My taste in performance material is getting pushed more and more out along the bell curve. I either want to do immersive effects that my audience really needs to invest in and that take all evening to play out, or I want to do a three second effect that happens with no fanfare and no preamble. I just have no need for a 3-4 minute routine. That feels like a 14 month relationship to me. Let's either be in it for the long haul or let's have a hot few weeks together.
Of course, that's a little bullshit on my part too. I'm sure most of the things I regularly perform take 1-4 minutes to play out. But the things I enjoy performing most are much longer or much shorter than that.
I wanted to test out some variations on micro-performances (things that play out over a few seconds), so I drafted some readers to help me out. For a long time now I've developed the feeling that the more focus you put on a short trick, the less impact it has. This evolved into something I first talked about with The Distracted Artist Presentation. DAP isn't about no presentation, it's about no trick.
So I had four people present the same effect three ways. And then I had them make note of if the spectator ever mentioned the effect again, and if so, how long after the effect did it happen. For me, that is the sign of a successful trick. It's resonant.
We have a tendency to judge a trick's power by its initial reaction. So we think a jump and a freakout is the best we can hope for. And it is great to get those reactions but I don't think they're the most powerful reactions.
When were you the most scared in your life? Was it the time someone jumped out from behind a corner and screamed at you? I mean, you jumped and yelled which indicates fear, but that moment doesn't really stay with you. But hearing someone rattle a doorknob when you're home alone, peaking out a window and seeing the shadow of someone scurry by; that will stick with you for the rest of your life, even if you never jumped or made a sound more than a quiet whimper.
I value magic that sticks with you over magic that initially shocks you, so the metric we used for the "power" of the trick was how long after it was performed was it brought up again.
The trick was simple. A quarter is borrowed, the magician takes it, unwraps it, and eats the chocolate inside.
The three presentations were:
The "Patter" Presentation - "You know, when I was a kid my parents never let me have candy of any kind. When I took up magic there were all these tricks in books about how to change pennies into quarters and things like that. But the only coin trick I ever practiced was how to change regular quarters... into chocolate quarters."
I would consider this a somewhat standard magic presentation for this type of effect.
The No-Presentation Presentation - We would borrow the quarter then say, "look," and do the effect.
The Distracted Artist Presentation - For this to make sense we'd perform somewhere where you could sit down to eat, and there were also gumball-style vending machines filled with candy in the establishment. This is true of a lot of cheap, primarily take-out, Chinese restaurants in NYC. The way it would play out was this, the performer would say, "Do you have a quarter? I want to get some candy." And he would nod his head towards the gumball machines. Once the other person put the coin on the table, the performer would continue the conversation they were having and, at some point, casually pick up the quarter, unwrap it and eat it. The only instructions I gave the performers after that was to act equally confused for at least a minute after the performance. And if the person was still questioning them after that point, they could loop around to the patter presentation given above. So it would go something like this:
Magician: [performs effect] ... and she really needs to stand up for herself.
Spectator: What was that?!
Spectator: What you just ate.
Magician: Oh, right. Thanks.
Spectator: What was it?
Magician: The chocolate quarter you gave me.
Spectator: I didn't give you a chocolate quarter.
Magician: Wait... what? This is the coin you just gave me, yes?
Spectator: But it wasn't a chocolate coin.
Magician: Yes, it is.
Magician: I asked for a quarter because I wanted something sweet. Why else would you give me a chocolate coin?
Spectator: I didn't, I... I thought you wanted some candy from over there.
Magician: Oh. I see. I thought you'd given me a chocolate coin because I said I wanted some candy.
Spectator: You thought I just happened to have a chocolate coin on me?
Magician: I didn't give it that much thought to be honest.
Spectator: That wasn't a chocolate coin.
Magician: Sure it is.
Spectator: I'm so confused. You did something.
Magician: No I didn't. Well... maybe. I mean, when I was a kid first learning magic I did practice changing regular coins into chocolate coins because my parents wouldn't let me have candy. But I haven't done that for 20 years. I think you just gave me a chocolate coin.
So, I had four guys, who each performed the coin to chocolate coin effect for three people, and they did it once in each of these styles. So it was performed for 12 people altogether by four different magicians. Yes, that's not scientific. When I get my research grant to study magic I'll have much stricter scientific controls. Get off my back. As it is, I paid for 24 Chinese meals for this dumb experiment. That was a big enough investment without getting into double-blind testing.
I asked the guys to note if the trick was brought up again after the initial performance had died down and to note how long after it was mentioned. One other thing, in all the versions I asked them to leave the foil wrapping on the table as a reminder of the trick.
Patter Presentation: Brought up 2 minutes after the effect.
