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Jeff McBride

first magician dropped the very first rabbit on the floor. (laughter) But the way that I’ve hammered all of the theatrical disciplines together is unique.

David: What do you enjoy most about performing as a magician?

Jeff: It’s different in different contexts. As Timothy Leary would say, it’s the “set, setting and dosage” that determine the experience. At different settings it’s a different experience. When I perform at a festival, or at a fire ritual, it’s a very different type of magic than I perform at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

David: In what way?

Jeff: In Las Vegas there’s a certain kind of contract with the audience that this needs to be an entertainment spectacle that doesn’t pull the audience member too deeply into uncomfortable territory. So, in a more conventional theater setting, my show is orchestrated so that it doesn’t push people too far into the Mystery–although a lot of the symbolism and language that I use is hermetically-encrypted. 

When I’m at a festival, or a ritual, the intention is to go deep, deep, deep into the Mystery. So my rituals, what I call “trance-formances”, have a very different flavor to them, and a different intention than my stage performances. A lot of times I utilize my magical training in ritual space to create an illusion that hypes the dynamic of the ritual. The goal is to create a liminial space, a space between the worlds, where anything can happen. So, my shows on stage are very different from my ritual working in their intention. My public shows are very different from my private shows.

David: How has your understanding of psychology, and your interest in philosophy effected your performance?

Jeff: Everything that I learn and find valuable, I try to incorporate into my magical work. The more that I explore, especially in the realms of ritual magic and alchemy, the more I realize what I’m doing is creating a container of sorts, an alchemical vessel. At the fire rituals we’re creating this container, which is very similar to an alchemical flask. The people come in, either through the front door or at the ritual smudge gate, bringing their life experiences with them. And through their creative process, and the fire of the performance, a vessel is created that has the potential to effect people’s lives, to transform their personal lead into gold. 

Now, when I’m performing on stage, all of the different philosophies are not stated. They’re encrypted through the symbolism that I use in the show. When I’m performing in ritual space, the language and the symbols are much more overt, because the people are initiates. They’re much more ready for the type of experience at hand. So, to use a Hollywood show biz term, sometimes I have to “dial down” my magic for the public, and “dial it up” in ritual space. 

If you start using words like “intention”, “transformation” and “alchemical change” in a show in Vegas people are not going to hear those words. There’s that mindset, and the physical setting that doesn’t allow for the depth. That’s why my shows in Vegas are an hour long, while these magical ritual workings are three, four days, sometimes a week long.

At the same time, all of the lessons that I learn in ritual space, I bring to my public performances through informed magical intent. In the early days, when I didn’t have the guidance that I have now from my teachers, I guess I would be a little bit preachy to the nightclub audience, trying to encourage them, or cheerlead them, to go out to these fire festivals. Now I’ve really stopped that.

David: Who have been some of your teachers? Who would you say has most influenced you and your work?

Jeff: My most influential teacher is Eugene Burger, who is considered to be the world’s foremost philosopher in the art of performance magic. He was a college teacher of comparative mythology and religion at the University of Champagne in Illinois. We’ve been working together for about fifteen years now creating different experiential retreats for performance magicians. 

A number of years ago we created the Mystery School of Magical Arts, which was a four or five day gathering, that brought together performance magicians who were interested in exploring ritual magic, story telling mythology, and personal transformation. This was a very good place to start, because here we were exploring the illusions and techniques of magical theater in ritual space. It was a real laboratory for us to learn the lessons we needed to go in the world and do our magic shows, and still stay true to our personal philosophies in magic. Magick is the art and science of transformation. Now, you don’t get that from witnessing a lot of magic shows today.

David: When you say transformation, you mean the transformation of consciousness?

Jeff: Yeah, the transformation of consciousness. Personal transformation. Transformation that starts within, and then realizes itself in the outer events of the world that you’re creating. I think people that are performers have this incredible responsibility to themselves, and to their public, to make sure that the language, the visuals, and the experiences of creating of the world, have depth and meaning.

David: Can you tell me more about the Mystery School, and how it came about?

Jeff: The Mystery School was an experiential magical retreat that was held for ten years, all over different parts of the country, that brought magicians together to explore magic’s roots, the history of magic, and ritual theater. I had been going to pagan, shamanic, Druidic, and Native American gatherings, and participating in a lot of events where there were elders with profound wisdom teachings, and I didn’t see any of that existing in the society of magicians that was around at the time. So it was my vision to create some sort of elders wisdom council, and to gather together the wisdom keepers in the world of magic. It was a gathering of progressive magical thinkers, historians, philosophers and performers, that were trying to make sense of all this, and who came together in a retreat setting where we could create a container for the exploration of magical consciousness. That’s how the Mystery School came to be, and the work that we did there is still rippling out into the world.

David: I loved your book  Mystery School: An Adventure into the Deeper Meaning of Magic. What inspired you to put the book together, and what you think people can learn by reading it?

Jeff: I think they get a sense of possibility with magic. That magic is more than just tricks, gags or illusion. That there’s this incredible history of magic, that if you follow goes all the way back to the roots of the shaman, tribal culture, and the position of the magician/healer/wonder-worker/story teller/bard. Their position in society was a crucial part of keeping the culture together, and now, in the last few thousand years, that’s been radically changed. The wise man of yesterday has become the wise guy of today, and a lot of the depth of magic was lost. So by reading the Mystery School book they get a sense of the history of magic, the mystery of magic, it’s lineage in society and it’s position in our culture today, and relevance to our culture today. We worked on the book for ten years, and it was created by many of the students and teachers at the Mystery School. 

David: Have you been influenced by occult philosophers like Aleister Crowley or Robert Anton Wilson?

Jeff: I’ve read Crowley’s works. I’ve read The EquinoxThe Book of the Law, Magick in Theory and Practice. I own an extensive collection of Thelemic literature that has informed my ritual work. I’ve also read a great number of Robert Anton Wilson’s works–some of my favorites being the Cosmic Trigger series, The New Inquisition, and some of his plays. Robert Anton Wilson is a real trickster guru. You’re never quite sure you know what’s real. He’s been an influence on my work as well.

David: I mentioned to you earlier that I worked with British biologist Rupert Sheldrake for a couple years on several different research projects. One of the things that he told me was that he thought possible was that, during a stage magic performance, psychic phenomena might be more likely because the audience often enters into a state of “suspended belief”.

My brother (Steven Brown), who is a talented and successful professional magician, said that he couldn’t think of any

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