The White Wand Society and The Oscar Gamble Gambit

The White Wand Society

I was spending a lot of time with someone over the past few months and so I ended up showing her a lot of magic. "A lot" by my standards is 2 or 3 tricks a week. When you're showing someone that much stuff it can be overwhelming to try and make each experience completely unique and immersive. But, at the same time, if you just cruise through your performances without putting any thought into them, it can feel meaningless to the other person. 

In that type of circumstance I like to give all the effects some kind of context as a whole. That way, instead of seeing it as just 20 random tricks over time, they see it all as part of a complete story.

What I would do is I would set my phone to ring, or just act like it had vibrated or something. Then I'd pick it and have a conversation (with nobody). 

"Okay... yes... alright. Just once? Okay. How soon do you want it? Yeah, I don't think that should be a problem. What's that? It has to be a normal rubber band? Oh, okay. That is much more challenging. Uhm, okay, I'll try."

The first time I did this, my friend asked what it was about and I was like, "Oh, it's just this... thing... there's this... well... it's kind of a secret organization for magicians and I put my name on the waiting list about 12 years ago. It's called the White Wand Society. And now I'm being subjected to a series of trials to see if I can qualify for the group. It goes on for a couple months. That was my handler. He said I have to find a way to link a normal rubber band with a borrowed finger ring."

And then I'd come back a couple of days later, borrow her finger ring and try the trick out on her.

Now, this is essentially a fictionalized version of the Peek Backstage presentation style. And, at first, my friend didn't doubt what I was saying. You may think that's dumb of her, but remember that people don't know how the magic community works. You have to do a series of trials to be invited into some secret society? Not only does that seem possible, but fuck, that's how it SHOULD work. That would be cool. 

So, it went on for a few weeks. I'd occasionally fake a phone call or text. Or I might just say, "I have this new assignment for the White Wand Society that I have to work on." A couple of times I went above and beyond. I had a friend in England send me a box that was supposedly from this secret organization. "What am I going to do with this shit?" I said. (Meanwhile, it's precisely what I needed to do a trick.) Another time we were at a campground and there was a main area where people would get together at night. There was a payphone there and one time it started ringing. I picked it up, all tentative... "Hello? Wait... how did you— okay, sure.... A borrowed deck? Face-up and face-down?" As if they had somehow tracked me out to this campsite. (I had just dialed the payphone from my cellphone.)

After the first couple times, she began to realize this was all some kind of bit. And I pushed her in that direction by making more ludicrous claims about the group and the things they were making me do. So, over time she understands this is all just some harmless fun. And she gets that I'm talking to myself on the phone, I'm faking getting texts and so on and so on. But she's a smart person and she also gets that this is more interesting than just me showing her random tricks with no context. So it's our little game. 

It becomes a running joke. Me scratching my head about some new challenge I was given. Or she hears me in the other room yelling, "That's goddamn impossible!" And it creates anticipation when, a day or two before I say, "Yeah, so apparently they think I can come up with a way to figure out what word you're thinking of on Wikipedia. Like... not from a list of choices, but any subject." And then later it happens! It's fun, and it takes almost no more work than just peppering someone with random tricks. 

[Let me pause here to say you probably won't be able or willing to wrap this up the same way I did, but you can definitely do this much. You can set up the story of being tasked these effects to learn. And you can play it as real or fake as you want. I promise you it's more interesting to people than sitting through disconnected tricks.]

So we have this cute little interaction that goes on for a couple months. One day we're watching a movie and my phone rings. I pick it up and I'm like, "Yes. Oh... okay." I mouth to my friend that it's the secret magic society and I roll my eyes. Then I'm like, "What? When?!" And I start rushing around putting stuff away and cleaning up. She asks me what's going on, but I don't really give her an answer. 30 seconds later there is a knock on the door. 

I open the door and there's a guy, slicked back hair, little black mustache, nice suit. No cape, but still a real Mandrake-looking dude. It's my handler! He tells me I've passed all the challenges and there's only one thing left to do. He gives me a medallion strung on a ribbon. I put it around my neck like it's the end of Star Wars and he's like, "No, you moron, that's your final test, remove the coin from the ring." Oh... so it's a Chinese coin. Not a medallion. My bad. I give it some thought, pull it off, annnnnnnd... scene!

Now, I'm fortunate to be able to pull these types of things off because I have a lot of theater and comedian friends who love being part of dumb shit. Show up and pretend to be part of some clandestine magic organization that has been testing me for weeks? I probably could have found a dozen people who would be willing to play that part.

And it was worth it because when there was that knock at the door and an obvious, capital M, "Magician" walked in the place, my friend's jaw hit the floor. She was blown away. This was not what she had come to believe was happening. And you could see her try and put the pieces together. Who is this guy? Does this organization really exist? Was some of it real? Was it all real?

That was the trick I was pulling.

The Oscar Gamble Gambit

The idea above is somewhat related to another concept I've been thinking a lot about.

The Oscar Gamble Gambit (OGG) is based on the notion that you're never going to get a modern audience to believe something truly impossible actually happened. (I talked about this topic in the post "Feeling and Belief" last week.) At least I can't conceive of any of the people in my life coming to that conclusion. For better or for worse, the type of people I know, when presented with something impossible will think, "That's amazing! I have no idea how that could have happened." But they won't then go on to think, "So... I guess I was wrong... real magic exists. I'ma go catch me a leprechaun!"

So I don't think you can really mess with someone's beliefs too much, these days. But there's no denying that having your beliefs upended would be a fascinating feeling and a unique experience. 

The OGG is a way of doing that is both doable and ethical. 

You see, instead of trying to convince someone to believe something that isn't true, the idea here is to get them to disbelieve something that is true.

In this case of the White Wand Society, I was setting my friend up to think it was all just me being a goofball and to disbelieve that I was actually interacting with someone. So when another person entered the equation, her actual beliefs shifted. What she had believed was just a one-man show for her benefit, is now something bigger and more interesting.

I haven't quite cracked it yet, but I believe there is a lot that can be done with the idea of getting them to disbelieve something that is true.

I will tell you where the original idea came from. I hesitate to mention it here because the idea is kind of f'd up and because I'd still like to maybe do it someday.

In the past 18 months or so, I've been asked to lecture or perform at a handful of conventions. One idea I had (in the crazy, brainstorming phase) for something I might want to do was come out and do 10 minutes of a Rocky Raccoon type of routine. And do all the standard jokes and be like, "Oh, the little guy is really active today." And make him run across my body and "eat" from my hand. And then at the end I would set him down and he would walk away. 

You see, my idea was to drug a real raccoon and then do Rocky Raccoon style manipulation with his limp body. And then time it so he came to his senses near the end of the act. So the idea was to get the audience to disbelieve it was a real raccoon. And then later reveal it to be just that. 

This is, obviously, not the world's best idea. But, as I said, I think there is some value here in the concept of trying to create disbelief in something that is real. As opposed to trying to create belief in something that isn't. That way you can genuinely change someone's beliefs, just by revealing the truth. 

The situation you want is when they don't believe some aspect of your presentation, but that aspect is real.

Or, as the great Oscar Gamble once said...

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