In their new book "A New Angle," Michael Feldman and Ryan Plunkett introduce a series of new takes on an old tool, The Stripper Deck. The book takes the deck deeply into a realm of previously unexplored ideas. For example it outlines a new principle that allows for a series of surreal effects in which the condition of the deck visually transforms as it is being handled. The book also shows how the deck can add dimension to classic effects like Triumph and the Color Changing Deck, and includes many other intriguing tricks and tips. Michael Feldman, who now lives in San Francisco was a regular performer at Monday Night Magic and at Feinstein's while he was part of the magic scene in New York at different times from 2007 to 2012. One night while we were hanging out at a local magic club meeting, Michael mentioned his in-progress book and pulled out a deck.
A New Angle, is published by Magic, Inc., photographed by James Murphy, designed by Heather Wood, edited by Susan Palmer Marshall and Pedro Nieves-Bosque, with a foreword by Lance Pierce, It features additional contributions by Harapan Ong, Edward Boswell, Nathan Colwell, Frank Fogg, and Brian O'Neill.
I guess why I was so interested in this book is that I remember that you performed some of this material for us quite a while back at one of the Magnets meetings, and I always liked the Stripper Deck anyway, but I thought ‘here’s a different, fresh approach to using it, which isn’t just locating a card.’ I guess I would start from a basic point of view and ask what got you to start looking at the Stripper Deck in a new vein? What was your impression of it before starting to work on this, and what led you to start working on these new approaches?
My approach to the Stripper Deck before this project was the same as most people’s approach to the Stripper Deck, which is that it stayed in the back of my magic drawer for many years as a tool I had no interest in pursuing anymore because it was the kind of thing that you leave aside when you graduate to sleight-of-hand and more interesting and deceptive methods. What changed my mind was meeting Ryan. At the first Pebblepalooza magic convention I met Ryan Plunkett and he fried me with a magic trick. I didn’t know how it was done and I didn’t want to know how it was done, and I thought about it the whole year. I went back the next year to the same convention, saw him at the same place, and he showed me the same trick and he still fooled me, and I asked him to show me how it was done. And the answer was a tapered deck, a Stripper Deck. That year he had come up with some more material and we started talking about what you could do with it and what he was doing with it, and what really convinced me was Ryan’s material that not only used a Stripper Deck but combined it with other principles like stacks or sleight-of-hand or all the various other principles that are available to you in magic. He used that combination to create some really deceptive, really compelling new effects that aren’t possible any other way.
Yes, the trick is in the book. It is called Shuffleupagus. The book is mostly Ryan’s material. There are a couple of tricks and ideas from me and then there are one-offs from a variety of other people who have contributed other ideas. But the division of labor on the book was that most of the material is Ryan’s with a couple of things from me, and then I wrote most of the book (and Ryan helped with some of that as well). I got to name a bunch of the tricks because we were batting around ideas and I like coming up with ideas for naming tricks. Eventually, I think by being stubborn, I convinced Ryan to call this trick, Shuffleupagus. I’m pretty sure he hated the name at first, but I wouldn’t stop calling it that and so it ended up being the name in the book, so victory for me. The basic effect is that a deck unshuffles itself, but the thing I love about it is that you show a shuffled deck and by shuffling it more, the cards become more ordered. So, you show a shuffled deck, you give the cards a shuffle and all of a sudden they’re —not quite separated red and black—but close. Then you hand the deck out for other people, to two other people to shuffle it, and you combine their two halves, and when you do, it’s in new deck order. The idea of shuffling things back into order, and having a spectator do it, was a phenomenal plot, to my mind. I loved seeing it. It fooled me, and the rest is history, I guess.
Let’s go back a second. The Stripper Deck, you said, was in the back of your drawer. I went through a period where I felt ‘oh, the Stripper Deck, that’s for beginners.’ But then I started to feel like it got a bad rap, even before I came across your material. I thought, this is a tool that one way or another can make things more magical. So somehow I think it got a bad rap along the way.
I think that’s right. I think there’s two reasons that it gets a bad rap. One, which is the thing you can’t really do anything about, is that a lot of people know what it is. Non-magicians, laymen know the Stripper Deck. They maybe don’t know it by that name, they don’t know it’s called the Stripper Deck, the Tapered Deck, or the shaved deck or whatever it’s going to be called, but they do know that it exists, that there is a deck of cards that’s thinner on one end and bigger on another end and some people will even check for it when they ask to borrow your deck of cards. It’s a little bit of a bad rap because people know what it is.
