Matt Penny is the remarkable man behind the 4.5 star rated show Find The Lady
We caught up with him before the show to see what it was all about and how he came to be a magician working behind a bar, creating theatre.
So look you’re a magician and a theater maker, a musician, how did you get into performing and everything?
Oh well I was, I’ve always had an interest in magic since I was a kid, and it was just something I was drawn to. I used to do puppet shows for my family and charged them 5p a show which was the only way I could make any money back in those days!
And then I used to have piano lessons when I was young and uh, our house was on a main thoroughfare to a train station so whenever I learned a new piece of music and I was in the front room, I would always wait till I knew there were people coming down the street and I would play my best piece. We had net curtains in the house and people would always stop and listen outside and always I got a bit of a buzz out of that!
But, yeah, I’ve always done magic and been fascinated by magic tricks and card tricks and then I started working in restaurants in London and I realised that if you were waiting on tables in the mid 90s during the boom times and if you did magic tricks for people they gave you big tips! Yeah, so I was working in restaurants like Planet Hollywood and TGI Fridays and that’s when I really started to think – oh yeah there is money to be made in learning this stuff.
Theatre was just one of those things that, um naturally progressed and I was working in this restaurant and someone said that they were doing a show and I should audition for it and I kind of went – oh yeah okay no worries and auditioned for it and managed to snag the lead part in this production which um everyone was very pissed off about, so and then yeah I just carried on from there.
I guess when I came to Perth in ’94 as a 25 year old I was, um kind of busy because I’d just got married and had a child and uh I didn’t really do much theatre. I did some am-dram stuff but my first sort of bit of theatre was in 2001 for the then fringe festival, Sean Durand’s fringe festival and I put on an adaptation which was the only official adaptation of Withnail and I the movie in Australia and it’ll never be allowed to happen again!
No well I managed to secure the rights for it off of the writer and um we put it on at the Spart Parts Theatre and we uh got massive crowds through the door, and it turns out that he wasn’t allowed to give me the rights and that it will never allowed to be given out ever again! And so that is the only official adaptation of Withnail to be performed in Australia ever.
What made you move to Perth?
Ah well ah, I was engaged to this lady who was from Perth and um she had a child and she wanted to come back to Perth and I just went – oh okay that sounds all right – you know young naive I’ll just leave London while my career is going well.
So after you did the Withnail and I then you just continued on getting into theatre?
Yeah I learned a few things, um I was still doing the magic and uh I got a show called the Magic Matt Show – very inventive name – at The Blue Room, then I wrote a show and I wrote a few shows and directed them in The Blue Room – one was called Slight Leakage and the other was called Discharge and they were about hospitals.
And um, I just continued doing magic shows and performing in a hell of a lot of short films and some longer films and plays around the traps, and then the last thing I wrote was called Death of a Murderer which was an adaptation of a novel by Rupert Thompson about the death of Myra Hindley and that was on at the Blue Room and then I kind of had a hiatus for a while, I think I just needed to work a normal job, a regular or steady income coming in for a few years for a number of various reasons and uh and I guess I was of that kind of age where there was a lot of established theatre companies or people older than me and there was a lot of people sort of 10 years younger than me who were establishing theatre companies and all that kind of stuff and I was in this kind of middle ground where it was really hard because all the people my age were married with kids and so they have and they weren’t necessarily full time involved in theatre making.
So I kind of just went – oh yeah, bugger this I’m just gonna do solo shows, so I’ve done shows at every fringe festival since the um fringe world started. I’ve just been doing solo shows but the first one I did I think it was 2011 when Fringeworld was nowhere near as big as it is now and I did a magic slam which was competitive magic where we got four or five – I hosted it and organized it and we had four magicians and they had 10 minutes each and then uh, we had a panel and uh the audience sort of clapped and cheered and then someone won the magic slam.
Oh wow that’s a really good concept.
Well yeah it was good but we didn’t do it again, I mean I’ve done it a couple of times before fringe and it went really well and they called me up and were doing fringe and they said do you want to do it again in the Speigeltent and I said yeah but I’m not sure if the magicians enjoyed the whole thing.
