Gearing Up for the Romantic Adventure


This is a post about being this guy, as you lead your audience on magical adventures.

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And not this guy, boring your audience and jerking off behind a palm plant.

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From the Jerx Glossary:

Romantic Adventure - A Performance Style based on the concept of immersive magic. It's a performance style you must build up to with people. They must have faith that if they surrender themselves to the experience they're going to have a good time, they're going to see something they've never seen before, and you'll look out for them and not do anything that's going to put them in a dangerous or awkward situation. Effects in this style often play out over a longer period of time. Hours (or even days) are not uncommon.

For more background on this style, see this post. (For the effect mentioned at the end of that post, see Sunlight Bumblelily from The JAMM #4. It's one of the most insanely perfect and perfectly insane tricks I've ever come up with.)

As I said in a post last week: "I hope [this] serves as an example of a routine taking place in the present tense. It's not a story or a joke illustrated with cards, and it's not a re-enactment of something that happened once at a bar or around a poker table. It's something unfolding in real time that has some meaning. This is not a subtle difference that audiences aren't aware of. It's a much more engaging experience for the spectator, and it has nothing to do with them believing what's happening is real. They know it's fiction either way. But that's what makes this style of magic so strong. People are used to hearing, reading or watching fiction, they're not used to being in a fictional experience as it happens."

That is the goal of the Romantic Adventure style. 

In the months leading up to starting this site, I spent a lot of time talking to people I knew and people I met about magic. Not in any sort of formal way, but in a casual manner. And in that time I encountered maybe 15 people who expressly stated, "I don't like magic." 

And I always used to think people meant, "I don't like magic because when I watch it I get fooled and it's frustrating not to know how things are done." Disliking magic for that reason made sense to me. After studying magic for 25+ years, it's nice to be fooled. But when I first got into magic, the need to know how things were done was overwhelming to the point that being fooled was not particularly pleasant. 

But after digging a little, that was only true for a couple of the people who were anti-magic.

The majority of the people who didn't like magic gave one (or both) of these two answers when I asked them why.

1. It's boring. "It's boring?" I'd say. "What's boring about about something disappearing or levitating or something?" Then they'd go on to say they hadn't seen any magic like that. "What kind of tricks are boring?" I'd ask, and they'd describe some long card routine or something they saw at a magic show that was intended for children. Fair enough.

2. "This guy I know who did magic was weird." And then they would go on to tell me a story of some acquaintance they knew who used to do magic and he was kind of awkward or creepy. It was from these responses that I realized just how important it is to establish that you're not performing tricks for praise or acclaim or to get credit for a skill you don't really possess. It's one thing when a professional magician acts like he's really reading your mind. As an audience you get to say, "Wow! Well done! You're amazing." And then you never have to see the person again. But in a Social Magic situation there is a different dynamic between magician and spectator. And to not seem weird or needy you need to make it clear that this is not a demonstration of your superior skill or knowledge. This is just about you presenting something for their enjoyment, not to fill your need for approval.

This is harder than it first sounds because most every magic trick is designed to make it look like you're demonstrating some power. And people who go around demonstrating powers (of any type) don't come across as wildly secure and enjoyable to be around.

I mention this all to make one point. Most people who say "I don't like magic" are really saying, "I don't like magicians," and, more specifically, "I don't like this one particular magician who bored me or weirded me out." So you can be confident showing people magic as long as you're not that type of magician.

This is good news because to do the Romantic Adventure style properly, you can't be apologetic for what you're about to show them. You can't meekly go into the trick being like, "Oh, I know magic is kind of corny. But if you play along I swear it will be worth your while." You have to go into the trick with confidence. And that confidence is based, in part, on the relationship you build with that spectator over time.

To build the confidence to engage in this style with someone, you have to lay the groundwork. The groundwork isn't primarily for your sake, it's for theirs. If you're a professional and you go into a trick that's a little bizarre, you can do so pretty confidently because people are expecting something somewhat unusual when dealing with a magician. But if you're doing magic in social situations you want people to have some understanding of what they're getting into so they're not guarded and can give themselves over to the experience. 

In the post Bedrock: Outer Game, I sort of walked through the general process I take with people to build up to more intense, immersive effects. See that post for the step-by-step process.

The broad strokes are these (and it may take weeks or longer to go through these):

Step One: Perform quick, strong magic in a very unassuming manner. The goal here is to get people past whatever prejudice they may have towards magic by showing them things that could not be misconstrued as boring or self-indulgent. The Peek Backstage style is a perfect filter to take away any potential concern on their part that you might be taking yourself or the effects too seriously. 

