Interview with Ben Earl: Trick Artist
Interview – free to use in part or as a whole interview as long as the below credit is used
Ben Earl: Trick Artist, C4 9pm, Friday 26 April 2013
Ben your new show, Ben Earl: Trick Artist, what’s it all about?
Ben Earl: It’s essentially on some level a magic show but it’s also something which infuses deception, creative thinking, sleight of hand, and crazy stunts - all on four themed specials. We have art, science, crime and money – starting with crime. A lot of the stuff that we are doing comes from a creative position and is heavily influenced by the art world, movies and other madness like that. There’s a lot of that fused through all of the shows. It’s much more literal in the art show but all of them have a contemporary performance art feel to them.
That sounds a bit different from other shows along these lines that have happened before. How do you go about differentiating yourself from other shows that extensively deal with the same field?
BE: It’s a really tricky thing but I think initially there’s a question of format, the visuals and style and all that kind of stuff. For me it’s also a different form of experience and expertise. What I do is so predominantly sleight of hand based but comes from a creative place. We’ve been able to write very ambitious and creative scenes and then inform that through a skill set that is slightly different from other guys. There are other people that do sleight of hand but I tend to do my stuff very differently – you will see.
Who are your inspirations? Who’re the magicians out there that you really admire? I don’t even know if magician is the right term, what do you call yourself?
BE: I don’t know that’s almost an existential question. I think in all honesty the magicians that inspire me are pretty much ones that the public at large would never have heard of. They’re people that work in other countries that aren’t necessarily famous but they’re known within the industry so that’s not hugely helpful. Many performers have influenced me heavily over the years, there have been jugglers – Michael Motion was one of the jugglers that influenced me years ago in terms of his style and creativity. From an artistic perspective, people like Damian Hirst, Anish Kapoor, David Batchelor, Anthony Gormley, Stanley Kubrick and Tarantino influence how I do things.
Those aren’t the names I was expecting. That’s quite an eclectic bunch?
BE: Yeah massively so. Especially if you look at the use of colour and vibrancy that exists in Batchelor’s work and you look at the boldness of Hirst’s work – there are aspects of it that I think is interesting and also the slightly not subversive but what’s the word… There are aspects to what Banksy does in terms of being almost like a counter-culture movement that has inspired me. These things might be tiny little flicks in one particular scene or they might inform an entire scene but I would say on the whole most of my inspiration comes from outside of magic.
So how did you get into magic in the first place then?
BE: There are several versions of this story depending on whether we have an hour or a minute but I will give you the shortened version. I got interested purely on the basis of sleight of hand when I was young because for me, this is just ridiculous and shows the naivety of a child, but I thought that sleight of hand was illegal. I genuinely thought it was the kind of thing that criminals used or a very secretive thing. I found a book on sleight of hand when I was very young and so I stole it from my local library and just religiously studied it. For me it didn’t have a context, I wasn’t connecting it to magic I was connecting it to things like gambling and pick pocketing and effects where instead of you just having a trick box or a trick prop the performer was essentially creating everything by actually manipulating his environment – some childhood. I didn’t really have any aspirations to be a magician I just loved to do magic and I loved studying matters and art form. I realised as a result of doing that stuff and studying it I could achieve pretty good effects. Then I slowly started to realise that it was possible for me to earn a living doing it.
So tell me a bit about that. How have you made a living doing it? Obviously to the vast majority of the population until you’ve been on TV you don’t exist so fill in the gaps for us.
BE: Well I studied psychology; I studied a lot of art stuff and film. Then in my early twenties I started playing a lot of poker and black jack. Then I started doing occasional events - I mean it’s really even kind of hard to work out how they came about. People would go ‘oh that stuff you do, would you be able to do that at a particular event?’ And I had no idea what to charge. Then someone said ‘here you go, have some money’. For a period of about seven years I almost solely operated as a professional close up magician but at the same time I was also heavily studying a lot of advanced gambling stuff. I was spending a lot of time in and out of casinos. I was at one stage running an events casino company where I would go out and deal black jack and poker at corporate events. I was also training magicians who wanted to learn about sleight of hand. Then I wanted to do something interesting and I ended up doing something on the Penn and Tellar show on ITV. I also did several stage shows which were completely under the radar. I did one out in Copenhagen last year where I did 10 stage shows in seven days that was all about me playing about. Then all of a sudden Channel 4 was on the horizon. I was able to say if you want to film someone doing some tricks, I’m not your guy but if you want to be able to play a bit more creatively and I’ll have the freedom to be able to play and write more interesting things and stuff then let’s do it.
So Ben the series is going to feature some very big and dangerous stunts. Did you get nervous before doing them?
BE: Yes because of the scale of ambition of what we’re doing it’s an inevitable parallel that the stunts will be. There’s a part of it that’s like, if I was in my back yard doing this maybe I might be a little more scared but I’m not and you can’t help having an adrenaline surge, scared is not the right thing but it’s definitely exhilarating. Whether it was jumping off a building or I do this thing where I climb across moving cars or setting myself on fire. Instead of looking at it like an adrenaline junkie for me it’s a creative challenge where I go how can I do this stunt and make a narrative out of it. It’s a simultaneous combination of it being exhilarating, exciting, nervous, adrenaline and hope as well, in that it works.
Do you have a major stunt or a really little thing that you did, that’s a favourite trick from the series?
BE: I have several. One of them was a bullet catch because the way in which we ended up doing it became almost a very rational effect without losing any kind of theatrical impact. I also did something with a Venus Fly Trap for a group of scientists, I got them. Another thing I enjoyed was creating an entire piece of music based on my heart beat which was very fun and a challenging thing to actually put together. We also do a piece with kids and chocolate coins - That for me was a really sweet thing, no pun intended, as I don’t really do kids magic. When I say I don’t do ‘kids magic’ I do ‘adult’s magic’ – that doesn’t mean I do magic naked! It’s not XXX magic however I’m not a children’s entertainer. But in the context of the money show and when we’re very young money means nothing. There’s one exception however and that’s when that money is chocolate money. The butterfly trick as well. For me, the reason I loved it was because what I wanted to do was to go into a really harsh environment that’s very stale, stoic, neutral and cold and try to bring some form of colour into it that didn’t feel pretentious or overly flamboyant. There are all these weird references in the back of my head that are kind of a subtext really, things like Papillon. I’ve got a very restricted movement and physicality and that for me was a challenge to see if I could not only pull off the stuff technically but actually deliver the piece theatrically. For me, that’s again one of my favourite pieces.
Lastly, are you still learning your craft and if so how would you go about doing it?
BE: Absolutely I’m still learning. I think that there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not trying to either perfect something, make something better, more efficient, cleaner. I spend a lot of hours partially mentally rehearsing but a lot time physically rehearsing timings, moves, pieces of sleight of hand, I just never stop practicing. I also spend a lot of time contact juggling because for me, contact juggling even though I don’t use it in the show it enhances my timing and my touch and technique and control. Your hands and your body are learning a relationship between themselves, a little secret language about balance, speed and timing.