Intent and Approach

[If you're at Magi-Fest this weekend and you would like to connect with other Jerx readers on the down-low, use this subtle code phrase to see if they're part of the Jerx "in crowd." Stare at their crotch, lick your lips, and say, "Oooh, daddy, it looks like you're packing a long-barreled cum gun in your trousers." If they say, "Fully-loaded," then you know they're a fellow reader. If they say anything else, they're probably not a fan. Also, please let me know what they say.]

This is another long, rambly post about presentation. Don't worry, there won't be a ton of these. But things kind of reset with the beginning of year 2 and a lot of new readers have come to the site, so I want to clarify some things for those who haven't read the huge archive of posts. 

In his review for The Jerx, Volume One, Jamy Ian Swiss wrote this, in regards to some of the more immersive effects outlined in the book. 

[T]o me the situation risks leaving the participant with an underlying sense, when the dust settles, of having been the victim of a practical joke. I am willing to accept at face value that the author manages to avoid this, largely by way of his degree of conviction and commitment, and probably a fair degree of personal charm. But I’m not much of a practical joker, and the kind of magic that is sometimes presented with that implied sensibility invariably rubs me the wrong way. At the end, the spectator recognizes that you were prepared for the event, you planned it, you carried it out, you made it happen. Some people will delight in that. Some might be profoundly turned off by the sensation of a sneak attack.

While his assessment of my "fair degree of personal charm" is spot on, I don't think his apprehension about people feeling like they were taken, or the victims of a "sneak attack" is a real concern, even for a charmless bastard like you. Or, at least, it shouldn't be.

I can understand why Jamy thought it could be an issue. One of the reasons I was not particularly hyped to have The Jerx, Volume One reviewed in Genii or other places is that I felt there was a good chance of it being misunderstood. Not because it's so "deep" or "revolutionary," but just because it's kind of a companion piece to this site. I didn't know how well it would work as a stand-alone thing. (As it turned out, I was fortunate to get really positive reviews from Kainoa Harbottle and Jamy Swiss, as well as from John Lovick in his review of AATKT. So now I'm happy they exist and are "in the record," so to speak.) And without the background of having followed this site, it's possible the intent and approach I take when performing wasn't 100% clear. (It may also be due to a failure of my writing because there were a couple issues in Jamy's review where he got what I was intending completely backwards.)

So, for new readers, and as a reminder to old readers, I want to talk about intent and approach. And also give you the rules I follow to keep my style of presentation a fun experience rather than a manipulative one.

First, my history, quickly.

For a long time I didn't perform much because it made me feel awkward. I didn't like performing because I was accustomed to seeing magic as an exhibition of my skill or power. In the best case scenario, people walked away thinking I possibly possessed these abilities. In the worst case they walked away thinking I wanted them to believe I had such skills or powers and just did a bad job faking it.

People would say, "Ah, to perform magic for someone is to give them a gift!" But if that's true, it's often like giving someone a gift that consists of a framed picture of you flexing your muscles. Like, yes, technically that's a gift. But it seems designed to reflect attention back on the giver.

I think a lot of amateurs have this feeling about magic, and so they become people who study magic, but never performed it. That's where I was until I realized I was like a person who read a bunch of cookbooks but never cooked anything. And that's kind of retarded.

What I wanted to do was shift the emphasis off me and on to the experience. (This entire blog could be seen to be the results of those efforts.)

We are accustomed to presenting magic with a certain pace to it. There is a traditional rhythm to performing that is nearly identical between the professional and the amateur. What I was trying to do was take all of the prevailing rhythms away.

And that leaves us with something new. And it's new for both the performer and the audience. If you're interested in the style I suggest here, you have to get used to it. And you have to ease others into it as well.

Here are the rules I follow to draw people into this style of presentation. And once they're in, you don't have to worry about them feeling tricked or manipulated. They're on board.

1. Start slowly - My first trick for someone is never some two-hour weird excursion that comes out of the blue. Instead it's something quick, done in one of the pared-down performance styles I've mentioned on this site. If they're receptive to this then I can push the boundaries on each subsequent performance. Eventually they are just game for whatever you do because there is a history there of them buying in and being rewarded with an interesting experience. Imagine I take you on five dates and we have a really great time. If I suggest we go on a weekend trip, you're not going to think, "This will probably suck," you're going to be pretty positive it will be worth the effort. (And come on, baby, it's been five dates. When are you going to put out?)

2. Perform for people who enjoy seeing this type of stuff - This may seem obvious, but you will read on the Cafe questions about how to perform for people who don't like magic, or grabby spectators, or people who are constantly trying to expose what you're doing. The simple answer is, you don't. Don't bother with them. Seek out the people who are into these types of experiences and proceed with them. That way the experience will feel like something they invited upon themselves, not something that was forced on them. 

3. Don't toy with their emotions

Here's a joke you can tell your friends:

You: Did you hear about that actress who stabbed her husband?

Them: No. 

You: Yeah. She stabbed him to death. It was... dammit, what's her name? Uhm... Reese... Reese...

Them: Witherspoon?

You: No. With her knife.

Do people get upset when you tell them this joke? Are they bothered to find out it wasn't a real news story and instead just a bad pun? Do they feel set up? No, because they didn't invest much into it. And they realize that you were setting them up for their benefit.

