For His Next Trick, This Professor Will Help You Become a Better Public Speaker

Students in Muhlenberg's Performance Magic class, taught by Phil La Porta '05, learn more than sleight of hand.

By: Meghan Kita  Thursday, October 12, 2017 04:30 PM

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Phil La Porta '05 (left), who teaches Performance Magic, and Jason Silberman '18 (right) are planning a show together on Friday, October 13. Photos courtesy of Phil La Porta and Jason Silberman.

On January 23, 2016, the city of Allentown got 30.2 inches of snow—a single-day accumulation record. Muhlenberg cancelled its classes and closed its academic buildings. Still, Phil La Porta '05, a part-time lecturer who teaches a spring-semester course called Performance Magic, emailed his students and offered to meet them in Seegers. He trudged nearly a mile from his home, walking down the middle of Chew Street to avoid the impassable sidewalks. And despite the knee-deep snow—which became thigh-deep by the class’s end—the entire roster showed up.

“I love this place and I’ll do anything for it,” La Porta says. “These students are the best I’ve had anywhere.”

La Porta, who’s also a physics instructor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., took an earlier iteration of the class when he was a physics student at Muhlenberg. Then, former philosophy professor Lawrence Hass was teaching it. The course has always been a melting pot of students (and instructors) from various disciplines with an interest in magic, La Porta says.

“It’s listed in the theatre department, but if you’re not a theatre major and you want to take it, you just need to talk to me first,” he says. “I want people from various majors.”

He recalls a reserved business student who took the class in order to hone his presentation skills. “At the end of the class I said, ‘You didn’t say three words on the first day. Now you’re on stage and you’re killing it,’” La Porta says. “’You get so much life skill out of this class. It’s about being able to communicate effectively, which is important everywhere.”

On Friday, October 13, La Porta will team up with one of those non-theatre students—media & communication and film major Jason Silberman '18—for an 8 p.m. show in the Seegers Union Event Space. Jason wrote his college admissions essay about magic, which he was already performing professionally as a high-school student, and he was able to meet La Porta during his campus visit. That Muhlenberg offered a magic class “was a huge selling point for me,” Jason says.

“Before taking this class, I never really had a style,” he adds. “Now, I make it as if I don’t do the magic; it just kind of happens. The things I’m doing on stage may seem spontaneous, but in reality they’re not—the things I say are scripted like a play, and my actions are choreographed like a dance,” which he learned in La Porta’s class as a first-year student. (A video of his end-of-class performance is below.)

After graduation, Jason plans to pursue magic full-time, making his own promotional materials using the graphic-design and film-editing skills he learned while working towards his majors. But the liberal arts education he received at Muhlenberg, which encouraged him to pursue interests outside those majors, helped him hone his ability to perform—an experience shared by La Porta.

“All the skills I learn as a magician make me a better teacher,” he says. “It’s how to engage an audience or a class and how to present info in a way students connect with.”