David is remarkably approachable and generous with his time. He has often been spotted sitting on the floor across from a youngster at a magic convention helping pass along magic skills to the next generation, and, hey - he took the call from Herb's Magic - agreeing to spend some time talking about his upcoming appearance as Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade in the touring production of Circus 1903: the Golden Age of Circus which is running at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden through April 16. Make sure to click on the "read more" link to read the whole interview.
Maybe we could start with ‘how did you become the Ringmaster for Circus 1903?’
Good question. Mark Kalin introduced me to Simon Painter, years ago. Simon is the producer of The Illusionists and they were looking for a replacement for Hobson for an Australian tour for six months. This was three years ago. And so I was at Magic Live and did a little performance there and Simon Painter saw me, thanks to Mark Kalin and we had a meeting and he said ‘you’re hired.’ So, I filled in for Hobson, and that went really well, and last year they asked me to be in the the London version that played at the Shaftsbury Theatre over the holidays for a couple months. So I was in The Illusionists there and they got to know me well and what I can do and when the time came to start casting for this circus show he’s been planning for years he thought of me and offered me the job of Ringmaster, and I jumped at it.
Were you the Ringmaster at the beginning of the production.
Yeah, this is basically the beginning of the production. This show started in November. We all flew to Australia, to Melbourne, to build the show, and I’ve been involved with it since before then, in writing and just brainstorming coming up with ideas for the show and I brought Mike Caveney in and he’d done a little writing work for The Illusionists Turn of the Century, that played here at the Palace. So, I’ve been involved with it from the beginning, and we rehearsed the show and built it in Melbourne and then moved it on to Canberra, Sydney, at the Opera House, and then back to Melbourn at the Regent Theatre, there for a couple weeks before we brought it to the States and then we’ve done L. A., Denver, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and now we’re in New York. [interview continues]
It was basically crafting my role. They had a vision for the show. They had cast these amazing circus acts, these international circus acts and the Ringamaster had to pull it all together. And there’s also a comedy sideshow element to the show. If you get a chance to see it, you’ll see. And there’s little goofy magic gags in there. The Director Neil Dorward had worked with The Illusionists, so he had an idea of what he wanted to happen, magically, during the transitions, and what my role would be. So, they gave me a lot of license as to how I was going to do things and what I was going to say and what magic effects might work here or there. Thats when I brought Mike Caveney in because he’s sort of steeped in that time period. He’s a historian. He helped me get the venacular right. He built a beautiful tip-over trunk for the History Conference and we are using his tip-over trunk in the sideshow for a bit that we wrote. That’s kind of the story there.
Very light. Not much. I do my act. I have my own segment near the end of the show where…it’s the wild animal taming portion of the show. Every circus has a wild animal tamer. That’ll be me and my wild animals are four kids from the audience. I bring them up and I do the Rocky Raccoon routine with them. It works really well in the circus format.
In the sideshow we have a couple quick magic gags and the tip over trunk and at the top of the show I do a trick of Jeff Hobson’s with a paper bag and a balloon animal just to get the show rolling with a kid from the audience, so I play two roles. In the first half of the show I’m the same character but I’m dressed in the sideshow talker garb and in the second half of the show I’m the full on ringmaster with the tail coat and the boots and the top hat, etc. I had built this comedy whip act that had some magic elements and we did it in Australia, but it was too long and we had to cut it for the American tour, so I’m kind of disappointed about that because I learned to crack a bull whip and we had a lot of funny magic gags in there but I don’t think it’s going to make it to New York.
The role of the Ringmaster, when I used to go to the circus as a kid, was kind of confusing. You must have thought about this. What is the role of the Ringmaster exactly?
Well, think of a gala show and what’s the role of the M. C. That’s basically the Ringmaster. In this show I also have a monologue where I explain what the circus means and how hard these people work and who they are and why we’re doing this and what it meant when the circus came to town in 1903. It was as if the Superbowl and the Olympics and the Oscars all came to town. Schools and factories closed. It was the biggest day of the year in small town America. I kind of explain that. My role is almost a narrator role in the first half of the show and then the second half I’m the bombastic ringmaster where I do these loquacious, over the top introductions of each act.
You say the first half of the show is the side show?
