In February, after I talked about the “social magic” concept, I got an email from a reader named Bruce who had some qualms about the term. After further posts on the subject he wrote me the following.
“Your 2/19 post helped to clarify the concerns I expressed to you. But it did so oddly, by allowing me to aim a critical eye back at myself. I may not be exactly the right guy for the style you advocate, not because of my concerns about deception, which in retrospect would be easily overcome, nor because of any flaws in the philosophy, but by the fact that I don’t have much of a social life! These days, I live a nearly hermetic existence. So... never mind.
As you’ve said, most magic is like most stand-up comedy. As I understand it, your style is almost directly analogous to improv comedy.
As I see your style of magic, your friends and acquaintances are performing with you (just as we all do with friends in any pleasant social situation), and your strength, which they accept and say “Yes, and” to is that you will bring some joy and wonder to their lives through some play with their expectations and perceptions.
I’d say your ideal audience consists of people you know and who know you, because you can tailor your effects to their tastes, and they can more openly accept and eagerly anticipate what’s happening because they trust you. You know the troupe, and they know you.”
He’s right. There’s certainly less value in this site if you’re not someone who has—or at least someone who wants—a fairly large social circle. I’m not, by nature, a social person. While I’m very comfortable around people, I don’t “need” social interaction. If someone was like, “We’re going to lock you in a cabin for 6 months with no one to talk to and you can’t use your phone or the internet to reach out to anyone.” I’d be like,
So in my early days, I was pretty content to be a student of magic and the means of deception and only occasionally perform. Performing felt awkward to me. Like I was seeking validation or acknowledgment, when really I didn't want either.
It was only when I stumbled into the concept of shifting the focus off myself that I started performing regularly. When the underlying idea shifted from, “Look what I can do!” to, “Hmmm… check this weird thing out,” the neediness was gone from the presentation.
And without that barrier I performed a lot more. And while I’m still someone who is almost pathologically self-sufficient in most regards, performing for others has become my main focus because it turns out it's 20 times more fun to do than just studying magic in theory.
It’s not analagous to the difference between sex and masturbation. It’s the difference between sex and reading about sex.
It’s certainly possible to read my writing on magic and think that I believe in performing out of some altruistic motive of “giving people a magical experience.” But the truth is, I've found that it's a ton of fun to engage people with magic and show them something they've never seen before. If it wasn't fun for me, I probably wouldn't bother with it.
So yeah, there’s a strong social element to this style. It’s not something you do for yourself or with your other magic buddies. And if reaching out to others isn’t something you’re comfortable with, it’s just not going to be a style you’re interested in.
I wanted to talk briefly about cultivating an audience for this style of performance. As Bruce astutely noted in his email, when performing the most immersive types of effects, you are effectively asking them to join in on the performance. You might think your friends might not be into that sort of thing. They might not be. Your co-workers or school-mates might not be either. I’ve worked in offices where everyone is tremendously warm and ones where people are very distant. It’s kind of the luck of the draw there.
I do believe you can kind of “train” people to get into this style of performing, whoever they are, as long as you build up to it, but it’s much easier if you put yourself in a target rich environment.
Target Rich Environments
I like to perform in coffee shops and at dinner parties and in the dining cars on trains. But these aren’t target rich environments. You still have to put in effort and get people in the right head-space for a performance.
Here’s what I mean by “target rich” by way of an analogy. If you were trying to meet women to get laid, I might direct you to a bar or a club, or maybe we’d go a little outside-the-box and hit up the library or the supermarket. Those might be “good” places to meet a woman. But if I sent you to a whorehouse or a women’s prison, those would be “target rich” environments where you would almost certainly get banged.
Target Rich Environments for good magic audiences are places where people come to be social and creative (especially if there’s an element of roleplay).
Here are some examples;
Improv Class: This is the women’s prison of potential magic audiences. I’m not talking about performing during the class itself. But after class when people will generally go out to socialize, that is an ideal time. People who take improv classes tend to be creative and relatively intelligent and, more importantly, up for anything. They’ll play along with whatever you’ve got. They’re not going to bristle at shuffling your invisible deck when 20 minutes before they were pretending to be a retarded raccoon.
Community Theater: I’m not an actor and, generally, I don’t love people who self-identify as actors (unless that’s their actual job). But while you do run into weirdos with bloated egos, small theater groups are also full of playful, nice people as well. And there’s often a lot of socializing time that is perfect for introducing magic into. I’m not suggesting you go and try out for Bye Bye Birdie if acting isn’t your thing. If you’re even semi-competent and not a total flake you can contribute behind the scenes in a number of ways.
Tabletop Board Game Groups: Go on meetup.com and find yourself a group in your area or start one yourself. Having people seated around a table, playing games, and often playing characters within those games… you’re really 80% of the way there. Transitioning to magic is very easy. And I’m going to make it even easier for you.
One of the biggest and highest rated games of the past few years is called Mysterium. It’s a cooperative game where one player is a ghost (who can’t speak) and the other players are all mediums trying to figure out how the person died. It has elements of Clue, but the gameplay is much different.
A game with ghosts and psychics that deals with non-verbal communication is rich with opportunities to pull the subject matter off the tabletop and into the room.
These are just some options. I'm not suggesting you need to adopt some new hobby in order to find people to perform for. As I said, I think it's possible to turn almost anyone into a magic fan. But if you're someone who is struggling to establish a cast of willing participants for your magic, then seeking out places where people go to be social and creative is an easy way to find readymade audiences who are already on a similar wavelength.