An Interview with Eugene Burger

Joe Malkiewicz
Originally published in Disappearing Monthly, December, 2001

Eugene Burger is recognized as one of magic's gurus. His creative output ranges across videos, books, lectures, columns in magic publications and packet effects. His most recent three volume teaching videos have been praised by critics and magicians alike. These videos, directed by Max Maven, break new ground in conceptual design and content. Eugene spoke with Joe Malkiewicz for Disappearing Monthly recently.

DM: You use magic to get at life's meaning. Did your study of theology shape the direction in which your magic went?

EB: Yes, and philosophy too.

DM: Which of the philosophers made a big impact on you?

EB: Heidegger. I was also very influenced by Paul Tillich, an existentialist Christian Protestant theologian.

DM: When did this synthesis take place? It seems like you're always evolving. When I compare your most recent videos to the prior three, there's a different Eugene Burger.

EB: How is it different?

DM: I see a more playful person. You're outside. You changed the environment in which the magic was done. You seemed committed to following your own idea of what magic videos ought to look like.

EB: Well, there has always been a playful side to my work. As I’ve written, corporate clients don’t want to be confronted with the terrors of the cosmos. They are looking for entertainment that is lighter, with less emotional involvement as they watch my card trick while eating a tempura shrimp.

As for videos, well, if videos are going to become the major, the most important, teaching tool in the magic of the future, then people are going to have to start making videos of substance. To learn how to perform magic is to learn much more than how magic tricks work. Right now, most magic videos have a depressing similarity: they all pretty much look alike. It's the same cast of characters, the same set, sometimes the same tricks. often the same jokes. I think what Max and I were going for with these new videos was a much wider range of expression.

DM: Could we talk about the principles that you advocate when people perform magic.

EB: Yes, but these are principles I advocate only for myself. I don't want to legislate for anybody else.

DM: But you are our guru?

EB: That's your choice not mine! I think that's what ultimately spoiled Darwin Ortiz's book, Strong Magic for me. He intelligently addressed all the right questions and then tried to legislate his own idiosyncratic answers for the rest of us. I want to honor diversity. So I only tell you what I'm looking for with my magic — and if other people want to look for these things too, welcome aboard! I'm not trying to be an evangelist. I'm doing this primarily for myself.

For myself then, first and foremost, I want the magic trick I perform really to be deceptive. I want it to look like magic. I don't want it to look like card manipulations. Now there is nothing wrong, of course, with wanting your magic to look like card manipulations. That's an honorable, theatrical persona — the card manipulator — but it's not the one I've chosen. So I don't do flourishes in my professional work. I don't even do Double Lifts in my real work because I think that's a very difficult sleight to do without calling attention to itself. I want my performance to look like magic.

DM: Do you have a creative thinking process when you generate magical ideas?

EB: No, I don't have a method. If I had a method, I would tell you what it was, but I don't. Sometimes, a plot comes to me and then I go with that. Other times a trick appeals to me and then I want to do something with it.

DM: Would you comment on magician's manners?

EB: Well, if you mean the number of magicians who have come to see me work in public place and then ordered a glass of water and expected the cocktail waitress to serve them, taking up a table — that’s very bad manners! This is a place of business and these idiots are ordering water! I think if you were to go and visit a magician in a restaurant or lounge then you should order a drink at the very minimum. If you don't drink, just order it and let it sit there. And tip the server!

DM: What's the ultimate Eugene Burger like?

EB: One never knows what's ahead of us. If you had told me last year that in 2001 I would do eight weeks in a casino show in Atlantic City with Jeff McBride, I would have said you were crazy! So one needs to be open to the future and the magical things that might happen to us. But, honestly, I would have been very happy just being an unknown Chicago magician because that really was my goal.

DM: Was all this thrust upon you?

EB: In a sense, yes. It wasn’t something that I was seeking. It's all just extra. I guess I prompted it by writing books, but I was never particularly interested in endless travel and all that stuff. I simply wanted to support myself doing card tricks! That was my real goal. So all this other stuff that has happened to me is kind of miraculous; actually it’s all very magical!

DM: You're enjoying it though.

EB: Absolutely! I have a truly wonderful, magical life. Joe, when you go to Europe, it's very nice to be picked up at the airport. I rarely travel anywhere anymore where I'm not picked up at the airport, and then taken back to the airport when I leave. That's really a great way to travel. It's a wonderful way to travel!

