Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Dan Kamin
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Jacob Colker, the podcast production intern, takes over the epsiode to interview Dan Kamin, a magician and performer from the Pittsburgh area. Dan and Jacob discuss how Dan got his start performing magic, the influence that silent film has had on his work, as well as how he as been able to get back to performing magic during the Pandemic. You can find out more about Dan and reach out to him at https://dankamin.com/
Raina Searles: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Jacob Colker: Hello everyone, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Now, I know what you’re thinking, who is this strange person talking? Well, that would be me- Jacob Coker, the Podcast Production Intern here at FringeArts. And as part of my internship, I’ll be taking over this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. And I couldn’t be more excited because today on this show we’re interviewing Dan Kamin a magician from Pittsburgh whom I had the privilege of meeting and watching perform during quarantine. Dan has had a long career as a magician and performer from being recruited as a cardsharp on gambling boats to performing in tandem with symphonies. During the global pandemic, Dan has been able to get back to his favorite form of magic, close up magic, and perform for people remotely. Dan, welcome.
Dan Kamin: Hi, Jacob.
Jacob: How are you doing today?
Dan: Well, I’m doing I’m doing just fine. It’s a beautiful day here in Pittsburgh, your hometown and my adopted hometown. It’s really an amazing day. You wouldn’t even think there’s a plague afoot in the land.
Jacob: Yeah you wouldn’t, would you? So we start every episode by asking, what are you drinking today?
Dan: Well, I just drank a delicious cranberry juice cocktail for my brunch. I mean, it wasn’t a cocktail, it wasn’t alcoholic, because it hasn’t come to that yet, despite the fact that I’ve been in isolation as everybody else in the world has been for the past few months.
Jacob: Yeah, it’s tough to know when happy hour starts, when you’re in isolation it may start early in the morning. Well I am drinking a classic. Just a nice black coffee here. Good way to start the day. All right so let’s get started here. I’d like to start by asking you to tell me a little bit about your story and when you first started performing Magic.
Dan: I started performing magic when I was about 12 years old. I had seen a movie about Harry Houdini and It absolutely knocked me out. And a kid sitting next to me in a school assembly did a magic trick for me a year or two later. And I instantly befriended that kid. And he very generously took me on as his assistant and we were soon doing shows together at the homes of of often obnoxious groups of young children, because that’s who paid the bucks- their parents, for other kids to come and do magic shows to entertain them. And my very first show, in fact, all the kids lined up for our autographs. It’s been downhill ever since I have to say.
Jacob: So after that what came next?
Dan: Another show. But I had no intention of… I couldn’t see myself making a living as a magician because I was pretty good at school and I thought I would be like a lawyer or something like that. But when I went to college in Pittsburgh, I ended up studying industrial design, which was a way I was pretty good at art and I thought this would be a way I could maybe make a living doing art-like stuff because it was not a very logical thought. And in fact, I was pretty bad in industrial design. But midway through my college years, we had a really good film series on the campus from Carnegie Mellon University is where I went and they showed a Charlie Chaplin film. And that knocked me out even more than the film about Harry Houdini but what are you going to do with that? Because they’re not making some movies anymore. And it just so happened by a stroke of amazing good luck that one of the teachers on the campus in the drama department was a world class mime artist. Some of your listeners might have heard of Marcel Marceau. Although his memory is dimming because he died in the 1990s after a stellar career. In a sense, redefining silent movie kind of performing as something you could do on stage with the addition of some very magical kind of movement delusions. You know, Marceau performed alone on a bare stage and everything he needed for his stories he would create out of thin air. He would create the amazing illusion that he was on an ocean liner in the middle of a stormy sea. Or he played 12 different people in a courtroom drama scene. He was an astonishing performer. And the man who I met on the campus who was teaching his name is Jewel Walker. He’s still alive. And we’re still very much in touch. He was even better than Marcel Marceau, I thought, because I saw them both perform around the same time. And I knew that this was something I had to I had to find out about. And so I became the sorcerer’s apprentice. I literally started, you know, you’ll appreciate I know you’re