Personal Impressions by Roberto Giobbi
This is not a report of the convention, nor a critical review of individual acts, but simply a bunch of pleasant personal memories of a magic gathering I found most interesting.
I’m not a native English speaker, the text has not been proof-read except by myself and Word’s spelling-checker, and everything is simply my personal opinion and not the fault of the people mentioned.
The Session started as a small gathering focusing on close-up magic and founded by Andi Gladwin years ago. Meanwhile it is produced by Andi Gladwin and Joshua Jay, with their Vanishing Inc. team. It takes place at The Thistle Hotel, just off Heathrow’s Terminal 5. A bus takes you from all terminals to the hotel for a mere £5, and for the same price you can use a sort of monorail that takes you directly to the Thistle’s parking lot (do not take with heavy rain, as you’ll be soaked by the time you cross the parking lot). A taxi is £15 and takes about 15 minutes.
Everyone would love this event to be in the heart of London, but nobody would want to pay the price this would cost. So this seems to be a good and cost-efficient solution. Also, hotel rates are cheap compared to those in London, and it is possible to survive on low-budget food, for those who need to, but there are a few other options, too.
Friday – The Mentalist’s Day
I like studying specific topics. I’ve done quite a bit of work on this myself, the Light-Trilogy or Art of Switching Decks are just that. The more you penetrate the world of magic, the more you realize that there are specialties, which in themselves are professions within the profession. I do no hesitate to compare this with music or medicine. To play the violin is another thing than playing the piano, and being a ophthalmologist is something else than being a cardiologist. So to be a mentalist is a different profession than to be a magician, but each can beget the other.
This first day of The Session, co-produced with Luke Jermay, was entirely dedicated to mentalism. I missed half of it, as we were taping for a major project (we’ll let you know about this on a separate occasion). Even as an outsider to the topic you will soon realize that even a full day can only scratch the surface of the subject. But this is the idea.
Michael Weber’s talk entitled “On Bob Cassidy Lecture” was such an instance. He performed several versions of the same trick, with different handlings and presentations, of which I found the last to be the most magical, but did not explain the method, rather encouraged people to read the book. Personally, I would have liked to know a bit more about Cassidy, the person.
Max Maven delivered a talk about the history of the Center Tear, and I found this to be one of my favorites of the convention. Not only do you learn things about a specific subject, which you did not know before, you are also taught how to approach a subject, any subject, from a historical-biographical point of view. This leads to a better understanding of techniques, effects and presentations, but also gives you roots so essential to build competence and self-confidence, integral part of what Aristotle called “Ethos” in his rhetoric. Not many can pull this off in the erudite and elegant way Maven did, but this is one of the reasons we can safely consider him one of the few geniuses in our art.
In the evening the Evasons did almost one hour as a solo event. They reminded me of what Paul Arden once said, “Good is better than original”. It was basically a Second Sight act, with several noteworthy additional effects, but all done with consummate professionalism. Although almost all in magic know about the basic principle, the Evasons managed to fool the knowledgeable audience in several instances. It was a great lesson in how to take a classic, and by devoting your life to it bring it to heights that are rarely attained. But, frankly, one couldn’t care less about all this, because they succeeded in giving their audience the present of a uniquely magical experience, and that’s what it is all about. Two standing ovations were the least the audience could then give back.
The day ended with a late-night event called “the mentalists at the card table”. How could that not draw at least a hundred people to a cozy room at around midnight. The idea was to have a performer’s table and the rest sitting and standing around it. After about fifteen minutes I left, as I couldn’t really see what was happening. What a pity, because I missed Max Maven, who I’m told did a fantastic piece. And I’m sure he knew how to work under such sub-optimal conditions. This is definitely a good idea and should be retained by the organizers for future Sessions, but the room needs very basic and simple light and sound. Also, the performers should be informed ahead of time that they would have to choose material, which plays above the table, rather than on the table…
Saturday – The Session Starts
The day started at 11am, which proves that the organizers are professional magicians. Most conventions are run by magic amateurs, and it shows with starting times around 8 or 9. But performing magicians mostly work late in the evening, and are thus more like firemen or surgeons serving on night shifts, so they cannot be expected to get up at 6 like people who work in an office.
The first event was a Session proper, with several presenters, which were given a time slot of ca. 20 minutes. I do like the idea of having a series of presentations done in front of a plenum, rather than the traditional magic convention format, where various events take place in different rooms, mostly overlapping in time. The format used at the Session is reminiscent of a scientific symposium, and in my opinion allows for the topics to be better appreciated. Of course there is still a difference, for only few of the conventioneers are professional magicians, unlike an engineers or doctors convention, where all are engineers or doctors. But that, as we all know, has some other advantages. A subject we leave for a longer essay.
