November 27, 2009

STRANGER: Michael Chamberlin
LOCATION: Thaiphoon, 2011 S Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Dining with a magician/stage director

Michael Chamberlin certainly knows the art of magic.

At the end of our dinner together in Washington, DC, I asked Michael — a professional magician — to improvise a trick using just the items on the restaurant table. With lightning speed he grabbed a salt shaker, napkin and quarter and pulled off a quite fantastic routine.

More on that later, though if you’re feeling lazy then scroll down to the bottom of this article to see a video of his hastily pulled-together piece of magic.

We met at Thaiphoon, which you may guess by the name is a Thai restaurant. Not quite sure what connection they’re trying to make to typhoons, but considering DC is also home to a restaurant named Thaitanic, apparently I’m in the right city for pun-worthy Thai place names. Titles aside, the place is airy, bright and the staff are welcoming.

One of the things I worry about before each dinner with a stranger is extreme awkwardness with the interviewee, even though it’d be fun to write about after the fact. Mercifully Michael is easy to be around and puts people immediately at ease. I’m sure his easygoing nature is a boost to his career as a magician, which he has been working at since his teenage years.

Growing up in Bowie, Maryland, Michael said he became interested in magic “at a very early age. I was growing up at the height of when television exploded with magic,” particularly through a regular American television show hosted by a magician named Doug Henning. My British upbringing means I wasn’t privy to Henning’s performances, but Michael assured me he was a colorful “hippie magician” who made magic entertaining and captivated a young Mr. Chamberlin.

A 1970s television special by Henning “was seen by more people than saw Harry Houdini in a lifetime,” Michael said, and from there a new magic scene “exploded.”

Captivated by magic at the age of 10 Michael took part in a small magic club at his church every Saturday morning, where a magician would teach the children a routine. Eventually the club disbanded. “And so the other kids, you know, they lost interest and they went on to do something else, but me I decided I’m just going to start doing magic.”

It was when Michael was roughly 30 years old that he realized what it is about magic that enthralled him — it wasn’t the magic tricks themselves that carried the intrigue, it was the performing aspect.  In addition to his magic work he is also a stage director of plays and in the past took acting classes, and over the course of our hour-long dinner it became that the two worlds of magic and the theater constantly compete for his time.

“Being a magician and being a director are linked. They’re very closely related, because the magician and the stage director are both creating a world for the audience to believe in, with whatever tools they have. The magician is saying, ‘These things are going to happen over the next hour, and it wouldn’t normally happen, but right here with me, you and I, we’re going to make these wonderful things happen.’ He’s trying to get the audience to believe it, to buy into it. Well, when you go to see a play, the director’s trying to get you to buy into the world of the play and believe that these things are really happening.”

Before Michael could get started on telling me about his early work as a magician, our shared starter arrived. We’d split an order of the $5.95 garden rolls.

According to Thaiphoon’s website, the rolls include fresh bean sprouts, cucumber, mint leaves, carrot, cilantro and rice noodle wrapped with rice paper and served with house special light brown sauce and crushed peanuts. Michael thoroughly enjoyed his share, but I found mine a little overpowered by an excess use of cilantro that made them hard to finish.

Here’s where I could use some lame joke about using magic to make the cilantro disappear and transition back into Michael’s life story, but I’ll spare you that and just move on swiftly.

Michael launched his magic career in his late teens doing shows, which he said was ideal because at that younger age he was “less afraid to try new things, I had no angst” about trying a trick — he calls them routines — that might fail to amuse or interest the audience. And he studied. A lot. “And of course I read everything I could get my hands on, magic books, magic magazines, I watched all of these TV shows, I went and saw magic shows wherever I could.”

He also started hanging out at a place in DC named Al’s Magic Shop (it no longer exists) where he found an atmosphere inviting to young aspiring magicians. “When you’re young you imitate. You just imitate what you know and what you like,” Michael said, so after learning routines from the magic shop staff he would personalize them and craft them into his own magic show.

At his early shows he would do roughly 15 tricks in under half an hour, nowadays he might do only eight. Why the decrease? “Because they were just tricks, they were not routines. No narrative, nothing to link them together,” Michael said, again hinting at his desire to cement a link between magic and storytelling on the stage. “I believe that everything has to flow from one thing to the next, everything needs to have a story behind it.”

In addition to learning magic at a young age, Michael also acted in his high school’s drama club and then when he got out of college started to “think seriously” about being an actor. He took classes at the Studio Theatre conservatory in DC. “It was an absolute watershed for me because I realized I knew nothing about acting. I thought I knew all this. I knew nothing. I started taking the classes and just couldn’t get enough of, I mean I just ate it up, I loved it. And it started to slowly seep its way into the magic. And then the magic work got better. The quality of my show, the presentation got better because of what I learned in the acting classes.”

From the acting classes “the main thing I learned was how to keep it very real and just respond to things on stage,” he said.

Some children’s entertainers get a bad rap, and deservedly so, he said, for giving fake reactions of wonder and surprise, and so he strives in his shows to be totally real but still keep my responses heightened. In acting terms it’s the equivalent of being completely “in the moment.” The audience is aware of the difference between a real response and a phony one, and  respond better to a real reaction, he said.

