The Magic of Theatre (or, What I Learned in Vegas)

Penn & Teller is an institution unto itself. The magic/comedy duo have had numerous TV spots, features, shows and a long running engagement in Las Vegas, the city I just returned to Los Angeles from. The trip was my Dad’s 21st birthday present to me, and what a present it was. I feel guilty every time money is spent on me, so I was glad for every 2-for-1 special we came across, one of which was to see Penn & Teller’s show at the Rio hotel/casino where we we stayed. I’ve been familiar with them since I was a kid, but I only become a fan of their’s a few years ago when I came across their television show on Showtime, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!Being the outspoken Libertarians that they are, sometimes I roll my eyes a bit when they say something I don’t agree with.

That is, until I realize their case was a well made one and maybe I need to take a second look at something I thought I had a strong position on. What  I enjoy about P&T is that they don’t hold back, they are right up front with who they are and what they are doing. They don’t pretend they have access to another realm whereby they are able to perform unbelievable feats. They are professional tricksters (I say that with the highest regards), or maybe I should say illusionists, for as GOB of Arrested Development says, “A trick is something a whore does for money.” They know the magic only exists in our minds and aren’t afraid to give away a few “secrets.” The greatest thing about P&T is that everything they do has meaning behind it and I always end up learning something. Seeing them live was no exception.

As soon my dad and I walked into the venue looking for our sweet half-priced mezzanine seats, I noticed two things. First, there was a pre-show performance. Pianist Mike Jones and Penn (who plucked away on a stand up bass) treated the arriving audience to some Jazz. As I mentioned once before on this blog, there is ample opportunity between people arriving and the main act beginning to entertain your audience. Pre-show recorded music is one thing, giving people something to watch is quite another. I’m surprised more theaters don’t bring in local talent to take care of pre-show entertainment. I’m sure even smaller companies can scrape together enough for fair compensation, it’s better than bored patrons reading their programs over and over again. Secondly, something that was hard not to notice was the fact that there were a slew of audience members onstage. As Mike Jones announced between songs, audience members were invited to come onstage to observe a big box and sign and envelope, both of which were to be used during the show. It’s a very simple idea that instantly draws your audience in, even if they don’t choose to go onstage. It destroys the mental boundary of thinking that only performers are allowed on stage. The stage then just becomes a raised platform that people stand on and not this foreign land that is off-limits. I love the idea of inviting an audience onstage to observe the nuances and details of a set, before or after a show. Let the audience live in the world for a tiny while and step around where the characters in the play step around. Although P&T only offered a box and an envelope it still grabbed my attention and made me wonder what they would be used for.

What I took away from Penn & Teller’s live show was that you don’t need to keep your patrons in the dark about everything. Of course P&T are very selective about what the choose to give away, they are certainly in control of their message and their content, but they let us into their process at least a little and it makes all the difference. Showing how the trick is done has always had a stigma attached to it, like telling a child that Santa doesn’t exist. However, what I learned from Penn & Teller is that showing the trick doesn’t always mean ruining the magic. The trick is making your audience want to believe the magic even when it’s apparent that what is happening could never happen. Of course it’s not possible that Teller was making a ball levitate and act like a dog, but it was fun to imagine it was possible. I couldn’t explain how he was doing it, Teller kept that magic to himself, but his performance was so engaging I started to believe the ball had a personality and it moved of it’s own free will. Even if he showed us the string he might have been using (again, I don’t know how he did it), it still would have stood on its own as an impressive trick.

I wasn’t surprised at how forward thinking and audience forward Penn & Teller’s stage show was. They are extremely smart showmen and I’m very open to stealing a few of their ideas for future projects. Now I’m off to Google search how exactly that ball trick worked.

James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking his BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at and produces/co-hosts the podcast ANGRY PATRONS RADIOEpisode #…? NOW UP! (Click here) OR, subscribe to us on iTunes.

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