VIVA MEXICO!

VIVA MEXICO!

10/14/16: As I currently write this, I am siting in a condo in Playa del Carmen, Mexico finishing up a six-week run of shows in the various resorts that intermittently dot the coastline from here all the way up to Cancun. Well, intermittently might not be the proper word as the resorts are EVERYWHERE along the coastline and they are still building more. I find it to be a mixed blessing. I love the fact that I can come here and work once or twice a year, see old friends who are the the other performers and staff members who I interact with, and enjoy the beach and Mexican culture. However, with each returning visit I see more and more American influence impacting the businesses that make up this wonderful beach community. I remember three years ago sitting in a quaint, street-side cafe/bakery enjoying coffee, a freshly-made cinnamon roll, and some delicious burritos with champinones (mushrooms). Now, that entire block of privately-owned shops is gone — as if it never existed — and in it’s place is a major shopping mall complete with a Starbucks, Forever 21, and a Victoria’s Secret. What I don’t understand is why you would pay to fly to another country just to visit the same stores you can visit at home? Isn’t that why you travel to another country — to experience culture and offerings that you can’t find anywhere else?

It’s a bit disheartening.

This year is the second year I have been able to experience Mexican Independence Day here. No, Mexican Independence Day is not Cinco de Mayo as many people believe. Cinco de Mayo here is not much of a celebration. In fact the U.S. celebrates it on a much grander scale than Mexico does.

Mexican Independence Day is, officially, September 16, but the celebrations begin the night before at about 11:00pm and at midnight huge fiestas with large fireworks displays go off all throughout the country. Here in Playa, there is a gigantic party that happens in the town square with music, dancing, all sorts of food, alcohol, and, of course, fireworks. You haven’t lived until you’re walking through a grocery store parking lot and a giant firework goes off 10 feet behind you. Cerveza and unregulated fireworks —that’s an exciting time!

The tradition involved with the celebration includes Mexico’s president ringing the bell in the National Palace and re-enacting a famous speech called “Grito de Dolores” (Cry of Dolores) that called for the end of 300 years of Spanish rule in Mexico. The speech ends with three shouts of “VIVA MEXICO!” which is repeated by everyone who has gathered.

While I by no means speak fluent Spanish, I do try to communicate in the native language as much as I can during my runs here. The problem I run into is the fact that my formal training in learning the language ended in the 9th grade. Therefore, I quite often find myself in the following predicament: I, armed with my junior high Spanish and determined to communicate my question correctly to a local, feverishly construct what I assume to be the correct phrasing (quite often looking up a particularly troublesome word or word combinations whose Spanish translation I am not familiar with by Googling them on my iPhone, if need be), and then throw it out there, hoping I said it correctly. In the split second that follows, I scan their face to see if I can detect either understanding (YES! I was right!) or smirking (Damn! Now I’m the ridiculous, gringo tourist…). In the off-chance that I should be correct with my phraseology, they begin to answer my question, thrilling me with the knowledge that I have successfully communicated  with another human being in a foreign language, only to have those thrills doused like a smoldering campfire when I realize that while I was so focused on properly constructing the sentence, I had no contingency plan on what to do if they actually answered my question! They rattle off their response with the expected and rightful ease of someone who was born speaking this language, thinking nothing of it. If this goofy-looking cabron didn’t understand the language, why would he have asked his question in Spanish when he is in a tourist town with Mexican residents who can converse in enough English to understand one another? Their response is met with a blank stare, and they inevitably end up answering me again, in English, and with a hint of condescension.

It’s going on a week now since I lost my phone here. “Lost” isn’t really the word for it seeing as how it was actually stolen. And “stolen” is a much more simplistic word for what really happened to it since it was taken from my pocket. Yes, that’s right, the magician’s pocket was picked! And not even 15 seconds after it happened, I knew I’d been had, and, of course, by then it was too late. I was — fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your fashion sense — wearing cargo shorts at the time, and luckily, approximately 3,000 pesos, plus my ATM card, was in a pocket, just below the hip pocket where the phone had been placed. The pesos and card were safely buttoned up in the pocket where I had placed them after leaving the ATM where I had begun my trip that evening, and therefore escaped theft. As a citizen, I was annoyed at the inconvenience this incident caused me, but as a magician, I’ve got to say, I was impressed with the technique in which the whole incident went down!