You’ll see, the show is divided into two acts. The first act is outside the circus tent. You see laundry strung up on wires and you see people pounding stakes into the ground and moving boxes and it’s all the busy activity in the circus yard before the tent goes up and the audience comes. And the circus wagon and so forth. You’ll see acts, quote-unquote, rehearsing out in the yard, before the tent goes up. And that’s how we present acts in the first half. That’s where a wagon opens up and becomes the sideshow stage and we have the sideshow segment in that first half.
At the end of the first half - after you’ve met the elephants (and we can talk about the elephants too) - we have a finale and at the end of the finale, boom - there’s a giant costume change. The whole cast changes costume from their drab brown costumes into their sparkly, colorful circus costumes. It’s almost like a magic trick, but it’s a theatrical trick, and we raise the tent, with the help of the elephants, and boom, at the end of the first act we’re all in full, colorful circus gear, curtain comes down, intermission, and at the top of act two we’re inside the circus tent with the circus parade, with all the pageantry, and then I introduce the rest of the acts.
It’s a pretty neat show. The transitions are very clever. The director and the producer put together some very nice moments. The sets are beautiful, the lighting is beautiful. The music is all original music by Evan Jolly, the composer who worked with The Illusionists, and this guy is unbelievable. He’s really talented. He’s from the U. K. He’s worked on a lot of movies, so the score is very cinematic. He took the music to Prague and had the Prague Symphony Orchestra record our soundtrack. It really adds a lot.
I know that this is produced by the same folks who produced The Illusionists and there probably are a lot of parallels to that show and you’re familiar with the people, but being in the circus seems different than what you’ve done before.
Oh, yeah, it’s completely different. When you’re hanging around magicians - they’re all my buddies at The Illusionists - it’s like back stage at a gala show. You’re just waiting your turn. Cicus people - these are all young people. They’re athletic. I’m the only one in the cast who can’t do a back flip and that’s no exaggeration. And they’re all laymen to me, so I don’t really have that much to talk to them about.
But they’re great. Their energy is amazing. And here’s what I’ve figured out. Magicians are independent units. We all are silos. We all have our own career trajectory and we usually work alone. When we are put together like in The Illusionists or a gala show or a festival or something like that it’s fine, our career path was not planned to be part of an ensemble, it was to be solo artists. So, everybody has their own concerns backstage and their own publicity to look after and so forth.
Circus folk, their career is designed to be part of a bigger whole. They know they are a piece of a larger whole. That’s just in their DNA. They form these groups, these families. It’s a much closer connection, like back stage and on stage. So it’s a whole different feel.
I’m not saying it’s bad to be around magicians. I love it, cause they’re all my buddies. Yeah, circus folk are different. Because they instantly, boom, you’re part of the family now. Click, we’re all part of a bigger whole, and, I need you in order for me to have a career. I need you too to be great tonight.
It’s a completely different mindsight.
In terms of performing circus instead of magic, was it a challenge for you to find the right tone?
Not really. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to be big and loud, because I am big and loud. I’m such a fan of these circus performers. My character on stage is in awe of these performers. And me, as a human being in real life, I’m in awe of these performers, so it all feels completely natural to me. Even when Simon told me three years ago when he hired me for The Illusionists that he was working on an amazing circus show, an old school retro circus show with big elephant puppets, I remember thinking ‘he’s gonna need a Ringmaster.’ Even that far back I was kind of thinking 'that seems like a perfect fit for me. It could be a great comic character.'
I saw a video interview with you online and you seemed quite mustachioed in it.
Here’s the thing with the moustaches. They’re the bane of my existence these days. They called me in the summer of last year and said ‘you want to be the Ringmaster?’ I said ‘yes, I do,’ and I hung up the phone and said 'I’m not shaving for three months. I’m going to see what I can do moustache-wise because I don’t want to glue one on.' Two months later I looked like a white trash Santa. It was not taking. I don’t have the gene. I can’t do it. It would take me years and years and still it would look spotty. So, I was like, ‘I’m going to have to glue it on. So, I searched and searched for the right kind of moustache. Probably in that interview you saw a really horrible one. It was almost a piece of cardboard glued to my upper lip. It was just awful. It looked fine onstage, from a distance. But then they turned the high definition camera on, and you see how cheap it is.