Traditionally magic has felt like a set-up for the magician's benefit. And that's a bad corner to paint yourself into. Magic can never feel like a "gift" when it's self-serving or manipulative. 

The key is I'm not toying with their emotions by trying to present something as real. I interest them with something obviously fantastic. I don't play around with something hyper-personal to them. If their kid died in a house-fire, I'm not like, "I call upon the ghost of little Toby to move this sponge ball from my hand to yours." I don't even like presentations where it's like, "Our cards matched because we have such a strong connection." I think that's pretty creepy. Instead I like presentations for my immersive effects that are based on alternate universes, time travel, ghosts, esp, aliens, haunted locations, secret societies, long lost twins, dreams, ancient curses and those sorts of things. Things that are interesting, but things that no one takes so personally that they would feel duped or suckered for being wrapped up in them for a moment. As I've stated before, my absolute favorite style of performance is to suggest that what's about to happen is due to something the spectator knows is nonsense. And then do something which gives them no other explanation to fall back on other than that same nonsense. (See The Sealed Room With the Little Door)

Look at something like, "Will You Let Me Into Your Dream." (I'm singling out that one because it's one of the only tricks on this site I haven't had the opportunity to perform myself, so I can look at it as an outsider.) It was a four-day effect when my friend performed it. At the end, everything comes together and it's clear it was all part of a trick. Would anyone feel manipulated or set-up if they were on the receiving end of this? I can't picture that. It's not at a trick at their expense. You would only bother performing it for someone who was into that sort of experience. Someone who would see it as a trick for their benefit.

A practical joke implies someone believing something is real and then finding out it's not. What I want is for them to not know what to believe and then have that ambiguity crystalize into a unique experience.

So the main reason the style I advocate for doesn't come off as a practical joke is that people are under no delusions about what they're seeing. They know it's a trick. The dichotomy of this style is that I suggest removing yourself as the magician behind the effect, but I don't suggest you remove the notion that it's a trickI never want the spectator to think, "I thought it was going to be something cool, but then it turned out to just be a trick." I want them to feel like, "I knew it was a trick, but it turned out to be something cool." 

As I've said before, I want the trick to feel real in the moment. You go to the movies and you know you're going to a movie, afterwards you know you've seen a movie, but in-between you get caught up in it. 

The point of not taking credit for what is occurring is not so people really think it's a voodoo ritual (or whatever) that caused the effect. It's for three different reasons.

First, it's to free the spectator from feeling obligated to acknowledge your talent/skill. I often find, outside of a formal magic performance, people are a little awkward about how to respond to magic. If someone plays the flute for you—or does any kind of artistic performance— you feel compelled to say, "Hey, nice job," when they're done. But magic, whether it's done well or poorly, is a different thing altogether. They're not quite sure whether to treat it like a trick, or if you want them to pretend you really read their mind, or what. What are they supposed to be complimenting you on?

Second, it puts the two of you on the same side. You're experiencing something together. You can guide their reactions by your reaction.

Third, it forces them to sit with the mystery a little while longer. I had the experience, literally just fours ago, of performing a trick in a fairly traditional way, and the woman I was showing the trick to said, "Ah, you just did something without me seeing it." Like, that was her explanation for how I did it. So she essentially wrote off the whole thing almost immediately. How did that magical thing just happen? Well, he did a trick. If instead I had come up with an alternative presentation that took the focus off of me, she couldn't have backed out of the moment so quickly. 

But she would still know it's a trick. 

Yes. I'm not quite sure how to explain this. Just because someone knows what is true in reality, they can still indulge in the feeling of a fantasy. If you buy your wife flowers she may be grateful or she may be suspicious, but either way it's a fairly straightforward transaction. You buy flowers, she thanks you for them. But what if you sent those flowers anonymously and signed it from a "secret admirer"? She may still know they came from you, but as long as you scratched your head and said, "Huh. Wasn't me. Who is this guy? I'm going to murder him!" Then she just gets to live with the feeling of being someone worthy of receiving mystery flowers. She can't immediately wipe out that debt by saying thank you, because you won't take credit for it. And maybe you spend the rest of your relationship sending her anonymous gifts and never taking credit. Maybe Valentine's day rolls around and you buy her a hand-held vacuum cleaner, but her "secret admirer" sends her a diamond tennis bracelet. "Goddammit!" you say. She plays along and holds her heart and bats her eyelashes thinking about her secret admirer. If you never actually cop to it, then the bubble of the fantasy is never really popped, regardless of what everyone knows the reality to be.

Is this all getting too fruity? It's a little ethereal, I know. I'm just telling you the things I've learned in the past 5-10 years about performing. And what I've learned is that it is always wise to emphasize the interactivity and the mystery because people are craving these things.

People have suggested that technology will kill magic. And I think that's probably true for magic on tv and online. But this is a actually a golden age for live magic. Especially close-up magic. And extra-especially amateur close-up magic. I don't want to sound like Old Man Jerx here, but we don't live in a time of sock-hops and taffy-pulls. We don't even live in a time of going to the arcade and interacting with people while you play video games. These days, if you can give someone a unique experience—one that requires their presence and engagement, that is happening in the moment and playing out live in front of them, that is perhaps grander and more personal than a typical magic trick—it truly is a kind of gift.