EG: The Entertainment Gathering

January 26, 2010

You’ve probably never been to a conference quite like The EG, aka, the Entertainment Gathering, unless perhaps you were around in the early days of TED, before it became a phenomenon too big for Monterey, and that seats a secondary group of attendees in a video screening room. The two conferences do have some things in common, however, since they were both created by author and polymath Richard Saul Wurman.

Five years after selling the TED conference, Wurman created the EG, and brought in his longtime friend and colleague, the brilliant MIT technologist and classical pianist, Michael Hawley. I’ve known  Mike since back in the days when he was studying under the advisement of Marvin Minsky at the MIT Media Lab. So in 2007, Mike called me and said he’d like to add some magic to the second EG conference, and if I was interested, I was it. I was more than interested, I was thrilled.

Mike encourages speakers at the EG to show their passion and take risks, to do things they’ve never done before. I took him at his word and created a talk entitled “How Magic Works.” Every talk at the EG is limited to 20 minutes, and in that time I performed a little close-up card magic, and then offered an intensive, close analysis of how it was done – without ever getting to the details of the mechanical method that most people think comprise the secrets of magic. In magic, however, I like to say that the method is not the trick.  The method is not the trick. And I would also add that in any creative endeavor, the method is never the trick. Focusing a camera tells us nothing about what it takes to be a filmmaker; playing a scale doesn’t teach us anything about making music.  And so I used the details of magic – narrative structure, psychology, emotional engagement, body language, and more – to provide a model of the real methods of all creative work, and what it takes to do something well.

I was a bit nonplussed to be on the same program with the likes of MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, food author and New York Times “Minimalist” Mark Bittman, Media Lab maven Marvin Minsky, astronomer and Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco, computer and mosaic art pioneer Ken Knowlton, the author Amy Tan, comedy legend Jonathan Winters, and many more such stellar minds. But I’m glad to say my presentation was enthusiastically received, and indeed in the next year I subsequently presented versions for audiences of designers, interface designers, user experience specialists and more, at design conferences, technology conferences, and for clients including Adobe, Electronic Arts, Intuit, and others.

Since then I’ve returned to the EG twice more, and am now listed in the program as “a friend of the show.” Last year and again last week, I presented interstitial performance and presentation pieces, linked thematically to particular sessions at the conference. And I also performed a collaborative piece with cherished friend and colleague, the magician Eric Mead.

Every year is a joy and an adventure at the EG. This year … geologist and self-described “earth historian” Walter Alvarez, who discovered that an asteroid impact led to mass extinction of the dinosaurs, made us think about how “colossally improbable” we humans all are – each and every one of us. Bryan Austin showed us life-sized images of whales, photos which he takes while spending inordinate time truly up close and personal with these mysterious marine mammals. Mark Bittman talked about why soda is like cigarettes, and what we should do to save ourselves from drinking it. Garrett Brown, the creator of the steadicam, showed us how he invented it, and shared tales from some of  his legendary film shoots, including The Shining, Indiana Jones, Return of the Jedi, and many more. Dick Cavett was the consummate raconteur, and ended with a rope trick – he was an early pioneer in bringing magic to television. Poker champ Annie Duke and her sister, the poet Katy Lederer, shared the stage to talk about their lives and playing poker. Freeman Dyson’s son and daughter, George and Esther, talked about growing up in the great physicist’s household, and about their own life’s works (Freeman had to cancel at the last minute thanks to the surgical installation of a pacemaker two days before the conference). Scott Harrison explained how he went from throwing high-end parties in New York City to bringing clean water to children of Africa – a man who is markedly changing the world for the better. The photographer David Hume Kennedy told tales and showed images of his days in Vietnam and as official White House photographer of the Ford Administration. Graham Kerr and his wife (and producer) regaled us with stories of life as “The Galloping Gourmet.” Inventor Ge Wang told us about his creation, the iPhone Ocarina, and other ingenuities. Rich Wilson regaled us with details of being the oldest sailor to complete the Vendée Globe non-stop around the world race, sailing over 28,590 miles in 121 days alone at seat. Esthere Wojcicki, better known as “Woj,” explained her remarkable success leading the country’s largest high school journalism program.

And that mere sampling of inspiration and mind expansion is far from all we experienced. We heard performances by and shared dinner tables with the likes of pipe organ prodigy Cameron Carpenter, violin maestro Joshua Bell, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, and more.  The Flying Karamazov Brothers juggled and amazed, the magician Eric Mead … juggled and amazed! We were treated to four-handed piano by the remarkable musical duo, Anderson & Roe, and we were delighted by singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, who, like me, is now regarded as a regular and returning “friend of the show.”

I’ve made new and lasting friendships every year at The EG, and this one was no exception. Late night tall tales were shared with the likes of Shuttle astronaut Cady Coleman (a veteran of two shuttle flights, this December she will hitch a ride on a Russian rocket  to spend six months living aboard the Space Station); legendary test pilot Jackie Cochran (the first  woman to attend U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, and who later went on to command an F-16 fighter squadron and fly UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters); and Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, who told us how he narrowly escaped death in a helicopter crash (the story is a lot funnier than you might imagine). I managed to blow poker legend Annie Duke’s mind with some card magic; shaking her head, Annie, a self-described tough audience, declared that “I’ve never seen that!” I swapped magic and showbiz tales with the one and only Dick Cavett. I had a long conversation about mountain lions and other wildlife with wildlife photographer Frans Lanting. I talked magic and music with André Hamelin. The glass artist Josh Simpson presented Kandace and I with an exquisite miniature blown glass “planet,” now prominently displayed at home. Cameron Carpenter and I discovered we both cried (and we were far from the only ones!) through a performance of the Hobart Shakespeareans, joyous and remarkable elementary school students from Los Angeles.

Jamy, Dick Cavett and Eric Mead

And still all of this is just a snippet, and communicates little of the actual experience – neither do my scrapbook photos, but you’re welcome to share a look at this Facebook photo album.

Did I mention I had late night drinks – oh, yeah, and even later the next night – with a goddam working mom astronaut? I did? Well it’s worth mentioning again! (And Cady Coleman is the subject of a series of reports on CNN – look her name up at cnn.com, they’re worth watching.)

I guess I can’t do much more than say that next January, if you can, try to attend the EG. And if you can’t, well – I’m truly sorry you have to miss it. Because I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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