Joanie Spina: In Her Words
Magic Magazine – July 2008 Written by Stan Allen
It’s a bit surprising that Joanie Spina has not been a dancer all her life. In fact, she dropped out from age 11 to 26, a result of “taking the wrong road.” That road took her from her hometown of Woburn (west of Boston) to St. Thomas to Maui to Vegas and, eventually, back to Massachusetts. She was tending bar and had gained 25 pounds. In an effort to drop the weight, she enrolled in a ballet class and a jazz class. As she says, “It was like getting hit with a dart in the forehead.” Feeling a powerful connection at last, she took classes all day long: dance, voice, acting. While she was told that she was too old, she figured she could at least gather knowledge and teach, if not perform. Over the next two years, she danced in a few Boston companies before moving to New York and ultimately answering an ad to be a dancer in a show with “an international stage and television star.”
Joanie went on to work as a principal performer, choreographer, and artistic co-director for David Copperfield over the next eleven years. Her work included choreographing ten of David’s annual CBS specials and his Broadway show, Dreams and Nightmares. She followed this up by building her own act, which played in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and the Bahamas.
After retiring from performing in 2000, Joanie pursued directing fulltime. Her list of clients is staggering: Kalin & Jinger, Princess Tenko, Marco Tempest, Circo Tihany, Tim Kole, Melinda, Jeff Hobson, Juliana Chen, The Spencers, Dirk Arthur, and Lawrence & Priscilla. She lives in Las Vegas but continues to travel the world, staging and directing shows, as well as pursuing her latest passion, filmmaking.
STAN ALLEN sat down with Joanie to discuss her roles as assistant, dancer, choreographer, director, and documentary filmmaker.
This interview is between:
Dancer, Choreographer, Director and Documentary filmmaker
You worked with David Copperfield from 1985 until 1996 – onstage until 1993, then continuing offstage for next three years. To what do you attribute the longevity of this working relationship?
I have to say it was the chemistry. There was a connection between David and myself. When you work with certain people, they bring things out in you. I think he trusted me. We shared artistic sensibilities and visions and tastes. And it was exciting to work with him onstage. He fully gave to the moment. That’s very exciting for the audience and exciting for the performers.
When you say “He fully gave to the moment,” what do you mean?
As in any kind of theater, there’s a lot of craft and planning, but there has to be a degree of spontaneity onstage. You walk onstage and you are in the moment. That moment has to be real, otherwise it doesn’t look real to the audience. You have to have total abandonment. If it’s a sexy thing, you just have to go there. It’s safe, because you’re onstage in front of thousands of people. It’s not going to go any further than anything you’ve staged. You walk offstage and it’s over. But for the moment you’re onstage, the moment you’re in it, if the performers totally commit, it’s real. For that moment, it’s real. And that’s what makes something truly exciting. You can’t act it, you have to just go there. You have to abandon yourself, throw caution to the wind. And just be real.
When you’re directing, is that a difficult thing to get people to do?
Oh, of course. It’s dangerous because it makes people feel open and vulnerable. And that’s why so many movie actors end up having affairs, because they have to be real, they have to be honest about feeling something for the other actor in the scene. But you have be able to shut it off when the scene is over. You have to let go of those feelings and walk away. The problem is that, over the long term of shooting a movie, those feelings can start to seem too real to let go of.
In my situation, David had a girlfriend. We traveled on a bus together. It would have been impossible for it to go any further. You don’t allow the relationship to go there. You do things professionally.
Being in that moment is what makes a performance exciting for the audience. It’s almost like you feel as if you shouldn’t look, it’s so real to you that it’s private. That’s the way it should be, whether it’s something that’s sad or something that’s sexy and romantic or something that’s funny – it has to be honest and real. And the audience responds.
How important to you is that eleven-year run of working with David?
I feel that everything evolved for me because of David, because of David’s persistence and excellence, because of the opportunity he gave me and his constant pushing. He gave me a chance to grow and develop a talent that I didn’t know I had.
In 1995 and ’96, in addition to David, you were working for other clients – Melinda, Dirk Arthur – but you were also putting together your own act. When did you debut that?
