A couple months ago I was watching this outstanding cover of Rage Against the Machine’s, Bulls on Parade by Denzel Curry.
At around 2:25 in the video, right when he’s just about to drop a verse from his song Sirens over the guitar solo, it looked to me like he gave himself the sign of the cross. Looking at it now, I’m not sure that’s what he was doing. He really only touches his forehead and chest. But it doesn’t really matter either way. It just matters what I thought he was doing.
So, in my head, he was giving himself the sign of the cross before launching into that rapid-fire verse. Which made some sense. It’s not unusual to see someone do that before anything they might find challenging, like engaging in a UFC fight or walking the runway for Victoria’s Secret.
So I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll start doing the sign of the cross before a magic trick.” (That’s not what I ended up doing, but it was my original thought.) I thought it might pique someone’s interest. Think of it, even with the most absurd trick. Like a plastic Tenyo effect. If you were a spectator and someone showed you that trick, you might enjoy it or not or whatever. But what if, before the magician showed it to you, you saw her casually give herself the sign of the cross in your peripheral vision. Wouldn’t that give you pause? Wouldn’t you at least think, “I wonder what that was all about?”
Now, imagine it’s done before some intense mind reading effect. You see the magician give himself the sign of the cross. Is he doing that because what he’s about to try is really hard? Is he doing that because it’s scary to him? Is he doing it because he’s calling on a higher power to help him out? Or is it just a meaningless habit?
Who knows, I just think it’s a potentially interesting moment that adds a small element to what’s about to occur. If your audience saw you do the sign of the cross before a Magic Square routine (especially if they felt like they “caught” you doing it, not that you were doing it for them to see), I think people would interpret that as a sign that you’re about to do something you’re not overly confident in. And toning down your confidence is a sure-fire way to increase tension and interest.
I couldn’t really start doing this though, because I’m not known among my friends to be a religious person. It wouldn’t make sense.
So I decided to try something similar. Before a trick I would turn away slightly and tap out an X on the back of my hand. And I did it consistently for about six weeks with almost all tricks (unless it was a trick where I was claiming to be in no way responsible for what was going to happen).
I didn’t draw any attention to it, but I would notice people noticing me do it. Only one person commented on it the first time they saw, but a handful of people who saw more than one trick over that time mentioned it to me.
“What were you doing with your hand?” they’d ask.
“Did you tap something on your hand? I saw you do that another time as well.”
“Uhm, it’s just… nothing. Nervous tic.”
Now, going forward, when I perform for them, I try and hide this gesture from them. I mean, not really. But I try to make it seem like I’m hiding the gesture. A couple people have “caught” me doing it and called me out. What are they thinking? I’m not sure. This isn’t the sort of thing I can ask them about without breaking the fiction and ending the “game” we’re playing.
I assume they’re thinking, “Is he screwing with me? Probably… right?” But the fact that I’m not openly mentioning it to them will, I think, cause them to at least consider that there’s maybe something going on there. Not necessarily some genuinely “mystical” hand gesture, but maybe something that helps me focus or calms my nerves? Yes, that seems to make sense. Surely it’s not some actual ritualistic behavior that means anything, right?
It doesn’t have to be the tapping. Maybe it’s a necklace you pull out from under your shirt and rub a small medallion which hangs from it before a trick. Maybe it’s something you hum to yourself. Any type of ritualistic gesture or action could capture their attention.
What’s the point of all this? I’ve written in the past about the concept of Smearing (here and here, for example). These are techniques used to extend the presentation past the boundaries of the trick itself and to tie multiple tricks together over time. In my experience, they help keep your long-term audiences a little more engaged. These sorts of things give them something more to chew on than they get with a series of completely disconnected tricks.