There are two things I preach that might seem at odds with each other. The first is that if you want people to think you have real powers you're a total nutjob. The second is that you should strive in your performances to give people an experience that they can't immediately write off as "just a trick."
These goals aren't at cross-purposes. Patrick Stewart wants you to feel he is Macbeth when he is onstage playing Macbeth. But he does not want you to feel he's Macbeth when he leaves the theater.
The world is completely comfortable with the concept that what the actor is doing is "fake." And yet people are routinely moved by a great acting performance, not just in the moment, but also as they reflect back on it later. They don't get caught up in it being "not real." In fact, if Patrick Stewart had been insistent on trying to get people to think he was really Macbeth—and he walked around in the costume and only answered to Macbeth—that would probably ruin the performance for you. You'd be like, "Oh god, what is this corny shit?"
Similarly, with magic, I'll often perform an effect where, for instance, I read someone's mind. In that moment, I want it to feel like real mind reading. I want them to think there's no other way it could have been done. But because I'm most often performing for friends or people I'll see again in other social situations and because I'm not a weirdo, I don't want them to walk away thinking I want them to believe I have these powers. If anything I want to capture their imagination with the fact that these things somehow can be done without having any special abilities.
So that duality is something I think readers of this site understand. I want people to find themselves believing the unbelievable as they are caught up in the performance, but I'm not looking for people to give me credit for abilities beyond being entertaining and crafting an interesting and fun experience for them.
But there is a third layer of reality that I've been focusing my attention on in recent years. An area I call The Gloaming. This is the layer where the "performance" reality and the "offstage" reality get blurred.
No intelligent, modern audience will really believe you have magic powers. I think that's a statement we can all pretty much agree with. At the very least they won't believe someone with real powers is on America's Got Talent or has been sitting at their Thanksgiving table for the past 20 years. Maybe someone with real powers exists somewhere, but it's not someone they know or someone doing an ABC special or someone performing at a T.G.I.Fridays.
So we can't get people to believe in "Magic" but we can use our magic to increase the level of mystery in people's lives. And while I have a moral issue with pretending they're genuinely psychic, because that is done for personal gain, and I have a moral issue with pretending to talk to someone's dead relatives, because that's manipulating their memories of someone they care about, I don't have an issue with willfully obscuring the line between reality and fiction.
(In the past I've received the occasional email where someone has questioned if it's right of me to not be completely upfront about what's a trick and what isn't. I remember a couple people thought this post (which isn't really a trick) was somehow manipulative. If you have a problem with that, you've lost your sense of perspective. There's a gigantic difference between saying, "Your dead mother wants me to send this message to you," and orchestrating something to increase the mystery or serendipity in someone's life.)
The recipe for pushing the audience into the Gloaming is this:
- You have to perform effects that feel real in the moment.
- Your audience needs to understand you're not asking them to think the trick itself is real.
- You need to shift the focus off yourself and your magic abilities and onto some other semi-believable concept.
The Distracted Artist style of presentation
(Sample) Performance: My ring switched places with his keys.
Reality: It's a trick.
The Gloaming: Is it possible this could have happened unintentionally? Are magic methods like that?
In Search of Lost Time
Performance: The card I freely named was turned around in the deck
Reality: It's a trick.
The Gloaming: Did I really lose five minutes of time just like that? Or is their some other explanation?
Performance: A little sword penetrated a ring.
Reality: It's a trick.
The Gloaming: Is there really a mysterious man sending off little tricks to magicians all over the world? Is it even possible a trick could be constructed so that it would be impossible to backtrack and figure out how it was done?
You see? The idea of The Gloaming is, in part, to switch the way we prioritize presentation and effect. Since we can't use tricks to get people to believe in "Magic" (in the long term), perhaps we can use the tricks to reinforce the presentation and it's that presentation that stays with people (beyond the point where the details of the trick fade away). The Gloaming is a way to use magic to tease, fascinate, and mystify a modern audience without asking them to believe in magic. Instead it's about giving them the chance to consider ideas on the fringes of possibility. Ideas that are perhaps more interesting, romantic, or fun than the concepts we typically present people (i.e. "I'm an a potent wizard!" or, "I can read body language cues.")
This is a subject we'll pursue more in future posts.
On Monday I'm going to suggest a change every close-up magician can make to the way they perform. It's something all of you do—ALL OF YOU—and it will sound like such a little thing when I mention it, but if you make this change it will go a long way towards satisfying that first element in the recipe mentioned above: performing effects that feel real in the moment.