It was a dark and stormy night mid-November of last year when Elias Bartholomew ’17, Nate File ’17 and Angelo Pis-Dudot ’17 had a big laugh together. They were giggling for hours, like they normally do, but for some reason that night was different. There was something magical happening. Suddenly, without anyone counting off or anything, all three men exclaimed, “Let’s create Yale’s first and only late-night style comedy show!” They all covered their mouths with their hands, shocked and amazed at what had happened, and slowly backed out of the room.
From that point forward none of the three could deny what had happened that night. They immediately set to work recruiting the best and the brightest: big names like Charlie Bardey ’17, Mikayla Harris ’17 and Jordan Coley ’17. It was a ragtag group of writers, actors and funny people, and yet from it blossomed something truly wonderful.
The Good Show is a late-night style talk show that includes sketches, hilarious invented guest stars, real guest stars and musical guest stars. The show isn’t even one year old, but the cast has already performed six times in locations all around this campus, and I was one of the lucky few to get a seat at last Friday’s edition in JE: The demand was so high they had to turn people away at the door.
Despite an apparently traditional set-up featuring two hosts who joke about current events, the show constantly surprised the audience by bending or even abandoning those established guidelines. Since this show, being the year’s first, was intended to recruit new members, the theme was auditions. Mid-show, two cast members took the stage and pretended to audition the hosts, prodding them to repeat their lines in different personas — including that of a pig farmer.
Part of the Good Show’s magic comes from its newness. Unlike other groups on campus, it has no precedent and therefore a lot of flexibility. This promises a strong future for the show, which I predict will grow and change in ways no one imagined — perhaps even the cast-members themselves. The show’s collaborative nature also contributes to its ever-changing tone: instead of having a director, the show’s production team makes all decisions together, meaning there is no one vision for how a show will turn out. In one particularly zany bit from Friday, Coley emerged onstage dressed as a Jamaican chef who had forgotten to bring any of her food with her. In doing so, Coley mocked the traditional role of the talk show guest as someone witty, prepared and put together.
This lack of a unified vision also makes producing the show something of a roller coaster: Even now, with all their success, those who help produce the show still feel amazed that they are pulling it off. Most went into the Good Show without experience in comedy writing or acting, and are learning on the fly. This sort of environment lends itself to exploration and boundary-breaking comedy. It’s how real innovation happens.
And the collaborative spirit behind the Good Show doesn’t stop with the production team. In the past, the hosts have sat down with guests such as Yale College Council President Michael Herbert ’16 and Dean Jonathan Holloway. Their discussions range from hilarious to hard-hitting. In addition, they invite musical guests to perform at the show’s end: On Friday, Seungju Hwang ’17 and the Squadettes performed their own version of Uptown Funk, adding yet another artistic dimension to the show.
The next Good Show will be on October 16th in the JE theater at 8pm. I’m looking forward to what the cast has in store for us and what absurd and hilarious ideas they come up with over the next couple of dark and stormy nights.
Just off the central rotunda of the Yale Medical School, past the teratology (the study of monsters) display and above the collection of human brains, you’ll find the main room of the Medical Historical Library. It’s an imposing, wood-paneled room, and on most days, the first thing you’ll see walking into it is the giant portrait of Andreas Vesalius hanging over the fireplace. Vesalius, whose depictions of public dissections in “De humani corporis fabrica” are considered the foundation of modern anatomy, is a grim-looking man in somber clothes: He matches the décor.
If you walk into the library from now until Feb. 28, however, you’ll find Vesalius slightly obscured. Brightly colored signs with the names of the four Hogwarts houses hang from the second-level balcony; a display of magical kitsch and multi-lingual editions of “Harry Potter” rests to the left of the entrance; and a set of panels containing a combination of text and images stands directly in front of the fireplace. The space is temporarily home to the National Library of Medicine’s traveling show, “Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine,” and although the Potter aesthetic might seem incongruous under Vesalius’s stern gaze, the exhibit is concerned with making a strong case for their relation.