But, let's go back to this creative thing we were talking about. I don't have a method for being creative, and, frankly, I'm not looking for one. Looking for a method takes up a great deal of energy. We waste our energy trying to climb these greased poles. I think that creative ideas come to us in many different ways.

As I said, sometimes a trick calls out to us. That is a fascinating metaphor. Really, the tricks in my own repertoire have “called out” to me, as it were, and I've simply answered their call. That's how I look at it. I didn't pick the effects in my repertoire. They selected me. If magicians would get a little more relaxed with their magical consumption and not make it so hectic and endlessly acquisitive, perhaps they might hear these calls more clearly.

DM: Does that mean you have to be willing to give up control?

EB: Well, Joe, if you put a piece of paper in front of me and say, “Okay, I want you to write a magic presentation for some effect,” I'm probably going to sit and look at that blank page for a long time! There's no act of will that I can do, no act of control, that can generate a creative script.

Sometimes you have to take a deep breath and realize that you're part of the cosmos and it's okay and let ideas happen. And so things come to me in different ways. Sometimes a trick calls to me. Sometimes the idea of a presentation calls to me. Sometimes a line. I had a line, "Highlights in the history of Christianity told with a pack of cards," in my notebook for ten years before I realized I could use it with Card Warp and turn it into The Inquisition.

DM: That's a long incubation period, isn't it?

EB: Of course, we would rather have it all right now, immediately! But, let’s be honest, part of the game here, part of the craft, is learning to wait. That's one of the reasons the state of magic is so poor. No one wants to wait, to let ideas grow and flower. Everybody wants everything today — or yesterday! Sometimes really good things have to incubate, and we have to wait, to learn to allow that incubation to occur. And so I would say that you have to be willing not always to try to be in control because I don't think that helps.

DM: You're certainly evidence that it can pay off.

EB: If one is serious, one needs to ask oneself what my relationship to magic is. Is my relationship to magic simply acquisitive? Is it all about getting and taking. Is my relationship to magic simply a want list. I'm not at all sure that this high acquisitive state of mind generates better magic performances. I think that if one wants to be a better magician, a better performer, then one’s values need to get readjusted.

DM: Is the value of working within the cosmos foreign to most magicians?

EB: Put that way, sure it is foreign! Heidegger, for example, said humans are existentially thrown into existence. Thrown-ness is one of the basic descriptions of the human situation. We're thrown into life and we find ourselves in this world — and that very fact produces anxiety.

Well, that's one way of looking at it, but for me a more interesting way is to say that we grew here. We’re all part of what's growing here. The trees the grass and you! That's a little friendlier and not quite as combative as being thrown into existence with all this anxiety. When it gets right down to it, how much can you really accomplish in magic by an act of will. You can accomplish certain things, very important things. For instance, it's an act of will that will put you on a rehearsal schedule.

So I think, structurally, acts of will are very important. Either I'm going to do it or I'm not. But when we move away from structure and talk about content, I don't know. I just don't find that I can grit my teeth and tense my muscles and come up with a good magic presentation.

Another thing I think is pretty important is not to listen to too many people.

DM: Eugene Burger included?

EB: Absolutely! Don't listen to too many people. I listen to three people in my magical world when it comes to putting a magic presentation together. I listen to Max Maven and Jeff McBride. I'm very willing to take direction from them. That's another thing. You have to be willing to be open to take direction from people.

DM: Is the third person your own voice?

EB: Yes. And the list goes in different orders of importance. I'll listen to anybody on one level, but if I think an idea is particularly worthwhile, something that I may want to incorporate into a magical routine, I would certainly run it by Jeff and Max as part of the process.

DM: Would there be something special in this relationship that would compel one to go to another person?

EB: Well, I know that their feedback, first of all, will be honest and, second, that it will spring from their desire for me to be the best I can be. Their critiques are never based on power trips or ego trips or anything like that. And so I have complete confidence that both Jeff and Max are two of my best supporters in the world. They both love me, and they both want to help make my work better than it is. And, equally important, each has a finely developed theatrical sensitivity.

DM: May you have the good health to continue with your projects. Thank you.

EB: Thank you.