Romantic Redux

From The Jerx, Volume One

I listen to a lot of radio shows from the early part of the 20th century. One of my favorites is an anthology program called Escape. Each episode began with this introduction…

Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of... romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you... Escape!

Escape! Designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure.

How could you resist that? I loved the notion of something that was “designed to free you from the four walls of today.” The producers of Escape were saying, “Look, we know by fate or circumstance you’ve found yourself in this life that can feel mundane or uninspired, with your loveless marriage and rotten kids. So, for the next half hour, give us your hand and allow us to guide you through a radio drama—no, not just a radio drama, a romantic adventure—where you can escape, however briefly, from the everyday grind.

This escapism seems like something a magic performance would be perfectly suited to provide, but it so rarely does. And why? Well, because it’s at odds with the magician’s traditional goals. “Step into a world where I’m an amazing person with incredible powers who deserves your accolades.” That’s not the most appealing “adventure” for the audience to go on.

The Romantic Adventure is one of the less defined terms I've adopted on this site and I've been asked to flesh out the concept some. For anyone who is at the mercy of Google Translate to read this site, the word "romantic" in this phrase doesn't have to do with love or seduction or anything like that (at least not necessarily). It's "romantic" in the following senses of the word:

1. having no basis in fact :  imaginary

2. marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized

So the Romantic Adventure performance style is about presenting people with with big, fantastical, over-the-top presentations for effects and then doing something that only really makes sense in this alternate universe you've established. You're not trying to get people to believe these incredible ideas. In fact, one of the strengths of this style is that the ideas you present are so unbelievable that it's immediately clear to the spectator that this is meant to a bit of interactive fantasy. You're giving them a moment outside of reality. And therefore it's not connected to all their real-world concerns and issues.  

Like the show Escape, what you're doing is designed to free them from the four walls of today for a few moments of high adventure!

This style has something else in common with that old radio show. Escape would always start the episode with a 2nd person narration, putting you in the story to come...

"You are high on the frozen slopes of a great mountain. Terrified and caught in a blizzard. While this thing for which you've been hunting has suddenly become the hunter. If it finds you, then for you and your companion there can be no escape."

With this style of performance you are asking the spectator to play a part in the unfolding story. They may not actually be asked to do anything, but mentally they have to be on board. 

My friends won't go for that type of thing, you say.

I don't believe that's true, but that's the subject for another post. Look for a Dear Jerxy post in the coming weeks that talks about that.

A typical mentalism trick: "I'm going to predict the word you're going to think of." The spectator says "time" and the magician turns over the card and it says "time." Many of the "best mentalists" in the world perform tricks that are nothing more than that. And that's probably fine. 


In the Romantic Adventure style the identical method can turn into Cryptophasia. "You're my long lost twin and we developed a language together as infants. I'll show you. Here let me write something down.... Okay, if I say the word "flormf" to you, what do you think it could mean?" He has no idea. "Go ahead, say the first word that comes to your mind." The guy says "time" and the magician turns over the card and it says "time."

That trick is more fun, more interesting, less bland, and more original than the traditional way. And I would suggest it's better magic too, because the presentation helps obscure the method more. 

And, from my experience, that sort of thing is more enjoyable too. Magic and mentalism performed in a traditional style often just amounts to fooling people. With the Romantic Adventure performance style it's not just about fooling people. Everyone knows this is fantasy. But that's the power of it. You create some outlandish, weird, chimerical scenario and then do something so strong—not to fool them—but to briefly put them in a situation where this fantastic scenario is the only explanation they have for what just happened. It's not that they ever seriously consider it. The guy knows he's not my long lost twin (for example). But it's those few moments before any other framework for what just happened comes to his mind that I find people really enjoy. 

If I said, "There's a dragon in my closet." You would say, "Yeah sure. I bet." And I could say there really is and he ate all my clothes and go on and on. And you might play along with me or you might not. Either way, if you open the closet and see an honest to goodness dragon there you're going to have a big reaction. Half a second later you might start considering that maybe it's a projection, or a person in a costume, or a large puppet, or some other animal that's been disguised as a dragon. 

But there's still that half second. Don't dismiss that half second of them having no other context for what's happening other than the fantasy you established. If you've ever been in a car accident (or a near accident), or dropped something extremely fragile and valuable, or fell in love at first site, you know how intense and powerful a half-second memory/experience can be. 

With a more traditional performance style (and I do plenty of things in more traditional styles) the dynamic is so well established. "He's going to perform a trick, and I'm going to have no idea how it was done." That's what they think is going to happen... and that's what does happen. And the trick may be great, and they may love it, but it's still kind of one layer, and that layer is what they expected it to be.

The RA style is less straightforward. And by having them get on board with the presentation and engage with the fiction on some level it complicates things even more because they're taking a part in perpetuating the lie. So when "the moment" happens they're a little more enmeshed with the fantasy.

Of course, the fact that it's slightly different than a traditional trick is also the weakness of this style. People need to be trained to know that if they go along with what you're doing it's going to result in something fun or interesting or amazing happening. This only comes with some level of trust based on what they've seen you do before. But any performance that is non-magician-centric is going to build that trust, because it will be clear whatever you're doing isn't about your ego or anything like that.

And it probably does take some level of charm. It takes some charm to get someone to go dig up a time capsule they don't remember burying. It takes some charm to get a whole party to play along with a liar/truth-teller game. Or to get people to help you draw a deck of cards. But not some extraordinary amount. You don't need to be a real smooth smoothie to get people to play along. Again, the struggle many magicians have with getting people to invest in the process is due to the fact that those people have seen the results of the process are usually some grand ego-stroke for you. So why would they want to play along with that? I'm not unique in being able to pull this stuff off. I'm not otherworldly charismatic, I just know the type of shit that turns people off. The Jerx Charm School may need to be a separate post. Or another book.

I encourage you to explore this performance style. It's by far the most rewarding style for everyone involved in my experience.

One of my favorite examples is in the coming issue of The JAMM (#4). I took a sort of standard mentalism trick, added a rarely used coin production, then replaced the coin with a prop (and potential memento for the spectator) that people are genuinely captivated by, and turned the whole thing into a Romantic Adventure masterpiece where it's revealed I have a working arrangement with a fairy who is helping me with my tricks.

Romantic Adventure