My first time performing my own act was in September of 1996 at Caesars Magical Empire. It was a disastrous performance and certainly not the right place to start. But when opportunity arises, you don’t want to pass it by, because you don’t know when the next opportunity will come up. I was very nervous. I had never just talked to an audience. I had been in plays that were scripted, but it was different to try to just speak to the audience. I was a nervous wreck.
Why did you build your own act?
I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t done. I didn’t want to stop. I loved performing. I couldn’t go out and do an act as a dancer, but I could do an act as a dancer doing magic. I never perceived myself as a magician, just as a performer using magic in my act. I do believe that a magician has a certain mindset, and that was never mine.
Why did you stop?
I started way too late. I was 41. When I was 47, I enjoyed a year-long run in the Bahamas in a show called Magical Voyage. It was good money, but when I left, I decided that if I did not get another long-term job in the US, then I would stop and settle down.
Did you get that job?
No. I only gave myself two months. It’s difficult for a woman – I didn’t want to deal with lying about my age and I didn’t want to try to rework everything in my act to fit an older woman. I guess I was ready to retire and pursue directing fulltime.
How did you go from choreographer to director?
I didn’t have any prior experience directing or choreographing prior to choreographing for David. And I never did elaborate choreography. My choreography was more of a storytelling method, using movement and dance to help convey some kind of very simple plot or emotion or feeling or mood.
A lot of times, in order to get what you want choreographically, you need to direct the performers. Helping them with their performance developed my skill as a coach. When directing somebody else’s idea, I’m just elaborating, enhancing, and making their vision a reality. Repeatedly doing that is how you grow and develop. Also, I see as much work as I possibly can: movies, stage musicals, dramatic shows – especially people whose work I admire. That’s how you develop a critical eye; you see what works. If you have an inclination or an ability to absorb that, that’s where your own taste starts to form. That’s how I developed my critical eye. I think through all the years of studying – without even consciously studying, just seeing so much work and absorbing it – my own tastes started to form and my own eye started to form. It was in me. It just had to be developed.
I think I have a really good feel for staging and music and performance in other people. I can help other people sculpt and hone their performance because I can see what works and what doesn’t work. It’s just my opinion. It’s a taste. It’s a style that any one person has, any director, choreographer, writer.
When you’re watching a movie or a show, do you think about how it could have been done “better”?
Yes. I’m constantly analyzing. I can’t go to a show without walking out and saying all the things that worked about it, what didn’t work about it, and what would improve it. Sometimes, however, something is just so good that I don’t even think about it. I watched the movie The Departed at home. I didn’t see it in a theater, yet I was so tense. I was on the edge of the couch. I couldn’t relax. I was so nervous, but occasionally I would think, “Oh my God, this is good!” because I was not thinking all of the things I normally think when seeing a show. I was just so drawn in and so excited and so into it. There have been many shows like this. When I saw The Producers in previews on Broadway, it was glorious. It was so funny, so connected. A little long, but otherwise…
Is a critical eye a blessing or a curse?
I think it’s a little of both, and it’s gotten worse over the last few years. I saw Bells Are Ringing with Faith Prince. I love Faith Prince; I just think she’s adorable. I love her voice, her acting, and her charm. But that night, they had an all-white floor. It was so distracting. That’s all I thought about through the whole show. How could they have had a white floor? It never went away; it was dominant throughout. It was very hard to create any kind of intimate mood, regardless of what lighting you threw on it – it still looked white. To me, the whole thing kind of fell apart just because the set didn’t create any kind of atmosphere.
You were quoted in a story saying that you found it much more difficult to put a critical eye on yourself then someone else. That’s probably true for most magicians. Why?
You have too many personal feelings, too many hang-ups, so you don’t see the overall picture when you look at yourself. You see all the little details and you get distracted. You pay attention to the wrong thing and make choices that aren’t right. It’s just hard to be objective about yourself. You need somebody else to step in and see you fresh, the way the audience sees you, with no background on you.
You talk about staging a lot. What is the difference between choreography and staging?
Choreographing is more the dance steps; staging is movement. That’s how I would separate them. Staging is the functions that you’re showing physically onstage, moving bodies around the stage. Choreography is actual dancing.
So when you work with a magic act and they’re not dancers, you’re doing staging?
