“I met this guy at the Farmer’s Market in Bar Harbor and I think you two should get together.”
I remember a friend telling me this a few short years ago. She had been watching me perform a few minor miracles in my living room. Nothing fancy, just card tricks and pretty basic ones at that. I had been practicing magic in the comfort of my home ever since doing a short performance for a fundraiser in Blue Hill in 2001.
It was 2005 and the person who had been busking at the Bar Harbor Farmer’s Market was Paul Szauter, also known as Dr, Wilson. My friend got his contact information and I called him. The rest, as they say, is history.
We met over dinner at The Mex in Ellsworth. It took us three quarters of an hour just to order because we fell into a very animated conversation on magic. Paul was active in starting a new I.B.M. Ring and had brought a membership application with him for me to fill out. I had once tried to get into the I.B.M. when I was younger, but there were no magicians I knew of who could vouch for me. And there was the matter of the $50 fee.
That was then and this was now. In the course of our dinner conversation, Paul suddenly had an idea. He was putting on a show in Town Hill in a few weeks and wondered if I would care to join him. I agreed, and Professor Miller joined Wilson and Dark’s Traveling Carnival and Theater of Marvels. The performances went so well that the two of us joined forces the following summer to create Miller and Wilson’s Theater of Marvels. The show ran for four summers and evolved from the rough cut of the first year to a polished show that actually ran without a hitch on several occasions. Not only was it a good entertainment for summer audiences (outselling Paula Poundstone at the Criterion on one night), but it became a “breeder reactor” for new performers. Middle Eastern dancers, jugglers and other variety artists found some of their first audiences in Theater of Marvels. Some are performing professionally today.
Theater of Marvels was a learning experience for both of us. It’s rare that two people will simultaneously find the time, inclination and a venue for developing a show like this. It presented a number of challenges for us. The conversation on the nature of the show itself was an ongoing one over all four years. We created many scenarios and character perspectives for the show. We started by focusing on the similarities of our two characters, but quickly found that the real strength of the show could be found in their differences. We investigated a lot of magic material, built prototypes for equipment, wrote scripts and debated every detail. The illusions and demonstrations that appeared onstage represented untold hours of development and no small amount of heartbreak. After all, for every piece of material we used, we probably rejected at least five. Our cutting room floor may never be found again.
You can’t do street magic in a Victorian lyceum. Neither can you fit a large stage act involving a five foot tall Tesla coil on a stage barely sixteen feet wide. Oh well.
I have a four year degree in performing arts with a concentration in theater. By the time I met Paul, I was quite accustomed to constructive criticism. I got what I needed working with Paul. People look at me oddly when I say how fortunate I felt to have a working partner who would watch my material then look me straight in the eye and say, “That was terrible!” That sort of honesty is hard to come by, but so important when needed. And it was always followed up with ideas and concrete suggestions for improvement. Some I took, other I didn’t. But the act invariably got better.
Things got even more interesting when Paul bought a video camera. All I needed to hear was, “Ok, come watch what you did.” Cameras don’t lie and they are unmerciful. But it’s incredible what you learn once you acquire a stomach for watching yourself. There is a big difference between what you think you look like and what you really look like. There is also a difference between seeing it for yourself and having someone describe it to you.
One of my favorite memories concerns the trip we took on New Year’s Eve 2008. We had been hired to do two shows in Orange, Massachusetts for their community New Year’s Celebration. We drove down in a howling blizzard while I endured a horrible toothache. A trip that should have taken about four hours took six. We arrived only to find the venue had not yet been plowed. We waited until the parking lot was clear and then packed in. We hauled all of our equipment (including Paul’s mammoth sound system) up three flights of stairs because the elevator was out of order. We performed two shows and then hauled all that stuff back down. We spent the night at a host home and headed back to Maine the next morning. We split $500. While crossing the Piscataqua River Bridge between New Hampshire and Maine, I announced that I was now cured of any desire I ever had to earn my living as a magician on the road. And I admire anyone who is able to.
The last act Paul saw me perform was the only act that he never saw in rehearsal. By this time, I had come to think of him as my director. We had had one conversation about it early in the year and sketched out a few ideas. I took the notes from that conversation home and started working on the act. I realized sometime in the week before the performance that Paul had not seen the material at all and I wondered how he would react. After the show, he came backstage, shook my hand and told me the act had been fantastic. That was the Chung Ling Soo contest and while I won the trophy that night, all I really cared about was Paul’s opinion. Score.
Nothing lasts forever. Paul gave us the news that he would be leaving Maine for Albuquerque in September of 2011. Although Theater of Marvels had been dark for two years by that time there was now no chance at all that it would see the stage again. And while Paul would remain an influence (I plan to start performing some of the material he used to do since he’s no longer here doing it), he would not be as accessible as before. Ouch.
I’ll miss you, Paul. I’ll miss your knowledge, your sense of humor, even your biting criticism. But I’m already asking myself, “What would Paul say about this?” And given the miracles of email and YouTube, I suppose an answer to that question can still be had.