Magicians Chat with ...
Doug is an acclaimed entertainer, skilled and funny performer and winner of the 1998 Society of American Magician’s Close-Up Champion of New Orleans. In 2000 Doug teamed up with John George to create the comedy magic team ‘The Magical Misfits’; an unique and intriguing magic act, we recommend you catch sometime in case you haven’t had a chance yet. On his website Doug jokes about his drifting existence and slacker life, quite funny and worth reading.
Doug has also published several great Magic DVDs, which we highly recommend you take a look at; you can find a complete list at the end of this interview.
Wilm Weber: Today we are chatting with Doug Brewer, winner of the 1998 Society of American Magician’s Close-Up Champion of New Orleans and member of the comedy magic team The Magical Misfits. Thank you very much for taking the time.
Doug Brewer: My pleasure, Wilm.
Wilm Weber: Let’s jump right in. Having visited your web site dougbrewermagic.com, I thought I start by asking Who is Doug Brewer?
Doug Brewer: Well, if you’ve ever seen me perform, you know I don’t take myself too seriously, but I do take my magic seriously, if you know what I mean. I like to think of myself as a guy that likes to have fun and wants to bring my audiences along for a ride of the strange and impossible. By the way, thanks for mentioning my website, which is really designed for magicians to visit. My goal in the next several months is to change it more toward my clientele to visit.
Wilm Weber: Please tell us how you got started with magic, how you discovered your interest in the art and what you did before performing magic full time?
Doug Brewer: This is going to sound odd, but I really loved Doug Henning back in the ‘70’s and he was a major influence on me wanting to become a magician. His style nowadays might seem a little hokey, but at the time I thought he did pure magic. I was just a little kid growing up in Kansas at the time but I never missed a TV special he did. I was also heavily influenced by the Bill Tarr book, Now You See It, Now You Don’t, which I studied from cover to cover. Unfortunately, books were hard to learn from back then as they had limited illustrations, and the writing was a little old fashioned. Tarr’s book was heavy on illustrations and had easy descriptions to follow. I was sorry to hear he died awhile back. I would have liked to let him know his influence.
I started doing magic from the time I was 8 years old until about 16, then I just fell away from it. I actually did pretty serious sleight-of-hand at the time and really enjoyed it, but I never really knew that you could make a living from it. I still laugh thinking of my parents watching an 8 or 9 year old kid doing the shell game and cigarette vanishes for them in the living room. They had to wonder what the hell their kid was spending his time learning in his bedroom – I mean, a kid doing the shell game? I also did a number of shows and birthday parties when I was around 12 years old, including the talent shows at school. Very nerve wracking now that I think back on it, but it was good experience for me. I always new I was going to be a performer – that’s why I got a degree in engineering [laughs].
Wilm Weber: Many hobby magicians always wonder how to turn their passion into a good paying job. Can you describe your transition? How were you able to make performing magic your full time profession?
Doug Brewer: Well here’s the dirty little secret – I’m only a part-time magician – not a full-timer. I think if I knew during my collegiate years that it was possible to make a living at magic I would have seriously considered going full-time. The problem was, by the time I was back into magic, I had a wife, baby daughter and bills to pay. It’s very hard to give up a career in a technical field such as engineering and say “bye” to a regular paycheck and benefits. It would have been irresponsible of me to take that gamble. John George and I, as the Magical Misfits, were approached by investors a couple years ago to perform in a proposed theater out in Scottsdale, Arizona, but that unfortunately fell through. It was the only time I thought “this is it – I’m going full-time”.
Wilm Weber: What kind of magic do you like best? Close-Up? Mentalism? Something else? And why?
Doug Brewer: When I was a kid I would have said “stage magic”, but now that I’ve been performing for such a long time, and have seen just about every type of magic imaginable, I am ever drawn to close-up magic. There’s nothing I like more than a theatrical piece of close-up magic, where the magician pulls you into his or her world of strange. I’m also a big fan of stand-up magic (or parlour magic) and actually think you can get a lot more theater out of what you’re doing (as the magician) in this environment. I kind of think of our Magical Misfit show in this category; somewhere between stand-up and stage.
