Presentation Week Part 5: The Distracted Artist Presentation

And so Presentation Week comes to an end. I want to map out a little of how I personally use these types of presentations so we can recognize a hole and then fill it.

I've talked a lot this week about having big, weird, spectacular presentations whenever possible. Let's call these immersive presentations. In the 1989 New Yorker profile of Penn and Teller, Teller talks about what he wants people to get from his show. “I would like for people to have the experience I would like to have. Which is for a period of time I would like to have my attention compelled by something that moves me from one place to another, from one feeling to another, from one understanding to another—and hints at mysteries that somehow fit together... You start off at the beginning, and you come out and you feel like you’ve been someplace." That is what I'm going for. And I actually think it's easier to do this type of thing outside the confines of a theater, so the amateur performer is lucky in that way.

I have about 80 of these types of presentations which I cycle through. And these types of performances probably account for 40% of the material I show to other people. (There are those who suggest you only do a handful of tricks and do them well. Maybe a good idea for professionals, but if you're an amateur who would enjoy doing the same 6 tricks over and over, I have bad news for you. You might have brain damage.)

Yesterday I wrote about performing without patter and how I lead into those pieces. For me these are mostly card tricks and I only perform in this way for people who have expressed a real interest in seeing more magic. Essentially they have to beg me at some point. These are effects that are interesting in the moment but they don't lend themselves to a more dynamic presentation. I think of them kind of like action movies in that they're enjoyable to sit through but I'm not expecting my audience to remember a damn thing about it after 30 minutes. Unlike with the immersive presentations, my goal isn't to leave them with some crazy experience, but just to show them a good time. I have about 50 effects I perform in this style, (half of which I know cold, and the other half I'd have to reacquaint myself with for a few minutes before performing them) and they make up about 30% of my performances. 

The final 30% of the magic I do consists of non-performances. Let me clarify, I'm not talking about doing tricks without a presentation. I'm talking about doing a trick without there being a performance.

This idea came to me years ago. I was out to dinner with a friend of mine who is an artist. I'm fascinated by people who can draw because I have no skill in that area. We were at a diner in New Jersey. There were paper placemats and crayons on the table for kids to draw with. As we talked, my friend picked up a crayon and was distractedly doodling on the placemat. By the time our food came she had sketched this old guy in a neighboring booth. She had drawn something that was greater than anything I ever would and she didn't even acknowledge it or pay much attention to it as she was doing it. And I was kind of taken with the idea of art as a byproduct of boredom and just the notion of doodling in general. And I wanted to try and map that on to a magic performance.

We all understand the concept of someone distractedly sketching, or half-heartedly noodling around on an acoustic guitar. And we would kind of expect those things from artists or musicians. So if your art, hobby, interest, pastime or whatever you want to call it is magic -- the apparent manipulation of the laws that govern the world around you -- it seems like this should manifest itself in a bunch of small ways that don't begin with you saying, "Gather around everyone and let me show you something."

I experimented with this kind of presentation and Conjunction by Joshua Quinn. I'd be out to eat with someone and while we talked and waited for food I'd be making little tears in a business card. The magician is doodling. When I was done I'd just set down two linked paper circles torn from one business card and never say a word about it. When the person noticed it my response was, "Huh?" That's always my first response with the distracted artist presentation. "Huh? Oh.... that's bizarre." You've got to slow-play this. You're not being humble and you're not acting like you're not responsible for it, you're just not taking credit for it because you don't see it as something to take credit for. These things just happen. This is just some old muscle-memory of something you may have practiced once. It's like tapping out the cadence from your high school marching band on the table-top. If someone really presses you, then take a cue from our previous presentation discussion and give them something juicy to chew on while still distancing yourself from what happened. "Look, I don't know," you say. "I vaguely remember some math book in my grandpa's basement and it had this one chapter... something like depending on how you folded paper you could tear part of it in another dimension while keeping the part in this dimension intact or something. I know I read it, but I could never get it to work. This is just a fluke. I couldn't do it again in a million years."

The next one I remember doing a lot was Sticky Situation by Andy Leviss. We'd be at a restaurant and at some point I'd take the gum out of my mouth, stretch it back into an unchewed stick, wave it until it's re-wrapped, then set it down on the table for later (shuttle pass). When my dinner date would be like, what the...? and start questioning me, my response would build in this way:

  • Huh?

  • I did what?

  • That seems unlikely.

  • I'm pretty sure I swallowed my gum and pulled this stick from my pocket... didn't I?

  • Oh wait... no... you're right. I only had one piece left so I wanted to save this for later. [You say this as if that explains everything.]

  • Hmmm... honestly I wasn't paying attention. I must have read how to do it in a book or something, I guess. You know how there are those things you don't even remember learning? I guess it's one of those things.

After starting with those two effects, I essentially began performing everything I could that way. I'd get a hotdog from a street vendor and when I was done I'd vanish the napkin. I'd absentmindedly poke holes in my shirt and then heal them. I'd balance some silverware in impossible formations and as soon as my friend noticed, I too would notice and they'd >klang< back to the table. 

At first, about 50% of the time, the thing you do will go unnoticed. That's fine. Just let it be. You'll get better at choosing your spots. My batting average is much higher now. It only goes unnoticed maybe 1 in 20 times.

You can do almost any effect that is a single phase and uses normal objects this way. I've done ring flight this way where I ask to see their ring (Don't ask to "borrow" something. That's a performance term. This is a non-performance.) I ask to see the ring and ask if there's a story behind it. We talk. As I hand it back she grabs hold of my house key. She's confused. I'm confused. "Did you do that?" I ask. "That looks just like my house key." I pull my keys out and her ring is dangling from the key ring. I scratch my head. "You've gotta be kidding me." She squints and cocks her head at me. We trade our objects. The rest of the night whenever our paths cross we give each other a look.

People often praise magicians of the past and say, "It was like the magic was happening to him, not because of him." I agree this can be a powerful style of performance, but the guy is standing on a stage in a tux holding billiard balls, certainly that suggests he had some notion about what was to come. But when you're performing in the real world you can get a lot more mileage out of these types of presentations. The question of what you're responsible for, what you're doing consciously, what you're doing unconsciously -- nothing is immediately certain.

Do I think people believe these things are just really happening? It's a moot question because the answer is: I don't care. I'm not asking them to believe. And what you'll find is when you don't ask something of someone, they don't resist following the path you lay out. So in regards to this mystery you've left them with, their mind just might fill that void with what a critical mind would find unbelievable. When the unknown seems sinister we fill it with our fears, not our hopes. A babysitter hears a noise in the attic and she attributes it to a rat, a monster, a rapist, not Nick Jonas. But on the flip-side, if the unknown seems pleasant we will ascribe to it what we want it to be. So do they want to believe in the mystery or do they want to believe I choreographed the moment to provide them a little entertainment? I'm fine either way.

Get started with non-performing this weekend. Tomorrow morning, bring your loved one breakfast in bed, a bagel cut like this. (Thanks to Joe Mckay for bringing that video to my attention.) Make no mention of it. When they say something about it, rub your eyes as if you're still half asleep. "Huh. Well I'll be damned." 

(If there are other magicians in your bedroom, follow it up by saying, "I didn't think such a thing was possible without a key bagel. Am I right!? I don't know about a key bagel, but we definitely got the lox!!!" Then realize that you've just made a joke that is no less funny than at least half of what passes as comedy magic. Add "comedy magic show" to the offerings on your website.)