Bedrock: Pre-History

Like Scott Baio during peak-Chachi, I get a decent amount of fan mail. And the first time people write me it almost always includes one of the following sentiments:

  1. I like magic, but I've never really performed.
  2. I used to perform when I was younger, but stopped.
  3. I recently got into magic but I've never really performed because most of the examples I saw were cringe-worthy and corny.
  4. I'm a professional but I rarely, if ever, perform in social situations.

I would say the majority of the readers of this site—a site that spends a great deal of time talking about performance theory as it relates to the amateur magician in social situations—are people who have avoided performing for people in social situations. But they also go on to say that reading this site is changing that for them. Which is nice to hear because this site trails my own evolution of non-performer to performer by a few years, so I'm glad it's pushing others in that direction as well.

For a long time, I rarely performed magic. I would show tricks to other friends who were interested in magic (which is about as low stakes as it gets). I would maybe show a couple tricks to someone early in our friendship, but then I'd stop before I wore out my welcome. And occasionally I would have a girlfriend that I would show stuff to on a more regular basis, but it was super casual. But for the most part, the most frequent spectators to my magic were my two balls, because I was just doing stuff in my lap while watching tv, or sitting on the floor between my legs.

And the reason I didn't show people magic that frequently is because, when I did, their interest in our interaction declined. They were more interested in just a normal conversation with me than seeing a competently performed, impossible effect. To be fair, the first two or three tricks they saw me perform were generally received really well and made a good impression. But, as time passed, there were definitely diminishing returns on their engagement and reactions until, as I said, performing a trick didn't add to our interaction.

I think this is why, traditionally, some of the dullest humans have ended up performing the most. If you don't have a lick of intelligence, charisma, or a sense of humor, then magic, even poorly performed, will always be a step-up from having a genuine conversation. But for most people of even average charm, magic quickly loses its appeal as something you want to share with someone on a continuing basis. 

But why is that? Shouldn't magic be one of the most interesting and fascinating art forms for people to experience? Shouldn't experiencing the impossible be the highlight of your week, at the very least, and something you crave to see with some frequency? Why is the reputation of the magician in pop-culture so pathetic? Specifically the amateur magician. If I was an alien and I came to earth and you showed me two art forms, say, magic and tap-dancing and you said, "Which of these is more respected?" I would think, Well, in one you are giving someone an experience where the impossible seems real, and in the other you're gluing metal pieces to your shoes so you can make an extra loud racket. It seems like it shouldn't be a question. And yet magic is so often seen as this total goofball pursuit. So much so that a lot of the people who are interested in it try to avoid the word "magic" altogether. 

I started really digging into this question a few years ago and asking people about their view on magic and magicians. Especially those people who would say, "I don't like magic." 

And I was really taking in their feedback and letting it affect they way I was presenting magic. And in turn that got me performing more and testing more styles out. It became an overwhelmingly positive feedback loop. Now I was performing more than ever and people were enjoying it more than ever. 

And what I learned is that there are two critical issues that turn people off from magic. And those issues can be summarize with these two questions to ask when deciding how you're going to present your magic.

1. Do I want the audience to think it's real?

2. Am I causing the magic (in the presentation, or is something else responsible for it)?

Question number one is something magicians/mentalists have thought about for a long time. Question number two is not something I think people have considered much.

There are four combinations of answers to these two questions, and I think it's important enough to look at them individually.

Do I want the audience to think it's real? YES
Am I causing the magic? YES

This may be the most common combination of answers and I think it's probably the one that gives magicians the reputation of being delusional dingbats. And while a professional magician can get away with it, for an amateur magician it's totally unsustainable.

Here's what I mean... This is the typical progression of a spectator's belief in the amateur magician's abilities. Imagine an amateur magician. She meets someone and they start dating. One night she brings up that she's into magic and she shows him a couple tricks and he's blown away. And he's thinking to himself, "Holy shit! That's incredible. She read my mind! That's not normal. There's no way she could know what I was thinking. She has some strange abilities." As time passes, she shows him more and more tricks. But each trick doesn't build her reputation, each trick diminishes it, in a way. First, because her "abilities" become more commonplace. And second because her abilities in the performance world don't match her abilities in the real world. "Sure, she can read my mind when I think of a word from her special notebook, but then she gets me this thoughtless birthday gift?" Eventually, people in her life know the "real" her well enough that there's no mistaking the tricks for anything other than tricks. And those tricks go from the magical to the mundane.

