Some Random Thoughts and Questions about Jeff McBride

Eugene Burger
Originally published in L&L Publishing Catalog, October, 2000

I consider Jeff McBride to be one of the very great magicians of our time. There is no doubt that he truly is one of the most influential magicians of the 20th century. And the new century is just beginning!

Jeff has also been one of my closest friends in magic for almost a dozen years. I have taught magic with him for ten years — first, within the context of the Mystery School conventions and now with the Master Classes that he has created. Earlier this year, further, I wrote and performed a show, "The Forbidden Secret of Magic," with Jeff and Abbi Spinner. In short, Jeff and I spend quite a bit of time together. Later this week, in fact, I will go to Las Vegas and stay with Jeff and Abbi for two weeks. In many ways, Las Vegas has become my second home and Jeff and Abbi are part of a close circle of friends that I consider my family.

When I mentioned to several of my magic students in Chicago that I was going to write this article about Jeff, I asked them what questions about him they might like to see answered. Almost every one of them wanted to discuss Jeff's incredible energy. This raised two rather different questions. First, how does he keep his energy up for his strenuous shows? Second, is Jeff as intense offstage as he is on?

Jeff really does exhibit amazing energy in his performances, but he also understands the necessity of keeping his life in balance with adequate rest. Like many performers, even if they are feeling tired, once the curtain opens and the show begins their energy comes forth. Jeff, however, is also a practitioner of aerobic exercise and believes that, if you are doing an hour show, you need to do two hours of exercise earlier that day. I think that much of Jeff's stage energy is derived not simply from rest and prior exercise but also from his deep love of performing and, especially, his love of communicating with his audiences.

Is Jeff always that intense? No, not at all! He can relax and have fun and be silly and laugh. He is not afraid to show himself as a warm and caring person. I love sitting up talking and discussing magic with him until three or four in the morning. While magic may not consume Jeff's entire life; it does seem to consume about 90% of it. And so, among other things, Jeff's notebook is always present when we are sitting around talking — just in case he needs to write something important down.

Jeff, I must add, is a great believer in writing things down and keeping notebooks and then regularly reading them. His notebooks, collected over the years, would really stagger most of you. Usually at the first Master Class session, Jeff explains his method of keeping notebooks and most of the students invariably sit there with their mouths slightly open, amazed at his thoroughness, as they understand, some for the first time, just how important keeping a notebook can be for a magician.

Some of my students also wanted to know where Jeff gets his ideas for his effects. They especially mentioned his Water Bowl routine and his Coin Production with the little boy from the audience. First of all, Jeff is a dedicated reader of books — and not simply books on magic. When I stay with him, I frequently look through the books in any one of the many bookshelves in his home, taking books here and there and looking through them. Most of the books have actually been read as one immediately sees from the underlinings and the many notes that he has written in the margins. Jeff reads widely and he thinks about what he reads.

Second, part of Jeff's show is certainly a display of raw power. He can certainly be a "perpetrator" — as Topas categorized magicians in his wonderful recent FISM lecture (dividing magicians using the model of a crime scene where one can be the perpetrator, the victim or the witness). At the same time, Jeff is not afraid to stop being the powerful perpetrator of his magic; he can drop that mask and be surprisingly human on stage. Some of his strongest routines are certainly those where Jeff is human, namely the Water Bowls and Coin Production.

Part of the power of the Water Bowls is that this routine really is about human thirst. Magicians often produce bowls of water for show and surprising effect; Jeff McBride produces water to drink! He demands more and is satisfied. And then he discovers that he has been given more than he needs or wants — in many ways, a small encapsulation of the human condition in which we all stand.

Jeff's marvelous Coin Production is not simply an exercise in brilliant technique. In fact, it is actually less about producing coins (he uses only 13 coins) than it is about initiating the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the young boy he has selected from the audience to be his apprentice. Jeff's coin routine is about honoring this boy and not, as with so many magicians, simply using him for some devious comic effect. Again, we have a routine that is about life itself, all of our lives, for each of us is really the little boy being initiated into a magical universe.

Jeff McBride's framing of these two effects, then, is not something that he read from a book. These frameworks have come from his own life experience — and that it is part of the reason why they can touch so deeply our lives and our experience.

This leads me to another question that several of my students asked: What is Jeff McBride trying to say or communicate with his magic? Here, Jeff admittedly works with powerful symbols: the masks behind which we all hide, the mirror that shatters with personal transformation, the water that we need to quench our thirst, the bowl of earth from which life magically grows, or the delicate butterflies that seem to float in the air, high above his gently moving fan. The effects of much of Jeff's magic are indeed intertwined with existential symbols of our own lives: creation, preservation, destruction, communication and endless transformation. That these symbols can speak to people, even without words, is no small part of Jeff McBride's power as a magical performer.

One last question that everyone wanted me to answer: What is it like to teach magic with Jeff McBride?

In one word: exhilarating! I am constantly surprised and amazed at the turns his thinking will take. Jeff is an extraordinary teacher of magic because of his lifetime of intensive reading, his years of experimentation with many forms of magic and because of his deep love for the art itself. Like most every great magician, Jeff has a reason for every moment in his show. He has thought each moment through, rejecting some things he might do and incorporating others. As a teacher, I have seen him rearrange students' acts in the Master Classes, moving a piece from here to there, giving concrete suggestions for new things to try, in ways that are simply dazzling. Every person in the class learns and grows from every other person's critique.

At the same time, Jeff is not a dogmatic teacher. He is not looking for students to imitate him; nor does he have some secret agenda for people. He begins every Master Class by asking each person to tell what they want to get out of this experience, what it is they want to have or know when they leave and return home. Not surprisingly, Jeff methodically writes down what each person wants and then returns to these goals repeatedly during the sessions.

Both Jeff and I honestly consider our teaching together to be important parts of our higher magical work: by helping others with their performances, we each feel that we are, in some small way, paying back magic for the many wonderful things that it has given us. And so teaching magic with Jeff McBride is often a deeply moving experience.

As I mentioned earlier, in April of this year Jeff and Abbi and I performed a show which we wrote at Magicopolis in Santa Monica. Honestly, it was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable projects with which I have ever been involved. And it happened very fast. Jeff mentioned the idea one day, I responded that it would be a good thing to do in the future and suddenly the dates were set and we had two months to put it together! Basically, each of us wanted to see if we could put up an entertaining show together. It was truly a work in progress. Each night, after dinner, we would retreat to my room and discuss what we might change for the next performance. In this way, we lived our "work in progress" for two weeks — and by the final show we knew that the show (and us!) and grown and there really was something here for us to pursue. Afterwards, I realized that during the entire two months of planning and the two weeks of performing, no one ever raised their voice or got angry at anyone else. It had all been done with love.