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Penn & Teller: Fool Us | Behind the Scenes Part 3

This is part three of a series.Previous installments: Part One, Part Two

Next Installment: Part Four (Available July 14)

Getting “Lucky”

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

Seneca

It was August of 2015, I had three months to get a video to Penn & Teller’s team. In that time I needed to choose or develop a piece to perform, get it rehearsed, and get it on film.

Developing a piece for this show was a massive challenge: it needed to be entertaining enough to be worthy of national television, it needed to express my personality, it needed to have some element that could potentially fool two of the greatest magicians on the planet, and it needed to have a powerful visual element for TV.

Most importantly to me: it had to be original.

Photo: Jacob Kepler/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

In music there are composers and songwriters, there are performers who light up stages but who do not compose or write themselves, and there are those who both create and perform. Magic is the same. There are phenomenally gifted creators of magic who do not perform themselves, there are outstanding performers who do not create, and there are those who do both.

Penn &Teller: Fool Us is an unusual venue in that it demands real performing chops: you’re working a 1,475 seat theater for broadcast on national television; but the thing you are being judged on isn’t your performance but the deceptiveness of the magic itself (I respect that they’ve found a clear, bright line on which to judge: “did it fool me?”). The idea of standing in front of Penn & Teller while they debated how someone else’s trick worked just didn’t make sense to me.

Creating a piece that fit these demands was a long and uncertain process. There were two different pieces that were competing as possibilities. One had been a mainstay of my show for several years, but would need a new and better finish; the other was something that had been bouncing around in the back of my head for two years but had never made its way onto a stage — in part because it wasn’t practical for the demands of corporate event entertainment; with which I make my full time living.

That second piece, the un-tested one, seemed to check the most boxes in terms of what I needed from the material — but it was a huge risk. I went into hardcore writing/designing/rehearsal mode; but something was missing. I designed multiple versions of the props necessary, many of which would get me 90-95% of what I needed, but they just weren’t quite right.

There were three distinct eureka moments in the process; the most important coming about a week before shooting the audition video for Penn & Teller’s team. Because of the amount of time taken up by creative development, by the time the audition shoot rolled around I had only done the trick twice for an audience, and once in its full form.

The owner of The Great Magic Hall — a wonderful venue for magic near Disney World in Orlando — kindly allowed me to film in one of his four theaters. I invited friends, served refreshments, and the team at Revelo Studios (who also filmed my One Orlando tribute and much of the material in my demo reel) filmed the performance.

Photo: Jacob Kepler/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The video went in to Penn & Teller’s team. I knew that it would be about 2.5 months before we got a decision (based on talking to other magicians who had been through the process). I knew that, if my piece was chosen, that was a critical amount of time to polish the piece and make it national TV ready.

I performed it every opportunity I got, and logged around 45-55 shows with the piece before I got word that I had been booked for the show. I was rolling my show into a venue (literally, my tour cases stacked on a cart), and was in the empty theater when my phone buzzed with an email. I looked at the first line in the email on my lock screen, and started dancing in the empty theater. The shows that night were epic, because I was floating on cloud nine before I ever stepped on stage.

The next few months were focused, relentless work. The props for the piece were left set-up in my living room so that I could pick them up and practice at anytime. Multiple methods for one aspect of the trick, in particular, were developed and discarded over and over again. The piece was scripted and performed at every opportunity. Every moment of the performance thought through to make it the tightest, most entertaining, and most amazing five minutes I could make it. I watched every episode of Fool Us online; had calls with two friends who performed on the last season, and poured over every beat of the performance.

Whatever was going to happen on stage in Las Vegas, I would not fall short because I had not prepared enough.

April 4-9, 2016

Johnny Thompson (Reader’s Left) and Michael Close (Right). Two of the finest minds in magic and the magic consultants on Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Johnny, who has had a legendary career, has the final say in whether or not Penn & Teller have been fooled by a performer on the show. (photo courtesy Michael Close)

First full day in Vegas for shooting the show was April 5. The morning, beginning with an 8am-ish call time, was filled with shooting footage for the biographical video (that will run before the performance) in a converted suite at The Rio. All of the standard hotel furniture in the room was stacked along one wall, to make room for an interview set in the suite’s living room and, in the adjoining bedroom, a beautiful set for filming inserts of sleight-of-hand.

That afternoon I was at the comedy club inside Harrah’s shooting additional material. About 20 minutes before we wrapped, one of the crew members had an inspired idea for a shot that involved some very quick thinking, and remarkable collaboration, from the small crew. Watching them quickly assemble road cases into a make shift rig for a complicated camera move was an incredible display of teamwork and MacGyver-esque ingenuity.

After wrapping the bio shoot, my time was my own for most of the next two days. It was a great time catching up with Vegas-based friends, rehearsing, and taking in some local shows. I loved Mac King, Mike Hammer, David Copperfield, and — immediately after performing at The Penn & Teller Theater — I raced across the strip to Caesar’s Palace to watch Jerry Seinfeld. Sometimes the best in a field do rise to the top; it was the tightest stand-up set I’ve seen (a solid laugh every 15-25 seconds for over 90 minutes, for 5,000 at the Colliseum), the man is a master of his craft and clearly still cares.

