Interview with Magician Matthew J Dowden

March 2009

matthew-dowdenMatthew J Dowden gave an energetic and inspiring lecture last year at the Liverpool Magic Circle, which I attended. I was impressed by his skill and very much enjoyed his enthusiastic and slightly cheesy delivery. In my experience, it’s relatively rare to find a such a confident and entertaining magician who also has such finely honed technical ability. Having spoken to Matthew, I understand how this came about (see below for some sound advice).

Because Newcastle, where Matthew lives, is quite a long way from Manchester, where I live, I thought it made sense to interview Matthew while we were both in South Shields for the South Tyneside magic convention. As it turned out, this wasn’t such a good idea. The Customs House is a great venue for lectures and shows – and even for chatting and sessions in groups – but there’s nowhere quiet to conduct an interview. We began in a little admin room we weren’t really supposed to go into and, when we were thrown out of there, we ended up having to sit in Matthew’s car. Fortunately, he’s got a smooth and spacious vehicle, where I could set up the recording equipment easily, (we would have been struggling in my Ka) but it was less than an ideal situation and I felt somewhat flustered. Matthew, however, took it all in his stride. He remained completely calm and, as we traipsed up and down stairs and round the car park, didn’t even lose his train of thought.

Georgie:  Let’s begin with how you got started in magic, how old you were and what your first inspiration was.

Matthew:  Well, I didn’t start the usual way. Most people started with a magic set when they were very young but I didn’t do any magic as a kid. I was doing a law degree at university and I was half-way through that, so I was 20, and I saw David Blaine on TV. He was my first inspiration.

I got into magic as a hobby at first but then, as most magicians will tell you, it becomes an obsession. My degree suffered a bit as a result… This sounds really sad but I used to have to come out of a lecture sometimes and disappear off somewhere to play with a pack of cards.

When I was running out of family and friends to show stuff to, I asked Graeme at the Magic Box [the excellent magic shop in Newcastle], “How good do you have to be to do magic in bars?”. He said, “You’re probably good enough now” – I had been practising solidly and doing nothing else for months – and he took me with him to a charity gig he was doing. As I was performing there, I remember thinking, “This is what I want to do with my life”.

I remember trying to get my family to understand and saying, “I can’t explain how much I love this. It’s not just a passing phase”. I was prone to hobbies and other distractions but this time it was different!

So, after I graduated, I decided, “I’m not going to be a solicitor, I’m going to be a full-time magician.”. If you find something you’re that passionate about and you can make it your living, you’re a very lucky guy.

Georgie:  Absolutely. But you worked hard for it.

Matthew:  When you first start out, you’re practising all the hard sleights and maybe you’re a bit of what people like to call a ‘move monkey’. A lot of older magicians say, “That’s ridiculous, you don’t need to be able to do all that. It’s about entertainment. Look at the difference between you and me”. Well, yes it is about the entertainment, but there’s also about twenty years between us and, at the beginning, you’ve got all the time in the world to work in an act and become entertaining. When it’s all new to you and you’ve got that enthusiasm, that’s the time to learn the hard stuff where it can take six months to master a move. That’s the time to put it the groundwork and it serves you well throughout your career. There’s nothing better than being able to borrow a normal pack of cards and do an hour’s worth of tricks with it.

People who put a young guy down and say “It’s all about entertainment” are often just quite lazy, they’re not prepared to put the time in to learn the difficult moves. And, actually, a lot of the time, they’re not that entertaining either – they just think they are – and they’re trying to cover up their own insecurities.

Georgie:  Yes. And some magicians are very patronising about the public. They think no-one’s going to notice whatever dodgy moves they make.

Matthew:  Oh, laymen aren’t stupid. It’s a well known fact that if a layman catches a flash of something they weren’t meant to see, they think they know how the trick was done. A good example is forcing. I use the classic force for everything and, if you can do it smoothly enough and casually enough, it almost stops being a force. It is pretty much a free selection and you’re just timing it. But people say to me, “What do you need that for? You can do it this way” and they proceed to show me the worst force I’ve ever seen, that’s really rough and easy for the spectator to work out afterwards, “He wanted me to take that card”.

There’s a huge difference between doing something that’s overcomplicated for overcomplicated’s sake and putting the time in to learn a harder method, that most people are too lazy to do, because it is better.

Georgie:  So Graeme’s charity gig was the first time you performed professionally. Where did you go from there?

Matthew:  While I was still at university, I found myself a residency. Fifty pounds for an hour of close-up at this pub and I did that twice a week. So as a student I was coming home with a hundred pounds for doing two hours’ work and all my university friends were working part time in call centres, doing twelve hours for sixty quid. I remember my mum and dad, who’d been telling me, “Forget the magic and concentrate on your degree”, when they saw the financial possibilities, they thought, “Perhaps there’s something in this”.

When I graduated, I asked them, “What if I said I wanted to be a professional magician?” and they said, “As long as you can support yourself and you’re happy, we’re happy” – and to me that was the clincher.

Georgie:  You wanted your parents’ blessing?

Matthew:  Yeah, my family’s very close and I think, no matter how old you get, there’s always that need for someone to OK the big decisions. I probably would have done it anyway but it’s nice to know I’ve got my parents’ backing.

Georgie:  Once you’d decided to be a professional magician and your parents were happy with it, how did you make it happen?

Matthew:  When I first graduated, I thought about getting a law job and saving some money before I became a full-time magician but a friend of mine said to me, “Don’t do that because if you get yourself a regular job it’ll be very hard to give it up”. The fact that I went from not having any job at all to being a professional magician, without knowing anything else, really helped.

