Magic and Puppetry
Gaynor and I were in a pub with some friends. I guess this was about 1992. One of these friends, Ginny, showed me a really neat trick with two beer mats in which they seem to instantly flip from one side to the other. She wouldn’t tell me how it was done. However, as the evening wore on and we had more drinks, I kept asking to see it again. Eventually, she did it clumsily enough for me to spot how it was done.
Next day, I began practicing it and adapting it to suit me. Doing magic tricks is like telling jokes. If you hear a good joke and simply repeat it verbatim, odds are it won’t be that funny. Jokes demand personality. I’ve done stand-up comedy and have learned that to tell a joke well you have to make it your own.
You must re-shape to fit your voice, style, presence and personality. And it’s personality that’s the key. Telling a joke is one tenth material, nine tenths personality. And it’s very similar with magic tricks. The actual trick is a small fraction of the performance. Presentation is what matters. A good magician can make a poor magic trick seem great. Likewise a poor magician can take a great trick, do it perfectly, but still ruin it. You’ve got to stamp your personality convincingly on what you do. It’s the same with writing. That’s why people talk of reading, say, Agatha Christie or Seamus Heaney. They’re actually reading their work, but they say they’re reading the person. That’s the power and crucial importance of personality.
I’d passed it often but had never called in. It was a dingy, run-down and claustrophobic place on two floors, dealing mostly in fancy dress and party stuff. There was, however, an excellent selection of magic tricks on the ground floor, some in a glass display case, more in the window and even more tightly packed into dozens of drawers and on shelves behind the counter.
When I walked in, I found the owner chatting with an old man who turned out to be a retired magician. I told them what had happened in the school and asked for their advice. An hour later, I left with about six tricks that I’d bought and another half dozen that the old guy had shown me using coins and a pack of cards.
A couple of days after learning this trick, customizing it to make it mine, then honing it to fit my pace, style and personality, I went into a school and – part way through working with a class – did the trick. They loved it… and wanted more. When I said that I didn’t have any other tricks, they went “Aaaaaw!” as disappointed children do. I resolved to get some more.
Towards the end of the afternoon of that same day, while driving home from the school, I stopped off about three miles from home at a magic shop – now long gone – in the Leeds suburb of Armley. It was called The Looney Bin.
I now do around five thousand tricks and have worked worldwide as a stage, close-up, street, restaurant, party and off-the-cuff magician. I love it. Magic is a global language. I’ve performed to people whose language I can’t speak and who can’t speak any language I know. I’ve done magic when I’ve not known whether to tip someone.
I’ve done magic to get me out of threatening situations. I’ve done magic for babies and for the very old in homes for those with Alzheimer’s Disease. I’ve done magic at christenings, birthdays, weddings and funerals.
Puppetry came into my life a couple of years after magic. As a writer and performer, I’ve always gone out of my way to work with and for everyone. As a result, I’ve done a lot of work with those who are disadvantaged. I’ve always liked tackling challenging audiences. The first couple of dozen poetry readings that I did as a would-be performer-poet in the early 1970s included appearances in pubs, student unions, a working men’s club, a community centre, a folk club and more. I went on to read my poems in rock clubs, discos, shopping centres, youth clubs, prisons, festivals, city centres and a host of other challenging venues. I’ve also chosen to work with difficult audiences. Amongst the most demanding gigs are those with the spectrum of people designated as having ‘special needs’.
As a result of having done such a wide variety of work, I was asked, in the mid-1990s, to perform in a centre for young children who’d been physically and/or sexually abused by men. I was warned that many of them would be afraid of me simply because I was a man. I realized that I needed some way to draw them in without intimidating them, and so came up with the idea of using a nervous puppet. This way I could talk to the puppet for a long while without either me or my puppet making eye-contact with our audience. I found and bought a small and nervous-looking hand-puppet. I practiced with it in front of a mirror. I learned how to talk to it as if it was real. The outcome was extraordinary. Where the children had started by sitting as far away from me as possible, they slowly shuffled closer until, by the end of the show, they were hugging my legs and demanding that I do more puppetry.
I now own more than two hundred puppets. I’ve worked with each of them in front of a mirror. It gives us a chance to get to know each other. Whatever relationship we develop – friendly, competitive or hostile – the crucial factor is that it has to be utterly believable. My job as a puppeteer is to lend my puppets personality. They must seem real and they must be seen to inflict their personalities on me. If we clash, I often lose, but that’s fun and funny.
Some twenty-five years on from all the above, I’m now not only a writer and performer, but also a fully professional magician and puppeteer. This mix of skills enables me to do a one-man show that combines poems and stories, comedy and participation, magic and puppetry, improvisation and more. It’s immensely satisfying. And I love the fact that what I now do appeals to all ages and all cultures. That’s truly a privilege. And every performance I do teaches me more. It’s not giving, it’s sharing. It’s not draining, it’s gaining. And, the more demanding it feels, the more rewarding it proves to be.
Nick Toczek, June 2018