Articles by Ben Robinson
The Magician's Nightmare
How I Played a One-nighter at Gallaudet University
By Ben Robinson
There's a common dream actors share: they dream that they are on stage and do not know what play they are in, or that they are in a play, but have forgotten their lines. I have a particularly strange version of this common subconscious realm -- I'm a hit on stage, and I don't know why and I am trying desperately to keep it up! (Perhaps my superego is off balance.) There's also the saying that one should be careful for what they dream or wish, because the wish might come true! I can confirm that these two maxims are both true...I have dreamt the actor's nightmare (many versions...too many times)...and...I have gotten what I have wished for!
In December of 1991 I was contacted by an agent I have known for a long time. He told me that Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. wanted to hire me for their annual Christmas, end-of-semester celebration. Unusually, the date of the show was Thursday, December 12th. I received the call on December 10th. I was free that evening, and I had no problem with the fee: $1000.00 cash (though I thought it risky that there was no time to create a contract because of the lack of time between my notification and the date of the show). I was honored that they had wanted only me, or would forgo entertainment that year. However, because I was very busy attending to some personal matters that week, I only spoke to the agent directly the morning of December 12th just as I was about to dart out the door for the train to Washington D.C. from New York City, where I live.
Between the first call from my agent and leaving, I had contacted my friend Daniel Stashower, noted novelist and magician. Dan and I had seen each other twice in 1991 in Washington and I asked if I could stay at his place one more time. He said it would be fine, and that he would pick me up after my show at their Christmas party.
As I packed hurriedly to make the 3 PM train, I popped the cassette in my answering machine with all of the directions to Gallaudet, and the committee names etc. on the tape. I thought I had listened to all of the messages the night before when I checked in from another friend's house. I made the train with ease, and I comfortably sat in my seat listening to all of my messages from the night before on my micro casette recorder/player which is constantly with me.
On the message cassette there was one message I had not heard the night before -- a call from Dan which he made after I hung up with him from my other friend's house, and my returning home the night of December 11th. So, there on Amtrack, the afternoon of December 12th, I heard a most unusual message:
"Ben, Dan here. One last thing. I just checked out on a map where Gallaudet is and there will be no problem picking you up. However, in our last call I don't recall you mentioning that the entire University is deaf. You might want to take that into consideration when planning your show. See you tomorrow night."
I thought that Dan must have been mistaken. As surely, in three conversations with the agent, he would have mentioned this detail to me. I called the agent when I got into Washington. He said that he knew nothing about the school except the name, the place and the fee. Not much help. I still gave the agent the benefit of the doubt. Dan must have been mistaken, I thought.
I took a cab over to the college where I planned to do two hours of close-up magic at their Christmas party. The cabbie did not know which building I was looking for, so I told him to stop once we reached the campus, and I would ask somebody where the building I sought was. The cabbie turned around and said to me: "Hey man! Do you know that singnin' language?" I asked him what he meant. He replied "Man! Everybody here is deaf!!!" My worst nightmare was confirmed.
I found the people I was to meet and through a series of Harpo Marx charades on my part I communicated with the few students who greeted me. Not only did the agent neglect to tell me that I was performing for an entire school of deaf people, but, he had told me there was going to be a Christmas party and that I would circulate doing intimate magic for small groups. Wrong! I was booked, the students told me, in the campus auditorium to do a 90 minute stage show!
I realized I had brought all the wrong props, when I was further told that the place sat 500 people and they expected a sell-out, and were expecting a waiting list of nearly 100. I looked at my watch and it was 5:30 PM. Curtain time, they said, was 7:15 PM -- sharp. I had one hour and 45 minutes to prepare a stage show for approximately 500 people who did not hear.
The committee asked if I would do a teaser in the school dining room at 6PM. I agreed to do 10 minutes. That small performance was successful. When we entered they flashed the lights to get everyone's attention, and I lit my thumb on fire, threw a blast of fire over the heads of people sitting near me, conjured with a silk handkerchief and pushed a skewer through my tongue in a humorous fashion.
At 6:15 PM the woman escorting me around asked if I would like to have dinner -- that they would be delighted to take me to a restaurant of my choice prior to the show. I told them that I needed to go to a stationary store. When the girl who was translating in sign language to her friends signed the nature of my reply, they all broke into laughter. They thought I was making a wry joke about needing to eat at a stationary store!