But the other reason it gets a bad rap that is totally solvable is that people tend to pick one or the other of sleight-of-hand or gimmicks. Either they do a trick with a gimmick and no sleight-of-hand or they say this is a sleight-of-hand trick and they use sleight-of-hand and no gimmick. But it turns out combining them is much more powerful than either of them because people are looking for a gimmick or sleight-of-hand. Even non-magicians. Even people who aren’t familiar with methodology generally look for one method. They look for either the sleight-of-hand or the gimmick and if you combine both, such that your trick cannot be explained by either, then you have a much stronger trick. I think that the reason the deck gets a bad rap is because people assume if you’re going to use the gimmick, all you can do with that trick is use the gimmick, but if you combine it with other things, you can make it much more powerful, and that’s what the book tries to do.
I didn’t know Ryan before the first Pebblepalooza. I met him there, I’m pretty sure. And we didn’t decide to write the book until the second year. I think the second year we started deciding we were going to write the book and then from there it was an evolution - coming up with material and cutting material, videotaping it, describing it, revising it, shopping the book around, doing the pictures, getting it all set.
As you worked on the book, were you in separate cities? Can you describe the process of working on it?
Yeah, we were in separate cities. We wrote it mostly on Google Docs. One of us would come up with a trick or we would find one of our friends who had a trick that we wanted to include and generally speaking what would happen is someone would film it. And they would film the explanation and send it to me in Dropbox. I would write up the explanation and then we’d take that and we put it into Google Docs and then we’d send it around and do an edit and we’d have people work through it to make sure it made sense and make sure that people could understand it, that I hadn’t missed a step or written ‘right’ where I meant ‘left’ or something like that and moved on from there.
Once we had a bunch of tricks combined we started to create the order of the book and we started to cut material that we didn’t want, explain material that was better and proof read it and all of that. But the whole time I’ve been living in San Francisco and Ryan was first in school and then he moved to Chicago, so we met in Dallas for the convention, which was really the only time we were in the same city, except for a couple of times when I went out to Chicago. Other than that we met up at magic conventions, especially Magic Pebble. But we were able to write via the Internet and Skype. We’d talk via Skype about what we wanted the book to become and he was very good about texting me incessantly to make sure we were progressing on the writing and I tried to make sure that we were moving the book forward as well, but certainly Ryan deserves the bulk of the credit for pushing the project forward.
You said that you started working on it as a book after you met up the second time. So from then until now, how long has it been?
Five years. Certainly a book project doesn’t need to take five years, but this one did. I have a full time job. I’m a lawyer and that takes a lot of time. And this is a side project that is not going to be a living for either me or Ryan. It’s a passion project. It’s something that we care deeply about not a primary source of income. It was something that we wanted to get right, something that we wanted to do well, but that we really only had our spare time to do. It did take quite a long time.
And you decided to write the book before you had a publisher, right?
Yeah. So in this I’ve taken a page out of Louis C. K.’s book or George Lucas’s book, both of whom have this mentality that in order to create the project that they want to create without meddling from other people, they do their entire project and then shop it around. I worked for Lucasfilm as a legal intern for a little while and heard a couple of good stories about how George Lucas would do this. He would not only shoot a pilot episode of a TV show but he would shoot, or film, or animate an entire series, an entire first season and then shop it around and say, ‘look, you can have this like this and you can put it on the air or you can so no, and I’ll move on to someone else,' and that was our plan as well. Ryan and I are very particular about what we wanted this project to be, what we wanted it to look like, what we wanted it to feel like, what we wanted to be in it. Because we feel that strongly, we didn’t want to have the project directed by someone else such that it would be their project or their vision. We really wanted it to be our vision.
We wrote the whole thing. We had the entire thing put together. We started taking the pictures even before we had a publisher and then we finished taking the pictures after we had the publisher, but everything was written and we had placeholder pictures before we shopped it to anyone. We had done a couple of drafts that we had people read, and edit, and comment on before we even shopped it to a publisher. Then we took it to a couple of people and one publisher just wanted to do an e-book, and that really wasn't what we wanted. We wanted to have a physical, nice book. We took it to someone else who said yes, but eventually didn’t see the project going in the direction we wanted to go. And then we took it to Magic, Inc. and Magic, Inc. was very supportive and great and took it to even greater heights than we otherwise would have. We had the content there, but Magic, Inc. really designed the book itself, designed the cover, put it together. Ryan picked out the paper and worked on the size of the book and the formatting and the layout, but Magic, Inc. did a fantastic job bringing to life a project that Ryan and I had been trying to make happen for quite a long time.
