John van der Put – AKA Piff the Magic Dragon – is taking a break from rehearsals for a project he can’t tell me about.
“Is this for your theatre company?” I ask, referring to Stand Not Amazed, the company he founded some years ago with choreographer Lucy Cullingford.
“Can’t talk about it!” he cries, quite reasonably. “Can’t talk about it.”
A magician since his early teens, van der Put is most recognisable in his dragon suit, as the rather dour Piff. Accompanied by a small chihuahua, the equally be-dragonned Mr Piffles, Piff’s website characterises him as ‘Jack Dee in a dragon suit’ and that really doesn’t seem a million miles away. Doing magic tricks in a dragon costume with a tiny dog may look about as gimmicky as it gets – but, as anyone who’s seen one of van der Put’s shows will know, both the comedy and the magic are more than strong enough to dispel any accusations of gimmick. Piff is a masterful creation.
“I was a magician for about ten years,” van der Put tells me, “but I just didn’t like going around doing magic at parties, you know like corporate parties and things? So I found, by accident, this act about dressing up as a dragon. And it just suited me, so it really took off…”
How does one, I wonder, find a magic dragon act by accident? Or even on purpose.
“What you do,” van der Put explains, “is you go to a fancy dress party as a dragon, and no-one turns up in fancy dress apart from you. Then they’re really grumpy and they’re like, ‘why are you a dragon?’ So you get grumpier. And then in the end, one of your friends comes up to you and says you should do this, you should be Puff the Magic Dragon. And then you say: Piff the Magic Dragon. The rest is history.”
Grumpy dragon history. With van der Put’s considerable talents and such a memorable central character, success was inevitable – and the addition of a loveable dog sidekick made it even more so. I can’t resist asking how that element came about.
“Did you just have a dog and put it in the act?”
“No, I didn’t. I thought, you know what this act needs? A magic performing chihuahua. So I got one. And he’s sitting here next to me.”
I am a dog enthusiast to the point of making dog-owning strangers uncomfortable and I have promised myself that I will ask no more than one question about Mr Piffles. Still, at this, a quiet, “Is he?” is inevitable.
“Yeah,” says van der Put. “He’s going to sleep in front of the theatre lights because they’re nice and warm.”
I make a small, plaintive noise, but we manage to move on.
At present, as well as rehearsing for something he can’t tell me about, something else he can’t tell me about and his next full-length show, this very busy dragon is about to perform twice at Jackson’s Lane’s third annual Postcards festival. A celebration of all things circus and cabaret, Postcards is something of a hot ticket, and van der Put is performing on both weekends of the fortnight-long festival.
“So I’m doing my solo show on Saturday [15th June], which is the show that we toured last year, we toured it to Adelaide, we did the Soho, so we’re doing that – and then on 29th June, me and my friend Marawa, who is a hula-hooper and one of my best friends, are teaming up for a night of our favourite acts.”
When I ask who will be there it is, naturally, a surprise van der Put isn’t keen to spoil – though he does say that he and Marawa, “have spent our lives doing the best cabaret nights in the world, you know, she’s in the soiree and goes around the world doing that… so all these people that we’ve worked with and gone, ‘you know what, you’ve got an amazing act’, we’ve invited them along to do the show.”
Though van der Put likes the cabaret scene and is pleased to be a part of it, he’s definitely aware that his act is as much about the comedy as the magic, which enables him to be a little more mainstream. I concur, at least in the sense that there are certainly people who wouldn’t otherwise think of going to see a straight magic show, but adore Piff. The dragon suit casts van der Put firmly as the butt of every joke, so audiences are bound to trust him, whereas, I say tentatively, “sometimes other magicians can come off as being a bit…smug?”
“Oh yeah,” he says, “that’s the word, that’s the word for it. I mean like, basically my act is sort of a reaction to all of that stuff. I actually didn’t like magic growing up, as a kid… And I basically like about 5% of magic nowadays.”
That makes me briefly nervous to discuss the subject further, but I needn’t be – when I ask who his favourite magicians are, if any, he soon begins to enthuse about Barry and Stuart, as well as “people like Penn & Teller, Matt King …Copperfield I love, Copperfield’s hilarious, one of my favourite acts.”
“What I do is just sort of a stand-up magic act with comedy,” he reminds me. “If people care too much about how it’s done, that means I’m not being funny enough.”
Eventually he has to rush off, back to the mystery project, and I turn off my dictaphone, wondering if I will ever have another pleasant afternoon chat with a dragon. It is not until much later that evening that I hear from van der Put one last time: alone in my kitchen, I receive a text message that makes me say, ‘Oooh!’ so loudly that the cat standing in my garden looks genuinely startled.
“So apparently,” says the text, it is “all cool to talk about my current project, which is creating the magic for Punchdrunk’s latest show.”
If it is true to say that what comedy and magic have in common is the requirement of absolutely spot-on timing, the punchline or the reveal when you least expect it, then it is also fair to say that timing is something John van der Put has in spades.
Piff the Magic Dragon will be performing as part of the Postcards Festival at Jackson’s Lane on the 15th and 29th June and at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, from 1st-25th August 2013.