From the immersive theme park in Orlando to the interactive reading experience of pottermore.com, the Harry Potter universe is continuously being animated and re-animated — virtually, physically, culturally — for a variety of purposes. “Harry Potter’s World” capitalizes on the power of the magic metaphor; each of the six large panels that comprise the exhibit links a thematic aspect of the wizarding world to a specific person and text in the history of science. The subject of “Herbology” is paired with Jacob Meydenback’s plant catalogue, “Hortus Sanitatis,” and “Immortality” goes with Agrippa’s “De Oculta Philosophia,” and so on. In this context, Harry Potter acts as both cultural access point and mnemonic device. The task the exhibit asks of you is simple: You can use one story to understand another.
The exhibit argues that the fantasy of Harry Potter is based in real historical truths: Magic, we learn, has “an important role in the development of Western science.” In sometimes comically jarring or forced ways, the information on the panels illustrates this interpretation. “Like Harry’s professors, 16th-century Swiss naturalist and physician Konrad Gesner appreciated the knowledge gained by studying nature,” begins one such clumsy simile on the “monsters” panel. Later, words from Sirius Black on the persecution of merpeople are juxtaposed with information about the medical reformer Paracelsus, who apparently “appreciated what other cultures could teach about healing.”
The beliefs that Gesner, Paracelsus and others held about animals, plants and people are often fascinating, but the exhibit locates them in contemporary scientific discourse in a way that feels didactic. A clear ideology is at stake, one of respect for the diversity of life, objective observation and the sanctity of the experimental process. The environs of the Medical Historical Library reinforce this argument; Harry Potter is implicated in a history of “the steep ascent from the unknown to the known.”
I’m more invested in an inverse proposition: that the processes we consider to be objective and scientific have their roots in the mystical and the occult. The panel on “potions” insists that the practice of alchemy led linearly to modern chemistry. But the text referenced, “Aurifontina Chymica,” relates a story in which alchemy and chemistry are inextricably entwined. The spelling of the word itself, “chymica,” reveals its double origin. Tracing a narrative of influence becomes harder when the objects in question are not easily described or differentiated.
Just as I don’t really want to yoke Paracelsus and Sirius Black together in a quality called “tolerance,” I’m also skeptical that the knowledge found in herbals or alchemical treatises was incorporated smoothly into the bodies of thought called “biology” and “chemistry.” Perhaps this reaction is partially the point, or at least the point that I drew from my observation: What’s really interesting about this exhibit is not the content itself, but the potential for interactions, congruent or not, among the objects, bodies and literatures that it evokes.
If you go, make sure to attend one of series of related talks (I’m going to “Herbals: food as medicinal and medicinals as food”), look at pictures of human dissections in Vesalius, or investigate a set of surgical instruments for amputating and trepanning. Be curious, be critical, and don’t let the exhibit alone determine the terms of your engagement.
A letter arrived in my PO box one day. No — a scroll of yellowing parchment was delivered to my quarters. (I had requested that Abigail from Otherworld keep all our correspondences electronic, but she insisted that it would be way more fun to see it on yellowing parchment.) The scroll was from Duke Kai Edgewater of P’loa. A separate piece of printer paper explained that P’loa was the name of my assigned duchy (not pronounced doo-shee). The island of P’loa, our Duke wrote, was engulfed in a maelstrom that appeared two weeks ago. And the only way to save our homeland was to recover a certain Jewel of the Waves from somewhere out near the World’s Edge. And he’d recruited — or rather, conscripted — me for the quest.
We were going LARPing.
First, my buddies and I went costume shopping at Walmart. The Duke had said Cyrus was to be our “rogue,” so he fashioned a bandit mask out of turquoise curtain from the fraternity house. Forrest, our “paladin,” spray-painted children’s soccer shin guards for armor. Hugh, our “mage,” threw a hood over his face. As I myself was assigned to be our “bard” (a derogatory term for an itinerant musician or storyteller in 16th century Scotland), I dressed myself in a linen tunic, a vest and women’s summer scarves. I asked, but Walmart did not sell lutes.
Come the Friday of Labour Day weekend, we crammed ourselves into a Camry and began the drive toward World’s Edge, also known as the Windham County 4-H Outdoor Center of Pomfret, Conn. We rolled down the windows, head-banged to tunes that we then categorized as ‘head-bangers’, threw our fists at other vehicles on the highway and were off. We were going LARPing.