Fringeworld attracts a lot of magicians and magic shows – it’s really a case of which one am I going to see? And I find that interesting as maybe they are out of their comfort zone because it’s not their show or they have control over the show possibly?
Yeah I think maybe you’re right and I mean one of the reasons I was doing it was because a lot of these guys are good technicians of magic but they’re not necessarily, they don’t really have the stage craft.
Yeah, that’s important isn’t it?
Yeah and that can be an issue, so I kind of give some of them a chance to appear in front of an audience where they’re paid money to come and see a magician as opposed to the magician being paid to turn up and harass people with their magic tricks. That’s what corporate magic is, and they don’t like the rivalry and I don’t think they like really the way I present them, I don’t know!
Then I got into mind reading in the last three or four years I’ve done mind reading shows, I did a show which I thought was hilarious – but maybe it was just me – Frank the Mind-Reading Hotdog.
What was frank the mind reading hotdog about?
Have you heard of Piff the Magic Dragon before? Well he came over to Perth then he went onto great things and he’s now you know doing casino shows in Las Vegas and working with Penn and Teller and I though,t God he’s got an angle, what an angle, and I was thinking I need an angle I mean I had a perfectly fine mind reading show which people were saying ‘oh we love your mind reading show’ which is great and for some reason I was like no angle, so you know I work at the Blue Room bar and I asked the artists – if you had a mind reading show what would you do to make it stand out?
Then I was standing in a coffee shop one time with a friend of mine and I was telling him this dilemma and he said well I’ve got a hotdog suit you can have, and then we came up with of course the name Frank, the mind reading Hot Dog. And ah, it was good so I did some shows in Perth and I was getting 70 to 80 people a night a good crowd and then I took it to Adelaide and Auckland and you forget that no-one knows you in Adelaide and you haven’t spent the last four months building it up to the people of the bar at the Blue Room!
So yeah it must have been a good show!
Yeah it was a good show and soul destroying at the same time.
Do you find you need to go through those kind of things though to shape the next show?
I think so yeah, well just to just have to go through them to kind of bring yourself back down to earth again and then it gives you a real insight into how you’re marketing yourself, one theatre didn’t understand the concept and I said ah, its called Frank the mind reading Hotdog and it’s a picture of me in a hotdog suit and they said ‘oh you’re actually doing mind reading then?’ Its all in the title you know! People didn’t get it.
It must be hard to come up with a title for the show, so Find The Lady is a fully scripted work yes, with magical elements?
Yeah so uh, for a number of years now I’ve been racking my brains to find a way of doing a piece of theatre that involves magic so it’s not a magic show but you can use some of the concepts of magic and some of the ideas around magic as part of the theatre and uh, and then I crept up on this story I invented. Find the Lady is a card game based on an early ancient 15th century shell game which you know you get 3 shells and a pea under the shell and the grifter moves them around and you pick which shell has the pea under it. Well find the lady is similar but it’s using three cards – two aces and a Queen – and then you shuffle the cards around and then the punter has to guess which one is the Queen.
So it’s based around the story of a guy who does this find the lady thing and that’s his game and he finds a pair of magic glasses he steals off a friend of his and has tragic consequences but the glasses give him the ability to actually read minds and then it’s sort of a rags to riches story – and without giving too much away, it’s also a riches back to rags story.
So he steals this gift and all of a sudden he’s this brilliant well-known mind reader and um, and so there is this section in the middle which he’s actually at the Penn and Teller theatre and he’s performing and he does just a 10 minute mind reading show for the audience and then he talks about how he, ah loses the ah, as the title suggests it’s a con within a con within a con, and it’s uh yeah interesting how people are willing to knock you down.
Is there any real magic in that section – any real mind reading, I mean of the audience each night?
Yes, yes I’ve taken the very best of my previous mind reading shows and kind of crammed them into this little section in the middle. So it should be good for the audience – as far as they know it’s the glasses giving these magical powers to read their minds.
I love that, this obviously means you have a very minimal set because you’ve got a very quick turn over at the Blue Room for Summer Nights don’t you?
Very minimalist – it’s literally a piano, an electric piano and a suit case on a milk crate and that’s the set. But we’ve got Scott McArdle who is doing some lighting design, he’s really good my director.
