The 88th Parallel

This is going to be one of those posts that won't resonate with a lot of you. And it's kind of a dick move for me to leave you with this before my week off, but oh well. It's one of the ideas that's defined my current outlook on the performance of amateur magic. And it's a lot less crazy than it might initially seem. 

I think, for the amateur magician, it's better to think of every trick you do as as being part of one extended performance. At least if you're performing for people you'll see again (which is generally true for the amateur). I think your performances are much more interesting to the cohort of people who make up your repeat audiences if there is a sense of continuity to things. 

Very few people have written from the perspective of what might be good for the amateur magician. And nobody, besides me, has given any thought about what might be good for the amateur magician's audience. And, as it turns out, I think what amateur magicians have subjected their audiences to for at least the past 100 years or so—a bunch of disconnected tricks that put the focus on the magician's incredible skills or abilities—is perhaps the least satisfying type of performance for the amateur magician's audience to sit through. 

I've made this analogy before, but how do we approach comedy with our friends? We don't block off a set portion of time, tell a joke, and then be done with it. We don't treat it like a 3 minute open-mic set. Humor with our friends and family is something that permeates our interaction and it's made up of long-running jokes, callbacks, variations on themes we've joked about before. There's a cohesion to it and it builds over time and over our relationship.

And yet, when we perform magic for friends and family, we tend to do so in a way that's no different than the way we'd do so for a stranger at a table-hopping gig. Doesn't that seem sort of bizarre? We introduce a premise that is unrelated to anything in the real world or our shared existence. We demonstrate it. And then it's over and it's never brought up again. And then we leave and they eat some mozzarella sticks. 

My contention is that we have hobbled ourselves by presenting amateur magic that way. And that we can create a different vibe for our performances by presenting magic with the same sense of continuity that we do any other thing (like humor) when dealing with others. It doesn't need to be this weird thing that exists out on an island. It can be something that's woven into the fabric of your interactions with people and it can build over time. 

Here's an example of how giving something continuity and context can increase engagement.

I have a friend who's really into beer. In the past, when we would go out, he would always be drinking some weird microbrew and it was always something new. I'm not into beer. I don't care about it at all, and so I never engaged in the topic with him.

And then one day he started this program one of the bars we used to go to was having where you would attempt to drink a beer from every beer producing nation in the world. (Like... not in one night. You'd be dead. This was something you did over time.) And there was the card you got with a map on one side and a list of the countries on the other. There were around 100 countries/beers I think. But it wasn't just that you had to buy 100 beers. You had to be there when they had these beers in stock and sometimes, depending on the country, their stock would consist of a six-pack every few months or something like that. 

I think the whole challenge took my friend a little over a year, and I was with him a handful of times as he was going through this. I remember being there when he tried the North Korea beer, the Fiji beer, and the Congo beer, among others. I still didn't give a shit about beer, but now there was a greater context to it all. It wasn't just a random beer. There was a narrative to the beer drinking now. And despite my disinterest in beer, even I became curious about the whole thing. Which country had the worst beer? Which one was good but the most different from traditional "beer." Which one had the coolest label? The weirdest name? How many countries had he knocked off since we last saw each other?

And when he finally got down to the last country, a bunch of us came out to join him in his final beer. Most of us with no interest in beer, but this dumb quest which had gone on for over a year couldn't help but draw us in on some level. 

I've found this sort of thing works with magic too. Whether people like magic or not they will become much more absorbed in it if you can give them some context and continuity to hold onto.

Here are some actual magic examples of this in action.

1. I have a friend for whom I perform a variation on the 10 Card Poker Deal almost every time I see him. This was Michael Weber's idea in his treatise on the 10 Card Poker Deal, TEN. Normally people do a multi-phase routine when they do the 10 Card Poker Deal. Michael's idea was to do multi-phases, but over time. Not all in the same interaction. 

I've since broken up other multi-phase routines this way as well. It works surprisingly well. Traditionally, the climax of a multi-phase routine can sometimes overshadow everything that came before, or, worse, it can be less compelling than it would have been if presented on its own.

Broken up over time the trick becomes much more resonant than a 6-phase routine done in one night and left to fade into history. 

2. I'll call someone up or text them a few days before I see them. "Can you go through your jewelry and bring the ring that you've owned for the longest amount of time with you on Wednesday? If you had it when you were a kid, all the better." Now the anticipation and the intrigue about the trick starts days before the actual trick starts.

