Invigorating Our Magic Performance Culture

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Michael Kras, May 24, 2015.

  1. 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.
    Brett Hurley and Casey Rudd like this.
  2. I agree on a lot of points, especially the performance aspect of it... one thing though is we never want to forget the 'Magic'. performance with no magical substance or content is story telling to a point. the Magic has to be as strong and as important or why do Magic?. I've seen many who present for 5+ minutes and the audiences gets lost, sometimes the audience just wants to see the Magic. we have to be able to read our audiences and adapt to each situation and atmosphere whilst keeping the importance of theatrics and performance, as well as the magic!

    Well done writing though, i applaud
  3. I agree that there has to be more than just the "trick." I disagree that magic and theatre are the same thing.

    The main difference between magic and theatre is that in magic there is not a fourth wall separating the performers from the audience. The absence of the fourth wall is most consipicious in the performance of close-up magic. Close up magic is more of a conversation than theatre. For parlor magic, the fourth wall doesn't exist because the audience (the enitre audience, not one or two spectator) should become part of the show. For stage magic, it does tilt more toward theatre because the interaction is limited to selected spectators for selected routnes.

    That being said, I agree there are connections and parallels that need to be explored. Let's examine your connections.

    The trick and the method. It is both 10% and 100% in magic. You acknowledge the 100% aspect by essentially saying that the design and execution of the effect must be flawless. But I think one aspect that concept deserves more attention. The design of the effect is crucial. Design includes the clarity of the effect (what actually happens), the methods used (are they natural), the props used (are they convincing) as well as the means by which the magician demonstrates the impossibility of the effect. Concepts like the "too perfect" theory (which I disagree with, at least in the area of the suggested remedy) and the discussions of design in Tamaritz's the Magic Way (which I think is very useful in construction but can become an obsticle if unquestioningly adhered to) are relevant here. The use of any moves where the audience can sense "something" and the lack of justification for doing any action ruins the magic (you can see the influence of Roberto Giobbi in that stataement). If you get the design and execution down, then at that point it is only 10% of the performance and even less from the audience's perspective. However, getting the design and execution down is easier said than done. A full theory of magic needs to extensively focus on those areas -- otherwise everything else is like putting lipstick on a pig. So how do you get a well designed and executed effect?

    Magic as a performance art. This relates back to my thoughts on the applicability of theatre. My sense is that you are really talking about making magic more interactive with the audience - which may or may not fall within the definition of performance art (which can include some very strange pieces that I wouldn't classify as performance or art). I think that we are agreeing here, but my only difference is that I don't think that interactivity necessarily is part of theatre -- "To be or not to be that is the question... let me see, you back there in the green shirt, what do you think? How about your wife next to you? Is it far better...." You get the point. So my question again is "how do you take advantage of having a live audience?" I'm guessing you aren't talking about using a hand gag. You give an idea no suggestions how to implement it.

    Use of cliche. Again, I quibble about the title. Bogart (and you) seem to use the word "cliche" out of it's typical context and define it a a conection with what the audience considers familiar. This seems to be common sense - an audience will be interested in things that are familiar. Taking about the Avengers will not interest the over 60 crowd where the under 20 crowd won't get your reference to a dial telephone. However, the interest in the familiar seems to discount that audiences will be interest in something novel. Magicians in the early 1900s did routines that were said to have their origins in the Orient or in India. I can easily see an audience today interested in a presentation based on historical sects and cults or ideas in astrophysics or psychology with which they have no familiarity. Think about a seance - most people aren't familiar with it but it draws their interest. I'd be interested in your examples of cliches and how they can be twisted into something new. The best I can come up with is my Benson Burner routine which uses sponge bunnies and a collapsable top hat. Again, the rabbit in a hat is cliche in the typical context -- which I'm not sure you are using. What is a cliche and how does it get twisted?

    Conditions. I think what you are saying is that we need to demonstrate the impossibility of our effect by eliminating potential methods without being obvious about it. If you haven't read Tamariz's The Magic Way, get it and read it. Also, look into the Too Perfect theory (I can send you copies of the old Genii articles if you are interested and here is a good discussion in the Books of Wonder). Although I agree that you need to disprove methods without being obvious, I disagree with your example. Let's start with some examples we would agree on. Asking the spectator to look through the deck face up and pick any card they want would eliminate, in laymans terms, using a trick deck and somehow making them pick a card. Asking a spectator if a selection was "fair" doesn't prove anything.