going to school at Temple as you don’t just walk into a class. You have to register for a class. So I but I couldn’t register for his classes because the drama department, they had like 700 people auditioning for 20 or 30 slots every year. You didn’t just walk into the class because you happen to be a an art student or industrial design student. You weren’t allowed. It was like there were very high gates. It was a very, very exclusive club. But I made a discovery, which I had already made with magic, which is that a great teacher is powerless before the enthusiasm of the student. And I would stop Jewel in the middle of the campus and say: show showing this thing, how do you make it look like you’re leaning on thin air? You would take a few minutes and it would show me and I would go into the student union on the campus because it had in the bathroom there was a wall sized mirror in the boy’s bathroom. And I would practice for a few minutes and if somebody came and I’d pretend I was washing my hands or something. And after a while, he just said: shh, come to the class, just just don’t tell anybody. And I began working with him and I became the sorcerer’s apprentice. But I didn’t think that it was a career path for me. I just wanted like I wanted to know how the magic tricks worked. When I was a kid, I got drawn into magic. And this was in Miami, Florida, when I was growing up. And I was exposed to all these strange and odd and wonderful people. A lot of criminals would hang out with the magicians, for example. And so I was getting some mentoring from Cardsharps as you mentioned in your introduction and learning to do some of those moves, I hasten to add, for purposes of doing magic tricks and entertaining people not for the purposes of fleecing them. But instead of a life of crime, I have to say, I did turn to a life of mime. I became one of those kind of people that did that, wears white makeup on their face and makes invisible walls and gets blown by invisible winds. But I became that before people started making jokes about that kind of performing, it’s sort of every art form, every, there’s this trends. Music gets old fashioned, for example. I mean, there’s you know, there’s pop music now, but nobody’s you know, people are still listening. There’s still fans of of big band music and fans of rock and roll, early rock and roll 50s music. But things keep changing. So I got on the trend when mime was hot and every college in the United States and the world had to have a mime come to their campus. And so, but I didn’t think I was going to be one of those people. I just wanted to know the secrets of how how to do those cool moves and how to make it look like there was invisible walls around me. And then suddenly I started getting ideas from my own stories, which I never did with magic. Magic I was just doing great tricks I’ve learned to do. With mime there’s no playbook. You know, you… Just making an invisible wall is not doing the story. And I started getting ideas from my own stories and characters. And then I fell down the rabbit hole because there was no there was no way to know if anybody would understand what I was doing or or like it or think some of the funny stuff was funny unless I found a place to perform it. And that’s how I fell down the rabbit hole and became a professional performer. And you introduced me as a magician. But actually, magic is only where I started. And now I do shows, for example, I know you’re in Philadelphia, I’ve done a number of shows over the years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I play with orchestras, in fact, all of the all over the world. While we could travel all over the world. I used to do a lot of shows in China because with mine there’s no language barrier. And even though I talked in my state shows, now I have some… When music plays and you’re in front of a symphony a live symphony, you can only do one of three things: you dance with the symphony, you get off the stage or you act with a symphony, and that’s mime because that’s silent acting. That’s what mine is. And that’s that’s what originally inspired me seeing the great silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Boyd and Laurel and Hardy made silent films, and so did W.C. Fields. I’m not sure how much any of these names will mean to some of your listeners, because these are comedians of bygone days, but they’re so good that they keep getting revived. The way we revive music by Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby or any of the great Mozart, Beethoven. And I don’t make those comparisons lightly I think these are artists. The great American silent movie artists are artists whose work is going to be revered a thousand years from now by some people. It’ll be more of an acquired taste because it’s not the flavor.
Jacob: Yeah, no, I completely agree. I mean, what they were doing back then was groundbreaking. And I think if you look at it now and really study it, you can you can see that. But could you describe the shows that you do with symphonies across the world for the listeners that may not know.