Since I was waiting backstage to go on later with Joshua Jay, I saw the presenters only from the side or on the backstage screen. Ponta the Smith was very successful with his presentation on coin magic. It reminded me of the interview Truffaut did with Hitchcock, were the Master was asked about innovation in film. A the time his reply surprised me greatly (it wouldn’t now, after having been into magic for a few decades), as he said that there are no new basic plots in movies (as there aren’t in theatre or literature), but the technology has greatly improved. As an example he mentioned rear projection, which in older films is blatantly obvious, while nowadays completely new technologies can make almost anything look absolutely realistic. Well, the effects Ponta did, were coin assemblies with variations, well-known plots, but done with incredible skill and a few new techniques and gimmicks. Another subject to reflect upon.
I greatly liked Adam Rubin’s talk on how to take optical illusions and turn them into three-dimensional magic objects. Everything was surprising and innovative. This is definitively a talk more people should have a chance to witness, as it touches upon subjects we are not usually exposed to at magic conventions.
Joshua Jay interviewed me on several small and big questions, and I felt the interaction had momentum and content. We touched on several philosophical and essential issues, but I was a bit surprised that most comments and praise I received later turned around a handling of the Criss-cross Force I demonstrated. However, I shall not stop to believe that it is more important to talk about essentials than causes. On the other hand I’m reminded what Picasso once said in an interview, to the effect that when art critics meet, they talk about historical and socio-political implications of a work, while artists among themselves discuss what brushes to use and where to get the best pigments. There is a lesson everywhere…
I missed the next two lectures, as I had still to recover from three full days of taping, but later attended Paul Vigil’s show, which he repeated several times. Vigil has made himself quite a reputation with some well-written publications of professional caliber, but only few have seen him perform, at least not in Europe. Dai Vernon came to mind, who once said, “The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the latter knows what an effect is”. Irrespective of whether you agree or not with his choices, Vigil has a sharp mind and has clinically analyzed every piece he does, and he brings them over with likeability and competence. In the show I attended he missed on a few occasions, but nobody took exception to it, proving Leipzig’s adage that “people love to be fooled by a gentleman”.
A group of us, made up of Guy Hollingworth, Max Maven, Tim Trono, Joe Gallant and myself decided to jump the next two events in favor of a civilized dinner at «The Estate Grill» at Great Fosters Hotel. It’s a short taxi ride, and for the price of an unnecessary DVD and a few collector decks that can never be used in a real-life-performance, we were wined and dined at an unexpected gastronomical level. I’ve said it before, and I’ll be happy to repeat it here: gastronomy is the basis of all good magic. Because gastronomy has to do with eating, if you don’t eat you die, and if you’re dead you cannot do any good magic. Ergo gastronomy is the basis of all good magic. – q.e.d.
This is one of the several things that clearly distinguishes conventions of yesteryear from those of today. I’m the generation in-between, who had the privilege, as a very young man, to partake of the conventions of the Seventies and Eighties, and now, as a “Senior” to enjoy the company of a much younger audience at conventions run in quite a different manner. Almost nobody wears a tie and jacket anymore, which suits me well, but I very much regret that there are no formal dinners, and no commemorative programs are being printed as souvenirs. This brings to mind Dai Vernon, who showed his friend Johnny Thompson a list of all his friends who had died. When Thompson expressed his sorry, the Professor answered, “Don’t worry, I’m making new friends every day!”
We made it back to Adam Rubin’s show, which was definitively targeted at a younger New York audience that was not present. But Adam is an authentic performer with an obvious and serious love for magic, which he puts across with much enthusiasm.
Sunday – Session Day 2
The first function I was able to attend on this day was Ondrej Psenicka’s lecture. He is the creator of the Butterfly Deck, which was designed by his friend Stefan Eriksson who came on stage to briefly give his side of the story. They met at a magic course given at the University of Stockholm by Tom Stone. In my own lectures, workshops and full-day seminars I keep saying that one of the great benefits of such events are the new friendships you make with like-minded people. Ondrej and Stefan are a paramount example of this.
Ondrey has taken the edge-mark principle to the nth degree and combined it with other marking systems, resulting in his unique Butterfly Deck. Obviously working with such a deck is a specialty in magic, similar to working with threads, a memorized deck or a thumb writer; you have to dedicate weeks, months and maybe more to be able to tap into the full potential of the instrument. But regardless of whether you will ever use this, this lecture was inspirational and practical on many levels. The care Ondrej gave to the didactical aspects of the lecture is something one rarely sees. If you want to know more, get his deck and the beautifully produced book The Secret of the Butterflies. Here is a man to watch with a grand future.