I have never felt unsafe walking home at night during my past trips to Playa del Carmen and Cancun, and I don’t intend on that changing. I will, however, make sure my phone and other valuables are safely buttoned into my lower pockets in the future.

Because, let me tell you, with my phone stolen, it sure put a crimp in my speaking Spanish for the rest of the trip…

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Just Call Me “Yukon Shawn”

Well, actually…I didn’t make it to the Yukon Territory proper, but I came pretty close to it during my visit to Alaska. I’ve recently returned from an Alaskan cruise on which I was performing. With it being my first visit to this state, I must say that it was stunning! Coming from Southern California (and our current five-year drought), I’m not used to all the greenery, but Alaska has it in spades! Lovely rolling hills of green, gigantic snow-capped mountains, and the Hubbard Glacier!

I’d have to say that visiting the Hubbard Glacier was the highlight of the trip and probably the most awe-inspiring thing I have seen in a very long time. Words cannot describe the feeling one gets when approaching this icy behemoth, and if you are lucky to get close enough to it, you will see it grow to an unimaginable 350 – 400 feet in size. If you are even luckier (and I wasn’t on this trip, unfortunately), you may even witness a calving. Taking in the dazzling, pristine blue and the sheer enormity of the glacier is a truly humbling experience. It almost felt pointless to perform the two shows I was scheduled to do that day. What could I show these people that would be more amazing than what they had already seen?


Me standing in front of the Hubbard Glacier. The picture does not do it justice, but to give you an idea of the size of this thing, this picture was taken 2.3 miles away from the glacier – the closest we could safely get to it due to all the ice in the water.

I did end up performing that day and the shows were great. Nice audiences, but it’s hard to follow an “opening act” such as the Hubbard Glacier.

Crystal Serenity Juneau June 29 2016 1050pmA shot of the ship I was on heading back out to sea after visiting Juneau. Note that the sun is beginning to set. This photo was taken at 10:50 pm.

Richard Ross – The Last Performance of the “Linking Rings That Should Ever Have been Performed

I am 52 years old and have been studying the art of magic for 46 years (the old joke being that I wasted the first six years of my life…), and in those 46 years I have developed a liking for some effects and a dislike for others. One of the tricks i dislike the most is what is known as the Linking Rings. Sometimes known as the “Chinese Linking Rings,” it is the effect where multiple solid metal rings magically link and unlink right before your eyes. There are no breaks in the rings, yet they seem to pass through each other like rings of smoke. If you have seen only ONE magician in your lifetime, I can practically guarantee that you have seen this trick. In skilled hands, this routine can look very magical. The trouble is it is very rarely in skilled hands.

Which is why I usually dislike the routine.

A lot of clattering of the rings and a repartee that is supposed to appear witty are usually the norm for this trick whenever it is presented. And, for the most part, that is all the audience is left with at the routine’s conclusion: unassured, noisy, clattering metal and less-than-funny patter. At best, if the magician presenting the routine is competent, the audience leaves the performance with a sense of befuddlement and whimsey.

That is, unless the performer was Richard Ross.

From Holland (but originally born in Poland), Richard’s artistry with the rings was unequaled. In his hands, the rings didn’t just pass through each other like rings of smoke, rather it seemed that Richard had discovered the chemical make-up pf the rings themselves, and, with his own brand of alchemy, altered that chemical make-up to do his bidding.

The rings were a thing of beauty in his hands making him, in my opinion, the ONLY person who should be performing the rings. Instead of befuddlement and whimsey, his audiences left with a sense of true, stupefying wonder. They had witnessed true magic. That was the only way to describe what they had seen. There was no trick to this, the solid rings simply passed through one another despite the laws of physics. And that was okay. it didn’t matter to the people watching that they were witnessing something that defied logic, science, and everything that they knew of the world to be true; and the fact that what they were seeing SHOULD disturb their ability for rational thought but didn’t and, instead, left them with the awe-inspiring, warm feeling of witnessing a rare piece of performance art, well…it just made Richard’s presentation all that much more special.