3. A friend of mine works in an office and performs for his co-workers pretty regularly. Earlier this year he sent himself a shoebox full of magic props. The kind of props you wouldn't automatically assume were magic props. He set the box on his desk. When one of his co-workers asked about it he said, "Oh, it's this magic organization I'm in. I have to come up with a trick for each of these items over the next year. I'm not supposed to talk about it."

Of course, tricks for these props were already figured out by other magicians over the past 100 years. But now he has this ongoing "story" he's telling of working his way through the box as it sat on his desk all year. And every time he's like "Hey, let's get lunch together today. I think I have an idea for this thing...," it's more interesting than if he had just brought that item in with him that day from home.

3. Reps, Imps, and The Cast (as mentioned last week) are all ways of extending magic beyond the performance of the trick itself and therefore can all be used to create some kind of continuity. The Cast is especially good for this. If you have someone you bring up again and again over time or a "secret club" you mention (like my friend in the above example) then you're creating a world that your effects take place in. And when you bring those details up again in the future you're building off the past performances.

4. Similar to breaking up the phases of a trick over time, you can also break up the performance of a single effect over time. Maybe one night you have the idea. The second night you try and fail (or only partially succeed). And the third night you pull it off. 

You can do this with any trick. For example, sponge balls. Night 1: I say, "I wonder if I could get one of these balls to go from my hand to yours." Night 2: I give you a sponge ball to hold and I hold one too. I open my hand and the sponge ball is still there. "Oh wait," I say, "A little bit of it is gone." I show you my sponge ball is missing a chunk. You open your hand and find it there. Night 3: We both hold a sponge ball, when I open my hand, mine is gone and it appears in your hand.

It may seem ridiculous to you to take three nights to build up to what is often the first moment in other people's sponge ball routine. But while I can't say I've ever tried it that way myself (with sponge balls, that is) I have broken it down like this with other tricks. And I do think it could prove to be pretty interesting for someone who's never seen sponge balls performed before—the idea that this is some skill they're watching you develop in real time. 

Okay, now I want to take this all a step further and tell you about a contextual concept I've been using. It's not something I explain to my audiences. It just exists in my mind. I'm not sure this is going to make sense to anyone. So if I lose you here, I'm sure you're not alone.

Late last year I was at a restaurant with a few friends. We were sitting on bar stools around a high table. There was a machine called Madame Esmerelda in the lobby that claimed to read your fortune. "Give me a quarter I'll tell you your fortune. Fortune for a quarter, I love quarters," it said.

So I kept asking to borrow a quarter to use he machine and then I was making it disappear. Actually, at first I wasn't making it disappear. I would just ask to borrow a quarter, set it on the table, and when no one was paying attention I would lap it and pocket it. After a couple times it became clear I hadn't just misplaced them and my friends realized I was doing some kind of bit.

When I asked for the third time to borrow a quarter, my friend Sarah started turning around on her bar stool "Heeeere we gooooo!" she said. I asked her what she was doing and she said, "I was in a tornado. Whenever you start in on something like this, it feels like we get to go to Oz for a little bit." 

That, to me, was a huge compliment, and it became my goal going forward. I didn't want to subject people to nearly indistinguishable card tricks for the rest our lives. I wanted it to feel like there was an alternate universe running alongside ours, like the Twilight Zone, or the Upside-Down or something. And when I was doing a trick they were temporarily sliding into that reality. One where karma exists, and you can test for luck, and items can be cursed, and true love can be gauged with playing cards, and objects can be haunted by their former owners, and prayers are answered directly, and fairies exist, and my spectators themselves can temporarily gain crazy powers. 

To be clear, I don't tell people this. I don't say, "Now we're going to go to a magical world where anything is possible!" This is just something I think in my head. I imagine the room getting fuzzy and starting to skip like an old reel to reel film in school. And then I think, "Ah! We've entered the 88th Parallel." 

(The 88th Parallel is the name for my alternate universe, based on a strange and somewhat "magical" series of events in my own life.)

Now, maybe it's because I grew up as a fan of the Twilight Zone, and Outer Limits, and Tales from the Darkside, but I've found imagining that most of what I perform exists in this alternate reality is surprisingly helpful.

