I received two emails from readers with similar concerns/issues.
The first was from someone who performed Rest in Pieces (The Puzzle Master took out Richard Hatch).
Ultimately he felt his friend loved the experience but there were moments where things got almost too weird. In his email he wrote:
"I also wanted to ask what your method, or way was of ending an experience like that. Where they may take it too far or you aren't sure about how they will react afterwards."
A few days later I received an email from another reader who had performed Whitman's Algorithm for his boyfriend and he wrote:
"It went well but it was also sort of weird, which I figure is from the presentation changes I made. Instead of giving the sort of loose, "i found it on the internet" kind of explanation, I told him the grid sheet and the cards had been given out with the box of chocolates, as a sort of promotion, at the chocolate shop down the road from our apartment.
Also, instead of using the algorithm to locate his chocolate twice, I ended up using it to locate both of our favourite flavors - something I had prepared for, and which he insisted on in the moment.
What struck me was how much he bought into it. He was thrilled by the experience, in a way he usually isn't quite with magic, which was great. At the same time, though, he was immediately talking about how we would need to visit the chocolate shop and tell them their algorithm had worked perfectly, and it was incredible, and so on.
It wasn't what I expected. Frankly, I assumed he would guess I was behind it, but he was so convinced of the apparent legitimacy of the process that I felt I had to confess my role. It did feel a lot more like a prank than I'm used to. "
I understand both their concerns, but I don't really have an answer because it's not an issue I face. As I've stated before here: At no point before or after the effect do I want them to believe in the fiction of whatever I'm showing them.
As I wrote in June 2015
What makes a trompe-l'œil painting engaging is that it seems so real, even though we know it's not. I strive to perform trompe-l'œil of the fantastic. And what I've found is when people don't have their defenses up against your phony bullshit of trying to come off as "real," it becomes much easier to create feelings of amazement, joy, fear, lust, nostalgia, and poignancy that are real.
I'm not suggesting everyone adopt this style. I'm just saying this is my style. So questions of how I handle someone investing too much in the reality of the effect are not something I have much expertise in, because that's not the type of interaction I have with people. No one believes a goddamn word I say and that's how I like it. I don't want people to believe. But more importantly I don't want people to think I want them to believe.
But how does this jibe with the idea of performing "immersive" effects? Isn't one of your styles, The Romantic Adventure, about immersing someone in a new reality?
Not really. But let me get back to that.
I've been thinking a lot about "Immersive Magic." I've often said my interest is in amateur magic, and that's true, but that's primarily because my real interest is in immersive magic and that requires an amount of time or level of interaction that you just don't really have in professional performances.
There isn't a real sold definition for immersive magic. It's not a branch of magic I invented—effects such as these already existed—I've just categorized them together as a distinct subset of effects. I think there's a chance that some day this will be an area of magic that others recognize as well. Maybe it will even get its own section on the Cafe. (A boy can dream.)
I would say that if an effect requires a significant investment of time, input, or concentration from the spectator, it is probably on the immersive spectrum.
I will often apply this question to an effect to see if it's an immersive style of effect:
Can you do it for a tree stump?
If the answer is "yes" then it's not an immersive effect. And it's generally not the sort of thing I find the people I perform for enjoy the most. They feel the least connected to stuff that doesn't require their actual input or presence. I guess that should be pretty obvious.
"Ah, but I need people to hold coins and sign cards. So no, I could not perform my material for a tree stump."
Sorry, but if you can perform it for a corpse or a monkey who can pick a card or sign its name, it's also not an immersive effect. It's just a standard close-up effect. (Which isn't bad, just not the style we're talking about here.)
If someone were to write out the story of a performance of an immersive effect, the spectator would play a key role that couldn't be played by a tree stump, a corpse, or a smart monkey.
Most mentalism, by its nature, is partly immersive. Although most mentalists, by their nature, make this as bland and inconsequential as possible. "Name a random three digit number."
If you vanish a coin, that is a standard close-up effect. It can be a great, beautiful effect, but I've found there is a ceiling on the response a coin vanish can garner. This is, in my opinion, because it's not immersive. It's superficial. I don't mean that as a judgment on the effect, I just mean that in regards to the spectator's involvement. The spectator doesn't need to be there. They could watch a 50-year old video of the trick and have the same experience.
