One of the things I love most about the variety arts is that since it’s a retro art form there’s a lot of room to be innovative. One of the most innovative performers I know is magician David London. I got to chat with him and fellow Circus of Wonders performer and sideshow superstar Harley Newman recently about the state of the art and their upcoming show with magician Francis Menotti, David London’s Magic and Mayhem Show this Friday, February 6th at 9:30 PM at the Black Cat.
Lucrezia: What got you guys started in magic and sideshow, and why?
David: I was 7 years-old, invited to a family function that was a black tie event. I had to rent a tuxedo and insisted on also getting a top hat and tails. At the event my family was invited up for a ceremony and after they went back to their seats I stayed standing. When everyone was looking at me I took off the top hat, reached inside and pulled out a rabbit. I consider that to be the first day I knew I was a magician. From that moment I fell in love with tricks and started learning as many as I could. At first it was from books, then at the local magic show (Barry’s) and then in my early teens I started to meet and learn from other magicians.
Where did you get a rabbit from?
David: Inside the hat!
Harley: I worked in a circus (clown, PR person, etc.). Everybody in a circus has multiple jobs. One of mine was to talk people into buying tickets to the sideshow and sell them the tickets. I lived in a trailer with a bunch of very odd folks and learned a whoooole lot.
What was the circus you were working for?
Harley: Hoxie Borthers Circus, 1976 and ’77. At the time it was the only large circus left that was privately owned. It was also the only round tent, one-ring show in the US. This meant the owner paid a lot of attention to the contents of the show because there weren’t three rings of constant distraction. So as a clown it meant that if I was good I got to do solo work as well as group. I was and I did. It was an amazing place to learn performance.
You were rejected by the Guinness Book of World Records as being too dangerous to publish. What was that for?
Harley: GBR reject, yup! Minimum number of nails in a bed of nails.
Harley: At the time it was four. The previous record was supposedly 11. Now, sometimes I do one. It’s kinda dangerous and the contact point gets all itchy/hurting/numb etc. Even if I don’t do it for a while. I prefer not to have an area of necrotic tissue at the base of my spine. But four? I can do that every show, no problem.
Harley: Yup, if I screw up. I do pay attention to a lot of physical technique details and there isn’t any room for error, but I’m not doing some of the things that David does. They can give you paper cuts!
How long does it take you to prepare an act?
Harley: I can walk on stage and be ready. It’s a mental thing more than having the props organized.
Surely it took you a while though to be able to lay on a bed of four nails…
Harley: It was interesting. I’d read about the guy doing 11 and I couldn’t figure where he was putting the eleventh nail. I had a big show coming up and I got the flu. So I went and performed sick, did 10 nails and was better the next day. I knew it had something to do with having changed the way I looked at things. A couple of months later (with the attitude of needing to see) I was sick with another flu, had another big show and did four. Again, I was better the next day.
Do you think there’s kind of an acupuncture benefit to the bed of nails?
Harley: Nails and acupuncture… in a way. Being on a bed of nails and doing deep breathing exercises is very similar to getting a full-body massage. You get very relaxed. Only with a bed, it’s more so. If I’m on one for an hour I practically turn to rubber. My muscles are so relaxed, I can’t get up unless I roll off onto the floor and do some stretches first and when you fall asleep on nails you have incredible, problem-solving dreams.
David, what is the definition of magic?
David: I don’t think magic has only one definition. I have asked that question to thousands of people and each one gives a different answer. Today my definition is “the expansion of possibilities”. This definition may change tomorrow in order to accommodate new possibilities. In fact, I think that the fact that magic cannot be defined is one of the things that give it it’s power.
Harley, what act of yours scares you the most?
Harley: Every act has the potential to go wrong, which would involve pain. In our society, we are taught to be scared of pain. So when someone asks me whether something hurts, their question is not about my pain but almost always about their fear of pain. Pain is just a thing that comes and goes, a sign that something is wrong, that the integrity of body or ego is disturbed. So, knowing that, I pay attention to it and move on. And fear… well that is the most destructive thing I know. Our human world runs on it.
So rephrasing then – which act of yours is the most dangerous?
Harley: Every act is dangerous. If I’m on nails, even a basic thing can go wrong, and quickly. If I stick a power drill in my nose, it can go wrong. If I hang things from my eyes with fishhooks, it can go wrong. For this show, there are a lot of things in my repetoire that I won’t be doing… lack of time… so the number of things to possibly go wrong are diminished.
You hang things from your eyes with fishhooks?!!?
Harley: Oh yeah. Fishhooks. Triple-hook lures! Ugly things.
How’s this work? I’m actually peeking through my fingers as I’m asking.
Harley: Hooray! See? It’s already working! I have done shows with thousands of people in the audience and when I do the fish hooks I always take a look. There are so many watching through their fingers! People think they’re having such fun watching me and they have NO idea of how much fun I have watching them! Here’s another thing I like… We live in a world where so many of our responses are edited. Our media is edited. Our interactions are edited. But when people watch me, their response is straight from the gut… totally honest. I absolutely love that. It is a gift that I can give, that I suspect most people do not realize I’m giving them.
Why do you think we’re seeing such a renaissance of the variety arts?
Harley: Variety arts are interesting. It’s not very complicated. Again, we live in such an edited world, that when we see something REAL, it gives us a sense of…
David: I think the more we spend more time and get lost in the internet, and have so much access to media, part of our soul really craves connecting with live people- both performer and audience. The last time that variety was thriving was vaudeville, well before the TV and internet. Then, live shows were the main form of entertainment. I think we see a revival of interest in athese art forms part out of nostalgia of times post, and part, because we crave the exchange of energy between real people experiencing something together…
Harley: I mean… we can watch TV… a sitcom… and what do they have, a laugh-track. Oh yeah, that’s a sure-fire guarantee that the thing is funny. A laugh-track. Give me a live audience any day. Every day. I despise laugh-track mentality. They tell you how to respond.
David: I was just playing a laugh track.
Harley: David, you ARE a human laugh track!
David: (Giggles) Whatta you gonna do?
You have so much going on! How many projects/incarnations do you have going on right now?
David: Four main shows: Magic Outside the Box, The Adventure to the Imagi Nation, Wandering Wonders, and Creative Spirit Séance, one lecture, two workshops, the Circus of Wonders, the Weekend of Magic, and now the Magic and Mayhem Shows!
What do you want the audience to take away from your show?
David: I want audiences to leave the show seeing their world with slightly different lenses.
Harley: Our audience will be amazed. They will be amused. They will be astounded. And they will provide their own exclamation points. !!!!
David London’s Magic & Mayhem Show plays Friday, February 6, 2015 at 9:30 PM at the Black Cat – 1811 14th Street, N.W. in Washington, DC. Tickets are available at the door and online. This show is for ages 18 and over.
David London’s ‘Magic Outside the Box’ at Baltimore Theater Project reviewed by Winters Geimer on DCMTA.