Still, magic is “an incredibly dated” profession compared to other arts including dance, painting and theater, and most of the magic books available are from the 1960s where tricks are performed to a limerick or some other linguistic gimmick. Michael tried that in the early 1980s but finds that audiences these days are not so keen on wordplay. Instead he makes his shows more visual and moves them a little faster, trying to involve the audience as much as possible.

A desire to involve the audience comes in handy when he’s doing “mingle magic,” for example if a company hires a restaurant and asks Michael to appear, he goes from table to table performing tricks for just one or two people at a time.

Audience participation is also key when Michael is star of the show for many more people, such as at a wedding or other big event. As soon as he can get people up and working with him the better, he said, because it brings the show into the immediate. For example, he might be prepping a trick about making a cake, but rather than simply telling the audience what his trick is about, he’ll incorporate the event by saying their food looked great, it’s making him hungry and he has to eat, so he gets out the props for the cake routine.

Speaking of hunger (smooth transition, eh?) this marked the arrival of our main courses. Michael opted for the Pad Thai, which costs $10.95.

The dish includes thin rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, bean sprouts, sliced red bean curd, crushed peanuts, scallions, eggs, and tamarind sauce. Michael said it wasn’t too spicy, which is good because he’s not a fan of really spicy dishes. Much like the starter, he greatly enjoyed his food — so much in fact, he even took the leftovers home.

I’d ordered the Lad Na, which cost $9.95. The dish is beef sautéed with broccoli in a light brown gravy on top of pan-fried wide rice noodles.

The gravy was a little thin but still fairly tasty, and I like a lot of gravy so it was good that the beef and broccoli were drowning in the bowl. The meat was well cooked, tender, and delicious alongside the fat noodles. The only downside was the broccoli which tasted a little off, and reminded me why I usually avoid dishes that involve that green stuff.

As we worked on our dinner plates, Michael continued to tell me about the development of his act and how he learned to focus on getting his crowds to participate.

Michael cites a wise-cracking juggler Jerry Rowan as his inspiration for involving the audiences in his show. They were working an event together and Rowan kept making fun of a waiter who would keep passing in front of him. Until then, Michael thought performers should ignore that kind of thing. He liked the way the juggler incorporated it and commented on it, saying it coincided with what he was learning in acting classes, which was to keep things comedic and to bring an act alive.

People seem to respond well to his shows, if the rave review that he posted on his website is any indicator. And even when shows bomb, or if someone figures out a trick, he said he just shrugs it off and doesn’t lose any sleep over it. “Hey, it’s just a trick.” Plus I learned over dinner that Michael is an affable fellow and is very at ease with himself, the conversation flowing freely and friendly in tone.

Although it’s obvious that Michael gets a huge buzz from being a magician, he said that lately he’s reading more plays and focusing on theater work. “I would love to parlay straight into the directing full-time. When I do direct, I usually direct about one or two shows a year. I work the magic schedule around it.”

“In theater I like things that make people uncomfortable”

He has his own directing website, and also a New York City company named Fist In The Pocket Theater. Through these he indulges his love for theater, which he says offers a much more collaborative atmosphere than the lonesome magic show. Theater offers the chance to work with different actors, set designers, lighting designers, costume makers, new plays, and new authors.

Michael is currently working with author TJ Edwards on “Candide” which is an adaptation of a French satire written in 1759 by Voltaire (thanks, Wikipedia!). It’s 30 short scenes with the dialogue in rhyming couplets. “We’re just trying to make it happen,” Michael said.

Fist In The Pocket already has one production to its name, a play titled “Washing Machine.” The play garnered rave notices in New York City and received both a Drama Desk Nomination for Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play and an Innovative Theatre Award Nomination for actress Dana Berger’s “Outstanding Solo Performance.” Here’s the summary from the company’s website: “Washing Machine is a tragicomic solo performance about the mysterious death of a five year old girl who drowned inside a laundromat washing machine. Inspired by a real story, the play is a bracing re-imagining of the five year old girl’s final moments of breath as she and the small town wrestle with the consequences of her death.” Not exactly a light and fluffy, forgettable piece.

“I like things that make the audience uncomfortable. The cliché that people say about me is that, ‘Oh, Mike likes the dark, surreal intense plays, but I like stories that aren’t disposable. There’s a lot of theater that’s disposable too. It’s like, ‘Are we really going to be thinking about this play tomorrow?’” Michael instead likes stories that make people think long after the curtain falls.

His company has performed Washing Machine three times and he’d love to do it again, but they need a theater to finance the whole show.

While Michael’s hoping for that eventual full-time focus on theater, he’s still heavily invested in his magic, which prompted my final question of the night.

The check came and it was time to wrap things up, which I thought was the perfect time to ask Michael to perform one of his routines. He was more than happy to oblige, and scanned the table to see what props he could use.

Grabbing a salt shaker and napkin, and borrowing a quarter from me, he then proceeded to do a quick routine that genuinely left me impressed. Judge for yourself with this handy YouTube video of Michael’s impromptu performance:

By the way, despite asking him several times where the salt shaker went, Michael never revealed its fate, nor how to do the routine. And that’s the art of magic.

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