I had another post I wanted to do related to the Spectator as Magician plot (a theoretical stage version based on a close-up version that's in the upcoming book) but I'm going to push that into next week because I want to clarify a fundamental philosophy of mine when it comes to performing magic. I've touched on this before, but not clearly enough because I'm asked about it once a week, at least, over email (and twice today, which prompted this post).
I've often said that if you want people to truly believe you have supernatural powers, then you have a personality disorder. I've also said in the past that, "I don't like magicians who want others to walk away from their performance believing something untrue. I think that's bad for the spectator, bad for magicians, and bad for the art of magic."
Now, people have a hard time reconciling that with my approach to presentations. The emails I get essentially say, "If you don't want people to believe in these things, why invest so much time and energy into these presentations?" More specifically, they'll look at something like my previous posts on the Spectator as Magician plot and they'll question why I think it's important there's a rationale for why the spectator has these powers at this point in time, and not before and not after. Why go though the whole bit with the phrenology chart and setting up the idea that the effects are temporary, when I don't really want them to believe in those things anyway?
Well, let me first confirm that yes, I don't want people to believe that me pressing on certain areas of their skull will allow them to read minds. In general I don't want them to believe any presentation I give them. Belief is the death of the feeling I want people to have. I talk about this more in this post, Feeling and Belief.
Let's stick with the phrenology example, because it's the most recent. If I don't want people to really believe phrenology is the cause of the effect, why introduce it at all? Or if I'm going to set it up, why go into the detail about the effects being temporary? Why worry about the chart looking authentic? Why not just give them a noogie and say, "Hey now you're a mind-reader. What number am I thinking of?" Why worry about it seeming real, if I don't want them to walk away believing it was?
Hold those questions...
Imagine I was someone who made movies. Actually I want you to imagine three different versions of me as a filmmaker.
1. Let's say I hired some actors to dress in period-appropriate clothes (that is, clothes appropriate to the period of the film, not clothes to menstruate in) and I got an actor to play me as a child. And I went to a bunch of locales near where I grew up and I used an old VHS camcorder to make "movies" of me getting first-place in the spelling bee, hitting the game-winning home-run in Little League, and getting ready to go to prom with the head cheerleader. Let's say none of these things actually happened, but I'm trying to create a false record through these videos to convince people I'm this amazing person with a bunch of skills and accomplishments I don't really have. If I did this, you would rightfully think I was a psychopath.
2. Okay, let's say I'm not making movies about me. Instead I'm making films about aliens and Bigfoot and ghosts. I'm shooting a bunch of fake footage of these entities, but I'm trying to pass off these movies as documentaries. I'm claiming the footage is real. Maybe some of you would think that was a fun thing to do, a larger percentage of you would probably think that makes me a loser. (I'd agree with the latter assessment.)
3. Now let's say I'm the director of a motion picture called The Last Temptation of the Skunk-Ape (In Japan it's known as The Final Days of Swamp Cabbage Man). It takes place in Florida in the mid-60s and it follows a young couple on the run from Florida's smelly Bigfoot monster. And I get every last detail correct. You grow to really feel for the young couple and you cry and scream and jump in your seats and feel relief that they escape at the end.
You would probably think that was a good thing, and a good use of my filmmaking efforts. You wouldn't think I was a psychopath or a loser. And no one would ask, "Why are you putting so much effort into this when you're not trying to get people to believe it's a documentary? Why do you want people to be moved by this experience if you don't want them to think the movie is real?"
We understand this logic when it comes to movie-making. I'm just applying the same logic to performing magic. I don't want people to think I have supernatural abilities. I don't want them to truly believe my presentations. What I want to do is to create really compelling magical interactive fictions for them to experience.
So if I do a Spectator as Magician plot, for example, and I don't give them a rationale for why they can accomplish this thing at this point in time, that is a plot-hole in the interactive fiction. If I don't explain why they won't be able to read minds when they leave, that is a continuity error in the the interactive fiction.
I want the experience to seem as real as possible. But as I said in the above linked post about feeling and belief, what makes that so powerful is that it seems so real when they know it's not. As I wrote there: The magic feeling occurs in the gulf between what they believe is true about the world and what felt true during the course of the effect.
I don't want people to say, "I believe he read my mind," or, "I believe a ghost cut that deck." I want them to say, "I know there was no invisible dog," or whatever the case may be, "but... how did he?...wait...uhm... he must have... no, that's not it... fuck, it really feels like there might have been an invisible dog."
And I want there to be no plot-holes, continuity errors, or loose ends that take away from that experience. Nothing that feels false or out-of-place. Not because I want them to see this fiction as reality, but because I don't want impediments in the way of their reality getting caught up in the fiction.
Of course, these are my goals at the highest levels. Often what I do is not so ambitious. I do a lot of stuff that's just intended to be fun or interesting or entertaining. But those sorts of things don't need clarification. And still, in those situations, true "belief" is never something I'm after.
In fact, having someone really believe something that isn't true, makes me very uncomfortable (as it should any normal human). And what steered me away from the more believable presentations was when people were actually presuming there was some truth to them. It was then that I adopted the following mission statement:
Make the unbelievable feel real and the real feel unbelievable.
What I mean by that is, if my presentation is something unbelievable like ghosts or time travel, I want that to seem as real as possible. If it's something "real" like body language or memory, then I want to push that to the point where it seems unbelievable, e.g., "I can tell which of your hands is holding a coin based on your cat's body language as it sits in your lap," or, "Yeah, I took off two weeks from work this spring and memorized the public library. Go ahead. Grab any book."
In my earlier years, at my best, I think my performances would fall into the "amazing/puzzling/impressive" category. And there's nothing wrong with that, really. But I do think that's the type of experience people can get by watching something interesting on tv or on youtube. By pursuing the "interactive fiction" idea and following the mission statement above, I feel like now, at my best, my performances fall into the "amazing/fantastical/unreal" category, which people seem to really enjoy. And that seems a worthy goal given that social magic is one of the few forms of entertainment that can reliably deliver such an experience.