Now, if after that progression, the performer still sticks with this YES/YES style, they are going to look totally disconnected from reality and like a needy loser. 

Do I want the audience to think it's real? NO
Am I causing the magic? YES

This is usually the next evolution of thought past the YES/YES answer above. They're no longer really trying to convince people they have special powers. This is all just some fun entertainment.

This is definitely a 5000% more mature attitude than the previous one and it won't have people laughing at you behind your back. 

But I don't think it's great for magic and for your audience's experience. By saying that you're responsible for the magic, you're essentially asking people, with every trick you do, to play along with a little production where the conceit behind everything is how clever you are. "I'm going to read your mind." "I'm going to memorize the deck." "I'm going to vanish this coin." No, you're not asking them to truly believe it, but in the moment you're asking them to play along with the idea that you're all-powerful. This all but guarantees a very surface level experience for the spectator because no one is going to really allow themselves to get wrapped up in an experience that boils down to you being really great. 

I don't think people really quite grasp how unattractive this style can be for an audience. You might think, "Hey, I'm not asking them to really believe this, so what difference does it make if the presentation is about me possessing these powers?" Well, what if I gave you a book of short stories I wrote, and every short story was about me doing something amazing. I'm not asking you to believe these short stories really happened. But would you really be able to get caught up in a book I wrote about how great I am?

I still do effects that are technically in this NO/YES style but I always hobble myself in some way. For example, the Peek Backstage style is one where you're asking for their help/feedback. This undercuts the idea that they're playing along with you being an almighty god. 

Do I want the audience to think it's real? YES
Am I causing the magic? NO

This is another one that is not sustainable for the amateur performer. 

You can certainly perform effects that seem real, and that you don't seem to be responsible for, but that's not a long term game. Maybe the first time you set up some crazy coincidence to take place, and then another time you set up some ghostly encounter. You might be able to get away with people thinking what happened is real and that you weren't responsible for it. But eventually, if you want to perform frequently, people are going to realize you're the one common thread between all these mysterious happenings. And if you're like, "No, it wasn't me. I have no idea how that happened," you're going to look like a weird-o.

For the amateur magician any of these combinations of responses produce styles that would work in the short term, but only one is viable as something you can "live in" for the rest of your life without changing your friends and family frequently like in the Stepfather movies. And that is...

Do I want the audience to think it's real? NO
Am I causing the magic? NO

NO, you're never asking the audience to think it's real. And NO your presentation isn't about you and your powers.

Once you acclimate people to this combination of ideas (and that's a process in itself (which I'll talk about soon) because this is a new type of experience for people) you'll find that this solves a lot of the problems of traditional magic performances. 

You're never asking your audience to truly believe anything that's not true. That whole "delusional" element is off the table. 

And you're shifting the focus off yourself so the pathetic, egocentric, self-indulgent element is gone as well. 

I'm telling you, these are the two big issues that turn people off from magic. 

Let me clarify both of these things...

Do I want the audience to think it's real? NO
No, I don't want them to think it's real. (And I want them to know I don't want them to think that.) But, as I've said often on this site, I want the experience to feel real. That's why I'll put a lot of effort into the experience, and ask them to invest in it, even though I'm not asking them to walk away believing it's real.

I do like to blur the edges of what is real and what isn't, but that's just to make them have to chew over the whole experience a little more, not to make them believe any aspects of it.

Ultimately I leave it up to them to take away from the performance whatever they want and I will go along with whatever interpretation of the encounter they choose. A surprising majority of people prefer to kind of keep the fantasy going and keep playing along. If they want to keep referring to it as a matchmaking ceremony instead of a card trick, then I'll go along with them But if, on the other hand, when it's over they're like, "That's a great trick," I don't fight them. I'm not like, "NO! It wasn't a trick it was a matchmaking ceremony that I found in this old book of spells. I swear!"

Am I causing the magic? NO
We're talking about presentation here. In the real world the spectator knows (more often than not) that I'm causing the trick to happen. But if my presentation is about some old Nostradamus prediction that is coming true here today then it feels like the effort I put into this is for their benefit, not mine. (And that's a good thing.)