Dan: Sure. Well, that would be every listener. I’m not sure if you saw me with the Philadelphia Orchestra or some other orchestra or onstage in your community. So I really have a magician’s approach. I never studied acting. I studied mime with my mime master Jewel Walker, but and with other movement teachers. But I… Nobody ever really I never had a class in how to make up a story or, you know. And that’s of course, you need to have a story. If you’re going to do a show, you need to have a plot and characters and so on. And symphonies started to reach out to me to say, well, you know, we’ve got to do something to get people turned on classical music, like college students who might not be into it, might not want to go to a show of just a standard symphony concert or especially children. You know why should they come to a concert when they are twenty five years old if they’ve never seen one when they were a kid? But just standard music sometimes doesn’t really hold our attention it has to be introduced to them in a way that makes it accessible. And so I started thinking about what it is that keeps our attention when we’re watching a movie or reading a book or going to a play. And I realized it’s the same thing. There’s a story there. A problem is presented right at the start, and the story consists of how that problem works its way out. You know, the the witch has has trapped Hansel and Gretel, you know, the evil empire is going to get Luke Skywalker unless he learns certain skills, you’re always asking when you see, when you go through a dramatic or literary work of art, of fiction. You’re always asking what’s going to happen next. But, you know, just listening to straight music, you know, you can just drift along with the music, but you’re not necessarily asking that question. And so I began creating shows in which that question became the subject of the show. So, for example, in one show I do for very young children- its one that I’ve done in Philadelphia several times. A narrator comes out at the beginning of the concert and says: “boys and girls, today we’re going to have music about animals” and she introduces a couple of kind of classical music pieces that are that remind you of a different kind of animal. And during one of the pieces, I come out dressed in a safari outfit with a big butterfly net and I get tangled up in my net in time to the music. And she reappears and says, “Excuse me, what are you doing here?” And I explained that I’m the zookeeper and that the elephant has escaped from the zoo. And I heard there were animals here. So I’ve come to find Elmer. She says, “no, you don’t understand. There’s no real animals here. We’re playing music about animals.” And I’m skeptical. Music is music. Animals are… how can? She says, “Listen to this and see if it doesn’t make you think of a bumblebee.” And when the orchestra plays the flight of the bumblebee, a bumblebee about the size of a fist rises from a plant on the stage and chases me around in very tight time to the music. And with that show. And at that moment, even if there’s… I’ve done it for audiences of three thousand preschool students and every one of them is basically standing on their chair at that point, because nothing has to be explained to them, they can see the bee. It is a it is a puppet kind of bee- soft cloth puppet, you know, and it’s it’s as far as you’re concerned, it couldn’t be more real if there was if there was a real giant bee there and the music is being made visual and they get the problem. The problem is the bee’s chasing you around. I’m trying to avoid getting stung and from that point on I’ve got them and I continue to help her visualize the music as I can, trying to make my search for the missing elephant. And so essentially, I overlap what a what a storybook or a theater a play is with what a concert is. You know, the subject is there’s a concert going on, but the actual action is that somebody’s interrupted it with a problem that has to be solved. And and so this gave me a way to get the attention of symphonies worldwide, because these shows really ended up being very captivating for children and turning them on. You know, it’s not like the orchestra is in the pit and they’re just watching my antics. You know, every time every time we play something, she’s talking about what music we’ll play next. And I’m simply adding a visual element to the music, as Walt Disney did in 1940 with Fantasia.
Jacob: Yeah, I mean, it’s unfortunate that some of that music may be, you know, inaccessible to certain audiences. But I love that marriage of performance with the, you know, the audio and the music of the symphony.
Dan: Well everybody’s actually heard that music. Everybody’s heard the Flight of the Bumblebee. Everyone’s heard William Tell Overture. It’s used in movies all the time these kinds of things. Used to be used in cartoons all the time, and it still really is. So the most the music never goes away. The Alfred Hitchcock theme music from the television show That went bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum was written a hundred years ago. It was a it was a thing called the funeral march of a marionette. And so people have heard it, but it just brings it back to life again in a new way for a new audience. And reminds people of the fact that this is music that does a different kind of thing than the latest top 40 pop stuff. You know, that’s great, too. And we have to listen to what’s contemporary and new. And now at the same time, some things are not disposable.
Jacob: And, yeah, I mean, it’s sort of like, you know, repurposing it in a way, I would say almost similarly to like hip hop or new forms of music that use sampling techniques of older music. You know, it’s sort of similar to that.
Dan: Yeah, like the first hip hop Broadway show, Hamilton, which just got a huge airing on Disney Plus.
Dan: Well, I find Jacob. I, I keep coming back to Magic. Magic informs, obviously, the kinds of stuff. Another thing that I like to do that came out of magic is one of my favorite things is to perform for people when they don’t know I’m a performer like I’ll appear before groups as a speaker. But things go wrong during my speech, things start to go haywire and like I’ll be, you know, masquerading as a stress management expert and I’m demonstrating stress management techniques, but they all backfire. And then things start to really go wrong and my glasses fall apart, and I can’t read my notes and eventually my lectern I’m speaking at collapses and then my clothes all fall apart. And I’m left in big polka dot boxer shorts. This is a magician’s approach to theater using surprise and so on. And I’ve had a dilemma, of course, like every other performer in the world during a Covid crisis, because we can’t perform live anymore. And when you and I met, it was because of the way I’ve dealt with that is to go back to my, my basics, you go back to my origin story, and I had the sudden realization as I was just sitting at my home and just fooling around, as I always do with a deck of cards or whatever, I’m always, you know, always practicing stuff and developing new things. I had the realization that the way we’re communicating now through Skype and through especially Zoom is the perfect medium for the kind of thing I don’t do on stage, which is close up magic. And that’s where you know that’s where you and I met because your dad contacted me. I wrote an article in the newspaper about it and said anybody who’s who would like to have a little respite magic visit can give me a call. And they put my phone number and my e-mail in there. And your dad called and said, my family would really dig that. And that’s where you and I met. And because there are certain things that I realized. There are certain things I can do through Zoom, that I can’t do on stage. You know, could do it on stage with a video assist. But I don’t want to. I don’t want… If I go to the theater, I don’t want to go look at a television screen. And there are certain kinds of magic. I actually developed a new routine called Quarantine Cards, which I really enjoy doing for people who are in lockdown. At first I was thinking, let me find out. Let me contact medical organizations or find out people who are in crisis I can do this for. And then, of course, I realized that’s everybody in the world right now. We’re all we’ve all got cabin fever and we’re all in a state of uncertainty and fear and waiting it out. So I just wrote the article and made it public.
