Teller & Robbins’ Play Dead

Playbill from Play DeadI attended a performance of Teller and Todd Robbins’ Play Dead recently. Lightbulb eating, a disappearing spectator, lights-out spook show displays, a full light seance with Oija board and table tilting (which I participated in on-stage), mentalism and thought reading – there is plenty in the way of magic in this fantastic show.  My recitation of these magical inclusions, however, misses the point of the show, as the tricks are carefully woven into the fabric of the play; No audience member would leave thinking they had attended a magic show.

Teller & Robbins have successfully resucitated the midnight spook show. The practitioners of which are fully covered in

  • WALKER, Mark. Ghostmasters.  N.p: Cool Hand Publications. 1991. 176 pp. Cover | Full Title
Illustrationss from Tarbell

Illustrations from pp 380-382 of TARBELL, Harlan. The Tarbell Course in Magic, Volume II

Instructions on many of the lights-out effect can be found in

  • TARBELL, Harlan. The Tarbell Course in Magic, Volume II.  Brooklyn: D. Robbins & Co., Inc. 1927, 1975. Seventh Printing. Cover | Full Title

That said – again – the show isn’t about the magic effects. But I want to single out a single trick: Germain’s Flower growth.  Ken Klosterman owns the original Germain Flower Growth apparatus.  It is reproduced on pages 210-213 of:

  • KLOSTERMAN, Ken, with FUJARI, Gabe. Salon de Magie. Loveland: Klosterman. 2006. 381 pp, with DVD. Cover | Full Title

You won’t recognize it in it’s current form in Play Dead, however – but the Flower Growth is there.  Disguised as an innocent table  and moved carelessly into place by Robbins (just as Germain did 100 years ago), his haphazard actions bely the precise placement which undoubtedly must occur for the illusion to be a success. A brief blackout – in keeping with midnight spook show theme…Robbin’s draws focus on a bucket of ashes as the focal point in his retelling of a touching personal story…and then…you catch a brief, fleeting glimpse of…

Well, that would be spoiling it.

Klosterman writes, “[W]hen Teller saw the effect performed at the Salon, he was so emotionally moved that I just had to give him the parlor-size version.”

The definitive work on the Germain Flower Growth hides in

  • CRAMER, Stuart and KARR, Todd, ed. Germain the Wizard.  Seattle: The Miracle Factory. 2002. 624 pp. Cover | Full Title
Germain's Flower Growth

Germain's Flower Growth from p. 212 - KLOSTERMAN, Ken, with FUJARI, Gabe. Salon de Magie.

Chapter 5 shows us the development of Germain’s Flower Growth over time.   However the real gem is the final chapter “Looking-Glass Wizard”, by Teller.  It tells of his childhood “meeting” with Germain by way of his reading of The Secrets of Karl Germain and Germain the Wizard an his Legerdemain (both reprinted in the Karr book) in the public library:

I embraced Germain utterly.  I embraced his aggressive love of things poetic. I embraced his passion for visual magic and his disdain for box tricks. I modeled my sense of scale on his, and aspired to stage magic that would not dwarf the human performer.

Germain never wrote a textbook on theory. Then again, neither did Bach or Shakespeare. Great artists often leave us models rather than instructions. And I’d much rather study these models than formulas deduced by scholars and codified by textbooks. Models show us method and technique in the context of beauty they serve. Models do not oversimplify, nor do they give us the impression that creating art is merely filling in the spaces in a paint-by-numbers pattern.

Germain’s Flower Growth is a perfect model.

Indeed it is.

A Phoenix from the Ashes, both literally and figuratively, Germain lives on again as model in fresh clothing in Play Dead.  Thank you, Teller, for a wonderful lesson in magic.  I felt much of what you must have felt those many years ago in Klosterman’s museum.


One thought on “Teller & Robbins’ Play Dead

  1. As far as magic/magicians like Penn and Teller go, I always thought that the two went hand in hand with ventriloquism. That said, I think that as a fan of the art of throwing ones voice AND magic, I should inform you about a documentary coming out next month called Dumbstruck.
    The movie was filmed back in 2007 during an annual Ventriloquist convention and follows 5 ventriloquist as they take the audience deeper into the culture that is ventriloquism.
    Please check out the Facebook page to watch the trailer as well as view the select cities that the film will be playing in.
    Thank you 🙂

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