Spectator Involvement

I received an email in regards to my post on Las Vegas Leaper that said, in part:

Should I endeavour to add the element of spectator discretion to the trick? I mean, I like doing that whenever it’s logical and hardly cumbersome; e.g., the cigarette-ash-in-spectator’s-hand trick, not that anyone smokes any longer.

Given how direct and powerful LVL already is, I’m not entirely certain, though.

I understand the question he's asking and it makes me think I didn't do a great job expressing why you would want to perform that trick in the manner I suggested. And I think there is value in looking at this a little more closely because there is a lesson there that can be applied to a lot of other tricks. 

My response to the email was this:

To be clear, the purpose is only to make it more direct and powerful. Involving the spectator is just a byproduct. The weakness in the traditional effect is the arbitrariness of sending across three cards. 

Think of it this way, if I make 4 grapes magically appear in my empty refrigerator, it might be a pretty good trick. But it's easy for the spectator to think, "Well, he must have had 4 grapes in there somehow without me knowing." But if I ask you to name a number and then I say, "There are now that many grapes in my refrigerator," the trick can no longer be, "How did he show me an empty fridge while hiding 4 grapes in there?" Asking them for a number isn't just about getting them involved, it's about making the effect impossible by throwing in something that is theoretically outside of the magician's control. 

As magicians we tend to segregate the components of the trick, because we know we need to do that in order to accomplish the effect. So we say, "How can I force or figure out the number he'll choose?" and, "How do I hide that many grapes in the refrigerator?" But I've found that spectators generally don't think like this. They just aggregate everything together. "He made the number of grapes I chose appear in the fridge!" It's just one thing. It's not, "He knew how many grapes I'd choose. And he had that number magically appear in the fridge." In the case of the Las Vegas Leaper tweak, it's about making the effect more impossible (not just about involving the spectator.)

But let's talk about spectator involvement. I think this is a misunderstood concept amongst magicians. People will often tell you that magic is more powerful when the spectator is involved. They will say that, and then they'll say something like, "That's why I ask them to hold their hand out so I can rest the deck on it." This sort of spectator involvement is what I call "Spectator As Table." It keeps them involved in the sense that they can't run away, but that's about it. One step up from this is when we have spectator's sign cards or things like that. This too is, technically, involving the spectator, but it's incidental. The key to good spectator involvement is this: Structure your tricks so the spectator feels their perception, actions, or choices will affect the process and/or outcome of the effect.

This is, of course, why mentalism often gets such a good reaction even when performed poorly. Most mentalism requires input from a spectator. In any effect where the spectator believes that what they're seeing is somehow unique to this moment, they will react stronger. This is not just true in magic, but in everyday life as well. If you're trying to make an impression on someone at a bar, you can recite a very well crafted pick-up line, but you will still make less of an impression than someone who says something mildly witty about the venue, the person they're talking to, or anything else that makes the interaction more personal. 

These opportunities for spectator involvement aren't always easy to find. But, like in Las Vegas Leaper, I believe they are there more often than we take advantage of. And when they hit, I think they can seriously strengthen the impact of an effect. And when they don't hit, they're completely forgotten, or you can choose to turn the miss into an aspect of your presentation.

I'll end with a somewhat simple example. It's not great magic, but it will be easy to follow the idea. Let's say you have a trick where you can make a red ball appear and then it changes to green.

You can present the trick that way -- "I'm magically producing a red ball, and now it changes to green" -- but from the spectator's perspective, they might as well be watching a youtube video.

Instead, you present it this way. 

"What's your favorite color?"

They say "red": You say, "Hmmm... red? I wouldn't have guessed that. Okay, if that's what you like." You close your empty hand and open it and a red ball appears. Perhaps you end the trick there. Or you can say that your favorite color is green and with a wave the ball turns green.

They say "green": You say, "Okay, green, that's a little unusual. But because I like you so much and I'm such a good magician, I will make a ball of your favorite color appear." You close your empty hand and open it and a red ball appears. "You're welcome," you say.

They say, "That's not my favorite color."

You say, "Ugghhh... this is so like you. You never give me credit for anything." 

"No," they say, "I said green."

"Exactly!" And now when they look back at the ball it's green.

They say "blue" [or any other color]: You say, "I'm so envious. I wish I had a favorite color. I usually like red, so most days I'll go with that. [You make the red ball appear.] But I'm so fickle and sometimes I prefer the more organic feel of green. [You make it change color.] 

In this case the spectator involvement doesn't hit like we'd want. But asking someone their favorite color is still a completely valid way to start off talking about your lack of one particular favorite color, so it will never seem awkward or like a question that doesn't go anywhere.

Again, I'm not suggesting this is the world's greatest mystery, I just believe it's a simple example of spectator interaction that is more interesting and more powerful than the way we typically involve people in our effects.