LARP, or live action role-play, dates back to the Tudors. Queen Elizabeth once indulged in elaborate, costumed weekends that cost what would be comparable to fielding an army of 1,000 for one year. Between a busy schedule of bear-bating, acrobats and jousting, actors dressed up as mythical figures jumped out of shrubbery and coaxed the queen into side quests. One such account retold by LARP historian Lizzie Stark featured the appearance of a merman, a moveable floating island and a twenty-four-foot-long mechanical dolphin with a six-piece band hidden inside it. In contrast, the beginnings of the modern iteration of LARP were much more humble. In 1977, college student and Tolkienite Brian Wiese founded “Hobbit Wars,” the earliest recorded instance of a bunch of nerds running around and whacking each other in the head with foam swords.
We thought we had signed up for just that. We thought we had paid the organizers 250 dollars each to hit each other with counterfeit weapons for a weekend. For a while, that was what we got. First, there was the lull of registration, a pep talk about inhabiting a heroic version of yourself, and an explanation of raid tactics (two blows to the limbs or one to the torso takes out most roaming creeps and you can search their dead bodies for treasure by pointing your foam sword at their neck and saying “searching”). Once they let us loose, we scouted the campsite for creeps. We were going LARPing. Before we knew it, we were striking down thirty or forty year-olds in squirrel masks. One particularly devious-looking pair of creeps approached us, asking for free hugs in humanspeak, but our rogue shot them in the face — a flawless padded arrow right on the rubber nose. They coughed up three silver coins each.
By sunset, the 4-H camp lodge at the bottom of the map transformed into a tavern of sylvan charm. Inside, all forty LARPers mingled with the eighty-two staff that populated World’s Edge. Tavern maids in impeccable tavern maid corsets maneuvered their hips between wicker chairs, setting down pewter platters filled with salami, seedless grapes and Monterey Jack cubes. I, the bard, scouted the tavern, gathering quest information. I was looking for the Jewel of the Waves. Others were making small talk, despite the fact that the only social lubricant available was grape juice (since of course, Otherworld is strictly substance-free). I spent a moment or so flirting with Sunny, a local schoolgirl and mage-in-training. I watched her play with the moonstone necklace around her collarbone. This, I told myself, was the willing suspension of disbelief.
Our storied encounter with the Makai took place the next morning. After breakfast at the tavern, we stumbled through World’s Edge, looking for leads that might point us towards the Jewel. The Makai were the first group we came upon. In short, they invited us to partake in their cultural coming-of-age ritual, during which Cyrus, with his limited understanding of Otherworld rules, snatched a pouch from some rune reader’s utility belt.
Inside that pouch was a Love Potion, an Enchanted Tiara, and Elfear Leaf — quest items necessary to other participant’s quests but not our own. The Makai retaliated. They stormed the tavern during lunch. Everyone watched as they knocked over our plates, pointed long felt spears at our faces and told us that we boys took something valuable from them and that we boys had to give it back. We returned the items. They left.
We sat in silence, in guilt, and with a sense that something greatly unjust had been brought upon us. Yes, we were that group of rambunctious, haughty, self-indulgent twenty-something year-old jerks. The boundaries of the rules had been unclear! Cyrus was in character when he stole the pouch; he was a rogue. (The Oxford Dictionary of English labels him by definition as a dishonest or unprincipled man.) How was it even fair for the Makai to bring weapons into the tavern — page 44 of the handbook forbade it!
My vengeance shall take the form of sheer skepticism, I told myself. I scouted World’s Edge with eagle eyes and began to dismantle — in my head — the game architecture that Otherworld purported to uphold. If I couldn’t win the game in Pomfret, I would win the game in my head. I poked fun at the amateur acting. I contemplated demanding a refund when we were the only participants not attacked by rowdy men in wolf masks. I listened to a broken tree’s whistle, and imagined it collapsing on top of the potion merchant’s shop.