There are two things involving Richard’s performance of the rings that I remember vividly. The first being about 10 or 11 years old and watching his performance of the routine for the first time on syndicated television. I had been interested in magic for four or five years at that point, and I owned a small set of Linking Rings.

Watching Richard perform his ring routine made my 10-year-old jaw drop, and I clearly remember thinking, “Well, that’s not the same set of rings I have upstairs in the closet. He has something different”

No, he didn’t, and yes, it was.

His set was a bigger, more professional set, but they worked just the same. And THAT was one of my earliest lessons in presentation and professionalism.

The other memory that I have, and one that I will treasure always, was having the opportunity of seeing Richard, now in his 50s, perform the same exquisite ring routine at the Academy of Magical Arts Awards show in Hollywood in the year 2000 when he was awarded the Performing Fellowship award from the Academy. Before the long-desreved award was bestowed upon him, Richard performed the Rings. As a magician, I must say that it was a wonder to behold, and, I confess, I became a little choked-up watching him perform this routine – both of us 27 years older – with him just as impeccable as he had always been and me with my 27-year-OLDER jaw still just agape as it always had been.

Sadly, within 6 months or so, Richard was gone. Word came that he had passed away while in his garden at the age of 54. WAY too young for anybody, but especially for an artist of Richard’s stature. I’m not sure if Richard had the opportunity to perform the Rings again within those six months following the awards show.

So, it is quite possible that I witnessed the last performance of the “Linking Rings” that should ever have been performed.

Watch part of the same video of Richard that I saw at 10 years old: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di4XxI3BzqQ

Something New Under the Sun

A friend of mine with a talent for music posted the following statement on
Facebook recently in response to another FB friend of his, named Ron, who had
shared Paul Simon’s song 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover on my friend’s page. My friend’s response was this:

Thanks for this, Ron. Funny, I was looking up local bands and listening to them
tonight, trying to figure out where I fit in the landscape that is the
oversaturated music scene… and then you posted this and I thought – there
aren’t many Paul Simons anymore… story-writing song writers (that aren’t
country and full of patriotic yuck). I read somewhere recently that music has
jumped the shark… perhaps it has… which always leaves me wondering – what
could I possibly contribute to such an oversaturated art? There is nothing new
under the sun… right?

I have to admit that reading his post made me sad. Sad that this
was his view of his potential place in the music scene, and especially the
comment that there is “nothing new under the sun.”

There is a quote that is erroneously attributed to Charles Duell, the commissioner of the United States Patent Office from 1898 – 1901. Duell was supposed to have said during that time, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  The jesting quote’s origin actually seems to come from a humor magazine from 1899 entitled Punch, but by attributing it to Duell it instantly makes the words more ironic and provocative.

My friend is also a Christian and so, relying on his religious
sensibilities, naturally referenced the Bible with his equally provacative
“nothing new under the sun” comment. The full statement comes from Ecclesiastes
and basically goes like this:

What
has been will be again,

what has been done will be
done again;

there is nothing new under
the sun.

Let me take this moment to state that I am the last person who should be preaching gospel or even quoting the Bible, but I must say (at the risk of my fingertips catching flame and burning as I write this) that while my friend’s intentions by making the statement he made may have been reverential, I fear he may be missing the point. Was this “nothing new under the sun” statement meant to be taken literally or, rather, meant as a gentle nudging to his friend Ron, himself, or anyone reading his post to attempt to make a difference?

In my opinion, artists and entertainers, including myself, would do well to take
this as a precautionary statement. The idea that there is “nothing new under the sun” can instantly feel stifling and cause one to take on a “what’s the point” attitude that is so detrimental to good art. Art is there for us to enjoy, yes, but to the artist it can–and should – also be used as inspiration to expand upon and create. Stopping too soon, or worse yet, not even beginning because one feels that there is “nothing new under the sun” can be
disadvantageous.