So when you’re writing a full, well this is obviously a first for you writing something that’s more of a play with the elements of magic, what comes first? Do you do the plot line first or do you think about what magic you want to put into it first?
I, uh it was the plot line. I had this story in my head and I had a writing mentor look over it for free and so I wrot a really really basic story outline and um he came back and he said that, yeah he really liked the stuff and suggested some plot points and to add some uh, in video games I think they call them Easter eggs, little clues that sort of happen during the story that people can look back on and go ‘oh that was because of this’ and um he made some really nice suggestions about that and then sort of left me to it. So yes the story came first but I knew I had the mind reading stuff down pat – but I also wanted to include some piano stuff as well.
I really love that part of the editing process where you just – I tend to over-write things so it’s nice to have someone say well, you’re just repeating yourself there, Matt or see that bit of dialogue, I don’t like that but that one line describes the whole thing you’ve written and just slash the whole page out and it means I have less lines to learn!
Are you good at learning lines, I mean you’ve done your amateur dramatics and everything, I know you’ve done quite a few shows but how do you approach it?
I guess I hate it! But you just have to sit down and do it and I think I’ve spent hours and hours reading it over and over again. We had a break over Christmas and um, we came back and I remember saying to the stage manager – I’ve got this apart from the last few pages, I know this script back to front, basically I’ve learnt it – and she’s going ‘that’s really great that’s really excellen’t and then when I stood there in front of two people sitting in front of me with the scripts in front of them – it turns out I didn’t know it at all!
So what is it do you think that is so compelling about magic? I mean why do people always keep on coming back to magic?
It’s compelling because the magician, well this is the thing with the play – with the con man and the magician: the con man is trying to trick you without you knowing, the magician is saying come inside I’m going to trick you and you’re giving that person, you’re allowing them to do that to come in and pay money to come and see that show. You’re saying to them – please do, please give it a go if you can – so most people that pay money to see a magician with that premise of wanting to be fooled they want to see something amazing, they want to be amazed and whether they try and analyse it there and or whether they go away and talk about it and then try and analyse it and work it out, they still trey to work it out.
It’s giving yourself permission to let yourself be fooled by someone else which is very important I think, and that’s why good magicians are often so compelling, um I went and saw Dynamo last year at the Arena – I’d never seen a big magician like that before and he wasn’t doing a big illusion show, it wasn’t like he had big massive props on stage so I knew he did do a lot of mind reading stuff yeah, and I knew a lot of the stuff he had done or he did I’d done in previous shows, but it was just really interesting to watch someone beautifully craft stories around these tricks and stuff.
I mean my normal stuff is that I go on stage and I’ve got a lot of tricks that are really good and I’ve got a bunch of really bad jokes – I’ll tell you the jokes and I’ll show you the tricks, where as this is where he came on and did a while bunch of tricks that I knew how to do but he made them seem just beautiful.
What do you think people are going to get out of Find the Lady? It looks amazing.
I think it’s just a really interesting act and nice and, dare I say it, clever story that is told in a nice way. People are going to walk away and also it’s got this surprise ending that happens after the applause,
Are you going to pull a rabbit out of a hat?
No I’m going to pull a hare out of my arse! No, haha um, no but there is a surprise and I can’t really describe it to you, after the applause has happened an amazing kind of thing is going to happen where people are going to be going… what? ! want people to walk away from this is going is this real? I this a true story? Is this Matt’s real story? Because, and this thing that happens at the end will make people go, hang on a minute, hang on, is this real?
That’s awesome, so you want people to leave with that kind of confused feeling or is it more of a thought process?
I want them to come out of it not confused, but I want them to come out of it wondering is this real? Could these magic glasses have been real because I’m telling it like its an autobiographical story, and there are certain elements to it that could easily be my life in general and people who know me will be able to pinpoint certain things that I talk about that are part of my life. How much of that was true and how much of it wasn’t? Fact of fiction?
Yeah, did you find these glasses?
Yeah, and where are they now?!
You can catch MATT PENNY in FIND THE LADY here: https://fringeworld.com.au/whats_on/find-the-lady-fw2018