Neither clown nor magician but something of both, Steve Marshall has, from early childhood, been charming audiences with his unique brand of comedy magic. Watching him in action, it is difficult to tell where performance genres begin and end — what’s certain is that they blend into a seamless, entertaining whole.
Marshall’s love of performing began at the age of 8 when he was given a set of magic tricks for Christmas. He immediately set to practicing on family and friends and was soon performing at school shows and talent competitions. Later Marshall befriended the owner of a local magic shop, who encouraged him and taught him various sleight-of-hand tricks.
At the shop Marshall also met the man who became his mentor, Grant Dozier. A professional clown with an interest in magic, Dozier taught the boy various clowning skills and introduced him to the concept of comedy magic. Under Dozier’s influence, Marshall applied to the celebrated Ringling Brothers Clown College, Venice, Fla. in his final year of high school. He was one of 60 selected from more than 2,000 candidates, and then one of the 11 chosen at the end of the course to tour the United States with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
What was on the curriculum at Clown College? A surprising variety of skills and techniques, necessary both in the ring and out of it. In the former category were pie throwing, elephant riding, gag routines and water spitting. (“There’s an art to water spitting,” says Marshall. “You have to spray it so the light catches it.”) Technical skills included make-up, choreography and the manufacture of explosives.
Today, Marshall is a clown who performs magic tricks — or, as he prefers to be categorized, a “comedy magician.”
“I don’t really call myself a clown anymore,” says Marshall. “When you say ‘clown,’ people start thinking of tents and birthday parties. What I do is combine the comic elements of clowning with the technical aspects of magic.”
The move away from pure clowning and back to his first love, magic, came when, after five years of clown performance for the circus, Marshall moved to New York City, honing his craft as a street performer and working at various corporate party venues.
During this time, Marshall’s agent contacted him. A job was available at a theme park in Nagasaki named Holland Village. He went, stayed, and — after 2 1/2 years of juggling jobs between Japan and the U.S. — found steady work at Tokyo Disneyland.
This variety of venues has honed Marshall’s performance technique and taught him resilience and adaptability to audiences that have ranged from one to 10,000 spectators.
“I most definitely change when I put on my performance persona, though it really is an extension of myself,” he explains. “And the transformation is affected by the type of audience. For instance, if I’m working with kids I tend to become more childlike. I adapt to the audience [by judging] how they are reacting.”
Marshall has invested years in sharpening his act, spending hours in front of the mirror making faces, creating costumes to suit his routines or practicing the subtle manipulations of sleight-of-hand tricks. He estimates that he has spent more than 17,000 hours performing on stage.
The result of these years of performance and practice, Marshall believes, is a unique signature style. “Sometimes magicians can be overly technical and lose the entertainment element of performance,” he says. “On the other hand, you sometimes see performers who are really funny but lack proper technique as magicians. I’ve been lucky enough to have teachers from both disciplines.”
Marshall is currently writing a handbook for professional magicians that illustrates his dual approach. A favorite theme is how to update and innovate on traditional entertainment techniques. “The book has elements that go back to the Punch & Judy days. For example, the puppeteers used a wuzzle [a mouthpiece that amplifies and distorts the voice] to make the eerie voices of Punch and Judy. For years I tried to find a wuzzle and finally went to England to get one. But when I incorporated it into my act, I found it extremely difficult to get the effect that I wanted. So I eventually developed an alternative.”
Besides writing, Marshall is a freelance performer whose work takes him around Japan, to conventions, street festivals, dinner shows and parties. He confesses, however, that adjusting to a Japanese audience was initially daunting.
“At first, I wondered if the Japanese audiences didn’t like what I was doing, but I soon realized that they simply have a quieter response. Now I’ve grown to love audiences here and feel a marvelous connection to them. In fact, I now call myself ‘The U.S. Ambassador of Magic.’ ”