Teller Takes on The Tempest in the Toddlin Town

Teller's The TempestTeller and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater have a hit on their hands with The Tempest.   Labeled  “Shakespeare’s most magical play,” the Windy City critics have fallen hard for Teller’s take on the play.

Chicago television station WTTW interviewed Teller and the creative folks with whom he has worked to stage The Tempest at the Navy Pier.  The production is set in a traveling tent-show during the Dust Bowl and the unique stage allows the audience to be on three sides while the illusions are performed.

Teller is not adding tricks to a show but bringing the classic story to life through magic.

He explained, “One of the challenges of Shakespeare for a contemporary audience is to make clear all of these ideas that are sometimes realized only in the language, and since the language is hundreds of years old it helps to assist that language with strong visual things. For this show, which is about magic, supporting that with magic that is visual really helps to clarify what’s going on.”

Through the integrated illusions, Teller allows the audience to see the effects the exiled Duke of Milan character performs to befuddle and battle his foes.

Magic, says Teller, gets its edge because “it’s not a comfortable form to watch. You don’t just sit back and let magic wash over you because it’s seriously contradicting all your experience, so what you see is coming into collision with what you know and there’s a sort of explosion that’s very exciting, but it also jars you out of your seat. You don’t watch a magic event like this [strikes a relaxed pose] you watch it on the edge because you’re watching both as a complicit participant and as somebody who’s trying to catch it out, and the excitement of that tension gives it a whole different way to watch a show.”

We pride ourselves on being very uncomfortable to watch – even when not performing magic.  Just eating spaghetti can be unnerving to witness.

Our beloved Cubs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and Teller’s The Tempest is at the Navy Pier – magic is in the air.

Check out the full article on Teller and The Tempest here.

Couldn’t Have Happened to a Nicer Guy: Johnny Thompson Honored by LA Critics

Johnny Thompson and Pam as Great Tomsoni & Co.A while back we gave our review of Teller and Todd Robbins disturbing but very entertaining show Play Dead then showing at The Geffen Playhouse here in Los Angeles.

The writing was fantastic and matched the outstanding performance given by Mr. Robbins.  The magic was, though, was truly magical.

Today we learned through Teller’s contribution to Alan Watson’s always jam-packed with goodness Magic New Zealand newsletter that Johnny Thompson’s work to make the illusions and effects so effective has been recognized with a LA Drama Critics Circle award.

Mr. Thompson has an encyclopedic knowledge of our wonderful art and its history.  According to Penn Jillette, there is no one who knows more about the subject.  With his wife Pam, Mr. Thompson often performs as the hysterical and technically brilliant The Great Tomsoni & Co.  Though we have seen the act many times, we still embarrass ourselves with our high-pitched, almost girl-like laughing fits each time.

For as good as he is – and we agree with Mr. Jillette that he the elite of the elites – he does not engage in the type of self-promotion and chest-thumping we see from lesser-lights in our industry.  He does not even make a big deal of the fact that he is modest.

We get that “business” is an integral part of the term show-biz and that self-promotion is often the only type of promotion available to a young performer.  We accept that hiding one’s light under a bushel basket is an inefficient career move and only adds to one’s carbon footprint.  But it is refreshing to encounter performers who are really, really good and are not afraid to be judged solely on their work.

But Mr. Thompson could be modest, talented, lack the need to proclaim his superiority and still be a jerk.  In fact, he would deserve to be a jerk if he wanted.

But Mr. Thompson is decidedly not a jerk.

He is not dismissive of magicians who are just honored to meet him at a regional magic convention – say in Toledo – and seem unable to speak in complete sentences in his presence.  He does not dismiss those same magicians who encounter him, say, in Dallas at a national convention.  In fact, he is the kind of person who would invite that lesser-talented magician to sit and take part in a late-hour conversation in the lobby area with professionals the gawking magician had only seen on television or read about in magic magazines.

Mr. Thompson must have off-days.  He must occasionally feel it is unnecessary to cross a room to introduce himself – as if that would be necessary – to a magician/fan at a magic conference  set in some bucolic Michigan magic mecca setting like the Abbott’s Get-Together.   There must be times when he does not feel the need to engage in conversation with lesser magicians about their shared roots in Chicago.  We have never seen him on those days and, significantly, never read of others seeing him in that way.