NO Presentation: Not mentioned again.
Distracted-Artist Presentation: Brought up twice at 3 minutes and 8 minutes after the effect.
Patter Presentation: Not mentioned again.
NO Presentation: Not mentioned again.
Distracted-Artist Presentation: Mentioned 12 minutes after the effect.
Notes: "She brought up the trick on the way out of the restaurant when we passed the gumball machines."
Patter Presentation: Mentioned again 1 hour and 8 minutes after the effect.
NO Presentation: Mentioned again 5 minutes after the effect.
Distracted-Artist Presentation: Mentioned numerous times throughout the night. Last mention was just under 6 hours after the performance.
Notes: T.T. lives in a large loft in Brooklyn with 14 other people. His performances were for three of the people he lived with so the opportunity for them to bring it up extended further into the evening.
Patter Presentation: Not mentioned again.
NO Presentation: Mentioned again 11 minutes after the effect.
Distracted-Artist Presentation: Mentioned 8 minutes after the effect and 92 minutes after the effect. Then mentioned again over text 4 days later.
Does this prove anything? No, not really, I suppose. But it does match up with my experience that short pieces of magic resonate the longest when they are not presented as magic performances.
Here is my hypothesis on why that is. I think when people go to a magic show, they want to see a magic show (very bold statement, I know). But when magic is thrust upon them, in a casual setting or in a walkaround magic situation where they don't know it's coming, I think there is -- at least in part -- a sense of "I didn't ask for this. Since he's doing something I didn't ask for, he must be doing it for his gain. He must be showing off." No, maybe they're not consciously thinking that, but on some level I think they are.
Walk down the street and hand someone who's not asking for money a 50 dollar bill. The normal reaction is not, "Oh, wow, thanks! You're so kind. What a good person you are." The reaction is suspicion and maybe even refusal of your gift. I think that can happen with magic too. You think, "I'm doing something nice. I'm providing them a moment of mystery." And they're thinking, "What's this all about now?" And with a short trick there's no time to tear down that suspicion. The whole thing happens in that cloud of uncertainty.
But to allow the effect to happen with no forewarning -- without even saying, "Look, look,"-- you get to have your moment of magic before they can put up any guard of skepticism about the trick or about your motives. And because you're not immediately taking credit for it, you continue to block any resistance they might otherwise have. Let's go back on the street and instead of handing someone $50, you just point to the bill by their foot. "Did you drop that?" Now there is no skepticism or wariness, they just pick it up and happily pocket it.
To be clear, you're not pranking people. This isn't The Carbonaro Effect where you're doing magic under the guise of someone who doesn't do magic. This is just a way of giving them that magic moment without the awkwardness inherent in many magical performances. There's no neediness. There's no suggestion that you want "your powers" to be recognized. There's no sense that you're like, "Okay, I've done something great, now you acknowledge me for it." They are free to let the moment pass as quickly as they want or hold onto it for as long as they like. And what I've experienced, and was borne out in this experiment as well, is that people are more likely to allow this type of performance to rattle around in their mind than a more traditional style of presentation or lack of presentation.
I adopted this style because I wanted to perform more. But I would see talented friends of mine, performing strong magic, who would kind of be mocked a little for performing in social situations. It's not just magic. I've known people who sing at the drop of a hat in public and all my friends are like, "Enough with the singing." Even if you don't want attention (and I don't want attention) if you do any type of performance a lot you will seem like you crave attention. And that's off-putting to a lot of people. But if you say, "No, really, it's not about me. I'm doing this because I know you'll like it if you give it a shot." That's almost even worse. So I adopted this style to give them the benefit I wanted them to receive before they even knew it was coming.
Your legend, if you frequently adopt the Distracted Artist Presentation, is not of being someone who is always showing people tricks. Your legend is that you're someone whom strange and wonderful things happen around. Ultimately you are taking responsibility for these occurrences and you're not suggesting they're anything other than tricks. The story you're telling about yourself is that you're into magic, you studied it very hardcore as a kid, and sometimes you just absentmindedly end up "performing" something without even realizing. Like the artist doodling on a napkin. The study and practice of magic is so ill-understood that it almost feels believable that something like that could happen. Or, at the very least, it's such a pleasant fiction that no one bothers to fight it.
The final benefit to this performance style is that it gives people an opportunity to ask for more. Something cool and fun just happened which you've reluctantly taken credit for, after that a lot of people will want another hit off the pipe. Now you can go into a more standard magic presentation. They're no longer the random person on the street who you're forcing a $50 on. They're beggars. They're crackwhores. They want it. They need it. Just a little taste, daddy, of that sweet sweet magic.