Jacob: Yeah. That’s, just going off of what you’ve been doing since the global pandemic hit, what do you think is… If there’s any differences between performing live and performing Via Zoom or Google Meet or whatever it may be? And is there anything that you like more performing now remotely more than when you’re performing live in front of a live audience?
Dan: Well, there is. And I love performing live. And there are things you can do live in a theater that you can’t do over a filmed, television or or movie medium, there’s a thing that happens when there’s a group of people together. You know, comedy is much, much better when there’s a bunch of people laughing around you. But what I found, at first, I was thinking of everything I couldn’t do any more. I can’t perform on the stage anymore. When this hit and then I thought about what I could do that I can’t do on stage. And my answer was my realization was I could simply do the close up magic that is… Some of it is it’s the only performing art form that was designed right from the get go to be performed for an audience of one person. And that’s how we’re really communicating with face time zoom Skype right now. And so it makes it an ideal platform. In my stage, I set up a little magic parlor in my dining room, meaning it’s simply my dining room with a with a curtain drawn behind me against the sunlight of the French door windows. But the stage is actually… I have two cameras, one’s on me waist up. But the others are on a close up of my hands on the tabletop. On a black mat, so you can see really, really closely. And it’s very challenging because people can see very, very closely, some sometimes on a big screen if they’re projecting it on the screen at home. But I’m keeping it live. People have said, you know, this quarantine magic when you’d get a million hits, if you if you posted on YouTube. To me, part of the magic of magic is that it is live. So when somebody picks a card, you’re not looking at somebody else who picked a card. As you know, from what I did for your family. One of you has to pick a card? And so it’s much more magical. And I’ve developed an approach to it where I’m using the virtual I’m making a virtue of the fact that we’re communicating from a virtual world, just as you have to make a virtue of the fact that we’re audio only. Used to be that radio was a huge competitive medium and it really competed with movies as an art form. People would would stay home certain nights when their favorite radio shows were on. That that level of it has somewhat diminished. For radio, usually it’s more often kind of background for people driving in a car or something. But, you know, so we all have to do that. Art thrives on limitation. You know, if you listen to the old radio adventure show broadcasts, they use sound effects, simple sound effects. And just the scripting. And to make it very vivid. You know, Superman would say “up up away” the voice fade out you know cause you had to do something to give the picture. And they did it really, really well. And that’s what I’m finding with Zoom I can really engage. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been able to… I’m always working on new stuff. But I’ve found myself really galvanized by the challenges. You know I’ve had to upgrade my technology so that I’m more visible and I can switch back and forth between cameras and so on. I had to get a new camera, a new computer to make that stuff possible. And other programs that I do on stage that involves some PowerPoint stuff I upgraded so I can pump the video out a little more effectively because it requires more processing power than I had in my six year old computer. So it’s been very exciting for me, actually. I’ve been really engaged and a lot of people have been taking me up and friends of friends, you know, or various people who called out of a newspaper article have been calling and you know a family gathers. Sometimes it’s it’s people from 10 different places who are all zooming in at the same call. But I always choose certain people to engage with me on each trick because that’s one of the things that makes magic so unique. Whenever people see, live magic. I’ve always noticed, all my life doing it. It’s almost it’s almost always like you’re seeing it for the first time. I mean, before you saw it before you saw me. Had you ever seen a live magician close up?
Jacob: I cannot say that I had. No.
Dan: Yeah. And so there’s lots of magicians out there. But there’s more a lot more people so many people don’t get to. And, you know, my friends have seen me, but I don’t do it for them anymore because I don’t want to. You know, they watch me, my brother to this day- he was my forced victim when I was when we were both growing up. He’ll get nauseous, if he sees me pull out a deck of cards cause he’d OD’d on it. But for most people, it’s an incredible treat because you’re not used to special effects except on movies. You don’t believe them. It’s like. Oh, yeah ok they’re going into space, big deal. Yeah. At first an illusion like that in a movie was an uncanny. And you’ve heard stories that people would would duck when a wave would come towards your movie screen.
