much significance into what is basically entertainment, but Penn and Teller do not let their audience off easily, forcing them to earn the right to laugh and applaud.


Unlike a number of other contemporary magicians, Penn and Teller's act was at a very human scale. They used no large illusions or elaborate mechanical set-ups. Instead, their work was carefully structured to develop a relationship with their audience in a theatre setting.


Props were simple and everyday - folding chairs, ropes and ordinary-looking bottles. Through their magic, however, objects and events took on new and unexpected dimensions and textures. A hand­cuff escape became the theme for a scene which explored complex elements of social relationships. In another scene, Teller used a flower, a shadow, a knife and himself to silently and elegantly develop a theme and variations on the nature of illusion and reality.


Magic and juggling was the means, but at the end, entertainment seemed to transform into a very new and unique understanding between audience and actors. As Penn suggested, they want their audiences to leave wondering not "how" their tricks were done, but "why!"

Penn and Teller

Penn and Teller

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