But as the afternoon dragged on, our quest brought us back to the Makai. They had in their possession Leatherleaf, an herb used for bringing back the dead. And we needed it. We couldn’t complete our quest without it. We considered charging and razing their hilltop camp, but remembered their foam spears. So, instead, we apologized. We trekked all the way back to the camp, where they asked that we wait in silence for an hour to contemplate our wrongs. After an hour of poking at an ant’s nest, we gathered in a circle and every single member of our party — criminal or not — was asked to speak for himself. I had to apologize twice, since they found my use of the pronoun ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ insincere.
The obvious question then is — can you really build a universe that demands of its participants to adhere to one set of physics and a separate set of morals given causal determinism? The obvious answer — no.
A less obvious question is why did they have to make us feel like children? The weapons, the butchered dialects and the costumes were all part of the game. But guilt, boredom and frustration were not.
Our emotions and thoughts and sensations — those that we cannot simulate or role-play — form the basis of humanity. The industry of LARP, then, is built on a fine balance between the parts of humanity that we can simulate and those we cannot. Clothes, props and fictitious character story lines facilitate the suspension of disbelief but certain aspects of your inner life you don’t suspend and you can’t disbelieve.
All of this is not to say that I did not enjoy myself in Otherworld. Nor is it to say that I left World’s Edge soured and more skeptical. On the last night, I found myself in the corner of the tavern. All the parties of Otherworld had joined forces to repel our final arch-enemy. My bandana was soaked in sweat and I had run out of potions to heal myself. Our mission was successful but I was dead. And in that corner all I had was my quill. I scribbled down the battle lore and other stories in my leather bound notebook. I wrote of Sunny. I wrote of the Makai. Valor, triumph and adrenaline filled my veins and I was desperate to note it all down.
I might have stopped believing in Otherworld, but I kept writing. The bard must tell his tales. Perhaps humanity has its value in the spirit of its report. I left World’s Edge without exacting my vengeance. But at least I had my notebook and I had my story. This story I tell.
Q. When did you get your first taste of magic, and what about it was appealing to you?
A. For my tenth birthday, I received a magic book from my uncle Steve, called “The Royal Road to Card Magic.” And I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of my room, reading this book cover to cover. I just could not get enough of it. From that point since, I started going to magic camp, magic conventions. I joined young magicians’ groups. It’s been a wonderful community to be a part of.
Q. What was it like for you as a child entering this magical world?
A. It’s a crazy world. You have different magic communities — in New York, in Las Vegas, for example. I’ve been really fortunate to meet other magicians who are just so supportive of each other and we all meet up and brainstorm.
Q. What are the basic first tricks you learned, and how did you go about developing your own illusions later on?
A. The first thing for me was card magic. I think a lot of people start off with close-up magic. It makes sense logistically — all you need is a deck of cards or a couple of coins. But everyone has his or her own path. And that’s one of the exciting things about magic — you meet so many different people, all of whom have done different types of magic, met different people, been different places. One of the exciting and challenging aspects of magic is figuring out how to put your own twist on the effects you perform.
Q. You talk about different types of magic that people perform. To you, what is magic?
A. Magic is so many things to me. One thing that makes magic unique as a craft is that it has this amazing ability to inspire wonder. I think that’s really powerful. It brings out the five-year-old in everyone.
Q. What is your favorite trick to perform?
A. I can’t decide, I love so many.
Q. Well, can you describe some of your tricks?
A. I’d love to show you some!
She proceeds to pull out a deck of cards and her wallet and asks us to pick which one we’d like to see a trick with first.
Q. Do you have a deck of cards on you at all times?
A. Pretty much. My suitemates make fun of me sometimes. I’ll be going out for a run — iPod, deck of cards, good to go. They’re like, do you really need that?
We pick the wallet and she hands us two one-dollar bills for us to verify as real. She’s in performance mode. Her demeanor commands respect, and it is clear that she is serious about her craft. Kramer wore short sleeves, she jokes, so that she wouldn’t be one of those magicians who always have something up their sleeves. She plays with the two bills, saying that she will melt the molecules of the two together. Soon enough, a $20 bill is all that remains. Kramer quips that she can’t do that one all of the time — or it would cause inflation. She ends with a card trick, asking us to get close because the “hand is quicker than the eye.”
