Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Duelling Magicians: a question of material.

Really interesting article in the New York Times today about Ricky Jay and another magician who is doing a very similar show to his, with many of the same effects.

READ THE ARTICLE Duelling Magicians: A Question of Material

This is a really interesting question. Almost all of Ricky Jay's work is based on homage to other magicians, but he's upset when other people pay homage to him. (Which is understandable, considering the amount of time and energy he has put in to researching and reviving these ancient tricks and putting his unique spin on them.)

There is a fine line between homage and plagiarism. Is anybody that does a feat of endurance like David Blaine ripping off David Blaine? Or pretends to be able to levitate? (Worthy to know that David Blaine's levitation trick is itself a $20 magic trick that nearly anyone can buy at a number of magic stores)

In fact, here's a concrete example: I've been doing my flea circus, The Acme Miniature Flea Circus, since 1994. (For more information, visit At the time that I began, there were one or two other people presenting flea circuses ( Maria Fernanda Cardoso and the Alberti Flea Circus) I did my own research, came up with my own show, and trained my own fleas.

In 2001, as part of his show, ON THE STEM , Mr. Jay presented a flea circus. (At the same time, I was performing two blocks away on Times Square) My show is 40 minutes long, and Mr. Jay did about 5-7 minutes of flea circus in his act. The shows had some very striking simnilarities,including a chariot race and flea poetry. Was Mr. Jay copying me? Or were we using similar sources to create our own individual shows, and I just happened to do it five years before him.

There's no easy answer. My guess is that Mr. Jay did his own research, (and I can assure him that I did my own as well)

My feeling is that I don't own the concept of flea circus, and (now, thanks to an industrious magician and prop builder in California (Walt Noon) there are a number of people presenting flea circuses (albeit mechanical ones). None of them are mine, and my conceit (such as it is) is that nobody but me can do my show. My show is original.

But as the number of people who enter the flea circus frenzy increase, my show seems less and less novel, and hurts my chances of being seen at festivals around the country and world ("Another flea circus? We already had one") And some of these shows are (or at least seem) derivative of mine, in their acts, their marketing, and other aspects.

So, I know EXACTLY how Mr. Jay feels. On one hand, I honor the (hopefully) creative urge that sparked myself and others to recreate a 100 year old traditional sideshow that had just about vanished, I have another hand that wishes, like one of Ricky Jay's amazing legerdemains, that these pesky magicians would disappear (or to be more a propo, to flee, and leave the fleas and their circus acts to me.