The Limitations of the Professional Performance

I was recently sent this clip from Britain’s Got Talent. It came up in an email exchange between two friends of the site. They were discussing if there was a Jerx-like element to the performance.

The performer’s name is “Elizabeth.” Can you even imagine? Just going by your ordinary, everyday first name? It’s not like her name is Mandrake or something cool. How stupid.

Uhm, but Andy

Shut up!

While I don’t believe this woman was inspired in any way directly by this site (other than maybe some of the ideas being more prominent in the magic zeitgeist because I’ve been writing about them for four years), there are some things in the performance which are possibly Jerx-esque.

For example, while she’s obviously doing a magic trick, her role isn’t exactly a magician. And taking the judge off stage is sort of an example of reframing a trick, and is a small sort of buy-in. Even just going by “Elizabeth” could be seen as a way to eliminate an element of “performance.” (If you see it as her suggesting this is not “about her,” so her full name isn’t important. Sure, “Elizabeth” could still be seen as a stage name, but certainly not an obvious “performer” stage name like, “The One and Only, Incredible Elizabeth X, the Second 1st Lady of Magic.”)

There is still much that is very presentational. Her patter, for example, comes off as highly scripted, not like someone chatting with you, or even like a lecturer speaking casually. It sounds like a memorize monologue. Which is fine and perfectly appropriate for the environment, but obviously un-Jerx-like.

So yeah, I can see some similar elements there. I’m curious to see what her next appearance on the show is like.

What I really want to take note of in this post is how limited the professional performance is to invoke feelings, compared to the same effect in a social setting.

I mean, this woman put a lot of effort to create a creepy effect. And I think she did a good job. But still, how scary was it?

On a scary scale of 1-10. Where this is a one…


And a 10 is being hunted by mutant mental patients who were left in an abandoned asylum in the woods and have survived all these years by slowly feasting on the bodies of people who lost their way while traveling the back roads. (They eat them piece by piece, not killing their victims until they absolutely have to. They start with your penis, which they place on the grill, still attached to you. And the mental patient doing the deed used to work at one or those hotdog places where they butterfly the meat first.)

bacon dogs.JPG

On that scale, what is this Britain’s Got Talent performance? A four maybe?

Now, imagine the exact same trick, but performed in a social context using the tools I write about here.

Imagine engaging someone in a conversation about some creepy location you read about. It’s not “patter,” so they’re not quite sure how to take this.

They’re experiencing something one-on-one, not in the comfort of a crowd.

You get to utilize a time investment to perhaps build a sense of impending creepiness. On Britain’s Got Talent you pretty much have 3 minutes between the time you’re introduced and the time you have to change into the ghost of Rhea Pearlman. That’s not really conducive to generating any true fear or dread.

But what if I get you to make a buy-in, and you agree to join me on a car trip to this location. Not too far. Maybe twenty minutes away. But as each mile passes, we’re getting further and further away from civilization. The streets are no longer lit. And the trees are much closer to the road.

Instead of this all happening in a set-dressed greenroom off the stage, it’s happening in a genuinely haunted location (“genuinely” “haunted,” I mean, of course.). It’s happening somewhere dark, and moist, amidst the scent of decay.

It’s in this location that—by a slowly dying flashlight—you look through the pictures and select one. And there, on the rotted wall behind you, you see the name of the person you selected. When you turn back, I am now the person you saw in that old photograph, lunging at you.

Here’s the truth, if you did that trick in a social magic setting like I just described, you would be a fucking asshole. It would be cruel.

The same effect that was somewhat creepy on stage would be genuinely terrifying off. But this goes for all emotional responses. They’re all amplified in a social context. The wistfully nostalgic trick on stage might bring someone to happy tears in a social setting. A sweet trick in a professional setting can be genuinely romantic one-on-one.

The magic feeling itself is intensified when the effect isn’t seen as part of a “performance.” That’s why I recommend stripping any of the trappings of a '“show” from your magic interactions, e.g., patter that isn’t conversational, routines that feel meticulously planned, etc. Your spectator may very well know it’s all still a trick, but if it feels like a “show” then they’re going to feel like an audience, rather than a participant. And getting them to feel like a participant is one of the goals of social magic.

I don’t mean it as a slight against professional performers to say a social performance has the potential to be more affecting to the audience. It’s just the nature of human experience. Professional magic is at a disadvantage when it comes to really connecting with people. It’s easy to think Copperfield has the edge in creating powerful magic because he’s got the money and a staff of people working for him. But the lights, the stage, the staff of people, even the name “David Copperfield,” all serve to distance him from his audience. Not connect with them.

When Copperfield flies in a theater in Vegas, the response is, “Ah, how delightful! I feel like a child again when I see that!” But if he was just a guy you knew from the bus stop and one day he was like, “I feel really weird. I think a moth crawled in my nose last night and got in my brain. I know it sounds ridiculous. I’ve just been light-headed and dizzy and having…like… moth thoughts all day.” And then he just flew up and started buzzing around a street lamp, you would not be talking about “the splendor of magical flight!” You’d be cursing up a storm, or grabbing your gun, or running down the street leaving a trail of poo dripping from one of the legs of your freshly shat pants.