Right. Anything that is on the stage needs to be physically blocked out. Regardless of whether there’s music or any kind of movement, you still need to stage it so people know where they’re going, so there’s not a lot of random movement that’s unfocused. Even if you’re just speaking. A lot of people move randomly back and forth when they’re speaking. It’s very distracting. Even if you’re a public speaker, it’s good to stage your speech, your hand movements, gestures. You’ll seem calm, in control, and focused, without a lot of random, nervous movements.
When you started working for clients other than David, was that a leap for you?
It wasn’t a leap, but it was more responsibility. With David, he was the captain of the ship, and he made all of the decisions. You brought the product to him and asked, “How do you like this?” He liked it or he didn’t. He had a very defined artistic taste. He knew what he wanted.
That’s not the case with most magicians?
No. David is exceptional; he should be a director. For me, working with him in that capacity was actually easier because we shared similar tastes. That’s probably why we worked together for so long. It made life easier for him, because almost everything I ever brought to him he liked.
But ultimately it wasn’t your responsibility, because David made the final call. He knew what he wanted.
Exactly. But some people don’t know. They can’t tell what’s good or what’s bad. They’re depending on your opinion, and they have to trust you.
Do they trust you?
Some do, but some don’t entirely. I tell them one thing, but they don’t want to go there. I might say, “If your entire show has the same kind of techno music, the audience is going to get tired of it and lose interest. You’re going to lose impact with your staging and illusions. Your show’s not going to be as strong, because there’s no variety, there’s no contrast. Everything ends up feeling the same” – which is very valid and I don’t think it’s hard to believe. Yet some people might say, “Nah, I’m going to stick with it.” I’ve had that experience where people don’t trust you. They hire you, but they still want to do what they do.
Isn’t that what David did – exactly what David wanted to do?
Yes, but David has a good understanding of what works for the audience. He’s so in tune with dramatic presentation and music and lighting and concept. He’s brilliant with that stuff. Some people just have it.
Take music, for instance. Some people can instantly hear that it’s a good piece of music. Kalin has a brilliant ear for music. David has a brilliant ear for music. The problem is, who has time to search for music? Like David has a million things going on in his show. When does he have time to sit down and take a script and match it up to the right piece of music for underscoring?
Is that what you did for David?
I did that for him. I’d buy countless CDs and get the script for whatever illusion it was that he wanted to do – for instance, the fan illusion – and I would just sit and listen and listen and listen some more for a piece of music that brought to mind a vision that would work for that particular illusion.
Is the music usually part of the creative process that early, right at that first step?
Yes, because the music helps to set the staging. Naturally, you base the staging on the most logical steps that one must put across in order for the magic to work – to set it up, execute it, and conclude it – but that music helps determine the pacing and the style and the feel of the way you do your staging. Any illusion or manipulation has physical requirements you have to execute in order to do the magic, so you stick with the basics. It’s simple, but you want to add style and make it entertaining, on top of the magic part of it. You want every piece to look a little bit different, so there’s contrast, changes of mood.
Oftentimes, someone like Mark and Jinger will have a new illusion and want me to come in and work on it. I try to find the right music. Then we stage the illusion and light it, adapting the music, editing it over and over again, changing the staging until we get into a nice routine.
How long does that take?
It takes longer than people think it does. For the most part, people think that you can just put it together and it’s finished. But once you have the structure together, there’s still the fine-tuning. The initial putting it together is much faster than all of the fine-tuning. That really takes the most time and it’s the most important part. It’s all the little details that make it good. You can’t just throw it out there in a rough state. It’s a process you have to go through. Occasionally, you might hit it the first time around, but that’s rare and you still need to practice and develop it. The process of rehearsal is where all the new ideas and all the little bits come in.
How many pieces of music do you listen to when you’re searching for the right one?
Hundreds and hundreds. I’ve spent days listening to music. And you can’t just listen to the first bit. You have to skim through it, because you don’t know what lies within.
What are you looking for – or, more accurately, what are you listening for?
For structure and impact and style. When you’re trying to stage something for magic, it’s that structure that’s very important. You don’t want sameness throughout; that diminishes the effect. You need some kind of build, some kind of climax, something that enhances the magic.