Jacob: Or like the train film. Have you heard of that?
Dan: Exactly. Well, the early movies were just the illusion, just the pure illusion. Here is the beach in Atlantic City. Here is, you know, the factory getting out. Everybody getting out of work. That was enough. That was enough. And then people started to want more. And so you started getting stories and then documentaries and, you know, all the different forms we know now. But the fictional film, we watch it grow because a lot of those movies have survived. We can see those early movies that were just shots of scenes.
Jacob: Yeah, no, I completely agree. I think, I mean, especially in films, sort of the magic of the special effects is lost. You know, nowadays, because it’s just so commonplace. You know, these crazy CGI effects are just lost, and I think that’s why magic and live performance really is much more entertaining now, because it’s a lot more magical than what we can see in movies, I think.
Dan: And I push that envelope in my in my virtual magic shows. I claim that I’m using CGI to to create the effects that you saw which is fun. Magic is hot now. And close-up is really so familiar now because of shows like Penn and Teller, Penn and Teller’s “Fool Us”. I have several friends who fooled them on Penn and Teller. Some of my magician friends. And that’s cool. But it’s still more intense when you’re there. And even if you’re there via a zoom call with one person because you know, you know, that card you picked or you thought of in your mind, that wasn’t something that somebody paid somebody to be a stooge in the audience or you’re always a little suspicious of television. Exactly. Not showing you the right angle or you see it. You know, the brilliance of television magicians, starting with Doug Henning 30 or 40 years ago, and then David Copperfield. And so, was they figured out a way to use the medium and make it more exciting. You don’t see people doing actual magic tricks when you go to see movies about magicians because everybody knows it’s a movie, you know, you can do special effects.
Dan: And so being a magician, I mean, there has to be a fictionalized thing where people are, you know, a lot of the magic they’re doing is is film magic, like the magic detective movies- what is that called? As a series of Jesse Eisenberg.
Jacob: Oh, “Now You See Me.”
Dan: Yeah, exactly. Magicians solving mysteries or whatever. And you know that some of it is, you know, magicians who have certain skills to show they have credibility, but certain physical skills like Roman coins around your fingers, but that a lot of the magic is essentially caper movie stuff. And when necessary, just movie magic.
Jacob: Yeah. No I think it’s essential to have, you know, a live audience its sort of like… There was a different interview they were doing with the Philly Improv Theater here, and they’re talking about how important it is to have a live audience for comedy, because you need to be able to gauge, you know, how the audience is reacting to each joke. And I think what’s similar and magic is that you need that audience engagement to really connect with your audience and see how you’re doing and see if things are landing or not, you know?
Dan: Yeah, it’s a different experience when you’re really part of the show. And so we’re all we’re all eager to get back to the, to the place where we can gather in theaters and everywhere else. I mean, this is quite a surreal time in America and the world.
Jacob: Yeah. Yeah. Well, just lastly here, I’d like to give you a moment if you want to put your contact information or any way that people can get a hold of you.
Dan: Yes. Anybody. Any of your listeners. Because I know they’re all very, very intelligent, attractive people who would like to have a more virtual magic visit. I have a backup team of magicians from various places. So you don’t have to worry about overwhelming me. And you can reach me at my Website, which is just my name: dankamin.com. Just Google me and you’ll find me right away. And I welcome your your your interest. And I’m happy to make a virtual magic visit. If you know, people who could use that. As I said, that’s everybody right now. One way or another. But some people are particularly, you know, dealing with the stress of not just Covid, but other illnesses and the isolation, cabin fever and the anxiety of having to… Financial anxiety, the anxiety of having kids around that are climbing the walls, and are home educated. You know the list goes on and on. We’re all we’re living in an incredibly uncertain time. And if I can do my part, I don’t charge I should mention for this because it is my way of proving to myself that I’m not just plain evil because I can’t invent a vaccine or cure racism. And so this is what I can do, though, what I’ve always done, which is to do things that make people go, whoa! And give them a laugh and some distraction from the, from the stresses of the moment.
Jacob: Well, Dan, I’d just like to thank you for joining me for Happy Hour on the Fringe and for all of our listeners out there, make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram and download the Fringe Arts app. Thank you. Dan, I hope to talk to you soon.
Dan: Here’s to you. Jacob.