Dr. Fred Siegel is a magician, professor, and comedian, as well as an actor, dancer, dream interpreter, and, well, he occasionally poses nude in photos. You could say he is truly a man of mystery, though I prefer to use the term “renaissance man.” His performances in both the classroom and on the stage are riveting and emotional, and you can see him at several locations around the city. I got a chance to catch up with Fred and ask him some questions about past, present, and future.
Fred got into magic before he left the Bronx back in 1967. For Chanukah that year, he and his brother got a magic kit. But it wasn’t until he got to Philadelphia that he seriously explored magic. Back in New York, his Uncle Phil used to pull quarters out of his ears, and years later, Fred was sending those quarters to Evanston, Illinois and Dallas, Texas to get catalogs from The Top Hat Magic Company and Douglas Magicland. “The line illustrations of sophisticated, mustachioed wizards performing for people whose eyes were literally popping out of their heads, served as great inspiration,” Fred said. Dr. Shock, “a television ghoul who showed monster movies on Saturday afternoons and did magic tricks,” was another favorite of Fred’s.
But what he refers to as “the capstone event” happened when he “saw ‘The Ape Girl’ at Million Dollar Pier in pre-casino Atlantic City. Satanya stood in a cage and visibly transformed into a gorilla. It was fake,” he added, “but it scared the sh*t out of me.”
Fred’s Magic World is Fred’s family-friendly show, which “grew out of a somewhat more artsy ensemble called ‘El Teatro Narcistico.'” Their specialization was in “Autobiographical Vaudeville,” which evolved from Fred’s graduate work as a PhD in Performance Studies at NYU. “I liked Spalding Gray, Linda Montano, Rachel Rosenthal, Karen Finley, and some other folks who made a wide range of very personal performance pieces,” Fred explained. “The original version of Fred’s Magic World was my first attempt to combine the autobiographical stuff with a really good magic show. I’m still working on it.”
But it wasn’t originally intended as a family-oriented show. It turns out that “if you have magic in the title, family audiences show up.” They changed up their routine to accommodate families, and decided to put their more mature themes under different names.
Speaking of family, part of Fred’s Magic World is the Rosen Sisters, who don’t just play sisters in the show – they’re sisters in real life. In fact, Gail is Fred’s wife, and Deborah is married to Eric Van Wie, who Fred met through ComedySportz, and who he refers to as “the wacky comedy and escape artist guy in our group.” So they’re not just his magic crew – they’re his family. “I love my family and I love performing with them,” Fred said. He knew Gail way back in high school, as the “sophisticated senior” who “deigned to sit at the lunch table with Gail and her tenth grade girlfriends.” They started dating fifteen years later when they ran into each other at a party. I would definitely call that “magical.”
Let’s move next to ComedySportz – how did Fred get involved with that? There were auditions for the group back when Fred was in “an interactive production called Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral in which I played the performance artist grandson of the deceased. I had fun making stuff up and playing with the audiences,” he said. ComedySportz was new to Philly, and was “part of a franchise of competitive improv teams across the country. It was something like the television show Whose Line is it Anyway?” His time with ComedySportz was tumultuous – his audition was fantastic, but then he “sucked for two years,” after which he was decent for seven years, then left for nine years, and came back a year and a half ago, because he “wanted more fun.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t already have a lot of fun, but some of the other performances he does are certainly more serious. Fred is also involved in another improv group called Tongue & Groove, which “performs one-hour shows based on audience suggestions. It’s different from most improv shows, because we try to be closer to real life. Also,” he added, “it’s not necessarily funny—although there is usually a balance.” Fred went on to give an example: “In our show Secrets, members of the audience write anonymous secrets on cards. At the top of the show we read some out, then perform scenes and monologues based on the themes suggested. I have a great time. I love to be vulnerable on stage.”
The yearly advertisements for Tongue & Groove show the team naked, “although our controversial bits are artfully concealed.” Why pose nude? “It’s really a metaphor for the emotional nakedness we go for in our show.”
My favorite show Fred was in was called “Suburban Love Songs,” a “comedy ballet about suburbanites” that was in the 2006 Philadelphia Fringe Festival and was resurrected in 2008 by 1812 Productions. Karen Getz, Fred’s friend from ComedySportz, is a choreographer and composer, and she “created this ballet featuring funny friends who act but who aren’t exactly dancers.” This lovely interpretation of a Tupperware Party is a “wordless show set in the late 1960’s,” in which Fred “played a middle-aged swinger/hippie wannabee.” The cast won a Barrymore Award for best ensemble, and Fred can now proudly say “I am a freaking dancer.”
When I asked Fred how he works his magic into teaching, he said that for the most part, he doesn’t – though this term, he’s trying something new: “In a writing class based on a deception theme, the final project is about researching, practicing, and performing a magic trick. The more I think about it, the more I like it. The process of composing a performance is, in many ways, similar to the process of composing a written work. I hope my students enjoy the novelty of it, and learn something about composition. I also hope that my passion for this subject will serve to provide some excitement.” Having taken a few courses with Fred, I can absolutely say that the last part has always been true: his passion has been inspirational.
Wondering where you can see Fred perform? Tongue & Groove performs every second Friday of the month at the Adrienne Theater over on Sansom, and Fred will be performing in their Mothers’ Day show this Friday, May 8. The show is called “OH, MOTHER! and tickets are $15 (and can be purchased here). ComedySportz has two performances every Saturday, also at the Adrienne, but Fred won’t be performing in those this month. “I’m off this month because I’m getting ready for a re-boot of Man of Mystery, my autobiographical magic show,” Fred said. This will open on the first Friday of June, and will appear every first Friday for the remainder of the year. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.
And, finally, the best news yet: “I have been working on a sketch about a cat psychiatrist. I’ll keep you posted. Meow.”
To keep up with Fred, be sure to check out his website: www.fredsmagicworld.com