International: Piff the Magic Dragon – from Edinburgh to Las Vegas
Las Vegas and Edinburgh have a lot in common. If you’ve ever had a beer upended in your lap in a stuffy subterranean chamber, you might well question the truth of this statement. But I’m speaking to a man better placed than most to know: John van der Put, the alter ego of Piff the Magic Dragon, the magician from south-east London who made a splash on Penn and Teller: Fool Us, nailed America’s Got Talent and landed a regular gig in Las Vegas, with a one-hour solo show at the Flamingo – all while wearing a cheap, green dragon costume.
“The Edinburgh Fringe and Vegas are like two sides of the same coin. Vegas is a very similar market to Edinburgh. You can gain an audience through the merit of your work.”
Vegas, like the fringe, is also a bit of a bubble. You can be hugely successful there without it having much of an impact elsewhere. So he spends half a week doing a show in Vegas, and the other half on the road. This year, following a few dates in London, he’ll be back in Edinburgh, performing at the Assembly George Square Theatre, then heading straight back to the Strip.
“My act came together in Edinburgh. Coming back is a bit like a holiday.” I make a fairly weak joke about the weather, which is greeted with the disdain it deserves. “I live in the desert.”
“While the Strip is insane,” he adds, “away from all that, Vegas is a regular place. And for what I was paying to live in London, you can get a five-bedroom mansion with a pool. It’s also where everyone is: Penn and Teller, Criss Angel, David Copperfield.”
Van der Put has said, in previous interviews, that he only really likes about 5% of magic acts. Is that still the case? “It’s more like 3% – it’s dipped.” Who does he rate now? “Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, The Amazing Johnathan. Most other magic, it’s not that I dislike it, but I don’t really get it.”
He’s been a magician since he was a teenager, but was never particularly enamoured with mainstream shows such as Paul Daniels. He preferred offerings such as Stuff the White Rabbit, a late night BBC2 show featuring performers including Jerry Sadowitz and Jonathan Lenahan. “They presented [magic] in a different way. With comedy.”
Q&A: John van der Put
What was your first job? IT.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Get an accountant.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Penn and Teller.
If you hadn’t been a magician, what would you have done? Quit.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Try and get the cheque first.
He paid his way through university working as a magician. “But I was being fired a lot. I was good at magic, but horrible at some of the other stuff. Magic is only in part about showbusiness. There’s this whole corporate side: events, parties. One of the negotiating tactics you can use as a magician is to ask: how much are you paying for your canapes? How much are you paying for your champagne? I didn’t want to deal with myself on the level of a sandwich. I wanted a way out of that.”
He was looking for a hook. The idea for Piff came after a fancy-dress party, in which he was the only one to show up in costume, and responded accordingly. He realised that the combination of the suit and a deadpan demeanour UK critics tend to compare to Jack Dee, US ones to Larry David, had potential.
“I grasped the dragon with both hands. I wanted to see how far I can go with this.” What the dragon outfit did was put a frame around his grumpiness – one made of green velour. “So much of magic is being a dick to people,” he says, “but I’m a guy in a dragon outfit, I’m always punching up.”
In 2009, he made his Edinburgh Fringe Festival debut with Piff, and in 2011 he made the appearance on Penn and Teller: Fool Us that introduced him to a larger audience. Piff is less a character than a persona, he says. It’s fair to say he doesn’t spend ages agonising over Piff’s motivations. His first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe went well, but it felt like it was missing something. His PR Will Young (now one half of the production company Supporting Wall) suggested putting a dog into the act. The dog turned out to be a Chihuahua called Mr Piffles, who is sat placidly on Van der Put’s lap throughout the interview.
“Getting him turned out to be one of the best things that I’ve done. Okay, it’s a bit of a gimmick, but gimmicks are only terrible when you’re not very good at what you do.”
“Bad magic depresses me,” he adds. “The fact that Piff does magic is one of the least interesting things about him. It’s about how he deals with the audience and how he deals with his dog. It’s about being human. I had to put on a dragon suit to be allowed to be human.”
For a while he dabbled in magic consultancy, creating work for Punchdrunk (for Faust and, more recently, The Drowned Man) and for Heston Blumenthal and the Fat Duck. Much of his work with Punchdrunk was “stuff that blends in seamlessly with the production, things that you would have to work hard to discover – a lot of it was hidden”.
The work with Blumenthal sounds more satisfying. “People have been doing magic with food for a couple of hundred years. We were making bottles that would pour both still and sparkling water, sorbet that burst into flames. It was a fun project.” But in the main, he found consultancy work tough. “It’s a brutal process. I run away from it now.”
“I was very sceptical initially,” he says of America’s Got Talent. “But they chased me hard and after a while I realised they understood what I was doing, they were shooting it well. I loved that show. They let me fail on my own terms. The scale of it is phenomenal, too – I was selling thousands of tickets based on that TV show. I see what I do as slightly different from other magicians. The best thing I did on America’s Got Talent was eat a sandwich – that’s the thing everyone remembers.”
His success on the show has allowed him to meet, and work with, his heroes, Penn and Teller. “They’re icons. They’re groundbreaking. I look at my material and think: would they stop here? And the answer’s always ‘no’. They’ve taken me under their wing and I’m very grateful to them.”
He’s now successful enough to have his own copycats. His act was ‘appropriated’ by Ukrainian magician Andriy Chekanyuk on a Russian talent show. “That guy. He’s a hero of mine,” says Van der Put before adding, more seriously: “Interestingly, the judge on that show was a magician and she called him out, even though the producers weren’t pleased. She made a stand about it.”
How much mileage does the dragon have in him?
“Every time I think I might do something else, I get a new idea for Piff. I don’t want to be a 50-year-old still being a dragon, but until then, I’m happy. My definition of success is: can I pay my bills by doing this? In 2005, I saw La Clique and realised that’s what I wanted to do. Over the next few years I developed the act, and they offered me spot – and that was what I’d dreamt of. I got to perform with Penn and Teller, with Mumford and Sons. All of that happened because of Edinburgh. On the fringe, if you work hard, if you knock it out of the park, you can still make it. I suppose I’ve been lucky, but even when I’ve been in playing 150-seat rooms to an audience of 20 people, I learned from it. That experience taught me how to play small rooms and make that audience yours. It made me a better performer. There have been so many times I’ve drawn on the lessons I’ve learnt at the fringe, even on America’s Got Talent.
“That’s the reason I’m coming back – I love being part of that.”
CV: John van der Put
Born: 1980, London
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Career: Member of the Magic Circle
Landmark productions: Theatre: Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut (2009), Piff the Magic Dragon Show, Flamingo, Las Vegas (2015). TV: Appearance on Penn and Teller: Fool Us (2011), Appearance on series 10 of America’s Got Talent (2015). Music: Mumford and Sons tour (2012)
Agent: Debi Allen