I have to say, it is a lovely publication. The design is simple, but it’s very elegant. It’s kind of got an old school feel to it, which is nice.
Ryan and I are both book fans. We both have extensive magic book collections. It is both useful as a source of information but also a nice connection to the past and a connection to magicians that we really enjoyed or been inspired by. Ryan especially really likes the old material. He likes to shop in used book stores for magic books that you can’t find anywhere else, or to rekindle old gems, which is sort of what he’s done here, taking something that most people have dismissed and bringing it back to life. He wanted the book - we both wanted this, but it was especially his idea — to look like one of those old cloth cover magic books that was published by Eddie Fechter and Marlo back in the day before you got those slicker, shinier production values of today.
Did you ever think about putting this material out in a video format or would you still think of putting some of it out in a video format?
No, we didn’t. Again, for us this is a passion project. This is something we wanted to see in the world. It’s not a means to an end. This is the end in itself. We wanted to create this book. Obviously this is not the be all and end all of either of our magic, but the project that we wanted to see happen. From the very beginning Ryan and I said ‘we should write a book.’ We never said ‘we should make a DVD,’ we never said ‘we should make some downloads,’ and in fact with various folks we spoke to about putting the book out there was some talk about ‘we could do a companion video,’ and we never really wanted to do that. I don’t see a problem in the future releasing some of it on video as well, but that’s not the reason that we did this. It’s not the reason Ryan and I got together to do this project. We got together because we had some really amazing material that we thought should be in the magic world and because we wanted to have a book, because it is a connection to a piece of magic that is very important to both me and to Ryan.
I guess I’m saying people learn various ways. Some people learn better from videos. So it’s more ‘what’s the more efficient way of putting the material out there?’ But I see you guys are passionate about putting out a book.
To be clear while I think we were both very proud of the material in the book, the goal of creating a book is not necessarily to widely disseminate the content as much as possible. And that’s sort of by the nature of the work. This is not beginner magic, this is not entry-level stuff. It is a bit of a niche. You need some background knowledge in magic and some of these techniques to do the material. These are effects and this is a project that requires some investment on the part of whoever picks it up. So a book is a higher level of investment in terms of time and effort to learn material than a video is, but that's sort of what we were going for anyway. We want the material to be picked up by people who are really going to put the time in to learn the techniques or to think about this and take it to a new place. And the book is pretty specific about that as well.
In addition to the effects themselves, there are quite a number of stand-alone effects. There are also throughout the book a number of what we call “Shavings,” which are not full effects but ideas about ways that you can use the tapered deck that people haven’t thought of before, that people haven’t published before and that are interesting in that they can be added to other effects or they can inspire other effects. Certainly there is a lot of material in there that is like a traditional magic book, ready to be performed out of the box, but there also is quite a bit of material in there that is designed to inspire people and take it to a new place and to come up with new material and hopefully to come back some day and fool me and Ryan with it.
Maybe you could describe one or two other effects from the book that you like and think are good examples of what you were going for in terms of the material. And if relevant, describe the process by which the effect came together.
Sure. There are two that come to mind immediately, one of them is Ryan’s and one of them is mine. Ryan’s is called "Hallucinogenic Triumph." It is a version of "Triumph," although you can do a couple of things with it that aren’t just "Triumph". There is a very interesting, very bizarre moment, where you take a deck of cards and you are doing tabled riffle shuffles, and everything looks normal, it’s a normal tabled riffle shuffle, but without any false moves, without doing anything other than the motions of a standard riffle shuffle, cards start to turn face up. First everything is face down, then one or two cards are face up, then two or three cards are face up, then seven cards are face up then 10 cards are face up, then twenty cards are face up and you spread the deck and about half the cards are face up and half the cards are face down while you’re shuffling in a totally normal cadence. Then you have someone take a card, you close the deck back up, continue shuffling, then all the cards go back the same way, except for the one, which is the "Triumph" part. Actually, in the way that Ryan performs it, he cuts to the selected card, turns it over, shows that it is the selected card, and then spreads the rest of the deck to show that they are all facing the same way. It’s wonderful because it uses the tapered deck not in the traditional way you might think to use it, which is to separate cards, although there also is a piece of the effect that does that. You use it almost as a Svengali Deck to hide different cards when you want to, and because it’s a tapered deck and not just the Svengali, you can work with the taper to control the level of variation of which cards you’re hiding in a way you can’t do any other way.
