Social Magic Basics Pt. 1

For nearing three years now I've been discussing my thoughts on amateur magic on this site and in my books and the JAMM. I think going forward I'm going to start transitioning the terminology I use to a certain extent. The problem is that it's hard to wrestle the word amateur away from the usage of it being strictly about whether you're getting paid or not. In my opinion, that's not that important a difference in regards to magic.

I think the primary distinction to make isn't paid or unpaid. It's: are you performing theatrical/presentational magic, or are you performing social magic. Is what you're doing a "show" (however big or small) or is it intended to be an experience that's more woven into the general interaction you're having with people?

(Speaking of the distinctions we make in magic... I brought a non-magician friend to a magic convention once and she thought it was funny that the main distinctions between magicians were amateur/professional (in the sense of "unpaid/paid") and close-up/stage. For something that struggles for the label of "art," it struck her as odd that the major distinctions were, "Did you get paid for this? Also... how far away were you standing from the audience?" It would be like meeting a filmmaker and saying, "Oh, you make movies? That's fascinating... are they over 100 minutes?" Of course there are significant logistical differences between performing stage and close-up (and then you have your parlor performers, who are like the bi-sexuals of the magic world) but it still seems like it's not the most important distinction artistically.)

What this website is devoted to (primarily) is social magic—conversational, interactive magic that's done without the context of a "show." 

The difference between theatrical magic and social magic is mainly in how the audience perceives it. That is to say: what is the trick's context? Criss Angel, on stage in vegas; someone doing close-up magic, table-side at a restaurant; a boy-scout doing a trick at the Blue and Gold dinner—they are all doing theatrical/presentational magic. It doesn't matter how loose your performance style is, how unscripted, and how off-the-cuff it may be; if the audience feels they're seeing a show then it will not come off as social magic. 

You see, we're cutting out the notion of paid/unpaid or amateur/professional. The professional magician can't perform social magic in the context of their show. But they can (if they choose to) outside that setting. And, at the same time, a 12-year old girl who enjoys all the trappings of a professional show and puts one on in her living room for her family is doing theatrical magic. It doesn't matter that no one is cutting her a paycheck.

I'm going to beat this point into the ground a little because I want to make this as clear as possible: going out and performing your ambitious card routine for some pals at a coffee shop is not what I mean by social magic. That's just performing theatrical magic in a social setting. 

With social magic you are not "the entertainment," you are part of the group who happens to be doing something entertaining. The dynamic—even during the effect—isn't "performer and audience." It's "two friends" or "two co-workers" or "two people on a train." One of them is showing something interesting to the other, but the other doesn't feel like they're seeing a show. 

You might think it's hard to perform for someone who knows you're into magic and knows you're showing them a trick, but not have them see it as a "show." It's really not that difficult if you can avoid certain pitfalls.

Imagine you knew a seashell expert. They spent all their life learning about seashells. I'm sure you can still imagine having a conversation with them about seashells that didn't feel completely scripted and mapped out like a TED Talk.

Or you can imagine yourself being a male stripper. Sure, you can stop the party and tell everyone to gather round and you show them your new stripping routine. Or you can pull someone aside, bring them to an upstairs bedroom, dance and rub your dong in their face in a way that feels like an interpersonal experience and not a performance. It's the same general actions—dancing and dong rubbing—but it's a different context/experience for the other person.

I'm not arguing for or against social magic as opposed to presentational magic. I do believe that most magicians come off as a little weird when they launch into a capital-P "Performance" when they're hanging out with friends or family. But if that's your style, that's fine. There are definitely people who can pull that off. I can't.

I can give advice on the successful execution of social/interactive magic because I doubt anyone has performed it as much as I have over the course of the past two years. I don't know how anyone could given that I am the world's first and only professional social magician.

So in this first post on social magic basics I want to look at the primary pitfalls I had to overcome and that I see people stumble into when attempting to perform social magic.

Social Magic Pitfalls

Ultimately all of these are variations on the same theme: the magician presents the material in a way that feels too planned out. I'm not suggesting they have to not know you're a magician or not know they're about to experience a magic trick. But in a social interaction, people want a sense of spontaneity. 

Think again to the seashell expert. It's not an issue if they speak fluently about the nature of seashells. That's what you'd expect. But if they start going through something by rote that they've clearly worked on dozens of times, that's going to make for a weird, uncomfortable, or awkward social interaction. (Unless they first said, "Hey, could you listen to this speech I'm working on and see if it makes sense?" This is, essentially, the Peek Backstage style which puts theatrical magic in a more approachable social setting.)

So here are the three pre-planning pitfalls:

1. Overly rehearsed patter. Brilliant patter is great for theatrical magic shows. But it's an impediment for connection in social magic. It's just not how people interact in the real world. Magicians often feel they should have a super compelling opening line to get into an effect. In some circumstances that makes sense. In social magic, I find it's better to stumble into your patter. 