    For your example, I don't think a signed card adds to any effect for a layperson. If the layperson has the deck and notices that their card isn't in there and then they name the card and it is in the performer's shoe, that is a really good effect. Although the concepts of a force and a duplicate are familar to us, they are not that familiar to a lay audience. If someone has a basic knowledge of magic, a control and a palm aren't more unknown that a force and a duplicate. I also think that the "commit in writing" distracts as much from the effect as the "make it personal." I also think that offering the spectator the chance to change their card also is distracting (you are focusing on disproving a method without any reason). I also don't see how you telling the person to sign the card as a contract has the audience setting up its own conditions (your idea, not theirs) and I don't see how signing a card as a contract is familiar (you sign on papers on the dotted line, not on a playing card, coin or napkin). To meet your criteria, you would have to ask the spectator "is there something you would like to do to make sure we all remember which card is your card?" and they respond "I can put my name on it." Probably not going to happen. Better to ask, "Are you sure you will remember what card is yours?" If they say "no" your are good. If not, ask, "Will you remember it tomorrow?" Keep going with next week, next month, next year, etc. At some point they will say no. Then say, "The easiest way to make sure we all remember which card is yours is for you to write something like your name on it or to draw a picture. Go ahead, make your card memorable." Don't say the trite lines like "your phone number" or "your bank account number" (magic should not be cringworthy). Later, ask the person if they remember their card (but don't let them name it) and then ask an audience member if they remember which card it was. Chances are you get someone to say "its the one he drew a picture on."

    One final note. I think that you are missing a major element of the similarity of magic and theatre. That would be the ability (I would say the necessity) to convey meaning and emotion. I think that is really what the word "art" refers to -- the sense of meaning or emotion we draw from a performance. You don't get meaning and emotion without scripting and without an established character. Without meaning and emotion, magic is just a trick.
  4. I absolutely agree that magic is theatre. The fourth wall aspect represents only a portion of theatre- not a defining aspect of what theatre is. However, with regards to the semantics, the term ‘performance art’ is probably a more understood term for those not in the theatre world.

    That said, David, your comment about the fourth wall, is something that needs to be addressed more. In the sense that we see, talk about, and address those we perform for as our spectators.

    Spectators spectate. They watch. They observe.

    Don’t we want them to instead to experience, engage, & participate?

    I think it has been very helpful to change my language to no longer address them as my audience, or spectators (as countess magic books do), and instead call them participants.

    I now think through my show and ask myself, ‘are they participating, or just observing?’ ‘Are they being an audience for this effect, or are they part of what is going on?’ It is my desire to bring as many people in on what is happening as possible. This doesn’t mean that every single effect HAS to have every person in the room picking cards, but it does mean that they need to participate and help out in some way. Sometimes I have them vote by applause, make sound effects for me, encourage volunteers on stage, etc. Then I have a few effects I do where everyone participates (and currently three effects that they just watch).

    Some magic, is great to just watch – magic routines done to music for example (We’ve all watched hours of clips of some beautiful magic performances by some great magicians – (we can so appreciate guys like Fred Kapps and David Copperfield Flying). But I want my show to help them experience magic and mystery. I want them to leave saying “Wow, I’ve watched magicians before, but it was amazing to actually experience it.” I remember when my wife and I saw Steve Cohen’s show in NY, and I had a pretty good guess at how his classic trick ‘Think a Drink’ was done. At least, I knew how I would do it. But when I wrote down “Coffee with two cream and two sugar” (because I like my coffee a certain way ;) ) My card was picked as one of the drinks, the card was shown – my writing, and then poured out and tasted to be confirmed – unbelievable. I participated. It changed for me.

    My personal tagline on my website is “Experience the Impossible” because I want clients to hire me to create an experience for their friends and coworkers, not just put on a good show.

    Too often when doing close up we treat the people we perform for as though there is a fourth wall as soon as their card is selected. After it’s returned we then do something amazing and leave them to just watch. Sure sometimes it’s perfectly fine and absolutely appropriate to use them as spectators, but it will always be far more meaningful for them if they are engaged the entire time.
  5. To echo what Justin said, the 'fourth wall' far from represents Theatre, and my training in fact abolishes it completely. The progressive wave of theatre artists, myself included, are creating theatre that embraces the fact that theatre is a live, human experience. So the audience is not just 'observing', but they are actively involved and their actions truly matter to what's happening. There's a sense that what is happening in the space is live, fallible, changing, and couldn't be happening without the audience.

    The same goes for magic. And magic, like theatre, is equally capable to evoke emotion and meaning... which is much of what I talk about in my essay. We must make the audience care about our success or failure, and to do that, what we're doing must be tangible to them. I agree the definition of 'cliche' is slightly wonky, but I was just trying to be true to Anne Bogart, whose essay on Cliché in her excellent book A Director Prepares inspired a lot of my thoughts.

    Technically, magic is not theatre, and theatre is not magic. But they are still virtually the same in countless regards, to the point where I regard and study them as if they are the same thing.

    The other book of value (And Justin, it sounds like you'd love this one) is called Theatre of the Unimpressed by Jordan Tannahill. In it, Tannahill talks about the potential to revitalize our live performance culture by embracing the fact that theatre is, in fact, live, and can give you something that Netflix simply can't. It talks about a theatre that the audience can physically, tangibly engage with. Why do we sit in a dark theatre and watch a play in which the actors ignore the fact that we're present in the room with them? We might as well stay home and watch Netflix. And magic has built in potential for that live engagement and participation which I believe is far from fully realized and deeply explored.

    RealityOne, no, duplicates are not a commonly known thing among spectators.... but when an impossibility has occurred, it is the most readily arrived-at solution. A signed card not only personalizes the object in a more meaningful way, but it also does, whether the audience consciously knows it or not, strengthen the effect.

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