First, it helps establish the continuity that I've been talking about throughout this post (even if only in my mind) because everything takes place in the same "world."

And second, it keeps me focused on the intriguingly impossible. As magicians, I think we often make the mistake that if something's impossible, then it's worth showing people. But I'm not sure that's always the case. So when I think about the 88th Parallel and some trick I might want to show someone, I think, "Do I want to create a world where... a sponge ball changes from one color to another?" No. That's impossible, but not intriguing. So what might be true in this world that could make that change more interesting? And I take it from there.

Let me clarify something so I don't have to answer it in an email. As I said, this isn't something I express to people. It's just a metaphorical way of thinking about things. Instead of, "I do random tricks for people." It's, "I'm building a weird little universe for people." And since I've started thinking about things this way it has manifested in the experience feeling different for people. Where I used to hear, "How did you do that?" a lot, now I more frequently hear things like, "What is going on here?" Suggesting the focus is less on what I did and more on the "happening" itself.  (And, as I've mentioned, I'm building to the more intense performances as described in this post. Not just constantly doing the same types of effects big or small.)

As far as belief goes, there are really only two things I try to put out to the people I perform for that I want them to believe on any level.

1. Premise: Andy has an interest in magic and shows us tricks from time to time.
Belief Level: 100% - I'm not interested in hiding that magic is my hobby or suggesting these aren't tricks.

2. Premise: Due to his interest in magic, Andy has learned some arcane skills, met some weird people, and collected some odd objects.
Belief Level: 50% - Some of this is true and some isn't. I like to make people unsure of which is which.

Everything else is just about feeling, not belief. I want them to feel like they're momentarily in some cockeyed version of our world. But obviously I'm not asking them to believe that.

I find this to be a very satisfying way to think of amateur magic. This is the hobby of magic as world-building. You're building an alternate reality that seems like ours in most respects but where strange and mysterious things regularly take place. 

And just to close the loop on a couple thing above...

Originally I introduced the 10 Card Poker Deal to my friend as a game I played with my friends when I was a kid. It was a favorite of mine and we would always come up with different rules and ways to play. I claim a misguided birthday wish I made when I was 9 to never lose a game of 10 Card Poker seems to have come true because I haven't lost since (as long as the other person is trying to win). I'm not happy about this. It's like that episode of the Twilight Zone where the gambler thinks he's in heaven because he never loses, but that's the twist; it turns out always winning is actually a gambler's hell. I say this all very matter of factly. (The more absurd the thing I'm saying is, the more I talk about it like it's the most normal thing in the world.) 

So we play a couple of times and no matter how we adjust the rules, I just can't lose.

This goes on for months to come. We try it over the phone. We try it using little scratch-off cards with playing cards on them (this all comes from Michael Weber's work). I always win. I'll see him and say, "I've just come up with a way I'll definitely lose. The cards will be face up and you'll make all the choices." And then I still win. This makes me furious and I start punching the Doritos in a bowl on the table in front of us, sending Doritos shards flying everywhere., much to the delight of my friend. This is like an ongoing bit. We see each other once every month or two. I present him with some new way to play the game with a new set of conditions that seem to make it difficult or impossible for me to win, and yet I still win. Then I act pissed and break something or make a mess in a goofy way.

The 88th Parallel isn't a world where I always win this game because I'm so skilled. It's a world where a 9-year old's birthday wish comes true and tortures him for the rest of his life by ruining his favorite game.

In regards to the the quarter trick I was doing for my friends, it wasn't much of a trick at all, just a dumb idea I had. I made the first few coins "vanish" by just stealing them off the table when they weren't looking. I did the same thing with the next two coins, but now they were paying attention so I just had to wait them out. With the last two quarters I borrowed, I made them disappear with legitimate sleight of hand coin vanishes. All the while I'm saying that I'm not doing anything with their quarters. I don't know where they're going, I swear. I borrow one final quarter and say that nothing will happen to it because I'm going to immediately go over and put it into the Madame Esmerelda machine.

I took that final coin and went to the lobby to use the machine. A minute later I came back and said, "She says I will soon be coming into some money!" And I gestured outwards with my hands and a bunch of quarters flew out of my sleeve all over the floor. So that was more of a dumb joke than a trick, although there were trick elements in it.

See you next week.