Max Maven is a name that inspires respect in the world of magic. Maven, born Philip Goldstein in Ithaca, New York, has had the kind of career that any Jewish mother would be proud of. He’s hosted numerous television series, headlined world tours, and played consultant to the likes of David Copperfield, Penn & Teller and Siegfried & Roy. Maven’s resume reads like a who’s who of the sorcery elite.
Still, Max Maven isn’t through. His show, Max Maven: Thinking in Person, is currently running at New York’s Abingdon Theatre. Jspace recently caught up with Maven to find out what other tricks he has up his sleeve.
Jspace: You've had a pretty prolific career. How did it start?
Max Maven: Well it started when I was a kid, arguably around 7 years old. I was fascinated by strange and mysterious things and that included a pretty wide range of stuff, oddities, strange artwork and the world of basic magic tricks. And as I started exploring the latter I began to explore what I loosely describe as magic without the tricks. In other words, instead of having a box with bangles, I decided it would be more interesting to explore a minimalist style where I’m using the psychological rather than elaborate devices or slight of hand. Which isn’t in any way to disparage elaborate devices. I know some wonderful performers who explore in that way, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. And I’ve been exploring it ever since.
Can you explain to me the difference between a magician and a mentalist?
That’s something people argue about all the time. Generally speaking, a mentalist is a term to describe someone who does demonstrations involving the mind. By my own use, I would include people who do theatrical hypnosis, memory demonstrations and a number of other things. Others use the word in a more specific way but to me the more specific the word is, the less useful it becomes. It is connected to magic in the more traditional sense. There are usually fewer rabbits. In an odd way, mentalism is the more intellectual subdivision of magic.
How do you go about creating a new illusion?
First of all, I don’t approach them as illusions. It’s a perfectly great word but it’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to create a puzzle where one thing looks like another. I’m trying to create a mystery and my mysteries come from a lot of different sources. Because sometimes when I’m developing something, it grows out of a technical idea. If I find some psychological quirk of the way people process ideas and I can exploit that, then great. But in other circumstances I may have a storyline and I may say, ‘Okay, how can I translate this anecdote or basic concept into a performance piece?’ It’s never the same twice for me. I just keep pushing and eventually ideas can click.
You’ve performed in theaters and on television. Are the techniques different?
It has to be. By definition, the live experience is simply different. For one thing, in the live experience the whole audience knows that at any moment I could pick them, and that creates a relationship, an interesting one. On television, the audience is watching from the protection of a glass screen. Whether they’re watching television at a bar or at home, there’s literally a glass barrier between them and what they’re seeing. So it changes the level of commitment or potential commitment from seeing it live.
I’ve tried over the years to sort of get around that. I’m fairly well known as the pioneer of interactive television, not in the sense of using Internet technology, but back before such things existed, creating techniques that would involve the audience at home. And that’s been a fun challenge, trying to extend the experience even though there’s a screen in the way.
When I’m working on television there’s the issue of time. The show I’m doing in New York runs two hours with an intermission and that gives me enough time to explore in a different direction. In television you’re talking about eight minutes, ten minutes, it varies. Most of the time on TV you’re working on a very tight time frame so that of course not only eliminates certain material, but it also means the material you do work on, you want to make it as jam packed as possible without becoming incoherent. But you’re thinking in terms of, ‘How much can I pack, in the most efficient time?’ Which is not exactly the way you approach a live audience.
Everything I do is through mentalism. In the show I do a lot of monologues, I talk about interesting people and ideas that have inspired me. In television it’s more, ‘Okay, let’s just get down to the strange things.’ In that context, if the person at home says, ‘They all must be in on it, they must have made arrangements with the host before the show,’ the minute people think that, then you’ve lost all the impact. Part of what I have to do when working for a television program is to find ways to get around that.
For example, when I do television I tend to avoid telling anyone what I’m going to do, including the director. Sometimes that can lead to some awkward moments, until they understand that I don’t want anyone to anticipate what I’m going to do. Because if I do, it’s going to imply to the audience that it was all set up. The reactions of the people onscreen are what’s going to influence the reactions and perceptions of the people at home, saying, ‘That feels like it’s really happening.’
Do different audiences want different things and do you customize accordingly based on where you might be in the world?
Sure. I have to customize because I work in dozens of countries and because my work is very language dependent. It depends on the country. I speak Japanese so when I’m in Japan I can speak Japanese. I was just in Taiwan; I don’t speak Mandarin. I know a few words but I’m not proficient by any stretch of the imagination. So I used an interpreter and that changes the timing of everything. I was working in Italy and my Italian isn’t great but I have an understanding that I can augment, so I worked with a partial interpreter, I didn’t have to be slavishly dependent on the interpreter. It’s different everywhere. In Israel so many people speak English that when I did this series, I worked without an interpreter. The majority of the audience was able to stay with me. There may have been some that didn’t understand everything but I think most did. When it airs they will add subtitles in the editing room, which will bring everyone up to speed.
There’s a historic connection, going back to the Victorian era, between Jews and the field of magic. Do you still feel that connection today?
I did a talk in LA entitled ‘Masters of Illusion, Jewish Magicians of a Godlen Age,’ and over the period of a couple months I devised a lecture primarily focused on Jewish magicians of the 20th century and it’s always been sort of a vaguely established thing that nobody actually scrutinized. Jews are disproportionately represented in the field of magic. To my knowledge no one had ever addressed what the actual statistics were, let alone addressed why that might be so. I was able to crank some statistics that are an intellectual effort and I think I’ve come up with pretty reasonable numbers that prove this is the case and the apparent reasons of why.
I think there are several reasons why Jews have fit so well in the field of magic. Some are mundane. During the 19th century, when Jews began to migrate to the US in large numbers, there were a lot of professions that were closed to them. Part of what dictates where someone starts work is what doors are open, and show business at the time was going through a shift. Vaudeville as we know it was coming into existence because it was a new profession. It was wide-open territory and there weren’t territorial definitions that had come to exist in some other fields. This was something that was simply open to Jews to explore, and they did.
One of the things that sets Jewish culture apart form other comparable groups is Judaism has always involved a celebration of intellectual achievement. I don’t think that’s specifically true about certain other ethnic and cultural groups and the two areas of performance in entertainment that have had a substantially large Jewish presence are comedy and magic. There are obviously Jews in other parts of show business but those two in particular seem to connect with Jewish culture, I think because there is this sort of celebration of intellectual achievement.
If you think about it, both come in the verbal form. In verbal comedy and in magic, at least a certain type, those are both intellectual forms even though it’s popular culture. They fit into that concept of intellect and entertainment. One interesting thing to note is there are a relatively small percentage of Jewish magicians who work silently. There’s a long history of silent magicians, but the vast majority of Jewish magicians over the last 100 years have been talking acts. As I sometimes like to phrase it, my people wont shut up. And I think that’s no accident.
For more information on Max Maven: Thinking in Person, visit http://www.maxmavenoffbroadway.com/