Congratulations to Mr. Thompson for his award and recognition from a notoriously tough group of people to please, The LA Drama Critics.  We, as magicians, are fortunate to have people of his ability and demeanor in our art.

Don’t Mess With Teller: Copyright Claim Upheld

Inside Magic Image of TellerDo not mess with Teller.

The silent half of Penn & Teller is an amazing writer, fine magic historian and incredible inventor of magic effects.  You put those three talents together and you have someone you do not want on the other side of a lawsuit.

Beginning with the premise that a magic trick is not per se protectable by the Copyright Act, certain aspects of the magical presentation may be.  Most lawyers would attempt to dissuade a client hoping to sue another performer over an alleged copyright infringement.  The burden of proof is tough, the case law does not support that type of claim (in most cases) and because the case will rise or fall based on the facts developed through litigation, it will be expensive to pursue.

U.S. District Judge James Mahan of Nevada agreed that in most cases a magic trick is not subject to copyright protection but, he observed in his ruling on Teller’s behalf, pantomimes are explicitly protected by the Copyright Act.

The effect at the center of the dispute is Teller’s famous and baffling Shadows.  Teller even registered “Shadows” with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1983.

Shadows essentially consists of a spotlight trained on a bud vase containing a rose. The light falls in a such a manner that the shadow of the real rose is projected onto a white screen positioned some distance behind it. Teller then enters the otherwise still scene with a large knife, and proceeds to use the knife to dramatically sever the leaves and petals of the rose’s shadow on the screen slowly, one-by-one, whereupon the corresponding leaves of the real rose sitting in the vase fall to the ground, breaking from the stem at exactly the point where Teller cut the shadow projected on the screen behind it.

Gerard Dogge offered to sell the secret behind Shadows via an advertisement on YouTube for $3,500.00 and included plenty of Penn & Teller keywords to lure the curious to his page.  Mr. Dogge claimed Teller’s copyright is not valid “because (A) it is registered as a dramatic work rather than a magic routine, (B) Teller abandoned his copyright, (C) Teller ‘openly challenged others to copy’ the work, and (D) Teller did not inform the public that Shadows is copyrighted.”

The judge wasn’t buying such foolishness.  The court wrote, “despite Dogge’s numerous attempts to utter an incantation to make the copyright disappear, the court finds that Teller maintains a valid interest as the creator and owner of Shadows.”

And as we wrote, do not mess with Teller.  He hired a private investigator to serve Mr. Dogge personally.  Mr. Dogge tried to hide and allegedly evaded service in Belgium, Spain and other locations on the continent.  Mr. Teller finally convinced the judge that Mr. Dogge had at least opened an email containing the service of process and complaint.  That was sufficient for jurisdiction and Mr. Dogge was forced to answer the complaint.

The best line of the court’s opinion granting Teller summary judgment against Mr. Dogge came near the end:

Dogge contends that the works are not substantially similar because his secret to performing the illusion differs from Teller’s, and because he uses a clear glass bottle instead of a vase in his However the court finds that these reaching arguments by Dogge exceed his limited grasp of copyright law. By arguing that the secret to his illusion is different than Teller’s, Dogge implicitly argues about aspects of the performance that are not perceivable by the audience. In discerning substantial similarity, the court compares only the observable elements of the works in question. Therefore, whether Dogge uses Teller’s method, a technique known only by various holy men of the Himalayas, or even real magic is irrelevant, as the performances appear identical to an ordinary observer.

The judge got it exactly right.

It is rare that being a copyright lawyer / magician gives us a chance to write about a combination of our favorite subjects, but this case did it for us.


Continue reading Don’t Mess With Teller: Copyright Claim Upheld

Todd Robbins & Teller’s Play Dead: Our Review

Inside Magic Image of Play Dead PosterTodd Robbins and Teller’s show Play Dead nearly killed us.