Q. What kind of positive impact can magic have on people’s lives?
A. Absolutely, I think it plays a really positive role in both magicians’ and spectators’ lives. Magic is this great metaphor for life because magicians are taking these seemingly impossible things and making them possible. Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in magic have been performing at soup kitchens, homeless shelters … And there are these two magicians, Tom and Janet Verner who have this organization called Magicians without Borders, and they spend most of the year traveling to war-torn areas of the world to spread their message of hope. Their message is: look, if we can make that card impossibly jump over there, then you too can overcome any obstacle you may be facing. They are incredibly inspiring.
Q. You founded the Yale Magic Society in your freshman year. Can you tell us about the process of establishing the group and its membership today?
A. It’s a great group of guys, and a few girls. Most members came to Yale with little or no magic experience but lots of enthusiasm, and I’m really proud of how far they’ve all come. They’re awesome. We meet Wednesday nights; if people are interested, they can always feel free to shoot me an email, or send me an owl … Whether you’re a magician already or a Muggle who’d like to learn magic, you’re more than welcome!
When I came to Yale as a freshman, I was really excited to join some magic group. Yale is basically Hogwarts — there has to be a magic club, I thought. But there wasn’t one, so I reached out to some of the other magicians floating around campus at the time. We decided we all wanted to get together and jam and perform on campus and in the community. It’s been great to have this group to support each other and brainstorm. We bring in guests from Las Vegas to do Master’s Teas, workshops and lectures. We perform at Fellows Dinners in the colleges and at alumni reunions. And we have a lot of fun. I’m really excited for the future of the group.
Q. What advice would you have for someone interested in getting involved in the world of magic-making?
A. Work hard, do what you love and have respect for the magic community. A great thing about magic is that when you go to a convention, you have the opportunity to meet and hang out with your role models. It’s really special how tight-knit the community can be and how welcoming many of the most accomplished, advanced magicians are to the younger, up-and-coming magicians.
Q. Who are some of your role models?
A. There are so many! There’s David Copperfield, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Nathan Burton, Mac King … I worked for Nathan Burton’s show at the Flamingo for two summers. He really knows the business of show business — especially in a place like Las Vegas, where everyone is competing to fill 750 seat theaters. Nathan was always thinking of new, outside-the-box ways of doing that. There is so much to learn and experience in magic, so if someone is starting, I’d say just absorb as much of it as you can.
Q. Maritess Zurbano recently pointed out in the Seattle Times this August that there are fewer than 50 professional female magicians in the world. What is it like being a woman in such a male-dominated field?
A. At magic camp, I remember, I was one of eight or nine girls and there were, I think, 101 guys. Some people say the magic community can be an old boys’ club, but in my experience, the other magicians have been really supportive. I also think that magic is moving in a direction where more women will get involved. In high school, I was a part of a committee back with one of my greatest mentors, Albert Lasher, that discussed this question. We were throwing out all sorts of hypotheses. Is it because all of the major household names of magicians are male? Also, you think of the classic image of a magician [as someone] in a top hat and tails. I even remember reading some of the classic magic books when I was a kid, and these books aren’t written for a 10-year-old girl. They say, ‘reach into your trouser pocket and lift up your top hat.’ It’s a tradition that’s been male-dominated, but it’s also something that is changing.
Q. What have been some of the highlights of your career thus far?
A. Having the opportunity to experience the magic scene in Las Vegas was exciting for me, seeing how things work out there. I grew up in New York and also had amazing experiences with the New York magic community, starting from the Society of Young Magicians group back when we used to meet in the basement of Maui Tacos. But getting to perform in Vegas was really cool. It’s like the Magic Mecca. I also love the idea of magic being something universal, something that transcends barriers. I’ve loved the chance to perform in different languages — French, Spanish and Swahili for example.
Q. What role do you see magic playing in your life after graduation?
A. Magic is a field where you’re really charting your own course. It’s exciting and challenging. There are so many possible paths that a magician could take. I want to stay true to what I love about magic. I want to do new things with magic, hopefully take it in new directions. I would love to inspire young magicians to reach people in new ways. These are some of the ideas that I’m exploring for my senior project through the Theater Studies department. It’s a floating magic show that will take place in April –— a show that takes spectators outside of traditional theater space and into everyday settings with site-specific illusions. I know I will be in magic for the rest of my life.