It’s the small things that leave the biggest impression. My mentor, Eugene Burger’s passing prompted an inspired outpouring of tributes from magicians around the world. They were eager to say what a profound impact he made on them. It’s no surprise. He was an unusual gentleman who did things like ask a spectator if he could put a hat on their head before doing so and give a volunteer a tissue after leaving ashes on their palm. In his magic and in life, Eugene understood the value of small things.
Just having started working as a magician full-time a decade ago, I was knocked over when I discovered Eugene’s audio book Growing in the Art of Magic. Most magic literature being obsessed with methods and tricks, this was a collection of meditative essays and conversations about how magicians can embrace creativity, imagination and originality. It was all delivered by his thunderous bass voice, which he used to great effect. That audio book inspired me to hire him for a video critique session by phone and from then on I continued working with him via Skype and emails, at Jeff McBride’s Mystery School and visits to Chicago.
When teaching, Eugene never claimed to possess the truth. Instead, he offered thoughts and alternatives as experiments to help my work grow. In contrast to much of the money-driven magic tuition these days, Eugene’s work as a teacher was fuelled by a genuine interest in people and in helping them improve their magic.
Eugene Burger’s frequent reminder to all was that magic has the potential to remind us ‘we are living in the middle of a capital M mystery’. He would encourage his mentees to explore two sides of magic: to perfect a deceptive trick as well as to frame it with experiences and themes that resonate with audiences. He told me once with his devilish laugh that most magic performances he had seen are about as magical as a cooking class. Mix flour with sugar and here’s what I prepared earlier.
Magic can only be magic-al, Eugene would say,
when we make it special.
How to do that was my main focus through my years of working with him. I discovered that one short phrase summarised the answer. It manifested itself in everything Eugene Burger taught: every moment counts. This, I think, was Eugene’s greatest secret and his performances would stop the room because of it. My notebook is filled with incisive questions from our sessions; can I say the same thing with less words?, how can I create moments, rather than non-moments?, how can I conduct the pacing, dynamics and pauses in a routine to affect the audience differently?, how can I choreograph a prop-heavy transition between routines into something intuitive and effortless?, could silence help here?
Eugene Burger was living proof that good magic
theory is transformational for real-world results.
Idealistic as they may seem, Eugene knew how to integrate his techniques with often unforgiving situations of the real performance world. He knew his magic had to be commercial and for all his depth, his routines were often full of humour. Eugene would remind me of Jeff McBride saying that there are audiences who want to remember and audiences who want to forget. He encouraged me to have alternate presentations for the same tricks depending on the audience, a sort of magical Swiss army knife.
With that twinkle in his eye, Eugene Burger described his character as ‘naughty Santa Claus.’ He taught that the relationship between performer and audience is the ultimate key to success or failure. He believed the performer’s character should exist at the centre of the magic. This character focus made him a natural champion for my stage persona Norvil. We worked on developing and understanding the character to see how that informs the magic. We looked at topics like the character’s accessibility and vulnerability in relation to the audience. But sometimes the best thing I could do was just observe. He was a master at harnessing his character as the vehicle for a powerful show.
There was an other-worldly aura to Eugene even in life. Inspired by the shamanic origins of magic that dealt with our place in the cosmos, Eugene revelled in the plethora of options we have for crafting unique magic routines. His book on that topic is also the one he told me he felt most proud of: The Experience of Magic. If you read it, you’ll see that all roads for Eugene led back to his fascination with ‘this deep sense of the earth’s profound mystery.’ And as Eugene Burger has moved on to the next chapter of the Mystery, the only thing we know for sure is that for those who knew him, his kindness, generosity, sense of humour, and wisdom will be remembered as inspirations forever.
(This article was originally published in The Magic Circular, the magazine of The Magic Circle.)