On the other hand, maybe you're hung up on an ex and having trouble moving on. I say, "Ah, I have an idea. Is there any way you can get your hands on, like, a coin or something they've handled?" And now you're dropping by your ex's place, making some excuse about how you think you left your comb in his bedroom and could you take a quick look? And under that ruse you're stealing a quarter off his dresser which you bring to me. "This is an old Navajo ceremony. I have no clue if it will work." We sign his name on both sides of the quarter. This is a totem of his presence in your mind. I have you read a little incantation. And then the quarter disappears. "You'll find yourself thinking of him less and less from this moment forward," I tell you.
If you write the story of the first effect, your role as spectator could be played by that tree stump.
In the story of the second presentation, your role is as big or bigger than mine.
I would never go steal a quarter from my ex's house so I could take part in some goofy magic trick.
Yes, I know you wouldn't. But I also know others would, because I've done an identical presentation with a different trick twice. If you don't think this gives a 2-second vanish a kind of relevancy that it doesn't normally have, then you're oblivious to the types of things that reverberate with people.
Not that "immersive" always means long and drawn-out. It can often just amount to giving the person you're performing for a role other than just "spectator."
If a spectator's "immersion" or "experience" matter to you then, by definition, they can't see their role as just "spectator" because that's almost always a passive role.
But this brings us back to the beginning because how do I reconcile this intensity of presentation with the idea that I don't want you to believe in the reality of what I'm presenting? Why would anyone bother playing along with something that is ultimately just for fun? Well, because people like having fun. And if you've developed a reputation as someone who will curate moments of mystery and surprise for people, you will find people who want to play along. Of course not everyone will be into it, but you just don't bother with the people who aren't.
As an amateur performer you build the relationship between you, your friends, and magic on a case by case basis. The same way you would if your hobby was playing basketball. "These are people who are up for a game any time I call. These people I have a regularly scheduled game with. These people will play occasionally. And these are people I don't play basketball with but we're still friends." This is a very easy concept to grasp when we're talking about something other than magic.
If you change your style of performance, there will be hiccups along the way when you and the people you perform for aren't on the same wavelength. But these will happen less and less as you become more comfortable and the people you perform for understand better what to expect.
The thing to remember about the immersive presentation is that it's a style that allows people to buy into things as they play out in the moment. But it's not meant to change their understanding of what's happening in reality.
Imagine you really like being scared. Every Halloween you drive two hours to this farm in rural Pennsylvania that puts on the greatest haunted house. You drive out knowing it's fake, you pay your money knowing it's fake, and you leave knowing it's fake. You invest all this time and energy in something you know isn't real. And yet... what makes this the greatest haunted house is that from the moment you step inside it feels real. You never see a zipper on the back of someone's costume. You never catch a zombie chatting on his cell phone. The place smells rotten. And when you get turned around and lose your group for a moment and you find yourself all alone and a shadowy figure starts slowly approaching, you are genuinely terrified.
There are people in the world who have a love for a genuine feeling of mystery and surprise and don't even know that magic can scratch that itch because the two most common ways magic is performed wont satisfy that urge.
The first way is to suggest: "I'm a powerful being with special powers!" That's a claim that just demands to be challenged and debunked, not entertained in any way.
The second way—the most common way—is to present it as a total goof that you could never get caught up in.
- "The jack of spades is embarrassed so he turned red!"
- "I'm going to sprinkle some woofle dust on this."
- "Press the 'button' on the back of the deck. That makes the card rise to the top."
That's all childish horse-shit that involves the least amount of effort and creativity on your part. You can't elicit true amazement because you're not creating the circumstances that feeling could thrive in.
Think back to the haunted house analogy, because it's very applicable to what we do. The people behind the haunted house want to create genuine terror from something everyone agrees going in is fake. And they can do that because during the experience nothing rings false. This is what immersive magic is designed to be. To give them an experience where the unbelievable is presented as if it were real and to create genuine awe from fake magic.