Bedrock: Feels Like the First Time

This concept is a very fundamental idea to what I believe is the best approach when performing amateur magic. And it's completely opposite of what most magic texts on presentation teach. And that's because those texts are geared towards the professional. 

Every now and then I'll get an email from someone that says, "I'm surprised it took so long for someone to put forth the idea that amateur magic is a different style of performance than a professional performance." Hey, shit, I'm surprised too. I doubt I'm the first one to come to this conclusion, but perhaps I'm the first one to really lean into it and explore it to the extent I have. I think the reason it took so long is that a lot of amateurs want to be professionals, and those that don't, may not perform for anyone ever. And neither of those groups would probably ever come to the conclusions I have as someone who does perform a lot, but with no eye towards doing professional shows.

(However, I am willing to perform one night at the Magic Castle provided they give me a prime spot in whatever their most prestigious room is. I will do them this honor because I think it would be cool if my first (and only?) public show was in the Magic Castle. Just realize I'm not going to rehearse anything in regards to the show before that performance. In fact, if anything, I'll be using the Magic Castle show as a workshop for some stuff I want to show my friends. Don't worry. I'll kill it.)

Ok. Where was I? Yes, the fundamental difference between amateur and professional performances. It's this: Most often, the professional wants their show to feel polished and structured, but the best amateur performances will feel raw and spontaneous. They will feel like what's about to happen is happening for the first time.

Even someone like David Williamson—who is as offbeat and wild as the come—when you watch him perform, you know he's applying that chaos to something he's done 1000 times. That's the charm of watching him perform.

You're kind of locked into that as a professional. If you pretended every trick in your 45-minute parlor show was brand new it would stretch credulity and ultimately be off-putting. (You could certainly imply one thing was brand new. And that would give that piece an interesting feel to it, but it's not something you could do with every routine.)

Most magic theory on performance has been written with the professional in mind. So there's a focus on things like patter and routining effects together. And yet they don't write "Oh, by the way, if you're an amateur, this is the opposite of what you should be doing. It's alienating to 'perform' in non-performance situations."

If you have a friend who's a singer, it might be nice to hear them singing around the house, and in casual, off-hand situations. But if they sit you down and say, "For my next piece I will be singing a song I wrote called, 'Autumn Came Early This Year.' You know, it's a funny story... How many of you feel that autumn is your favorite season? Well, me too. And back in 2007, Halloween was just around the corner [blah, blah]," you'd be like... "Debbie, what the fuck are you doing?"

You don't "perform" for friends and family. You show things to them and share things with them. That's not to say there isn't some artifice to the presentation. But don't pull them out of the experience by doing something that mimics a professional performance. You want your presentation to mimic a natural interaction between humans (albeit an unusual one). 

Making your tricks feel like it's the first time you're performing them is the unstated goal of most of the effects and performance styles I write-up on this site. For example, the Tenyo idea where you receive the mysterious package, that's a way of taking the most obvious sort of prop-based magic and turning it into something that feels like a unique occurrence that you're experiencing together in that moment.

A lot of this will just come down to you telling them flat-out that what you're about to do is something new for you too. "I have this thing I want to try. I haven't shown it to anyone else yet, so this may blow up in my face. Can I try it with you?" "I belong to this facebook group where we discuss psychology and different quirks and oddities of the mind. And there's this test this lady on there was talking about. I don't think it works, but can I try it with you." 

The real key is to make sure you don't enter "performance mode." I've seen people who totally struggle with speaking like a normal human once they start a trick. Instead their pacing gets all weird and they start enunciating and emphasizing words like a child actor doing a monologue from Our Town. It's really unsettling to people. Knock it off.


Anti-routining is another way to remove the "performance" feeling from a trick to make it seem less prepared, in a way that clarifies and strengthens the magic.

If you have a trick that is multiple phases—like a triumph that turns into a color changing deck—don't immediately follow the first phase with the second. Act like the second phase is an afterthought or a separate trick entirely. Not only will it feel more spontaneous, but if the second phase is something that is set-up during the first, then by distancing the climax from the set-up you can have some stunningly hands-off effects.

For example, in the triumph that goes into a color-changing deck; if those two phases are performed in quick succession, not only will the whole thing feel more planned, but the distinct effect are likely to get muddied. The triumph part can get forgotten altogether. Which is understandable, because you're grouping them together so if both effects are caused by the same thing (your magic abilities, or your sleight-of-hand abilities) then the lesser effect (the change of the orientation of the cards) will be overshadowed by the larger effect (the change in the color of the cards).

But let's say you separate the two. Now you perform triumph and leave the deck spread, face-up on the table. That moment gets its full opportunity to breathe. And all the convincers you've done to show the deck as blue (for example) were done during the triumph part of the routine. So in the spectator's mind it's a blue deck spread face-up on the table. 

Now, wait however long it takes to make the moment pass. Just as your spectator is changing the subject from the trick to some general question about magic, or to something else entirely, you go to scoop up the cards but stop yourself. Interrupt your spectator. "Sorry. Can I try one last thing. This is... I probably won't get it to work... but...uhm.... That last trick was pretty much all sleight-of-hand... but this is... well... not that." You then go through the process of creating a "color energy ball." (Maybe it sucks the color spectrum from the light in the air? I don't know. It's supposed to be unbelievable.) And then you push and spread the ball over the cards (without actually touching the deck). 

Then you turn over one card. It has a rainbow back. Then another. Then another. Then the whole deck. It worked! "Holy shit," you say quietly, "That's never happened like that. That looks amazing."

By anti-routining you take one—perhaps confusing—compound effect and turn it into two (or more) straightforward, simple effects. And because, often, all the set-up for the second trick happens during the first, the second effect happens with minimal handling or no handling at all. That can create a trick that feels very different for people, suggesting a method more ethereal and intangible than they can wrap their head around. And that creates an experience that feels distinct from the first effect, so both will be remembered.