Step Two: Introduce other questionable/fantastical elements into the presentations, and continue to shift the focus of the presentations off yourself. See last Monday's post and the section on Social Magic and the Performance Styles. The goal here is to break down people's need to analyze what's "real" or not by making that part of the equation unsatisfying or confusing or unnecessary.

Here's what I mean. If I say, "I'm reading your mind," or, "I'm levitating this bill with magic powers," the natural impulse is for you to say, "That's bullshit." (Or, at least, "that's nonsense.) This is kind of a knee-jerk reaction when someone is taking credit for something impossible. But if I say, "I found this list of instructions in a knot-hole in a tree trunk near my house when I was a kid, and something weird usually happens when I follow them," or, "I learned this way to make it look like a dollar bill is floating. But it only works on the new moon, which is tonight," or, "I went to a convention of magicians and they had this special workshop that four of us were picked to attend by a random lottery. I want to show you what I learned because it's freaking me out and I don't really understand it." 

Now you don't automatically say "bullshit." Instead you don't really know what to think. And after I show you a few tricks in this style, you realize it doesn't really matter. That's the idea. Not to get you to believe something that not true, but to get you to realize that in these interactions with me it doesn't matter what's true or not. It's not the type of trick where I'm trying to impress you or seek your approval. We're just having fun together.

Step Three: Once the audience is acclimated to not caring about what in the presentation is fantasy and what's reality, they're ready for more immersive presentations. Not every person I meet gets to this point. Some people get there very quickly, some don't ever get there. What I mean by "this point" is the point where they realize that worrying about what's completely true or completely false is getting in the way of them enjoying the experience. The reason it takes a while to get to this point in magic is because manipulation and deception are involved. And you need to build up a relationship with a person so they realize you're not deceiving them for your own benefit, but for theirs.

That's easier for them to understand when you're on a stage. "This is a show to entertain me." But it takes a few more steps to get to that place in an interpersonal, social interaction.

Some people I've talked about the Romantic Adventure style with are scared off by it because they think it requires acting ability. It doesn't. I can't act either. In fact, if anything, the mistake I see people make is that they emote too much. They're treating it too much like a show. Whereas it's better if the narrative, while obviously false, feels genuine. 

So, in general, I just perform with my normal personality which is pretty low-key. Once people have reached "stage three" as described in the section above, you shouldn't have to sell things so much. They should know that whatever you're setting up is going to lead somewhere interesting.

The most acting I do is sometimes to play a "frustrated moron" character. But usually I just play things very straight.

Here's a video clip of John Krasinski as Jim on the Office. His demeanor here is very similar to mine when I show people tricks. (Which, in turn, is similar to my demeanor when I'm not showing people tricks. That's the whole point. A consistency in your personality. Not putting on an act.)

But, while my demeanor is kind of chill, I'm completely committed to the narrative I'm establishing. As I said above, there's really no use building people up to this style of performing if you're going to be apologetic about it. Or if you're going to do it all with a wink. It's just not worth the effort. The whole idea is to give people an experience they know is fictional but in most respects feels real. And you can't do that without you being committed to the experience.

If you want to do it with your tongue in cheek and be like, "Aren't we being silly!" Then you'd prefer a more traditional style. "Here... shuffle my invisible deck! Take it out of the box first, ya goof!" That sort of thing. Which is fine too, but a very different feeling.

I'm going to leave you with a gift of one of my favorite videos on youtube. It's a perfect demonstration of commitment. I think magicians are often hesitant in their performances because of a concern about preconceived notions their audience might have about magic. So their performance can often come off as apprehensive, which can be a turn off for an audience. 

Some magician's combat this by being overly brash. But anyone over the age of 12 sees that as a form of compensation and it's unlikely to come across the way you want it to. 

Both hesitancy and brashness can make an audience uncomfortable. 

What you need is confidence and commitment. Confidence in your material and commitment to the premise. 

When I think of commitment, I think of Bobby Banas and Gina Trikonis. 

Below is a video of a group of people dancing to The Nitty Gritty on the Judy Garland Show. The couple in front is Bobby Banas and Gina Trikonis. Bobby choreographed this routine. It's hard to take your eyes off that couple. They're 100% committed to the routine.

What's interesting is that if you look at the couple in the back right, they're about 80% committed. And the couple in the back left—while undoubtedly good dancers—are putting about 60% of the energy the couple in front is. So within the same dance troupe, performing the same choreography, we can see how commitment can draw an audience in.

When I do any type of performance I try to remember Bobby and Gina and how we're attracted to confidence and commitment. This is something that's especially needed in the Romantic Adventure style because the immersive nature can be very new to people and they want to have faith that you can navigate them through it. If you don't seem to have belief that what you're going to show them is worth their investment, it's going to be hard to get them on board. But if you've built up their trust in you and present something genuinely novel, I find it to be the most satisfying and "magical" style of performance there is.