Do you collect music for magic?
I have files of things that were not right for one thing, but I know they’re right for something somewhere. I just save and hope.
Can anyone do this?
I don’t think so. It’s having an ear for it. Some people can sit and listen for hours, but if they don’t have an ear for it, then it’s kind of a waste of time. They don’t connect. When they hear it, they aren’t able to envision what’s happening.
Besides hiring someone to find it for them, what can magicians do to find music that fits their shows?
Listen and watch. That’s the beauty in going to shows and movies. Why does that music work? Try to learn from the choices that other people make. People who score movies or find music for movies are hired because they have an ear for it, a talent for it. Learn from them. Every time I go to a movie now I try to keep one ear tuned into the music. I’m consciously making an effort to hear the music. I just saw Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day; there’s a lot of fun music in that.
How much of your directing work is starting with a blank slate versus “come fix my act”?
Most of it is come fix my act. But no matter who I’m working with, if they do their show, then they’re going to get feedback on the entire show.
When you watch a client’s show and you see a number of things that need work, is there ever a concern how much the performer can take?
Yes, I do worry that they’ll feel, “I’m not doing anything right!” I always try to remind them that they’re at a certain level, otherwise I wouldn’t be there. That I am working on all of the fine details and there are a million fine details that go into making anything a masterpiece. But I do worry that I’ll break them down or that they’ll lose confidence because I have too many notes. I always say, “Maybe two or three days is enough, so I don’t overload you and you don’t feel bombarded, and so you can absorb and retain and process all of this information that I’m giving you.” But people constantly say to me, “No! Give us more. We want to hear it all. That’s why we hired you. Just give it all to us. We won’t be offended. We won’t feel knocked down.” That’s the response I get and I’m very sensitive to it. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s confidence. I want to build them up. I want to share knowledge with them and help make them better performers.
Also, it’s an educational thing, and I try to explain why this might be a good choice. I try to demonstrate several ways of doing something, so they can see the difference. Perhaps if they tried it this way, this is how it would look. Hopefully, I’m educating them at the same time so they understand where my logic and reasoning are coming from. Then they’re able to take that logic and reasoning and apply it to everything they do.
Is this teaching somebody how to fish, rather than just feeding them?
Yes, and I know it works. The Spencers will say to me, “After we changed this old piece, now we want to change everything.” It’s opening up new ways of thinking for people. Once you see it and understand it, you’re able to apply it to your performance, regardless of what you’re doing, because it’s general theatrical stuff. Some of it is specific to magic, but I think that people are able to apply it to everything they do.
We’ve all seen performers trying to be something they’re not. Someone who looks like they should be doing comedy is trying to be Channing Pollock. How do you deal with this? It’s not exactly fine-tuning.
No, it’s not. But I think you can do whatever you want to do, if you are a solid enough performer. However, that requires tremendous performing skills. Even then, if you’re going to go against the grain of what you naturally are, then you’re trying to sway the audience in an entirely different direction from what they perceive you to be. You’re fighting an uphill battle when you want to make it as easy as possible. You can go against who you naturally are, but why? Why not just go with what you are naturally, what you’re naturally good at, and what the audience believes of you? It just makes it easier. Perhaps you want to be the dramatic illusionist, but if you’re not able to carry it off, then it only serves to hurt you.
I think that assessing or being realistic about what your talents are and how the audience perceives you and what your natural strengths are is very important so you can make the most out of them. Classes and education and training are vitally important for any person in the arts. If you go to New York, everybody’s in class, all the time. They’re in vocal classes, speech, acting, movement, improv… Because it’s a competition. You want to be the best you can be and the audience deserves to have the best you can be. That takes development. It takes time. It takes skill and being realistic about what your skills are.
Do you think many of your clients are realistic?
I would say ninety percent are realistic about their skills and persona.
Even if we take a good look in the mirror, we don’t always see what’s really there. Do you have any advice on how to become more realistic?
You know, they do it in New York auditions all the time. They bring you out onstage, look at you, and cut you before you open your mouth. It’s based on what you look like, whether you fit a certain role or type they’re trying to find.
