Bedrock: Suspension of Disbelief

Today I want to go over a fundamental idea behind the style of amateur performance I write about on this blog. 

I got this email from reader ML after the release of the JAMM #6 which included the effect Panther Across the Sky.

So when does suspension of disbelief tip you over?

I can see how Panther Across the Sky can be exactly the mind fuck you describe but the context of the back story is important.  So if a "civilian" did this: Mind Fuck.  A "magician": Wow.  "Andy": I've no idea.  That's my question; and it broader than PATS. It's about the styles you advocate.

The people you perform for must be sensitized to your style by now.  That is, how many times can you produce exact change, or start some expository back story before they realize you're doing a schtick?  I imagine it's a direct ratio to how well they know you or how often they have seen you perform?

Don't get me wrong I think your stuff is brilliant.  I just wonder how you deal with what I imagine must be diminishing impact through repetition.  Not repetition of tricks but the style itself.

Oh look, Andy has exact change.

Oh look, Andy has a nosebleed.

Oh look, Andy has an old diary his crazy aunt left him.

At some point people cotton on to this, right?  There might even by a cry wolf effect:

Oh look, Andy has projectile vomiting.  Awesome!  When does it coagulate into a written message from the extra terrestrial that anally probed him?

I've read your stuff about picking audiences who are agreeable to the style and I get that.  But even spectators who are good sports about it all catch on after a while.

Don't they?


So the question is, do spectators catch on after a while?

And the answer is, no, they don't.

And the reason they don't catch on after a while is because... they catch on immediately

Because of my attitude, personality, and my reputation, when I bring up some unusual subject, people know that they are about to take part in a short bit of interactive fiction. (And I'll discuss next week how to acclimate someone to this sort of experience because it's not something people are used to.)

So when I say, "Check out this weird box I picked up at a garage sale last weekend," everyone I perform for understands that I'm establishing a premise and we're about to go on a journey. And they trust me based on past experience that this is going to be something fun and potentially amazing. Do they really believe I got this box from a garage sale? Some do, some don't. It doesn't really matter. No one is 100% sure either way. 

Then I add some layers to this in a push and pull with reality. I give more of a backstory to the box. I say the garage sale was conducted by the children of an elderly man who recently passed away. But before he died he went slowly insane and started carrying this box everywhere he went for the last 18 months of his life, talking into it when no one is looking. Okay... now this feels like we're getting into some kind of ghost story territory. So this is totally fiction and I'm setting you up for something right? But then maybe the box just sits on a shelf for the next six weeks. I let the back story fester in your mind. This creepy old box. Then maybe some day I tell you I can't find my watch. "I put it in this box last night and today it was gone. You didn't take it, did you?" And the box now smells really strange. You take a whiff and it's got a decrepit rotting smell to it. That night you clearly see me put something in the box. Moments later I open it and the thing is gone. "What the fuck?" I say. Aha, you think, that was definitely some kind of magic trick. It must have been. Did he decide to do a trick with this weird old box? Or is this not even a weird old box at all? Maybe he got it at Pier 1 Imports. "Nice trick," you say. "Oh, I wish it was a trick," I say. "Then I'd still have my goddamn watch." I place the box on the kitchen table. The next morning the flowers on the kitchen table have shriveled up and died. "This box is freaking me out," I say. That night we burn it in the fireplace. The next morning you wake up and the box is back on the shelf, unburnt, and with something sticky oozing from it.

This is an extreme example of the immersive style of magic and the Smear Technique. (And an example of me starting a trick before I had any idea what I was going to do with it. In truth it went on a little longer. It all started when I found two identical boxes at a Hobby Lobby that looked genuinely old. Any time you can get a duplicate of an item that is seemingly unique, jump on that. The day the box started reeking was due to this stuff. The flowers shriveled up and died because I baked them in the oven for a few minutes in the middle of the night.)

The point being, during the whole time that "trick" unfolded, I never once concerned myself with whether or not my friend believed the story behind any of it. The "suspension of disbelief" is a non issue.

I said this a long time ago on this site: I want to perform magic with fantastic, unbelievable premises and then have the effects be so strong that the spectators almost have to fight themselves not to believe this unbelievable premise. For me, that's the whole goal, to make the impossible and unbelievable feel real even when they know it's not. 

With that in mind, you can see that having spectators who are skeptical or dubious isn't something I'm trying to avoid. That's the attitude I want them to come in with. You can only get that dichotomy of belief when they come in as unbelievers. If they somewhat believe what you're telling them at the start—if you say you're going to tell them what number is face-up on the die based on vocal cues as they count 1 to 6, for example—they may find the experience interesting and thought-provoking, but they're not going to find the experience genuinely thrilling.

I'm courting disbelief with these premises. And when people "play along" with me, it's not because they believe the story I'm telling, or even that they're suspending their disbelief. They're playing along because they don't believe it and they want to see if I can find some way to make it feel real. 

Update: Next Week - I received a good question over email about what I do (how I act) after the effect is over. I'm going to continue this Bedrock series next week and talk about getting in and getting out of this style of performance.