One of the highlights of this year’s Session was certainly the Johnny Thompson Event. Tomsoni, without the Co., was capably interviewed by Michael Close and Paul Vigil, although the hosts only needed to mention a term that immediately served the legendary Tomsoni as a trigger. The audience was treated to some amusing and insightful anecdotes, much wisdom from an internationally working top pro, and last but by no means least to some absolutely wonderful performance pieces. It is hard to pick a favorite, but seeing Thompson do the Egg Bag restores your belief in the classics of magic. I’ve seen several world-class performers do the Egg Bag, but I like this best of all. He left everyone wanting more. The book about his life and magic, The Magic of Johnny Thompson, which is a two-volume publication, can be pre-ordered from www.magicana.com – I did.
The Session was closed by a “Gala Show” and featured a mix of acts that were hand-picked by Andi & Josh. Like most “Galas” at magic conventions it lacked the unity of a stage production, but was amply compensated by the feeling that you are part of a family affair, where the hosts want you to share their enthusiasm for their passion. This is not to say that there were no professional standards applied to the event in general and to this closing show in particular. Quite the contrary is true: every year they change and add little and big things, and if they now bring up the stage another ten inches or so, it should be as perfect as one can get in a location, where you have to bring in everything.
I greatly applaud their effort to bring fresh and new faces to be discovered by an enthusiastic and hungry crowd. But they also know how to combine this with solid and proven elements. Danny Buckler, to whom comedy comes as easy as breathing to others, conducted the final gala. As a non-native speaker of English many of his ad-libs and funny bits were lost on me, but the natives howled, and he had the audience in the palm of his hand within the first minute. The acts he capably introduced were all interesting in their own way and it would take more space than I allow myself to do justice to all of them. So I will simply mention my fellow countryman Pierric, whose original act, with which he won the Grand Prix at the FISM 2015 in Rimini, was received with great enthusiasm.
Magic at the Bar
As every night, the last function was not the last at all. During the three nights of the convention the Thistle Hotel offered three areas for late night activities: a fairly large lobby area next to the reception, a windy bar with view of Heathrow’s runway, and a downstairs area, which could use a few tables more to accommodate all those who were eager to session, cards, coins and what-have-you in hands.
Remembering from my time as a student in London and Cambridge that virtually all pubs across the Kingdom were forced (Classic or Riffle?) to close at 11pm, when in Spain people go to dinner, something similar to English Humor only the natives understand, the organizers must be praised for convincing the hotel management to keep the bar open until late. Of course this is common business sense, as from the proceedings they have probably bought a new private jet. The food & beverage manager in charge of buying the wine for the bar on the lower floor, though, must be a beer drinker… And if they were to use glassware instead of cheap plastic cups, they might even double their business, at least from me. I refuse to drink from plastic cups (when I have to pay), which is like going to the opera with earplugs.
Conventioneers received two decks of cards as a gift, one being a special The Session deck, which should make many a collector happy. And all were given a beautiful Moleskine-type of notebook, which encouraged taking notes. That was amazing in an age of all-digital, and I’m all for it. How to take notes and manage them is one of the questions I’m often asked, but we will have to leave that subject for another occasion. I did though treat the subject in at least two places, one, in Card College Volume 2, p. 476 “The Study of Card Conjuring”, two, in Ask Roberto where I have dealt with the question in several essays. Also, I have a talk on “How to Manage Notes With Evernote”, which I’d love to give at a magic convention one day, but most organizers think this is not of interest, whereas I believe the contrary to be true.
I grew up at a time where magazines, club meetings and conventions were a major complement to books and personal tuition. The digital revolution with Internet and globalization has brought a lot of changes and shifts, but an event like The Session proves beyond the shadow of a doubt, that real human beings getting together to celebrate magic and life cannot be replaced by any virtual world, yet.
When I was young and naive, I innocently approached many of the greats in our art, most of whom where very kind to me and encouraged my obvious enthusiasm. Now, after over 80 books including their translation into eight languages, many youngsters in magic who tell me they started their hobby or even professional career with one or several of my books approach me. I’m very much humbled by this, and remember Schopenhauer, who once wrote, “Meine Philosophie hat mir nie etwas eingebracht, aber sie hat mir vieles erspart”, which I like to translate with, “My philosophy has never earned me much, but it has saved me a lot.” It’s somewhat nice to be approached by Dynamo in London, who thanks me for a trick he’s doing from my Light Trilogy, or to go to Las Vegas and be approached by Penn & Teller after their show in the lobby, saying, “Hey, you must be Roberto Giobbi, we read your column in Genii!” This greatly compensates for the frustration of receiving only $4.40 from a book that costs $55.
In closing, if you have read up to here, and have not been to the convention itself, I can whole-heartedly recommend that you come to the next The Session, which will take place in January 2019, details soon to be announced here https://www.sessionconvention.com. I plan on being there, as I have in the past few years. By all means come up and say ‘Hello’, and show me your latest trick.