Patiently waiting for Jerry Seinfeld to take the stage, less than an hour after performing at the Rio

My main responsibility in the days leading up to the shoot was a director’s rehearsal: performing my piece in a dance rehearsal hall for the executive producers, technical teams, and magic consultants (Michael Close and Johnny Thompson who are, for me, two of the finest living magicians). Rehearsal was solid — laughs in all of the right places and the choreography of the piece, which was a big challenge for this specific routine (there was the potential for a lot of dead time in the trick, so I structured it following Alfred Hitchcock’s “meanwhile, back at the ranch” approach: designing the piece so that parallel actions take place simultaneously with the focal point shifting back and forth to constantly move the narrative forward in an interesting way), proved to work well.

Running through my performance for the producers, director, prop department, and magic consultants Johnny Thompson and Michael Close (photo: Michael Close)

The morning of my main performance I was outside the Penn & Teller Theater an hour before my call time (I live by the mantra of “early is on time, on time is late” in my professional life, and it gets a little absurd at times — but so much is stacked against you in this business that you never take a risk on something as basic as timeliness). After signing paperwork I was ushered into a cavernous room directly under the stage with the other three acts in the shooting session, and couches.

One remarkable aspect of the show which is little publicized is the extent to which the performers’ identities are kept a secret from Penn & Teller up until the moment we are introduced on stage. We are all under the stage before Penn & Teller are in the room to help ensure that they have no idea who will be performing for them until the last second.

Fool Us Director and Editor Dennis Rosenblatt and Magic Consultant Michael Close confer during a camera rehearsal (courtesy Michael Close)

After a camera rehearsal on set (complete with stand-ins for Penn & Teller and host Alyson Hannigan), it was off to a meeting with Alyson and writer Matt Donnelly (a hilarious improv comedian you can see with performing partner Paul Mattingly in “The Bucket Show” in Vegas) to get acquainted before the on-stage interview that fills the gap while Penn & Teller discuss the secret of the trick (the portion of the show affectionately referred to as “the bust”). Alyson was a pleasure to work with, and — while I became a fan of Jonathan Ross through Fool Us and think he did phenomenal work on prior seasons — her sense of fun, expressiveness, and wide-eyed wonder will be a huge asset to the show moving forward.

Following the writing pow-wow (when I say writing, I don’t mean to suggest that the interaction is pre-written — not at all; it’s a session to figure out the best general angles to take and the most interesting questions); it was back to the under-belly of the Rio with the other acts where both an executive producer and Michael Close stopped in to say hello to everyone and give hard won advice from the previous two seasons.

Before performing, I was led from the common green room into two separate holding areas (small offices) while the first act (Ryan Joyce and his team — who have been announced for the second episode of the series) was performing on stage. The last holding area was supposed to be for five minutes, but there was a power issue and the connection between the equipment in the theater and in the production truck went down for a 20 minute delay — 20 minutes pacing in the empty green room while pumping Jay-Z through my earbuds and doing breathing exercises.

View from inside the Penn & Teller Fool Us Production Truck. During the performance of the act prior to mine the connections between the truck and the studio failed, and there was a 20 minute delay in a holding room while they repaired the issue and re-started the previous performance. (photo: Michael Close)

I was then cleared to go backstage to assist the prop team in confirming that my gear was correctly pre-staged. The back-of-house operation was a well-oiled machine. There were huge demands placed on stage managers (the seemingly simple facts that Penn & Teller cannot know who the performers are before the introduction, combined with the need for a performer who has finished working to not run into a performer who hasn’t yet gone on stage (a thoughtful touch, they don’t want someone being either hugely excited or disappointed by their performance to mess with your pre-show focus) led to some very involved stage management) and they did an incredible job making it all work.

After having the logos on my lighters covered in Gaff Tape to avoid copyright issues, we were set — but Penn & Teller needed to be filmed for their entrances, and even though they would hear my name in less than five minutes the production needed to make sure that I wasn’t seen by them; which meant the five minutes before going on stage were spent hiding in a small theater  office (with a very understanding member of the regular staff of Penn & Teller’s show who was trying to do his regular work). Then it was go time.

I took my place behind a massive video wall, so thick that I could not hear a word of Alyson’s introduction and had to rely on a visual signal from a stage hand (which made the entrance a beat or two late), I took the stage and… [to be continued]

Next Installment: Part Four (Available July 14)

Previous installments: Part One, Part Two

Tune in Wednesday, July 13 at 8p for Nathan’s performance on the Season Premiere of Penn & Teller Fool Us on The CW Network.

407.900.3831 | NCM@NCMarsh.com


Nathan Coe Marsh: 2 Minute Demo

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