"People have a picture in their minds when you say magic; either David Copperfield dancing around or some guy with confetti cannons and bunnies at a birthday party," John Carney says by way of introduction. "But I enjoy the minimalist thing. I don't have people hiding under the table or offstage with listening devices. Everything is me."
This weekend at the Adobe Rose Theatre, Carney joins a growing cadre of magicians swinging through Santa Fe—many of whom will hit the Jean Cocteau Cinema—to show close-up magic, illusions and mind-reading (it's family-friendly, but not for kids; the older you are, the greater percentage of jokes you'll get). As a dyed-in-the-wool magic nerd, I knew I had to ask Carney about what I think is the most fascinating form of performing art in existence. He's been on Letterman and has won more awards than anyone else from Hollywood's Magic Castle (kind of a magician's Mecca), so he could be one of the best there is.
SFR: You talk a lot about your mentor, Dai Vernon. What made him so good?
JC: Vernon was probably one of the greatest sleight of hand [artists] in the 20th century. He was not just good with his hands; he was good with the psychology and the choreography, and it had a real elegance and history to it. … He went deeper. It was seamless. His thing was, 'Never let them know that you're doing sleight of hand—you never display your skill.' … There's a trend now—and it's perfectly fine if you want to do that, it's not my thing—where you display a lot of skill. You flip the cards around, you do a lot of fancy things, and people say 'Wow, that's great'—well, it's more juggling than anything else.
So what is the difference between what you do and the flashy stuff?
It's a different impression that you give people: One is, 'Wow, you're really skillful, you're really great,' and the other one is, 'How can that possibly be?' It's a sense of wonder. They're two different ends of the spectrum. One is, 'Appreciate me, look what I can do,' and the other is 'Experience this. Did you feel that? Wasn't that amazing, what you just felt?'
Speaking of juggling, a former associate of mine who was a street performer once said that jugglers are the lowest of the low, respect-wise. I mean, I can't juggle, I'm not dissing the skill—but is there a hierarchy in this field?
He's wrong about that jugglers thing. I don't care if you're a mime or a juggler or a magician or a musician, I take it case by case. I've seen really horrible jugglers and I've seen really brilliant jugglers. I've seen really good technical jugglers that were boring, and really average technical jugglers that were immensely entertaining. The same thing with magicians. … And it sounds kind of pretentious to talk about magic as an art form, but that's what I'm shooting for. I invest enough thought and care into it that it transforms.
Really, what is painting or music? … It's not the tools, it's not the art form; is the person an artist? And whether anybody would agree whether I'm an artist or not, that's what I'm going for, and there's responsibility to that and a discipline to that. … I don't put a hierarchy on the art form. I can tell how much time they've invested, just by their skill level and their performance skill level.
How is your career different now, with success, than it was when you were younger?
I accept fewer jobs. I can't always afford it, but I go, 'I just know if I do that, I'll end up hating what I love.' … When I was 15 or 16, there was a [magician] from Chicago who was big in the region. … I was really eager to meet him. He did a lot of trade shows, where you're selling products—you stop people, you work the message of the product into your magic trick, and then send them on their way. You do that show 20 or 30 times a day. I met this guy, I'm just a pimply-faced teenager, like, 'Oh, jeez, it must be great to be a professional magician!' and he's like—'Oh yeah, great. You're on your feet all day, your feet are sore, you've gotta go out with the client afterward and drink or you don't get booked back, then you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and your eyes are bloodshot and you say, 'I'm gonna do this trick 80 times today.'
And it shocked me. He really didn't like it any more. He was sick of it. I said, 'I'm never going to do magic for a living.' … So I worked office jobs, some retail jobs—but finally I said, 'If I'm going to struggle, I'm going to struggle with something I like.' So … I'm very careful to not take things I don't want to do.
A number of years ago, that selfsame street performing magician wowed me with a pretty simple trick—then after the show, he told me he'd tell me how he did it as long as I went to dinner with him. Did he break some kind of magician code by telling me a secret to a trick to get a date?
There's no rule book—but yeah, I mean, he took a shortcut to asking you out. He's more at fault for using that as an excuse. But you know … when you talk about just 'the secret,' the secret is simple. I can explain 'the secret' in a sentence; how it was done. But that is just one percent of the whole thing. … There are so many other things involved. Body language, the way you communicate with people, what makes them suspicious, the psychology, the presentation, the technique. … If you just say 'the secret'—oh, you pretend to put it here and do that—people toss it off and say, 'That's all there is.' But there's so much more to magic than that one secret.