One thing is for sure: when it comes to performance, I’m drawn to a performer who questions, challenges, or simply struggles with performance itself. As though there’s something a bit off about performance and performing, and the performer is trying to work it out, to get out from under it, to hold it up to the light (in the way that PJ Harvey, pictured, seems to be gently questioning the portrait photograph).
Performance is not a settled affair, this relation with the audience, this idea of watching, of being watched: entertainment, spectacle, yuk. It all needs to be reconsidered, deconstructed, and what better time to do this than, well, during the performance itself.
In a nutshell, I think this premise has underlined much of my work in theatre and performance, especially in my pre-Gambini phase.
End of preface, now onto the blog entry.
I write this in early Sept 2022, returning from doing shows in Aarhus, Denmark, where I have been working on new material for a magic show, my third in this Gambini guise. It surprises me, and at times confuses me, how my relation to magic changes over time, and that's what I want to chart here.
After a hiatus of roughly 14 years (I had stopped magic around 2000, to focus entirely on theatre and dance work), in August 2014 I spent a month at a set of art studios in Edinburgh, exploring how I could return to magic, approaching it in a more theatrical manner. It was in 2014 that, in collaboration with two lovely artists associated with Edinburgh’s Rhubaba Gallery, I developed the idea of ‘Vincent Gambini’, and it was there that I developed and performed a first version of This is not a magic show. That show is one I still occasionally present, 8 years later.
Following that 2014 work (premiered in 2015 after some try outs), I developed The Chore of Enchantment (premiere 2018), which was more of a stage magic show.
There were other magic-related projects along the way, but these two shows were the main ways I worked on and figured out my relation to magic and performance.
They were two very different performances. In the first show, I worked without any pressure to ‘deliver the goods’: I was genuinely seeing if it was possible for me to return to card and coin magic, but paying much more attention to the theatrical framing. I brought the audience’s attention on the construct of the situation: I fictionalized a magician’s preparations in the dressing room (practicing how to greet the audience, shuffling the cards), I then began the show by admitting I didn’t quite know how to begin the show (purportedly due to the host venue or festival asking me to start not with my usual card trick), and overall Gambini emerged as a dedicated sleight of hand magician, but rather self-effacing, somewhat hesitant and not domineering (many reviews said ‘low key’).
This was very satisfying to make and perform, and the show toured well and got some great reviews.
The second show, however, was a much more conscious attempt to build on the relative success of the first, and to go slightly larger: whereas This is not a magic show took place around a table, The Chore of Enchantment saw me walking up and down a stage, at a microphone, working with music and prerecorded spoken tracks. I worked with a producer, a sound designer, and the official backing of venues and the Arts Council. I battled second album syndrome a lot. The show assembled various ideas – a magician in freefall about the state of the world (it was made in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s election), increasingly desperate about the irrelevance of magic, all the while building a kind of dream narrative: the whole show, it is suggested, is just a memory, being remembered by Gambini, over and over again, as a way of trying to get through a kind of breakdown he experienced, where he collapsed live on stage (the memory being recounted is also the very show happening on that night, in that specific theatre).
Unlike the first show, which seemed to get made almost effortlessly, the second show took a lot of work and time, and never came together in the way that was wholly satisfying: this was partly because its various parts were tried and tested independently, and then assembled, but some of the joins were near impossible to smooth out. The premise was a little lost on audiences. In hindsight I could have worked more with other artists (writer, director), instead of trying to do it all alone with only occasional input from others (apparently I suffer from one-man-band syndrome).
Bringing us to today.
For the third performance, I’m going back to basics: no pressure to make it, no official backing from venues or Arts Council, for now just playing with possibilities, and returning to a more intimate setting of about 15-20 people sitting around a table.
It’s early days, but in the piece it seems I have a different relation to magic: instead of the innocence of the first show, or the ironic cynicism of the second, I am working with a slightly more abstract relation between speech and action. I am playing with retelling a day in the life of someone who could be you, or another spectator, or perhaps myself (or all 3). I use the ‘you’ a lot, and as I describe everyday encounters, I perform some gentle coin magic. Then there are more story-based pieces using cards. So far, these see me returning to some familiar ideas: the slippery relation between past and present, fiction and reality (the trick I am recounting is the one taking place here and now); and a kind of quizzical attitude towards magic and its relevance: I ask the audience, more or less explicitly, whether it’s not already magical to simply be in a room, together, and to breathe, and to feel time passing: perhaps we don’t need deception and trickery to experience enchantment? Well, yes and no. Because Gambini doesn’t really know how to access the wonder of the moment – he’s not a shaman or a mystic, he’s not a ‘real magician’ – all he has are his deceptive card tricks, so those are going to have to do for the time being.
More to come.
(below, setting up to perform in gorgeous little studio at Dokk 1, Aarhus)