I went to an acting class, it was a ten-week class, and before it started everybody had to write on a slip of paper what they thought about everybody else in class – first impressions based on looks alone.
Isn’t that what an audience does as you walk onstage, before you’ve done your first trick or even opened your mouth?
Yes. They have a perception of you based just on what you physically look like. From that point on, hopefully, you enhance that first impression. Again, it’s not to say that you can’t go against what you look like and what you’re naturally like. If you have extraordinary acting skill, you may be able to convince them of something that they don’t see. It’s just much harder.
What about the first impression that happens when the audience discovers there’s a magician on the bill?
JOANIE: I don’t think magicians have such a bad rap. Just generally speaking, among the lay people I know, they’re not the ones who say “another magician.” It’s the magic people who say “another magician,” because they see so many magicians and see the same kinds of magic. Sometimes you hear the same line from ten different people and you think, “Oh God! Again?” It’s, like, incestuous or something. Everybody’s using the same punch lines and the same gags, over and over.
One of the criticisms of Hans Klok’s show that played here in Las Vegas was that you could see some of the same illusions – not just down the Strip but down the hallway in the same hotel – in Nathan Burton’s or Steve Wyrick’s show.
I know, but that’s the nature of illusions, unless you have a lot of money to develop your own unique effects. Most people can’t afford that, but what they can afford is their creativity and time to develop their own style, so it doesn’t look like what everybody else is doing. There wasn’t a lot of time in Hans’ show when we, the audience, could get to know Hans.
Like when Lance Burton sits on the edge of the stage?
Exactly. Even if you’re only doing five minutes, you have to have moments of truthfulness when you connect, when you look out with sincerity. There’s sincerity in your eyes. For anyone doing a full show, you have to take the time to stop and talk, to be real, be yourself, and make a real connection to the audience, where the audience feels on the same level. That’s not about pizzazz or attitude or style, it’s about being real. It’s about connecting. Those moments endear you to the audience and make the audience care about you. This is a very important thing. Sometimes, when people do five or seven minutes and everything is just action, action, action, there’s not a lot of eye contact, not a lot of real moments. In those five or seven minutes, you can still put in moments of sincerity and connection to the audience, moments that pull them in on another level. Then they’re not just watching and observing, they’re involved. They’re involved with you personally.
Don’t you think, especially with manipulation acts, the audience goes away thinking about the skill level?
Yes, but you can add dimension to it so that it’s not just about skill. You can make it personal – that there’s some kind of charm or charisma about you that makes the audience connect with you and care about you, beyond just admiring your skill.
What about acts that never step to the microphone? How do they get the audience involved with them on that level?
It’s in the eyes. It’s the way you look at people. It’s how you communicate with your eyes. It’s taking the time and allowing those moments within the act to make those connections. If you produce a bird, stop and look at the audience, share the moment.
Let’s take Jason Byrne as an example. He’s very talented, with an intense act that might seem to be in the skill-watching category.
Perfect example, because he’s not in that category. He takes those moments where he breaks the intensity he’s created. It’s just a small curl of the lips or a look from the side, but it’s real and it’s disarming. Also, when he produces DeeDee (the macaw), then talks, that’s probably the most rewarding thing. His skill level is high and he’s very polished-looking. You expect him to talk with attitude, but he speaks gently, sincerely, and sweetly. It’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful moment. There’s a warmth in his speech that doesn’t sound recited. It sounds like you’re sitting in the car next to him and he’s telling you about this animal and her background. And it’s not about speaking in a low and soft tone. It’s about coming across as humble and likeable, as opposed to arrogant and full of himself. It’s genuine.
Jason has moments of teasing or flirtatiousness with the audience, which is seductive and pulls the audience in. Itss charm, as opposed to boom, boom, boom, which you see a lot of performers do. It’s like you’re sitting with someone you like, a girl or a guy, and you just want to charm them a little bit. It’s that bit of sweetness thrown in among all the power stuff that balances you and makes you more human, likeable, and approachable.
If I could boil it down to one word, it’s likeability. Regardless of what you’re doing out there, if you’re likeable, people will cut you a lot of slack. They’ll remember you if you’re likeable. You won’t just be the person who was out there executing skillful moves. They’ll remember you personally, and that’s a good thing because it’s another level of involvement. It gives more dimension to your relationship with the audience.
