Presentation Week: Addendum 1

I wanted to clarify my thoughts on story and presentation because at least a couple of people misunderstood what I was going for with some of the effects I covered in Presentation Week. One person described it as "bizarre magic." And another said I was turning things into "story tricks." Which is essentially the opposite of what I'm advocating. I realize it's human nature to try and put things in pre-established categories, but if that's what you got from my previous posts on presentation then I did a horrible job of explaining how I present effects. 

"Story" is central to both bizarre magic and story tricks. In bizarre magic it's usually some standard effect dressed up with some shit about Nosferatu or Jack the Ripper. That may play on stage, but I find in the real world, in social situations with real people, it just comes off as a "performance," not as an interaction. In informal magic, anything that seems rehearsed is an impediment from the person engaging in the reality you're attempting to establish.

Story tricks have a similar weakness. They're very clearly rehearsed and more often than not the story is obviously a weak justification for showing the trick. That's the wrong relationship. The presentation shouldn't be there to support the effect, the effect should be there to support the presentation.

When you look at things from this perspective you will come up with more interesting and engaging presentations. Instead of saying, "What's a story I can tell that will justify the actions and beats of this trick?" say, "What interesting or magical circumstance about me, my spectator, or the world around us could this trick possibly be evidence of?" Is this making any sense?

When I talk about "story" in regards to my presentations, I'm not talking about the story that accompanies the effect, I'm talking about the story of the effect.

Let me think of an example...

Okay, let's look at Triumph, because there we have a very standard example of what I would consider to be a bad presentation, i.e. "This one time a drunk guy shuffled my cards face-up and face-down." If you told this story without accompanying it with the trick people would say, " did you fight him or something?" Because where is that story going? Having your cards mixed up is not some huge affront. It takes 30 seconds to rearrange them. For that matter, in your story you just rearrange them by magic. So clearly it's a complete non-issue to you. It would be like you telling a story about a drunk who came in and scribbled with dry-erase marker on your dry-erase board. There are no stakes whatsoever.

So what might I suggest as a better presentation? I have no idea. I'm going to try and think of it now in real time and I will spell-out my thought process. It is now 4:59 PM.

Okay, now it's 5:03. Here is my first thought and it's not very good. What if you say you got your deck as a souvenir from the World Poker Tour. The people who run that thing have always had an issue with cards accidentally getting turned over during the course of shuffling and no one realizing it until someone gets dealt a face-up card during one of the hands of poker. And, of course, in that case the hand has to be abandoned and it's not really fair because that may prevent someone from a obtaining a big pot they would have won, or keep someone in the game who would have been out. So they created this deck with heavier density ink on the face of the card as compared to the back. So no matter which way the card is held, the face of the card will sink to the bottom. To demonstrate this you shuffle the cards face-up and face-down. Wait a beat. Then spread to show them all face down. 

Is this better than a drunk guy shuffling your cards? I think so. A little bit better at least. It's more convoluted but if you imagine it without a trick accompanying it, I think hearing about such a deck of cards is more interesting than a non-event with a drunk guy.

But for me it's too small. I said I think presentations should be about you, about your spectator, or about the world around you. And this is just a presentation about a special deck of cards. Yes, it is about a "world" where such a deck could exist. But I don't think it's too resonant to the average person. So I'll try to think of something else.

It's 5:16 

Okay, it's 5:34, and I've come up with an idea I would actually use which I think would go over well, but of course I don't really know because I just thought of it.

You're sitting with your friend and you open your laptop. "Have you seen gmail's undo feature?" you ask. They either have or haven't. If they haven't you show them when you send a message in gmail you're given an "Undo" option and you have 30 seconds to click it to "unsend" the email. [This is real, by the way.] "Want to see something weird?" you ask. Your friend says she does. She watches you go into your gmail account and write her an email that says, "I mixed up the deck of cards face-up and face-down." You click Send. Then you pick up the deck and shuffle it face up and face down and quickly go back to your laptop and click Undo.

You look at her for a moment and give her a beat to anticipate where this might be going. "Watch," you say. You spread the cards on the table and they are all face down again. You say, "You saw that, right? I'm not crazy?"

I would probably stop there. But you could put a finer point on it and continue. "I think somehow it not only undoes the sending of the email, but also whatever you write in the email gets undone in real life too. How is that possible?" (It's always fun to turn the situation around on the spectator and act like you need them to explain what's going on.)

You could then go on to show one or two more examples of this. It's a structure that would work with any effect where you seemingly change the status of something only for it to change back. So any torn and restored type thing or anything along those lines. You send her an email that says, "I broke the rubber band." You break a rubber band. Put it in her hand. Click Undo. And she opens her hand and the band is restored. The only limitation is that you have to do what you're going to do in under 30 seconds or the Undo button will disappear.

Here are the rules I find helpful to keep in mind when coming up with a presentation:

  1. If there's a story, the story should be in the first person. Save the stories about Norse gods for your parlor show.
  2. The heart of the effect should take place in the present. You can set up the trick with a story from the past ("One time this gypsy cursed me.") But then the effect takes place in this moment. ("And here's how that curse manifests itself now.") Performing effects where you're like, "This is what happened one time when a gambler met a magician," is just too many steps removed from the person you're performing for. 
  3. Nothing ever symbolizes anything in the effects I perform. The cards are cards, the coins are coins. I'm not using them to symbolize something else, but to demonstrate something. 

You can think my style is bullshit. I admit that I only know it works for me and can't say it would work for other people, but I don't really think I'm unique in any way, nor are the people I perform for. You don't need to try and perform things my way to see if it's better. Just tell someone you're working on something and ask them which of these shows they would prefer to see. Let them tell you which style of presentation is more appealing.

Show 1

  • Act 1 - The story of the time a drunk guy shuffled my deck face-up and face-down
  • Act 2 - The story of how red cards and black cards don't mix
  • Act 3 - The story of how the Ace of Spades is the "leader" ace and other aces follow it.
  • Act 4 - The story of an ambitious card
  • Act 5 - The story of how cannibal queens eat other cards

Show 2

  • Act 1 - I stop time
  • Act 2 - You help me practice how I'll take the Sultan of Brunei's money during this weekend's poker game
  • Act 3 - I show you my niece's drawings that predict future events
  • Act 4 - You take a pill that gives you hyper-attuned senses
  • Act 5 - We use gmail to erase 30-second chunks of time

You see the difference, yes? One set is passive, the other is immersive.

For me, magic is not about telling people stories. It's about giving them stories to tell.