Intimidation can also be problematic. Besides being a performer, I am also a writer.  In my earlier days of writing – when I was first starting out by writing movie reviews for a very small newspaper for a Podunk town In California – I went to the theater to watch the movie Stand By Me when it was first released with the intent of reviewing the film. What I was treated to in that darkened room was a marvelous coming-of-age story with impeccable writing. It is close to 30 years later, and it still remains one of my favorite movies. But, I remember leaving the theater that night with a strange, gnawing feeling; an odd mixture of both elation and dread. Elation, obviously, for the brilliant
cinematic treasure I had just witnessed, but the dread I felt was due to the
sad realization washing over me as I made my way back to my car that, try as I
might, I would never be able to write something as powerful or as meaningful as the writing I had just seen played out before me. I was honestly affected by this for the next couple of days; so much so that I didn’t even feel like writing the review of the movie, the
deadline for which was fast approaching. After a couple days of what I can only describe as “wallowing” in this self-inadequacy, I made the conscious effort to write the review by drawing upon the inspiration I had felt while watching the film and redirecting it into writing a review that I thought would do the film justice. I wanted the world (okay, the awfully low number of subscribers to the newspaper) to know just how great this film was, and I decided to do this by writing a review that challenged what writing skills I had acquired up to that point, and to devote more time to the writing of it than I had ever devoted to a review in the past. By doing so, the piece ended up being one of the better
things I wrote during that period of time in my life.

Comparing oneself to what has come before is a fool’s exercise. Yet, I admit I am still guilty of it myself. I will still find myself, on occasion, comparing myself to other performers and experiencing envy for what they have accomplished. When that happens, I have to remind myself of all that I have accomplished and take solace in the knowledge that the work I’ve done is uniquely me and that I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to accomplish all that I have up to this point.

It’s all right to admire, just don’t compare.

There is a reason we only have one Paul Simon; and if you love his work, don’t be envious, jealous, defeated, or covetous of it. Instead, infuse that love and admiration into your own work and see if you can’t create something new under the sun.

Happy Birthday, Harry…And Thanks

He died way too young (at age 39), but he had a profound impact on my life and career. The reason for that was because Harry told stories of compassion, remorse, reflection, and living a life of meaning, just to name a few. His story songs also warned of the danger
of not pursuing your passion or of allowing outside influences to deflate your attempts at reaching your fullest potential.

Today would have been Harry’s 73rd birthday. The sound bite of Harry below is an inspirational piece of auditory encouragement that seems to be ever-present in my mind, and has been since the first time I heard it. It’s less than 2 minutes long, and you should
listen to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbpoUWO3kA8

I was not the only one affected by Harry’s work; his fight against world hunger and other deserving causes influenced many later artists and organizations. I encourage you to learn more about this very giving, and amazing individual. Read a wonderful article written about him here: http://geekdad.com/2015/12/lets-celebrate-harry-chapin-day/

Happy 73rd birthday, Harry, and thank you for the inspiration.

Not Your Typical Interoffice Mail…

One of the things I love about my job is the emails that are exchanged between me, my fellow performers, and/or booking agents. The content of many of my emails over the years – content that is completely normal and indicative to my line of work, and therefore written in a serious nature – may seem anything but normal to someone outside of the entertainment industry, and usually will contain sentences and/or paragraphs that you would never find in your everyday, run-of-the-mill email.

And that is why I enjoy them so. That we can be talking about subject matter that would otherwise be considered ludicrous in such a serious manner because it is our livelihood.

Take, for example, this email sent to me by the enormously talented and charming juggler Lindsay Benner. Lindsay was going to be one of the performers in a show I was producing last March. I knew that she would be presenting her lovely “Book of Love” act, but wasn’t sure how she would end it, extending her time onstage to the 20 minutes I had allotted. I had contacted her asking for a line-up of the routines she would be performing. Lindsay, replying to my inquiry, sent me this email:

Looking forward to it! 

For my 20 minutes, I can either add 5 minutes to the beginning of the “Book of Love” and
do a ball out-of-mouth, sleight-of-hand type of thing, or I can add 5 minutes to the end which means I end in a straitjacket. Which would you prefer? 

