Choose Your Spots - The Three Types of Situations Where You Should Perform Magic

This was originally a tangent in my post from last Friday, but I think it's important enough to excise it and make it its own post. In fact, knowing when to perform is one of the more critical aspects of being an amateur performer. Misreading the situation and thinking, "Ah, this place could use a little of me and my wizardry!" when it's not the right time will make you come off as a total weirdo. Even if your material is strong.

So when should you perform?

I wrote in The Amateur at the Kitchen Table that amateur magic "can add color to dull grey situations, or amplify the joy of happy times."

In accordance with that, I like to perform in situations that occupy those opposite ends of the spectrum:

  1. I like to perform during the lulls in life: waiting for food at a restaurant, in line to ride a roller coaster, after dinner, around a campfire, waiting for a bus, during some downtime at a business function, in a bar or cafe when conversation has died, post-coitus. I think magic is perfect for these moments.
  2.  I also like to perform magic during special occasions: holidays, weddings, circumcisions (I restore the foreskin), parties, dates, mid-coitus.

We'll get to the third situation in a moment, but first, let's examine these two:

1. During Dull Moments

This one is easy. During the dull moments in life, people will welcome a trick, even if it's done artlessly. It's next to impossible to fuck this up. When people are truly bored they'll give their focus to anything. Just like when people are truly starving they'll eat pretty much anything.

I'm not saying you should perform magic that is the equivalent of empty calories, I'm just saying you don't have to worry too much about whether what you're going to perform is perfect for the moment or if it will be accepted or seem strange because, in these circumstances, people are pretty undiscriminating. They're hungry.

2. During Special Occasions

To pause a special occasion, where people are already engaged in a joyful experience, to show them a trick...that requires a fairly deft touch.

You really need to approach this with the "audience-centric" approach in mind. Audience-centric magic, by definition, is magic that enhances people's experience. And I can say that's true "by definition" because I made up the goddamn term.

If you're shifting focus to yourself—if you're attitude is, "Hey everybody, gather round, eyes on me"—that's almost guaranteed to be a magician-centric performance that will come off as awkward, at the very least. (It's different if you've been hired to perform. But that's not what I'm talking about here.) Magicians think, "Well, my Ambitious Card routine is good and it fools people, so if I perform it here at this baby shower, it will make the baby shower better." No. That's not how things work. Imagine a ventriloquist pulls out his dummy and draws attention to himself at some event. Even if he's very good, we can all understand that might actually detract from the occasion and not add to it. Well, magic is no different.

Now, obviously there's a big difference between a wedding reception, a normal party, or sitting around the table after Christmas dinner. These are all "special occasions," but the extent to which it might be appropriate to steer people into a magic performance is different for each. However, the same basic rule applies: Only perform if it's going to heighten the experience. Don't interrupt a good time. 

I know someone who once took the mic at a wedding reception to show the bride and groom Anniversary Waltz. The trick went well. It got an okay reaction. But he wasn't asked to perform. This was just his addition to the proceedings. And it felt awkward. He was adding a new element to the day, but it just sidetracked the experience people were already enjoying. His argument would surely be, "Yeah, but the trick is about them and their connection." Yeah, kinda. But if you haven't been specifically asked to show them something it can sure as hell feel like you're interjecting yourself into the day to show people a card trick. 

As I said, it takes a certain level of social awareness that many don't possess to determine if it's a good idea to perform at an already special occasion. A good rule of thumb is this: Could you do this same trick tomorrow, for different people at a Burger King? If the answer is yes, then it probably doesn't warrant injecting yourself into the moment. If, on the other hand, you have a trick that requires specific circumstances (it needs to be done for these particular people, in this particular location, during this particular activity) and those needs are met by the situation you're in, you likely have something that will feel relevant to the special occasion and will add to the experience of those who witness it.

Finally, here is the third situation I feel you should perform in.

When They Ask For It

One of the biggest and earliest indicators to me that I didn't fit in with magicians and that they're not "my people" was when I would hear some say, "Don't perform when asked." Their justification was that it would devalue the experience if it was done on request—that it would make it seem less special. 

I guess that's true if you're dumb enough to immediately launch into your close-up set at the first provocation, but no one is suggesting that. 

Here's what I do when someone asks me to show them something. I immediately say sure. I then pause as if I'm having second thoughts. "Actually... I don't have anything on me. Maybe tomorrow I could bring something." I want to momentarily play into their suspicion that I need some special circumstances or magic props to perform. I then reverse my position again. "Hmmm... you know, we could try something... do you have any change?" I then go into something that feels genuinely spontaneous and of the moment. My tentativeness seem legitimate because I didn't initiate the performance myself. (They don't know I've practiced it 100 times and have been carrying around a gimmick in my pocket just for this opportunity.) There's a little bit of an emotional push and pull to the moment—will or won't it happen. This is interesting to people. And in the end, when something (hopefully) amazing happens, I look good, the spectator gets what they want, and it's good for magic. It's a win for everyone.

The alternative? "Oh, you do magic? Can I see something." 

"No, maybe some other time."

What's the point of that? Maybe you come back later and blow them away. But then they think you had to prep for it. You look worse. You don't give them what they want in the moment. And the magic feels less spontaneous and exciting.

And this was the common wisdom in the magic community. That's how backwards they are.

I have a feeling this started with a bunch of professional magicians who didn't quite get the response they wanted when they didn't have the structure of a formal show propping them up. So instead they justified the idea of not performing in social situations when people asked as if it was somehow the more righteous path. In reality, it's just the magician-centric way of thinking. The only reason not to perform when asked is because you get off on withholding.

You don't get it, Andy. I'm a professional. Does a dentist clean teeth at a party when someone asks her to?

Oh, get off it. You're not a dentist. You're (supposedly) an entertainer. No one is telling you to "do your job" in social situations. But you can certainly utilize your skills to give people a quick enjoyable moment. Doing a little something to bring joy to people around you shouldn't be some huge burden. That should be your default way of going through life

In my opinion, as an amateur, If you only perform magic in one circumstance, it should be when you're asked. 

Putting It All Together

These may seem like three separate circumstances, but I really see them as part of the larger whole of a cohesive approach to performing amateur magic. 

1. You start by performing tricks in low-key situations. During the "dull" moments when almost anything would be appreciated. But you don't do "just anything." You hit people with really strong little moments that are visually or emotionally resonant and stick with them.

2. This leads people to ask you to perform more regularly. Even when there's netflix to watch or a party going on. If you've established what you do has its own merits (and isn't just good for filling dead time), they'll ask to see something more frequently.

3. If you continue to gain a reputation for curating interesting experiences, then, when special occasions occur, people will be more on board to take a little detour because they know you wouldn't waste their time with something meaningless or self-indulgent. The awkwardness will be gone.

But even more importantly, once people have truly bought into your performance as being worth their attention, you can have them set aside time in advance. "I have something interesting I want to try next Thursday. Do you want to come over for dinner then and give me a hand with it?"

This is the culmination of performing strong magic in the situations described above. Not only can you use magic to enhance an already special occasion, you can use it to turn an ordinary evening into a special occasion. The best magic performances are not just an adjunct to the experience, they are the experience.