Wilm Weber: Who influences / has influenced your work most and how so? Who are your magic heroes or role models?
Doug Brewer: Without a doubt the biggest influence on my magic career has been my business partner and friend John George. I think he is one of the best close-up magicians in the business and I am continually shocked that he hasn’t won magician-of-the-year at the Castle – no kidding around. He has a great instinct for what “works” in a magic routine and has coached and mentored a number of students to become award-winning caliber. He and I met when we were both auditioning to join the Castle, struck up a friendship at the bar while we were waiting to go in, and have been friends ever since. John George and I have an agreement to be brutally honest with each other when it comes to new material or routines we’re working on. If something stinks, we’ll tell each other. If something works, we’ll work on making it better. I used to get annoyed (in an amused way) that I’d come up with some idea for an effect, show it to John, and he’d tweak it a bit and make it something great. We realized soon enough that this type of creative input was critical to getting better as magicians and regularly sessioned and groomed our routines – first for winning magic competitions, then for the more practical real-world environments. I’m proud to call John George one of my best friends and it seemed logical that we would eventually think about teaming to produce a “bigger” show for the stage.
Wilm Weber: I had a chance to see The Magical Misfits in Huntington Beach,CA last year and it was great entertainment. Our whole groups enjoyed it tremendously. How did The Magical Misfits get started? Who was the driving force behind it and what are you and John planning for this act in the future?
Doug Brewer: Thanks for the compliments on the show. We had a lot of fun performing at the Hilton back then. John George and I started teaming mostly because we got a kick out of working together. And I have to say, and I know John would agree, that our shows in the beginning were not our best, lacked a coherent flow and really didn’t deliver like we wanted it to. The magic effects were strong, but there was a distinct “something” missing. It got to the point where we knew there had to be a major change or we would simply not perform as a team anymore. It wasn’t affecting our friendship, but we knew creatively, something was missing and if we couldn’t fix it, we would be better off just performing solo.
Finally, we sat down one afternoon and really tried to figure out “who” we were, what were we trying to present, and how did we define ourselves to the audience. Deep questions that were critical to the show. John George had a strong interest in mentalism – I had zero interest (as a performer, that is, not in their effect on audiences). It occurred to us that John George could present himself strictly as a “mind reader”, and Doug Brewer could present himself as strictly a “magician”. This sounds simple now that I describe it, but it actually seemed at the time to be one of those “eureka” moments for an act. Immediately the light went on and we could see the conflict between the two stage characters. And where there is conflict, there is Theatre, with a capital “T”. The show almost wrote itself then. We have, of course, continued to rewrite the show, add effects, take out effects, put effects back in – it’s constantly in flux. I think our current opener is one of the most creative bits we’ve ever come up with, and again, it was me bringing an idea to John George and he improved it to make it brilliant.
If you see most two-man teams, there is no conflict. They are simply two magicians standing on stage doing magic. This is what John and I were doing at first and it simply didn’t work – or at least, we felt creatively, it didn’t work. Penn & Teller got it right by having one of them not talking (passive) and one of them talking a lot (aggressive). There is conflict there, an internal point of interest that creates a theatrical build. Likewise, John George and I have stage “characters” that stick to script. For example, during our act I can’t even say “think of a card” – a statement made by just about every magician who does card magic – because it hints of mentalism. I had to take out every single mental-magic effect in my repertoire as it applied to our show because John George was now the Mental Misfit, so to speak. Likewise, John had to take out pure “magic” effects because I was the Magical Misfit. This was an amusing exercise for us that really helped define our characters. It also helped define our show and what effects were the best and strongest to perform. We’re getting close but we’re still tweaking, still changing, still trying to make it better.