Of course, I went with the straitjacket…

Here is another example that involved my act. This is an actual email I received only a few days ago while working my current run here in Cancun, Mexico. My shows take place every night in a different resort. These resorts are the all-inclusive type and usually cater to adults. There are some, however, that welcome kids and are considered “family resorts.” I am engaged to perform my comedy and magic show at both types of resorts. This email came from the owner of the company who books me for the resort contracts. I received it
the day following one of my appearances at one of the family resorts. The only alteration to this email I have made is to remove the names of people involved to protect their anonymity. Other than that, it remains the same as how I received it:

 

Shawn,

Here is a copy of an email I received from [NAME DELETED] at [NAME OF THE RESORT DELETED].
I have no idea what was done or said, only what he wrote. PLEASE remove these two, and all similar items from the show there immediately. I like the show and they like you, but apparently he has an issue with these two things. Here they are: 

 

Hello,

Hoping this email suits you well i would like to
communicate something that has turn on our alarms.

Yesterday In  Shawn McMaster´s show  happened a
couple of situations that we can´t  present, as entertainers we are, in a
FAMILY resort.

The very first trick he present he appeared from his crotch
a card, he opened the zipper and show the card. He was very graphic.

Then, in his performance of walking through the audience
appearing cards, he stand up a lady and said, “look I appear this card from
your butt”

Is not that we are easily impressionable, is just that we
never know how our guests are going to take this kind of attitudes.

Please help me to enforce the family friendly performances.

Send you my best Regards.

 

His English needs work, but if you are pulling cards from your crotch, please stop. And if they come out of a woman’s butt in the audience, please stop that as well. If you pull a card out of any bodily cavity of people, please do not do that.

Please stop these things at all the family resorts. Thanks!

 

The owner of the company was very gracious and understanding in his email, but he also has to think of his clients – the resorts – and I totally understood where he was coming from. However, what was described by the man at the resort – in broken English to the man who booked me – was not exactly what happened. Here was my reply:

 

Hi, 

Everything in my show at [NAME OF RESORT DELETED] is exactly the same as I have presented
it in the past. Nothing has changed over these past few years, and they have always been fine with it before. But, I will make the appropriate changes, if that is what they are now requesting. 

Just so YOU know, there has never been anything “graphic” in my act. Yes, I have removed a chosen card from my fly in both family and adult resorts. It is quick and there is no “rummaging around.” However, when I first began the contracts here in Mexico, I originally asked all the family resorts if
“Card from the Fly” would be ok. They told me yes, but apparently that has changed and I will no longer do that at the family resorts. 

As to pulling a card from “a woman’s butt,” that is not what’s happening. I run through the audience at the end of my act looking for a selected card. I ask a woman to stand up and find that she is sitting on a card. I say, “Underneath this lady’s butt, the 7 of Diamonds! Was THIS your card?” I have always been sure to say “butt” instead of “ass” so as not to offend anyone who might be sensitive. Again, if a woman sitting on a card is considered offensive in the family resorts, I will change that. 

Thanks for bringing my attention to this matter. Consider these two bits changed at the family resorts. 

All the
best,

Shawn

The ART of Magic

“What instrument do you play?’

This is the question I most often get when I tell someone I’m a magician. The thought never even enters their minds that I could have possibly said “magician,” and their natural response is to immediately go the musical route, sharing with me the fact that their son plays the French horn or that they were a first chair flute player, but “never pursued it much after graduating high school.” They are usually halfway into wistfully recounting their youthful aspirations about becoming the next Ian Anderson before I have
the chance to interrupt them to inform them that they have misheard me, and that I am actually a mAGICian.

The look of confusion is oddly satisfying.

Wrapping their minds around the concept of someone doing card tricks for a living, for some reason, becomes a much more difficult task than the concept of becoming a professional musician. As if musicians don’t face the same, challenges as other entertainers. As if playing old Eagles and Tom Petty cover tunes in a seedy bar for free beer and whatever tips can be scrounged up in their formative years is somehow more admirable than a magician in…well, being a magician. And if it’s a question of skills, all right, yes, I don’t know an A note from a treble clef, but most clarinet or sax players can’t execute a simple double undercut or a deceptive Elmsley Count, either. And if you don’t know what those are, that is exactly my point.