We had an opportunity to see the very unique play at the beautiful David Geffen Playhouse (presumably named for someone, likely David Geffen), in Westwood, California.  We would like to tell  you more about the intricate stories and spectacular effects but Mr. Robbins swore the entire audience to secrecy.  As a consequence, this will be a very vague, but enthusiastic review.

We deliberately avoided learning about the show.  We wanted to be surprised.  We trusted Teller and Mr. Robbins to entertain and likely scare us but had no real understanding of what was planned.  And while we did not search out summaries or plot lines before attending,  we knew to expect the unexpected thanks to a warning included on our ticket invoice:

The stories and events of this interactive production contains some disturbing images, strobe effect, theatrical haze, interactivity, brief moments of nudity and a great deal of fun. Audiences are surrounded by sights, sounds and touches of the returning dead.  Material may be inappropriate for the faint of heart – or those under 18.

Disturbing images, check.  Theatrical haze, interactivity and some nudity, check to the third power.  Surrounded by “sights, sounds and touches of the returning dead,” yep and then some.

We did not, however, notice any “strobe effects.”  It could be there was a strobe effect but our eyes were so tightly shut that we did not notice.

This is a scary experience, expertly presented.

Mr. Robbins has the voice, stature and disarming smile to make the event truly terrifying.  He works the audience well and leaves it feeling vulnerable.  Unlike a very scary movie or traditional play, there is no sense of safety here.  He establishes very quickly that anything could happen and, more disturbingly, could happen to any individual audience member.

The dark is a scary place and total darkness is totally scary – especially with Mr. Robbins’ sonorous instruction and macabre soliloquy.  As he points out, his stories are true and the people he discusses actually lived and moved among us.  When the lights go out, we are essentially on our own.  We are forced to trust someone who has already established he is not trustworthy.

Technically, the play is masterfully done.  The set is beautiful, the costuming is perfect, the lighting (when on) is just right.  We have no idea how the effects are accomplished and that is fine by us.  We love being fooled and amazed.  We’re not so crazy about being scared though.

We sat in front of a couple who were having some problems in their relationship.  The experience could have brought them closer but it didn’t.

She:  I hate this kind of thing.

He:  Since when, it’s just like a movie.

She:  This is not like a movie.  You lied.

He:  I didn’t know what was going to happen.

She:  B*** s***!

That conversation was just after the first blackout of the evening.  Things did not get better for the two.  We wanted to help but we also wanted them to stop talking.  They did stop talking – about halfway through the show – and she stormed out as soon as the play was complete.  We are guessing this spat was probably a symptom of other issues with which they were struggling.

Did we enjoy the show?  We think so.

We walked to the nearest well-lit store after congratulating Mr. Robbins in the lobby.  As we loitered in the aisles of Target, our concern about the company’s recent privacy breach was greatly diminished.  We were just happy to be in a familiar and safer environment.

Play Dead is safe but in the darkened theater, it does not always feel that way.  That is quite a trick and well-worth the price of admission.

Inside Magic Review: Five Out of Five Stars!

Teller & Todd Robbins New Play – We’re Scared Already

Inside Magic Image of Play Dead PosterThe tension mounts as we look forward to seeing Play Dead at the Geffen Playhouse near UCLA tomorrow night.  The show is written by Todd Robbins and Teller so we bought our ticket without even checking it out.

C’mon.  Teller and Todd Robbins.  We would see a show by either one of them and so the two of them together makes a must see.

Once we received our ticket, we read more about the show and even perused the warning notice provided on the theater’s website:

Performance notes: The running time for Play Dead is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. Due to the theatrical and interactive nature of this performance, there is no late seating, no re-admittance, and formal wear is not advised. Contact the box office for details. Please note: This production contains strobe effects, theatrical haze, nudity, interactive elements and themes that may be inappropriate for some patrons.

“Formal wear is not advised.”  What does that mean?  We are even more anxious because we are on the front row – in the line of fire.

We were able to get such a great seat because we only bought one ticket.  The show is otherwise sold out.  We tried to get some of the editorial, advertising and accounting staff to join us but she said no.

It should be a wild experience.  We will provide a full report assuming we survive the evening.