The Magic Cafe Forums - Invigorating Our Magic Performance Culture Here's a recent essay I wrote. Would love to hear your thoughts and get a discussion going! Invigorating Our Magic Performance Culture (or, What I Learned as a Magician Studying Theatre) _______________________________________________ Tricks aren’t enough. Most of us know this. But it’s no secret that plenty of magicians, especially new ones charting our territory unassisted, think that the tricks are the most important thing. In fact, they think our tricks can stand on their own with little to no intervention in the way of structured performance. As I learned magic, I was also immersed in theatre, so I’ve always considered the two art forms to be one and the same. When I went away to an acting conservatory to study and train as a theatre artist, this belief only strengthened and deepened. So it baffles me when I talk to people about how magic and theatre are the same thing, and they say “Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it.” I guess it is one way. And that might be our biggest problem. I've spent a lot of time drawing connections between the theatre practices I learned in school, and my work as a magician. And here, I want to lay out what I believe to be the most important aspects that cross over. Let’s break down what I think is, or at least should be, the structure of an effective and affecting performance of magic: The trick and method. (10%) Embracement of magic as a live performance art. (30%) Use of cliché. (30%) Conditions that are not ‘conditions’. (30%) As you can see, the lion’s share of our work must focus on elements relative to dramatic structure, and not to practical technique and methodology. Technical adeptness is crucial, of course; we must all physically carry out the technique of our magic work with proficiency and deceptiveness, or else there really is no trick. Our art depends on the opaqueness of the ‘inner workings.’ But it is, comparatively, a much smaller slice of the pie than many magicians will allow it to be. We obsess for hours in front of the mirror learning every new move that gets thrown our way. And we ignore what’s really important. The magic is what impresses us. The theatre is what makes us care. And with that, I’d like to further break down and elaborate the four points highlighted previously. I apologize of any of my points come across as patronizing... I'm certain you're familiar with much that I'll be talking about, but I’m attempting to be thorough. 1. The trick and method. The magician must have technical proficiency, and be able to perform the trick on a technical level with deceptiveness, simplicity, and naturalism. The physical journey from beginning to end must be crystal clear in order for the destination to resonate. In other words, it must be clear what has physically changed that the audience can read and accept as ‘impossible’. Though the audience knows there is some sort of hidden methodology that made the trick work, they must not have any hint of it. 2. Embracement of magic as a live performance art. Magic is live. Netflix is not. If your magic could be performed the exact same way on a television screen, something is wrong. So much live performance, whether it’s theatre, dance, opera, or countless other disciplines, has lost sight of why it’s live and why that is so special. In live performance, everything happens presently. Everything is fallible. Everything is human. So why perform as if we’re on a screen, by largely ignoring the audience and performing in spaces with an obvious divide between audience and performer? Magic has the automatic ‘leg up’ in terms of the fact that there is built-in audience participation in a lot of what we do. But it is crucial that we capitalize on this. Audience members are far more than the ‘card-picker’ or the ‘deck-shuffler’. Structure your work so that the audience members’ involvement and participation is not merely helpful, but crucial. Embrace the idea that what is happening could not be happening without the presence of your audience, and that their actions have a direct, human, and changeable effect on what is happening. They are as alive and involved as you are. 3. Use of cliché. It is easy to forget that magic should be rooted in the known or the knowable, because magic is a presentation of the impossible. For the impossibility to have impact and resonance, however, we must first root our magic in the truth. Anne Bogart, a theatre director from New York, theorizes about the use of ‘cliché’ in theatre: That we must not avoid cliché, but instead embrace and then twist it. In other words, we must first introduce something the audience tangibly knows to be true, something they can relate to on an intellectual and emotional level. Then, we take that cliché, and twist it into something new, something the audience has never seen before. The cliché is how we hook them, the twisting is how we keep them hooked. Magic has that ‘twist’ inherently; everything we do is something the audience has never seen before and will likely never see again. With that, it is up to us to establish our base: ‘Why the hell does the audience care about this?’ And that comes from introducing cliché. By structuring a dramatic premise that is relatable, and using it to take our audiences on a journey to the impossible, our magic can strengthen immeasurably. The trick itself stimulates the intellect… the theatre of it is what targets the viscera. 4. Conditions that aren’t ‘conditions’. Magic doesn’t exist without conditions: In order for something to be impossible, we must know what about it makes it impossible. However, we hurt these conditions by directly introducing them as conditions. The reason for this is because they are self-imposed obstacles. In the minds of our audiences, any obstacles we set up for ourselves are ones we are prepared and equipped to avoid. If we are setting up these conditions ourselves, it is obvious that we have a way around them, otherwise we wouldn’t be setting them. The most desirable way around this would be to allow the audience to create and impose any and all conditions for us… but that just isn’t possible the majority of the time, given the methodological requirements our work must fulfill to succeed. Therefore, these conditions, in order to be unsuspicious impositions, must be indirectly integrated into our work, or justified differently. For example, some card effects greatly and almost essentially benefit from the added condition of a spectator’s signature on the card. If the card is going to, say, vanish and reappear in your shoe, the signature is necessary to disprove the otherwise obvious methodological jumping point the spectator will reach: You had a duplicate. However, the tension completely deflates when we ask the spectator to sign a card and say it is to ‘make it a unique object so you know it’s the same card at the end.’ Clearly, we have our way of jumping this hurdle. So, why not incorporate the signature in an indirect way? If I have a card selected, I repeatedly ask the spectator if they're sure they want to commit to this particular card. Once they have explicitly said Yes, I then ask them to ‘commit to it in writing’ by signing the card. This not only side steps the ‘let’s add an obstacle’ approach, but also attaches the unusual practice of signing a card to something universally knowable: The procedure of signing a contract. Of course, this is a rather oblique representation of that, but it still ties the idea to something the audience can relate to. And later, when the impossibility is revealed, our audiences are perfectly smart enough to piece together the conditions for themselves. They themselves realize the impossibility of what has happened, because they see for themselves what made it impossible, without the performer’s need to deliberately prove it. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- These are all components to what I believe is a successful and dramatically powerful magic performance. Read as many books on theatre and acting as you do on magic and sleight of hand. These ideas and theories are not easily instituted, but I think a crucial stepping stone is for us to first think of ourselves not only as magicians, but as theatre artists.