Do your clients ever argue with you?
Some might, but most polished performers know how to take direction – they welcome direction. For performers who are just starting out, you have to find somebody you trust. If you don’t believe that what they’re telling you is correct, then you’re never going to take their direction.
So you have to find the right teacher for you.
Right. You have to figure that out. And you have to develop your own eye so that when somebody gives you feedback, it rings true or it doesn’t ring true. You believe it or you don’t believe it. Without any reference, you can’t come up with a good decision.
That’s where the education part of it comes in. It’s important to see as much as you can and to also go outside of magic for advice, so you don’t all ask the same guy who’s working on the same material and who’s seen all the same acts you’ve seen. Go outside of magic and you find a world of theater and film. Get opinions. And get feedback from laypeople. The overall picture is vitally important and sometimes it’s hard to see when you’re in the thick of it.
How do we find the right person with that critical eye?
Try local acting companies, theater companies, universities, schools. What you’re learning is not specific to your material. It’s general theory. If you learn timing and natural movement and using body language and building your presence and your confidence on stage, that should apply to whatever material you do. It doesn’t have to be specific to magic. It should still carry over. You’ll learn all of these skills and acquire a sense for being a natural performer, whatever your style is. It’s about developing a good performing sense, more than a specific genre.
The responsibility of a performer, of anyone who goes onstage, is that they need to learn how to act, how to move, and how to talk. You must have those basic abilities, those skills, to be able to appreciate anything a director has to offer to you.
So, we’re back to taking classes.
Yes, because acting teachers often are stage directors who are teaching on the side. You may find somebody who works well with you, someone you connect with and trust and have a rapport with. That person may not be in tune with timing for magic, but it seems to me that directing for focus and clarity in your movement and your staging is pretty much across the board. A director doesn’t need a background in magic to understand that if you’re producing something out of your right hand, then you should look at it because you want everybody else to look at it. That logical. It’s not specific to magic, it’s just a general theatrical principle.
When directing, do you find any difference between working with a male magician and a female magician?
As to working with them, there’s no difference at all. It’s all the same. It’s just nice to work with women. They have to deal with a little more of a challenge, because the audience wants to credit the magic to the men who are onstage. It’s our social conditioning. People associate men with being stronger and more controlling, just by physical size alone and their physical presence. So in staging a woman magician, you need to be very careful that a man is not commanding the performance and pushing the performance forward. It’s too easy for the audience to view the woman as the assistant, or as a secondary or supporting player. You have to make sure that the woman is always in control and pushing the performance forward. But you also don’t want to make the man look weak, otherwise the men in the audience may have a problem seeing this guy being pulled around on a leash or whatever. You have to be careful. You don’t want to insult the men in the audience, but you still need to establish the woman as a dominant player – just not at the expense of the men onstage. I think it’s exciting.
Let’s talk a little about a recent move for you, into the world of filmmaking. How did that come to be?
I wanted to extend my work base and I thought that performers needed demo videos. I knew how to structure a promotional video, but I didn’t know how to physically, technically work with the lighting and the camera and the computer.
I went back to school to learn how to edit, not realizing that you don’t go back to school just to learn how to edit. It’s a whole education; it’s a whole process. Once I jumped in, I got involved in the other aspects, which are absolutely necessary: the camerawork, the lighting, the scripting, the storytelling. It’s not just about learning a software application.
So I took a documentary class. I’m very much into animal welfare, animal rights, and keeping the animal population manageable so there aren’t so many homeless pets. It’s an important cause in my life, so the first project I chose to do was about the feral cats in Las Vegas and the people who try to care for them. Then I did a project called Born to Die about the pet overpopulation problem, and that documentary played in a few festivals and won some awards.
Do you use filmmaking skills in your directing?
I do. Now I can bring in my camera, direct or consult for people working on a show, record it, then make a demo video for them and upload it to the web. I can do everything they need. And the storytelling skills from working on the stage carry over to video. Storytelling requires pacing and structure, style, entertainment. You need to pull your audience in and you need to hold them in – it’s the same skill set, but with different technical aspects.