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Magic Isn't Just About Tricks, Professor Says; It's About Life

He uses the device to teach philosophy and to show students how to be powerful and artistic.

October 20, 2002|Bill Bergstrom | Associated Press Writer

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — As a dozen students waited for philosophy professor Lawrence Hass to start class, some did card tricks, shuffling and rearranging decks, fanning them into circles, reclosing them with one hand.

The class at tiny Muhlenberg College was Theory and Art of Magic, and Hass started by chatting about tricks, and giving some students books and videos on ones they might perform in a show. Yes, they would be graded.

But this class wasn't really about the tricks.

"It's to learn how to make magic out of a trick. Tricks are easy to come by," he said. "Magic is deceptive, powerful, entertaining, and perhaps--this is the Holy Grail--perhaps even artistic."

Magic is about life.

As Hass stood before his wide-eyed charges, a light blue shirt over his otherwise all-black T-shirt and trousers, he wondered aloud which of their own qualities they might craft into a performing magician's persona.

Wise guy or sage? Trickster or friend? Teacher or clown?

"Who am I going to be when I perform? What side or sides of myself will I reveal in my performance? You can't present every side of yourself or you are going to present mush," Hass said. "That's a pretty high-level kind of reflection."

The popular class began three years ago.

Philip LaPorta, a 19-year-old sophomore physics major from Lodi, N.J., said he was eager to be in this fall's group.

"All of last semester I practiced," said LaPorta, who before class rehearsed fanning a deck of cards into a full circle and closing it again one-handed, without dropping any. "That took me a month. Closing it took another two weeks."

Other colleges offer classes in magic. The Chavez College of Magic in Hollywood is devoted entirely to it. The University of Minnesota offers the Art of Magic as a youth program for students 12 to 15.

To Hass, who has taught at the 2,100-student liberal arts college since 1991, magic was an intriguing way to approach the study of philosophy. His insight came while watching a magic show 10 years ago with his son.

"I said, 'Wait, magicians are creating experience. I want to be able to do that.' "

The class invites magicians to perform and lecture. Hass teaches the basics: sleight of hand, directing attention and the psychology of deceptions. Students put on juried performances, judged by professional magicians.

Among the performers who visit the 154-year-old school are Eugene Burger, author of 16 books on magic; Margaret Steele, a musician and magician who has performed throughout the world and written music and magic programs, and mind-reader Max Maven.

"When we see Eugene Berger with his low voice, Max Maven with his [demonic] eye, David Copperfield with his flourishes, Siegfried and Roy with their tigers, it is so tempting to take up their personas," Hasssaid. But that won't work.

"When you are an actor or musician, you are letting yourself come forth in your performance. It's hard," Hass said.

In ancient Greece, the temple of the Oracle at Delphi was inscribed "Know Thyself," and Socrates, the first philosopher, said that was the most difficult question. "With Freud, we know there are sides that are hidden from ourselves," Hass said.

"There is so much psychology in it," said Michael Bernstein, 20, who is from Philadelphia. Bernstein, a double major in philosophy and psychology, said magic skills would help him connect with children he works with.

Bernstein, too, put in time learning basics, such as causing the deck of cards to stream smoothly from one hand to the other with his hands a foot apart. That took a week.

Hass covers craft as well as philosophy, including a magician's need to control the attention of the audience. To show how not to do that, he stood still and spoke in a monotone.

"I have a quarter. Now it's gone," he said. "Not very interesting."

The result was different when he swept his hand forward with a flourish, leaned almost over the first row of desks, fixed his eyes on the upraised coin and intoned: "Lives can be won or lost on the flip of a coin."

The class stared. "If I am weaving a tale, I could truck the elephant in," Hass said. "And that's exactly how the elephant gets in there."

After class, LaPorta observed that magicians direct attention away from the skills they work for hours to perfect.

"We practice things nobody is supposed to see," he said.

But success is rewarding.

"There is nothing better than to show somebody a magic trick and see them smile," he said.

Hass advises students to fight tension that can tangle the fingers. In his first notebooks as a beginning magician, he constantly reminded himself in big letters: "RELAX LARRY."

For those he hoped would be magicians one day, he offered another tip: Don't draw attention to the deception by looking guilty.

"I'm not out to trick you; I'm trying to make magic for you," Hass said. "I'm trying to make you have an experience that's interesting and enjoyable."

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