It was tough for the first few years but I still had my residency at the pub and I handed out business cards there. If you’re a kids’ entertainer, you can put an ad in the Yellow Pages and you’ll never go hungry. If you perform only for adults, a residency is your bread and butter. Not only is it regular money but it’s somewhere to keep your act sharp and a place to hand out your business cards as well.

At one point, I was doing a residency on a Friday, a Saturday, a Sunday afternoon and one on a Monday evening for a student bar, so I didn’t even need any private work but when it came in, I could get other people to stand in for me at the residencies.

Georgie:  How many residencies have you got now?

Matthew:  I’ve just got the one, which is a regular Friday and Saturday. I’ve struck so lucky with it. It’s a Chinese restaurant but it’s got large tables and it caters mostly for parties and people who are out on an occasion, so everybody’s in the party mood.

I have had residencies in the past where you see the same people every week and you end up becoming part of the furniture. In this place, I’ve been there for quite a few years now and I’ve hardly ever seen the same people twice, which makes it much easier.

Georgie:  How should someone set about finding a residency?

Matthew:  I find the best way is to set up a meeting with the manager. Go along, smartly dressed but don’t overdo it. You might show them a couple of tricks but sometimes you don’t even have to. Find out when their busiest time is – probably Friday or Saturday, 7 till 9, something like that. Then you say, “I normally charge X amount but I’ll come down on Friday or Saturday and perform for your customers for two hours, completely free of charge.” Not many places are going to turn down a free entertainer, even if you turn out to be bad.

Now, one of the most important things is this: don’t say, “I will increase new business” because that puts a lot of pressure on you. Your hook is to keep the people who are there happy, to make them want to come again. You entertain them when they’re waiting for a table, when they’re waiting for food, when something goes wrong. I’ve had people literally say to me, “You’ve turned a bad night into a good night”. And, when you do that, you know you’re worth absolute fortunes to that restaurant.

When you’re doing that free two hours, every group you perform for, say to them, “Look, I’m doing this as a trial, to see if it goes down well. Would you mind just saying to the manager ‘Hey, the magician’s great’?” You can make it a sort of a joke but it’ll make a big difference. If that manager gets five or six people coming up to him and saying how much they enjoyed the magician, who wouldn’t hire you?

Then settle on a reasonable amount to charge but don’t undersell it.

Don’t just approach any venue, choose somewhere that’s going to be good for you, that has the sort of clientele you’re going to get more business from. And then hand out those business cards.

Do try to find a place that has new people every week, though. I had a residency once where there were too many regular drinkers and I ended up showing them basically the same stuff I’d shown them the week before, just rehashed into something new. They were saying, “Show us a trick, show us a trick” and I was thinking, “What have you not seen that I can do for you now?”. The problem is, if you see the same people every week, that you almost become like an amateur again. The classic difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional has his well honed routine that he shows to different audiences, whereas the amateur is someone who shows new tricks to the same audience.

Georgie:  That’s interesting, I’d never thought about it like that before. And what’s your advice for how to approach a difficult group?

Matthew:  Well, usually you don’t know they’re difficult until after you’ve approached them. But I’d say the most important thing when approaching any group is always enthusiasm. Don’t go over with the attitude of waiting to see if they’re interested, don’t ask them if they want to see some magic. When I go over, I introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Matthew, I’m the magician here tonight”. I then have a line I always use but the most important thing is that I don’t give them an option, I go straight into a trick.

How can you expect people to get into it if you don’t look enthusiastic yourself? When I perform I like to think that I look as if I’m having a good time, that I’m excited to be there and I’m ready to have a laugh with them. And if you can have a genuine laugh with people, it makes it so much better because it’s not an act any more.

Georgie:  Do you tend to ad lib much while you’re performing, or are you fairly scripted?

Matthew:  I do ad lib but also, when you’ve been doing it long enough, you can come out with lines that sound like ad libs because you know exactly what people are going to say, how they’re going to respond. Sometimes you get caught out because the table next to them responds in the same way and the first table hears you using the same line. I don’t generally go straight to the next table, I dot around the room, but of course it can still happen later in the evening. In those cases, where I’m delivering the same line and someone looks across from the previous table, I always feel a bit guilty because I imagine their experience feels a bit less genuine. So what I generally do is look at them and give them a wink and say something like, “Don’t worry, they’re falling for it too” and I’ll try and make them feel as if they’re in on it too.

You can’t have a completely original act every time you go up to a table, otherwise it’s not smooth. I’ve done the same patter lines with certain tricks thousands of times and that’s why it works, that’s why it’s slick – or at least I think it is.

Georgie:  Rehearsed spontaneity.

Matthew:  Totally.

Georgie:  Have you got any other advice for the new magician?

Matthew:  Well, as I was saying before, don’t be put off working on your moves by people saying it’s all about entertainment. Don’t learn a move for the move’s sake, learn it with a trick in mind, but laymen can tell the difference between somebody who’s skilled with a pack of cards and somebody who’s getting by on entertainment.

Hand out as many business cards as you can. The best gigs come from people who’ve seen you perform, because then they’re not looking for a magician, they want you.

If you’re getting into magic and you’re watching a DVD and you take on a few characteristics of a magician you admire, there’s nothing wrong with that initially. There are so many purists who say books are better than DVDs. I think books are great once you know a bit about magic but in the beginning DVDs are a really good medium to learn by. I enjoy books more now because I can read them and know exactly what they’re talking about but in the beginning it’s tough work. And if you end up trying to be like somebody else – as long as it’s not a straight, line-for-line impersonation – it doesn’t matter. Morecambe and Wise said everybody copies somebody in the beginning. When they first started out, they copied Laurel and Hardy. And then eventually you find your own style.

You can find out more about Matthew on his website: