"Let me tell you, it almost never goes up the sleeve." Veteran educator and practicing sleight-of-hand artist Lawrence Hass drops some information on the audience in a TEDx talk. The PhD and former professor is working toward a philosophical understanding of stage magic. He wonders how magic performance can be so ancient and universal without having ever been seriously addressed by Western philosophy.
Hass was professor of humanities at Austin College before moving to Memphis with his wife, Rhodes College President Dr. Marjorie Hass. In addition to academic duties, he's been known to teach magic to magicians at Jeff McBride's Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas. In his TED talk, he works toward a sturdy definition that separates magic from the the idea of "tricks." He asks if techniques developed by magicians are somehow more manipulative, deceptive, or dishonest than any other kind of art or stagecraft. Magic, he ultimately determines, is "The artful performance of impossible things that generates energy, delight, and wonder."
For Hass, who makes his Memphis debut at Beth Sholom Synagogue Saturday, December 1st, the live performance of stage magic constitutes a message of hope and transcendence. "As we live our lives, we constantly confront limits," he says, listing the usual suspects: sickness, loss, death, and transition — things we want but can't have, and things we wish were true but aren't.
Then performers like Harry Houdini come along and show us we can escape. Illusionists like David Copperfield defy gravity and levitate. Magicians get their audience thinking big while working on a smaller scale. Hass is a prestidigitator, a card manipulator, and a conjurer, able to bring inanimate objects to life in his hand.
Impossible, you say? That's the point. "When everybody wins in the world, that's real magic," Hass concludes, after one of his online card tricks. It's a good line. It also seems to be a reasonable summation of this newly minted Memphian's performance philosophy.
Intermission Impossible: Memphis is still relatively new for you. How are you adjusting?
Lawrence Hass: We really love it. We came to Memphis because Marjorie was hired as the new president at Rhodes College. We came in June of 2017. Since then we've really settled in — both into Memphis, the larger community, and also the Rhodes College Community. We've been very warmly welcomed and just love the city. There's so much energy and culture and art. Memphis is on the rise, and we're really happy to be a part of it.
I was surprised to discover you didn’t take up magic until you were an adult with a PhD. And children of your own. There’s so much manipulation— so much manual dexterity required. I think of it like violin: Most of the folks who practice magic started training when they were very young.
That question’s very perceptive actually. You understand there's this whole physical level to magic. And it has to work at a very high level. I sometimes think of myself, as being like an athlete, or a musician in terms of, there's all this body work going on. And you have to stay after it pretty much every day. So when I came to magic, I was 34 years old. That's older than most people, as you say.
I learned over time that, I think I have uncommon coordination. At first I had no perception of it. But as I started teaching magic to others, I realized that I could very intuitively and quickly do things with my hands that other people ... they just didn't have the same facility for. The other part of it, I was a musician back in the 1970s. I played guitar and piano, so obviously that was part of the picture too. I understood practice and rehearsal. Also, I came to magic as a philosopher. I studied art and aesthetics. So already, I was ahead of the game. I had the dedication and discipline to really keep after it, and I also had a vision, or sense of what artistry was. From the very beginning I wanted my magic not to be commonplace, but artistic.
In the TEDx you're obviously connecting your ideas with narrative. But I also saw a lot of storytelling in your online videos. Is this exclusive to teaching magic or teaching people about magic, or is storytelling a regular part of the act?
It's a part of the act. Some magicians that we see, it's all about the props. Here's the cup and here's the ball and now the ball is gone from the cup, and so on and so on. And I find that tedious. It's all purely visual and, “Fooled you! Made you look!” From the very beginning I wanted my magic to be about things that matter to people. In the show I’ll be performing Saturday night, I will have two “Once Upon a Time” kinds of stories that are Illustrated with magic. But even when it’s not about stories, what I do hopefully inspires or affirms the ways in which everyone is a magician.
When I watched your TEDx, I was reminded of directing Ubu Roi at Rhodes several years ago, which is an unrealistic piece. I bring it up because students would sometimes fall into traps of “naturalism” and I’d find myself asking, “Why lie to the audience? Do you really think they believe you are this character? That this crazy stuff is really happening?" The challenge to forego pretense gave actors access to problem-solving tools they didn’t have before. And one of your main points is all about breaking down pretense — magic isn’t about lying to the audience, or tricking them — It's not suspending disbelief, but engaging imagination. I love this, obviously.
One of the things that hangs up contemporary magic is the notion that it's about tricking people or fooling them.
Theater too, I think.
This is a very old, long association about magic, often from religious authorities and philosophical authorities who were trying to denigrate magic. When we shift to the recognition that magic is a theatrical art, and is engaged in creating astonishment, not lying to people or tricking them, everything about this changes. Because just like the actor isn't lying to people, the magician isn't either. What we're doing is using techniques to create an entire experience — a theatrical experience. I think what happens, both magicians and non-magicians confuse the con artist with the theatrical artist. So, when I teach magicians, this is one of the things I say: ‘You are a theater artist, not a con artist. If you want to be a con artist go out and play three card Monte in the street. But if you want to perform theatrical acts of magic, you need the skills that come along with the theater.’
Right. And obviously performers like Harry Anderson, who built so much of his act around classic geek shows and cons, instinctively get this.
Yes. The 'street thing' is the character. And Harry was so smart about that. Penn and Teller are the same way. Their show is about the con games and the fun of the con. But I happen to know Penn and Teller, and they are very smart, dedicated theatrical artists. That's just part of their presentation. I admire it greatly. My presentation is about helping people connect with magic as an affirmation.
Was that approach something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning, or was it something that evolved as magic came into contact with your other life in philosophy.
I believe the answer is, as a philosopher, I was always concerned with truth-seeking. I didn't always get there But I was always concerned with revealing more or less true things about the world and how we might live in it. So I never would have gone into magic if it was all about lying to people to take advantage of them. I have zero interest in that. But once I understood that magic wasn't about truth or lying, it was about creating a rich theatrical experience, then I realized those theatrical experiences could be inspirational and affirmational rather than, ‘made you look!’ And I realized that 'made you look,' aspect of it, which some magicians do, was really not essential to magic. It was a choice they made. So this grew out of my deep commitments as a philosopher. And just like Harry Anderson performed as a con artist, I performed as the philosopher magician. So it's a very different show from what other people do, because there really is no other philosopher magician.
I was also surprised by your discussion that, as ancient and universal as stage magic is, it's been so widely ignored by philosophy and academics.
It's such a fascinating part of the story. When you study the history of magic and how we got into this place where there is no academic department of magic, anywhere in the world, that is itself a mystery. Because, as you say, magic is an ancient and universal art form. It's very primordial in our psychology to conceal things — to make them hide and make them appear. Every infant plays peek-a-boo. Magic is primordial and yet somehow, it's absent. The story of that, I believe, is the story of authorities not liking the energy and delight, and astonishment that magic creates. Religious authorities, scientific authorities, philosophical authorities, political authorities ... and when we look back through the history all the way back to the Greeks, and even earlier than the Greeks, you can see magicians are distrusted. Magicians are held out as ‘the other,’ or the thing we don't want to be. There are some unbelievable tracts in the history of religion, and the history of science, and history of philosophy, that are polemics against magic. So the modern-day magician has a lot of historical baggage to overcome, to help people appreciate this primordial art form. I'll be very honest, it's part of my vision. It’s part of why I do what I do. Because magic — It's not just fine, it's great. It's energy. It’s delight and wonder.