As far as what we have planned for the Magical Misfits – well, I guess that’s up for destiny to decide. We would love, absolutely love, to have our own theater. We’ve been approached by investors and it hasn’t worked out yet, but I hope one day it will. I’d like to finish out my career doing something I love, as opposed to something I have to do. Right now we have been working mostly for corporate clients and having a lot of fun doing that. I guess we’ll see how life works out.
Wilm Weber: What do you enjoy most about being a magician? And what the least?
Doug Brewer: I hope most magicians would answer the same, and that is I love what magic can do for people – how it can almost instantly bring a flash of surprise and joy into their life while you’re performing. I’ve found this mostly happens in close-up settings, where I have a close connection with my audience. There’s nothing better than seeing your audience almost dazed by what they’ve seen. It’s no accident that most people react to a magic effect with laughter – it’s letting them be a child again, to enjoy something in an innocent way and have fun with what they’re experiencing. It’s unfortunate when you have an audience member who is fighting you and trying to “figure it out”, because they’re missing the entire point of the performance. It’s like yelling at the band that you know they’re pressing keys to make the notes. But, of course, we’re performing for real people who have their own issues and weaknesses. They may be acting badly because they’ve just lost their job or some other stress, and we have to be sensitive to that. Of course, some people are just jerks too.
Wilm Weber: How do you see the magic world evolve and change in the coming years? Any trends you see? Any predictions?
Doug Brewer: There’s definitely a huge amount of information available today for young magicians to absorb that was not available when I was younger. This has allowed teenagers or younger to become quite adept at an early age. And why wouldn’t they? They have unlimited time to practice. I think this is a good thing. We’re going to see in about 20 or 30 years the fruits of this young expertise come to bear. Think of a whole host of magical “Tiger Woods” who have developed their talent at such early ages maturing into seasoned performers. And unlike the real Tiger Woods who had to practice out on a golf course everyday, these kids can develop in the quiet of their rooms, performing for their friends and families, and eventually the paying public. We have a lot to look forward to in the coming years.
Wilm Weber: I’d like to get your take on the line up of today’s TV shows and performers? What is your opinion on shows like Mind Control (Derren Brown), Phenomenon (NBC), Mindfreak (Criss Angel) or Celebracadabra?
Doug Brewer: Here’s something funny to hear – I don’t really watch magic on TV anymore. I used to really like it – I mean, I didn’t miss a single show. But now, I don’t know, I think I’ve just decided that magic is meant to be performed live in front of your audiences. About 5 years ago I was seriously pursuing a TV show, both as a single performer and with the Magical Misfits. This takes unbelievable effort, money, and knowing the right people. During this period it started to dawn on me – what am I doing? Do I really want this for magic? If I had complete creative control on what I was showing, I would present magic on TV in a manner much different than it’s shown now. I have to say, though, that I thought Derren Brown’s show, Mind Control, was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen for magic on TV. Just great, brilliant routines and presentations. I’ve not seen any of the other TV shows you’ve asked me about.
Wilm Weber: What tips can you give fellow magicians who want to improve their game? How did you tune your skills? What are your top 3 tips for fellow performers?
Doug Brewer: I could just say “practice, practice, practice”, but I am going to take a moment here and wax poetic about a topic I think is really important. A lot of magicians are hobbyists and do this in their spare time and devoting their lives to become expert is just not feasible. That is completely fine and I’ve not always done magic full-time as I stated before. The thing is, if you want to be “good” or “great” you are going to have to put in the time. I’m sorry but there’s no other way, and not just in practicing double lifts or classic palms. I should kind of explain where I’m coming from before I go any further.
There’s a great book out right now called “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin, and I recommend it to anyone trying to improve themselves in any endeavor. The book basically states, with a lot of references to studies and psychological tests over the last century, that talent is not something you’re born with, that the most creative, ingenious, and skilled performers (in athletics, science, music, art, etc) became so with a lot of hard work and a deliberate system for becoming so. We see someone with extraordinary ability and we say “I could never be that good” or “He was born with that talent”. The truth is, you can be that good, but you have to be dedicated and organized in what you want to accomplish.