After I convinced them that I needed to purchase a few things for the show, I called Dan in a panic. I asked him to bring over his suitcase of props. He inquired specifically which props I was interested in borrowing. I told him in an exasperated tone "Just bring the whole goddamn suitcase. Everyone here is deaf!" He asked why I was thrown by that since had alerted me to that fact with his message the night before. I explained that I had not received his message until that afternoon, and that the clock was ticking against curtain time, and that he had to hurry. I left with a student to go back to the Washington train station, and look in the mall for things I did not even know I was looking for.
I found some simple props that I could use and sped back to the campus. Ten minutes before curtain time I decided that it was impossible to create props on the spur of the moment for tricks I had not done in quite some time and hope they would appear of the professional quality I am used to giving. So, I scrapped my impromtu efforts, went back to the little show I had brought and thought that I would wing it. The only thought that gave me some solace during this hectic preparation was that I had just begun seeing a new woman and I felt that she would still love me even if the evening was a disaster and I would have to return the money for not fulfilling the assignment.
Dan showed up five minutes later as I was counting the cash on the table, 50 twenty dollar bills. The door Dan entered through was near the table I was counting the bills on. The gust of December wind blew my neat little stacks all over the back stage area and I looked up and saw Dan standing there somewhat taken aback of the scene before him. He asked if I planned to do a trick with money that night, and when I said no, he asked "What are you doing, fronting a drug operation?"
"Just help me pick up the money!" I snorted.
I assembled my props as Dan went to take his seat in the auditorium. He wondered what sort of agent had booked me at a party when in actuality I was being requested to do a stage show for a large body of deaf people. I wondered too.
Walking out on stage that night I knew I had maybe 35 minutes of material. I just thought that I would wing it and talk slowly and act as if there was nothing the matter. There was a person signing to the audience in front of the stage. After my initial opening number I realized something fortuitous that I had not considered prior to the performance: having my speech translated into sign language made the performance twice as long. Everything essentially had to be said twice. The audience did not mind the delay, nor did I. They shrieked and laughed at my antics and were a delightful audience to perform for. They were ebullient and participated in the fun with great ardor.
As I wound up my 35 minutes of material -- which had taken 70 minutes to perform -- I told the audience that there would be a brief intermission, for ten minutes, and then I would return to the stage and perform 30 minutes of close-up card magic. I told the audience that I realized that it was their exam period and that if some people had to leave the auditorium, to return to their studies, I would not be offended. And, that the rest of the audience who stayed should come down and fill in the empty seats in the front of the theatre, so they could better view the magic I was going to perform.
I made this up as I went along, even though it had the ring of truth to it. I knew that I could fill 30 minutes with card tricks and that the evening would be a success. However, to my collective dismay and honor, the entire audience stayed, and I would up doing all of the magic, with my legs hanging over the lip of the stage, with my blue, chalk-striped coat in my lap serving as a table for the cards. Students stood around me and on the stage looking over my shoulder -- which impressed them greatly. They thought if they stood behind me they would discover the secrets to my illusions...hardly.
At the end of the performance the audience applauded heartily by waving their hands in the air, which is the sign for great appreciation.
Amazingly enough, the new deaf President of the school (the students had staged a sit-in which received national publicity to have a new President installed, who was more compassionate to their plight) made his way to me and spoke to me on behalf of the audience and asked me to return the next year for an encore performance!
I signed a few programs and left with Dan. He congratulated me and said that I had met a very hazardous situation and triumphed. As a working magician, he knew all the special needs of a conjurer, and he appreciated what I had to contend with. Needless to say, we went to the closest bar and drank a good portion of our dinner.
This show was one of those experiences that toughens you and makes you feel like you can handle any experience.
Oh yes, one last thing. I did inform the agent of his colossal mistake (I had gotten over the anger I felt and realized what a good, funny story this would make on talk shows for the rest of my life). When I was done telling him of his gigantic error, he replied coldly "What are you worried about? You got paid didn't you?!"
© Copyright Ben Robinson/Pure Magic Productions. All Rights Reserved, 1992. This piece is Part I of a companion article to be written by Author, Sherlock Holmes
scholar and magician, Daniel Stashower of Washington, D.C.