That is a trick that was born out of a jam session between me and Ryan at our probably third or fourth Pebblepalooza, where we were sitting with tapered decks, working on material, and I came up with this idea of shuffling the cards and showing that they were all face down but then being able to spread and showing that they are all mixed, or vice-versa. The convention ended on Saturday and then everyone went to sleep at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. Sunday morning, and I think either 4 a.m. Sunday morning or 9 a.m. Sunday morning, when we were about to go to the airport, that’s the moment that Ryan and I were jamming with the tapered deck and found this principle, and over the next year we both worked on it. “Hallucinogenic Triumph” is the thing Ryan came up with, and I came up with an effect, called “The Law of Conservation of Bullshit” and in my effect it’s more like a pass the mess style of effect. I hand half the cards to the spectator and I take half the cards for myself and one of us shuffles face up into face down and the other shuffles face down into face down but when I give my packet to the spectator and the spectator gives their packet to me nothing changes. The cards that were all face down in my hand stay all face down in my hand and the cards that were face up and face down in the spectator’s hand stay face up and face down and no matter how many times you switch the packets back and forth the messy state stays with the person and doesn’t stay with the packet. There are a number of other phases that expand on that. There’s an all backs moment and a couple of other weird things. I have a tendency to create plots and presentations that are quite meta and that poke fun at traditional magic tropes so I go through a couple of traditional magic tropes and make fun at them using that effect. That’s the basic idea of that one.
The other thing that I will bring up that is really my favorite piece in the book is what I call “The Complete Faro Control.” Ryan is a Chicago based magician and as a result is around quite a large number of Marlo aficionados and Ryan has that sensibility. He loves algorithmic work, he loves stacks, he loves Faro work, things like that. While I find some of that very interesting, I find some of it very artificial. This idea, “The Complete Faro Control,” was designed to fix another trick in the book that uses Marlo’s “Incomplete Faro Control.” If you don’t know, “The Incomplete Faro Control” is one where you Faro the cards and you don’t square them up. You leave them in sort of an extended state where the cards are Faro interweaved but they’re not square. Then you have a spectator pick a card from the deck while the cards are weaved but not squared and you do some shuffles and some cuts and that gives you some algorithmic control over where the card is and what you do with it. I’ve always thought that “The Incomplete Faro Control” was bizarre because there is no reason to have the deck in that very odd state, and no explanation for it has ever rung true to me. I personally think that any spectator watching any trick with the “Incomplete Faro Control” knows that the only reason to do that has to be method. Even if they don’t know what the method is, they can point to something that has to have been part of the method. For me that’s enough to not do the effect. But I found, very happily, that with the Tapered Deck you can do “The Incomplete Faro Control” without having to have the deck in that bizarre state. You can do the “Incomplete Faro Control” with the deck entirely square. So you can replace “The Incomplete Faro Control” in any trick that uses it with “The Complete Faro Control,” which is a piece in the book. And for me that was great because I’ve loved a lot of the effects that use that technique, but I’ve always hated the technique. And to find a solution that applied to so many different tricks that I would love to use or that I would love to practice or work on was a great moment for me and one that I very much enjoy sharing with other people both in person and in the book.
Shifting gears just slightly, I wanted to ask, in the book you itemize the different sources for tapered decks and ultimately you come to the conclusion that it is really best for people to make them themselves. Did I interpret that correctly?
I think that’s probably right. It is not cheap to find a method to create your own stripper decks. You can buy a factory-made tapered deck for cheap, say $20 at a magic store and those are fine if you go to a good magic store or you find a good quality factory-made tapered deck, they’re fine. But to really get into The Tapered Deck in a meaningful way, that will allow you to unlock a lot of the possibilities that are there, you really want to learn to make your own or find someone nearby who is good at making them, for a couple of reasons. One is that you have more control over the deck itself. There are many different ways of cutting a tapered deck. The cut can be shallow, the cut can be deep, the cut can be on the end, the cut can be on the side. The cut can be on the index side or the non index side. Or you can have a cut in both places. All those different combinations allow you to do different things. Factory-made you can really only get one kind of those decks. So if you want to play with the others, you need to learn to cut them yourself. Like I said, it’s not necessarily cheap, but it’s no longer quite as expensive as it used to be. There was a time when in order to make your own tapered deck that would pass scrutiny with any spectator you would need to buy a $4,000 cutter, from either Joe Porper or from some magic shop that happened to have a passed down cutter from a long time ago that you can somehow purchase. They were hard to find, and they were very expensive. There are a number of cheaper options now. Ryan and I both now have what’s called The Stripper Jig, by a guy named, Eoin O’Hare, out of Ireland. That’s a wonderful piece that’s much cheaper than the traditional cutters, although it’s still not cheap. It’s about $500 to get the Stripper Jig. But then there’s there also options of using a paper cutter. We describe in the book a method of making a tapered deck with a paper cutter. There are a couple of people who sell them for $100. That’s cheap for some people and expensive for other people, but it’s certainly less expensive and more accessible to people generally than the old thousands of dollar cutters. So, there are a number of options now for learning to make your own and if it’s possible to do that then, what we came to in the book is, that it really does help to make your own.
