The difference between “presentation” and “context” isn’t an obvious one. And it’s not obvious in part because I’m making the distinction up. These are words that can be used interchangeably in many respects, but for the purposes of making a point I’m going to differentiate the two. It’s fair to have an issue with my terminology, but the point will still stand.
For the purposes of this post (and similar posts I may do in the future), here are the basic definitions I’m using:
Presentation: Is a motif or subject matter that is laid over a trick.
Context: Is a situation into which a trick is placed.
(Don’t bother going back to old posts and saying, “Hey, this isn’t the way you used those terms in the past.” I know. This site evolves. Keep up.)
A presentation will usually make a trick feel performative. A context will usually make a trick feel more experiential.
If you’re performing magic as an amateur, I believe the strongest way to show a trick is within a context, and not with a presentation.
I realize this may be somewhat confusing so I’m going to give a specific example of the same trick performed with the same theme, but in two different ways. In one instance the theme is part of a presentation, in the other the theme is part of a context.
The trick is: The Ambitious Card
The theme is: Ghosts
A Ghostly Presentation
“Please remove any card you like. Now take this marker. I want you to draw something very specific on the face of the card. I want you to draw a ghost. Whatever that means to you. it could be cartoon-y or maybe wispy and ethereal. It’s up to you.
“Great. Now we take your ghost and put it in the middle of the deck. The card is trapped. But what we know about ghosts is that they can travel through solid objects. They can pass through people and walls. And just like that, your ghost passes through half the deck and appears back on top. Boo!”
This is repeated a few times.
A Ghostly Context
“Come upstairs to the attic with me, I want to show you something weird. Did you buy a deck of cards like I asked? Great. And you shuffled it and put it back in the box? Perfect.
“Before this house belonged to my aunt, it was my grandmother’s. She passed away about 20 years ago. She was a big-time card player. And not long after she died we noticed something weird happening with the decks of cards here at the house. I’ll show you. Pull the deck out
“Okay. Now grandma had a favorite card. A “lucky” card, in her opinion. Turn over the top card of your deck…. The 4 of Diamonds. Of course. There it is.
“Do me a favor. Write her name—Helene—on the front of that card. Now just toss it in here as I shuffle the deck. We’ll give it a couple cuts. And another shuffle.
“What we started noticing is that the 4 of Diamonds would show up at a completely unnatural rate. Whenever we would grab a deck from the drawer, it would be on top. It was always the first card dealt after a shuffle. Maybe not always. But definitely way more than it should have been. In fact, I would bet anything….”
The top card is turned over.
“Yup. See? Now, okay, maybe it just happened to get shuffled to the top of the deck by chance. That’s what I thought too, the first time my uncle told me about this. But check it out. I’m going to put it cleanly in the middle of the deck and I’m not going to shuffle or cut at all. I’m just going to set it here on this stool. Now come over here with me. I’m going to turn out the lights for a few seconds. Grab my wrist so you know I don’t go anywhere.”
The lights are turned out. Silence for a few moments. Then, whispered, “Did you feel that?”
The lights are turned back on.
“Go check for yourself. What card is on top? See? I told you.
“When my uncle showed it to me, I thought it was some kind of trick. Like maybe he never put the card in the middle and he palmed it or something and put it back on the deck when I wasn’t looking or something? I don’t know. I just thought there had to be a more reasonable explanation than the one he gave me which was that grandma’s ghost or spirit or whatever would find that card wherever it was in the deck…reach in…and drag it up through the other cards to the top of the deck.
“I thought he was trying to scare me. But then he proved it to me. And I’ll prove it to you. I’m going to bend this card in half. Now you can see it there in the middle of the deck. And yet… watch… I don’t move….”
“Shit! Sorry. It still freaks me out when it happens.”
Card is unbent. [Top change.]
“There’s only one way to prevent this from happening, and that’s to destroy the 4 of Diamonds. If you don’t, then it’s just impossible to play any card games at all because you always know who has the 4. Here, you can put the deck away. If we play cards later we’ll use the Joker as the 4 of Diamonds.”
The card is ripped up.
“We think it’s all in fun. That was her personality. Sometimes we’ll scatter the pieces near her grave in recognition of her little prank. But I’m just going to go flush these now.”
Later that night, or at some point in the future, the spectator removes the deck and finds—back on top—the “destroyed” card has returned.
Hopefully the distinction between the presentation and context is clear here. If not, future posts on the subject should establish a pattern that you’ll begin to recognize.
One of the differences between presentation and context is in the importance of the theme.
In the Ghostly Presentation you can see that the theme is somewhat arbitrary. It’s just a cute presentational hook. They could have just as easily drawn a homing pigeon or a boomerang or a “clingy friend” on the card and you would have a very similar trick.
It the Ghostly Context the theme is of central importance. If the deck had cut itself or rearranged itself from being mixed face-up and face-down, it would have been essentially the same experience because of the context. But no one would argue that Ambitious Card, the Haunted Deck, and Triumph are the same trick without that context. So you can see what’s taking precedence here.
In future posts I’ll give examples that highlight other distinctions between the two.
One thing to keep in mind, just so the point I’m making is clear…Although I play the context as if it’s real, the goal is to create an immersive fiction. That’s the experience people are engaged in. It’s not a “battle of wits” like magic tricks can sometimes come off as. And I’m not trying to fool them that it’s actually real. The understanding between me and my spectators (and this is a dynamic it takes time to establish because it’s not something they’re accustomed to) is that if they buy in to this interaction then they’ll get to experience the feeling of something impossible happening. I don’t ask them to play along with the trick itself. I want them to view that with as critical an eye as possible. I want them to play along with the context, because then they get the feeling of being part of something bigger than “just a trick.”