For example, here's the opening line for a trick called A Choice Illusion from Ben Earl's book, This is Not a Box:

"Sometimes there isn't a single objective truth but rather a variety of truths; multiple truths which are all true at the same time. Therefore what you think about something often says more about you and how you look at the world than you might realise."

Now, that's a perfectly fine, intriguing opening sentence in certain situations. But if you pulled that out in a social interaction it would be very strange. It's too polished. 

If I wanted to get to the same subject matter, here's how I would "stumble into" the patter. Now, keep in mind, this is going to read like shit, but that's because that's what genuine human interaction reads like. So, transcribed it would look something like this: 

"Oh... hey, there was something I wanted to try with you. I think you'll be good for this. I was thinking of... like... how do I put this. Okay, so you know how with most things there's not a single objective truth. Like... this table, maybe... or, no, this chair. Okay, this chair. So maybe a woodworker would look at it and say that it uses simple woodworking techniques. And then... maybe an older person would look at it and say that it's sturdy because for them the importance of the chair is being able to use it to sit down and rest their legs. And then... I don't know... maybe a designer would say the chair is of a different era or whatever than the other furniture in this room. All of these things can be "true," but the interesting thing is...well.... it's like whatever a person sees as true about this chair actually tells us more about her than it does about the chair. Does that make sense? Anyway, I was thinking about this idea and I wanted to try [blah, blah, blah]."

Now, that's a lot of foundation to lay before a trick, but that's because the concept Ben uses is a sort of "deep" idea for a trick to be based on. Most tricks won't need that much set-up, but I wanted to use it as an explanation of how I would get into a trick with that subject matter in a social situation. 

You want the other person to feel like they're part of putting this all together. Theatrical magic is like giving someone a cake and asking them to taste it. Social magic is like saying, "Hey, I was thinking maybe we could make a cake or something," and you're pulling out handfuls of flour and sugar from your pockets and a crumpled old recipe. It's "messy" but that messiness is what makes for the more interactive experience for the spectator. 

So beware of being too scripted and especially beware of an overly rehearsed intro to the effect. In social magic we want to obscure the boundaries of the effect and starting with something that sounds like the thesis statement to your doctoral dissertation is not a great way of doing that.

2. Being Funny If You're Not Funny. What an audience wants in a social magic situation is to experience something incredible with you, not with you playing the part of some other person. So if you're not someone who's funny in your normal interactions with people, don't strive to be funny when you perform. I'm telling you this for your sake. It's off-putting to people. I've seen it happen a few times in person, but I don't doubt it happens all the time. Some dude is just a normal, regular dude, then he goes into showing someone a trick and he's got all this hokey schtick and jokes to go along with it. It usually comes across as corny in a professional show. But in a social situation it's much worse. Not only does it reinforce that this is all pre-planned but you're essentially taking yourself out of the equation. Now it feels like a social interaction between themselves and someone whose personality they don't recognize. 

That's why I'm kind of anti-jokes for the social magician. If you're funny, then you don't need jokes in your patter. And if you're not funny, then pretending to be so is an unnecessary layer of phoniness.

The thing about social magic is that it's the most powerful when everything feels kind of normal, except for this one crazy, magical thing. So if you're putting on a persona, you're undercutting that sense of normality.

3. Tricks Where the Same Thing Happens Multiple Times. I'm sure there are exceptions to this, but in general I think it's best not to do tricks in social situations where the same thing happens multiple times (think Ambitious Card, or Coins Across). Again, it's an issue of it feeling too planned out. It's almost like classic joke structure and the rule of threes. If you start telling a story that follows those rules it's going to come across as something you pulled from a joke book, not a natural, spontaneous, funny conversation.

Similarly, if you're doing a trick with three phases, it's going to feel like something planned and not something you're finding together. 

One thing to be aware of is that, at first, this style of performing will go down much better with people you've never performed for before, especially people who have little to no experience watching close-up magic. They're the ones without preconceptions. 

If you've performed a lot of magic for people and it's all been very structured and self-contained and clearly prepared ahead of time, then that's what you've trained them for and that's what they're used to. Switching from a presentational style to a social style is a change for both you and them. It may take them a bit to catch up. What I find helpful—if I'm performing for someone who wasn't around as my style of performing gradually transitioned—is to give them some kind of heads up that I'm not really doing the same sorts of things. Like, if they remember me performing Cannibal Kings six years ago, they may be expecting a little presentation with jokes and stuff like that. So if they bring up magic, I'll say something like, "Yeah, I still have an interest in magic, but I'm not really into the same sorts of tricks  I used to do. I've been looking into some weirder stuff." This gets them prepared for something different and intrigued for what that might be.