It’s very interesting to go back to a magic tool that a lot of people had looked at as a beginner’s trick, and then refresh it, reinvent it. What about looking at other similar magic items. Are you going to go to the Svengali deck next, or maybe the Hot Rod?
I don’t think so. It wasn’t reviving an old technique that really roused the creativity in me and Ryan. It wasn’t about reviving something old that made us happy. It was finding a source of creativity or a source for new magic that we could play with and develop. It’s more about finding a new well of magic potential than it is about reviving something that’s old. There are lots of things that are old that are worth reviving and there are lots of things that are old that are not worth reviving. Just as there are things that are new that are worth doing and things that are new that are not worth doing. It’s really more about finding something to explore than it is anything else. I certainly have moved to exploring a couple other techniques that I’ve been working on. I know that Ryan is doing the same thing. I know that we’re both working on our own projects to explore different areas as well. Ryan and I still jam all the time on the various things we’re coming up with, so it’s totally possible that we’ll work on another project together and explore some new topic, but I’m not sure what that will be yet.
Joking aside, I think your book could inspire other people to look at the tools that they have around them and don’t use and find fresh approaches to use them.
I hope that happens. Absolutely.
I think that’s what’s great about it. I really love things that cause you to look at something familiar in a new, unexpected way.
The other reason that the tapered deck is particularly wonderful on that front is that you can bring it back into your repertoire without changing much of your repertoire. Most magic tricks that people do, you can do with a tapered deck, without using the tapered deck itself. You can do “Triumph, you can do “Ambitious Card,” insert name of trick you care about here, with a tapered deck —-without using The Tapered Deck itself. So you can walk around, perform for your friends, perform at your gigs, with a tapered deck in hand, doing whatever your existing repertoire is and then when you want to bust out something that does involve a tapered deck, it’s already in your hand. That’s one of the real differences between The Tapered Deck and other gimmicks. You can’t do that with a Svengali deck. With a Svengali deck, you can’t do your normal repertoire. That would have a much more profound effect on what you can do than a tapered deck does. I think that’s one of the greatest benefits of this book is that people can pick it up, people can learn tricks, and people can just hold onto a tapered deck and not use it they don’t want and experiment with it when they do.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about in terms of other things you’re doing now in magic.
All of the other projects I’m working on right now are a little bit too far away to be teasing them yet. But I’ve definitely got a bunch of irons in the fire. I’m going to be doing a new show here in San Francisco sometime soon that I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve done a version of the show a couple of years ago and I’m going to be revamping it and doing it here. I’ve got another book in the works. Ryan and I are doing a lecture together later this year, and I’m putting together some lecture notes, because there are many more effects in this book than would actually be in a set of normal lecture notes. And I’ve got a DVD project in the works as well with a bunch of different friends that hopefully will see the light of day sometime soon. Because these are passion projects, they only happen in the time we have to spare.
The lecture you’re doing with Ryan is it based on this material or is it broader than that?
It will be both. Ryan and I both also have other material out as well. I’ve got a DVD called Trade Secrets that we put out originally with Blue Crown. Ryan has another book called Some Assembly Required which is all things you can build or make, so at the lecture later this year, we’re going to talk about the tapered deck, for sure, we’re going to talk about A New Angle and some of the things you can do with it but also a little bit of the work that we have been doing separately on various ideas and various techniques that we use in our magic all the time.
The show that you have planned for San Francisco, is there a venue for that or a time frame?
It will probably be in October, maybe November, but probably October. I usually do it at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco which is a great space and hosts quite a few magic shows. The people who run it are very friendly to magicians. We all like that space quite a lot and I’ll probably do it there again.
Does the show have a title?
Yeah, it’s called 52 Minutes, 52 Cards, No Survivors. It is a show in which I rip up all the cards over the course of the show. And it is 52 minutes long and it involves only 52 cards and none of the cards survive the show.
Sounds great. I hope I get to see it soon. Thanks for chatting with me Michael. I'm looking forward to working on the material in "A New Angle."
And I'll look forward to seeing it!