But I found one that’s a little more natural now and they’re kind of high end and I finally found a make up lady in Los Angeles for a TV appearance I did and she showed me the correct way to glue it on so it’s not always falling off.
Dana Daniels was in The Illusionists Turn of the Century and he and I were both laughing how about halfway through the show both of our moustaches were peeling off. He made a bit out of it and I said I might have to make mine into a routine too because this could be pretty bad. But then I figured out how to do it correctly and it stays on now.
How’s the touring life? Have you ever done a tour like this before?
No, never. Like I said, I did The Illusionists for three months but that was three or four weeks in each city in a nice hotel. Our tour right now is basically that. We’re a week in each city. A week or two - in a nice hotel. Maybe an extended stay hotel and everything’s fine and they fly you. If it’s close by we’ll take a bus. The hard core one nighter, living on a bus, rock and roll tour that The Illusionists are doing now in the United States, is in our future. But that will be next season. That will be in the Fall and next Spring, when it’s a bunch of one-nighters all over America. I haven’t done that yet, and I don’t know how that will go.
This life right now is fairly cushy. There’s a lot of early morning press, and I’m the only one who speaks in the show, so I do all the press. The morning shows and radio interviews and newspaper interviews and so forth. So, that takes up a lot of my afternoons, but I don’t mind. I like talking about the show.
Right now in New York we have a surprising number of high quality magic shows coming. There’s Derek DelGaudio, Derek Brown, your show.
Steve Cohen has moved locations.
Yes, and there are some other smaller things going on. But sometimes it seems like feast or famine going on here in New York. I’m wondering if you have thoughts about what’s happening on the New York scene. I know you’re not from New York, but you’ve spent a fair amount of time here and you kind of know what’s going on. Do you think this is all coincidence or do you think it indicates something about what’s happening in magic?
I don’t know if it’s coincidence. The Illusionists were just here and they did record box office numbers, and they did last year when they were at, the Neil Simon theatre, for the holidays, I think they did some record numbers there. I think magic is up again. You can see it ebb and flow, right? The popularity of magic. And I think we’re on a high point now and this is just a kind of an example of that. I think it’s coincidence to a certain point that everybody’s converging for these few weeks in New York right now but in general I think magic is on an upswing.
How do you feel about magic these days. You really have been immersed in it for your whole adult life. Aside from it just going up and down, ebbing and flowing, do you feel like anything else has changed about magic recently.
Well, yeah, of course. I think that with the advent of the Internet and all that, it’s blown up all the possibilities. All the interesting things happening online. All the new people getting into it just through the Internet. There are a lot of people doing magic who’ve never been in a magic shop or to a magic convention but have a deep well of information available to them. It makes it pretty interesting, and some of the things happening from that are blowing me away. All the young guys doing completely interesting things and then there are guys like Derek going off to make it into experimental theatre. I saw Derek’s show in L. A. recently and I was completely blown away by it.
How about you, personally. Does your interest in magic ebb and flow?
It does, yeah, to a certain degree. I was telling somebody, fifteen years ago when I was in my early forties I came home, I’d been doing corporate stuff for years. I was burnt out. I was completely burnt out. And I said, I had that mid-life crisis. ‘I need to find some other hobby or something else, cause I’m just burnt out with the magic thing. It’s my job, but there’s more to life.’ This is a ridiculous story, but for some reason— my yard looked horrible at home and I go ‘this is what I need to be doing. I’m going to learn about the local horticulture, and I’m going to fix my yard and landscaping, and I bought the tools, and the books, and the online, and I talked to people, and I made a plan. And about a month after that I had this epiphany, I was on my knees, I had dirt under my fingernails. I’m out in the yard with a shovel. It’s sweaty and hot. I thought ‘what the hell am I doing? I hate this. I’m all dirty and sweaty.’ And I talked to my wife shortly after that and I thought ‘I think I found my new hobby.’ And she’s like ‘what?’ And I said, ‘card magic.’
I got my second wind. I re-read all my old books and I started practicing again and I haven’t looked back, fifteen years later. I absolutely love it. I think a lot of it was the boost from watching all these young guys and what they’re doing. I was so excited by what’s happening in close-up magic, specifically card magic, and I thought it’s passing me by, this is so great, I want to get involved again.’ So, yeah I’m constantly practicing and reading and stuff. I love it. As much as I did when I was a teenager.