One of the first things the book recommends, and something I wholeheartedly agree with, is to become expert at any endeavor you must first immerse yourself in your “domain”. That is, the body of knowledge you want to learn from. If you want to become an expert rifle marksman, then you would study books and texts on this subject, hopefully written by experts in the field. Better yet, you would takes lessons from these experts to learn from the best, and to hone your skills at rifle marksmanship. You would learn what rifles work best for what environments, what type of variables you can expect to encounter and what you can do to improve your accuracy when you are faced with these challenges. You also learn what has been done before and the history of the skill you’re trying to learn. Likewise with becoming expert at performing magic.
While I’ve produced a lot of material which I’ve published, it was not done in a vacuum. I am a big believer in crediting and knowing where material and ideas came from – this is critical in drawing on this knowledge when you want to apply it to your own routines and performances. The idea that you are too immersed in your subject to solve a problem is a fallacy – having a vast knowledge about magic history, effects, methods and sleights is an advantage and I encourage the student to magic to read all they can, particularly the older texts, as well as books on magic history, to see what was done before.
I also recommend seeking out the best performers in the field of magic you are interested in and, if possible, take lessons from them. Watch them and learn how and why they routine their acts the way they do. The problem here is, and it’s tough not to do this because it’s the easy path, is to actually clone or copy the teacher you are learning from. We’ve all seen younger performers, in particular, copying patter verbatim from a routine they learned on a video tape. John George and I both were students of Johnny Ace Palmer, an absolute master magician in his field. In the beginning, we both copied Johnny’s act and style to a fault. It took a couple of years for us to define ourselves and break free of that mold we had cast ourselves in and finally become our own selves. Now I can say, with confidence, we emulate Johnny’s style and routining methodology (that of fast-paced, effect-after-effect acts) but do not copy his act.
Finally, you have to deliberately practice. That is, you have to know what you want to become good at, then practice what will make you so. This is a little more complicated than just practicing sleights. You have to know what you want to be – whether expert at close-up, stand-up, mentalism, etc. – you will have to work out that out for yourself. Then, come up with what a plan to become that. The problem is, a beginner may not even be able to plan what they want to do because they have no working knowledge of “stage magic” – that’s why becoming expert in your domain is so important. This body of knowledge that you’ve learned helps you plan better on becoming better. A teacher (by definition, who should be expert in his domain) can help by focusing your efforts.
I guess, in short, I could have just said: (1) decide and define precisely what type of magic you want to become better; (2) read all you can on that subject; (3) learn from an expert in that field; (4) practice in a manner to become great!
Wilm Weber: What's next for Doug Brewer? Any lectures or Magic Castle performances scheduled? Where can people see you perform?
Doug Brewer: Well, let’s see: I live in San Diego, so if you want to see me locally I work on Friday nights at a lovely place in Ocean Beach called The O’Bistro. Great, affordable food, a nice setting, and a me working from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Early next year I’m working the Magic Castle in the Parlour from February 16-22, 2009. John George will also be working the Close-up Room that week, as well as two of our good friends from New Jersey who will be working those two rooms also, so it should be a fun week!
Also, I have a new book on the coin box coming out next year called Coin Box Killers, which I’ve wanted to put out for a long time. It’s one of my favorite close-up props and I have some fun routines with it which I think magicians will enjoy. Tony Dunn did the illustrations, so I hope it’s well received.
I’m also planning next year a DVD project for some pet coin routines of mine that will be a little more focused on the presentation and a little less on the “here’s a trick, here’s the method” format that I’ve done before. I’m looking forward to that and it should be out about mid-2009.
Finally, John George and I will be doing the Magical Misfit shows we’ve booked up over the next few months and continue to do what we love to do. Please come see us if you get a chance!
Wilm Weber: Thank you very much for this interview and continued success!
Doug Brewer: Thanks, Wilm. It was fun!
Interview Date: 12/04/2008