Yes, I’m a magician. Yes, I do it for a living and have for over two decades. And while the mental image one, if you’ll pardon the expression, conjures up when they hear the word “magician” may be something less respectable than when thinking of a musician (this “image thing” being a battle I have fought most of my life), the skill set needed and the practice involved is certainly comparable.

Despite the resurgence of interest magic is enjoying these days, it still has an image problem, due primarily to all the bad magic that is out there. And where magic has the disadvantage as compared to other art forms is in the tendency to be unfairly judged. If one goes to a show and hears a singer who sings off-key or witnesses a dancer who gives a less than polished performance, one doesn’t walk away from the experience swearing off all singing and dancing for the rest of his or her life. Chances are that person will again attend another singer’s or dancer’s performance at a later date and be rewarded by doing so. Their image of dance and song is not tarnished irreparably; instead it is just chalked up to that particular performer having an “off night.” Not so with magic. When one sees a terrible magic performance, the tendency is to immediately ostracize the performer and categorize magic as cheesy or stupid.

Having said that, please don’t misunderstand me. Believe me, I agree that there are some people out there calling themselves “magicians” who should be ostracized and never
allowed to ever again pick up a deck of cards or set foot on another stage, but they are the minority.

Magic is an art form. Beautiful performances can be rendered just as fine paintings or
intricate sculptures are brought into being. Moods can be established and genuine emotions can be brought forth. Emotions that can span from appreciation – such as understanding the technique used or just the mere acknowledgement of the work, love, and commitment that went into bringing the piece to life – to personal – where the piece in question evokes an honest, and sometimes uncontrollable emotional response.

David Copperfield’s performance piece “Snow” does that. The first time I saw
him perform this live in a theatre, it honestly brought tears to my eyes. I, to this day, can’t pinpoint exactly what chord it struck with me. Perhaps it was the memory of a childhood long since passed, although I did not grow up around snow. Perhaps, it was the unspoken yearning of wanting that childhood back, or, because I was a father at the time, perhaps it spoke to the child-like wonder of experiencing something for the first time and what it’s like to experience it again with your child; this time seeing it through his or her eyes. Maybe it was a mixture of all of these things. Whatever it was, I wasn’t the only one wrestling with these emotions. As I looked around, I saw many adults – both men and women – experiencing the same feeling and experiencing the same moist eyes as snow began to fall not just onstage, but throughout the entire theatre! I encourage you to take a look at this wonderful performance if you haven’t already seen it.

Just as there are many styles of paintings, so it is with magic. And just as there were and are, pioneers of the different styles or movements in the world of art, again, so it is in magic. As way of an example, just as the artists of the cubist movement had Picasso and Braque to thank, every magician you have seen who produces doves or playing cards at his fingertips is standing on the shoulders of Channing Pollock. Much of what contemporary magicians of this type present to modern-day audiences was either influenced or taken directly from Pollock. Watching old film footage of Pollock perform his act may prompt one to say, “Yeah, I’ve seen this all before,” but you have to remember that Pollock was the first to do it, and is still considered one of the best years after he has passed on. It is the true artists in any field, however, who will expand upon that influence to create new, unique art. A good example of this from the magic world is Korean magician Yu Ho-Jin. I first saw Ho-Jin perform in 2008 in Louisville, KY and his performance was artistic excellence and absolutely breathtaking. It still is.

Any field of art has its past masters. Just as the world of fine art has names like Van Gogh, Magritte, Pollock (Jackson, not Channing), and Warhol, the world of magic has CardiniVernon, Kaps, and Slydini. Not to mention the pioneers who blazed the trail before them: Maskelyne, Devant, Herrmann, Kellar, the list goes on and on.

Yes, I am a mAGICian, and while the music we create with our
instruments may not be melodic in the traditional sense, it can still move you – like any art can move you – if you just give it the chance.