I spend a lot of my time and my energy focused on magic. And sometimes I think ‘what is it, what is it about it?' I can’t really figure out why I’m so interested.
Yeah, why the bug bit - what’s that bug.
I think it’s about something live happening in front of you. The sheer theatriality of magic. I feel it’s the one art form - moreso than theatre, music, or dance, for example, that really almost has to be done live. That’s the only think I can think of, is just the excitement…
Especially close-up magic. It’s very intimate and it’s mini-theatre. And it’s a feedback loop because you get instant incredible reaction with this playlet, this little routine that you’ve put together. And you need another brain to appreciate it. Another magician will only appreciate it to a certain level. You need a laymen’s brain. You actually have to fool them. Get in there and fool them for them to have the full get and it’s so satisfying.
I talk to people who have long-term projects and there’s no satisfaction there because it’s a multi-year thing. Whether it’s building a house or an airport or planning a city or something like that. But in magic it’s a short term project. You get instant satisfaction for a job well done. You lay the groundwork. There’s a lot of rehearsal that goes into it. That’s the long term project, improving your skill set, your tool set. Yeah, there’s a lot of satisfaction performing magic well.
There are a lot of us out there who would like to be as proficient as someone like you with our skills, but can’t quite get there. How come some people are so good, and the rest of us, even with a lot of practice, can't quite get where we want to be?
There’s a spectrum and we’re all on that spectrum. I look at other people and I say the same thing. ‘I’ll never be as good as so and so.’ But I’ve been in it long enough that I go ‘that’s ok. I’m going to be me. I’m going to do what I do and create my own little thing and be the best I can be,’ and that’s all you can do, really.
It’s not just the skill set. Nobody else can be you and do it like you. And that’s what people have to remember. No, you don’t want to be like Derren Brown, you don’t want to be like Derek DelGaudio, you want to be like you. Cause nobody can be you. That’s what you have that’s special. Some of the best magic routines I’ve seen are by guys at magic clubs who know themselves and are comfortable in their own skins and have figured out ways that their hands can do things, and they pull it off better than anyone else can do it because they’re the total package.
Well, thanks David for taking some time to talk to me. Is there anything you want to add? We didn’t talk about the elephants.
The elephants are great. They’re puppets. They’re very well done. They’re very lifelike and when they walk on stage you forget they’re puppets. That’s how cool they are, even though you see the puppeteers walking around inside of them and so forth. They’re a really great gimmick. They get crowds there, but then they’re a really neat part of the show. I love those puppets. They’re great.
What I love about the show, is that it’s for families. Not just kids, but families, multigenerational families. It’s one of those few shows where you go I’m going to get my Mom and Dad and I’m going to get my kids and we’re all going to go and sit together and thrill and laugh and cheer. When we opened the show in Australia, I looked out from the wings at this family in the front row and these two little boys literally had their mouths open the whole time. They were drop jaw watching these acrobats and these circus acts. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. And the lighting and the music and costumes just pushed it over the top, the experience. And that’s what I love about it. It’s live, it’s theatre, it’s magic. it’s all that wrapped up. Like I said to some reporter, no Marvel movie will ever compete with what we can do. You’ll see human beings flying through the air - super heroes - you know, these kids will never forget it. And that’s what’s really cool. So, that’s what I really like about the show. It’s for families. I’ve been doing Disney cruise lines for about six or seven years now and I love entertaining families, because it reminds me of sitting with my parents laughing at live shows when I was a kid. That’s pretty special because these days everybody has their entertainment delivered individually through separate screens, even in the same living room. I really like that aspect of this show and that’s why I belive in it.
I remember going to Ringling Brothers with my family. I have very fond memories of those experiences.
We’ve had people come to the show and say ‘we had no idea’ and they come back the next night with their kid. They thought it was like some sort of adults only kind of thing. And they’ve brought their parents and family back the next night. So, we get a lot of that.
It’s hard to believe that Ringling Brothers isn’t going to be around any more.
Maybe our show shows a way forward, how it’s possible to keep it alive.
Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus
Through April 16, 2017
The Theater at Madison Square Garden
4 Pennsylvania Plaza