Creativity hi Isolation

"Antes se que mat acomparihado." "Better alone than in bad company' - Portuguese proverb.

A couple of years ago I was booked to perform for a birthday party held in a restaurant. It was a large group of friends in their twenties and early thirties, and they were all very responsive to my magic. They were a nice bunch of people to work for, enthusiastic in their responses and physically attractive.

I was surprised some six months later to find myself next to three of them at a regional magic convention. It seems that this core triad of friends had developed a real interest in magic following my dazzling appearance that night. Which, for Heaven's sake, only makes sense. Chatting to them provided some distrachon from the turgid parade of stage 'acts' which, as ever, constituted a series of charmiess people in tails showing us, to the accompaniment of Vangelis, some props which they had bought.

Six months after that I got a phone call from one of the three, asking to meet. Theft interest in magic had continued to flourish, and they wanted a few pointers. As dine went on, we all became friends, and the three started to work professionally as a group, a trio of magicians that work the grungy club and festival circuit. And they do so brilliantly.

They have only been. performing for a year or so, and will be the first to say that they still have many enjoyable years ahead of them to develop and build on what they are learning now, technically and dramatically. But these three go out and perform far, far better than the majority of working magicians that I have seen who have had ten years to refine their performance.

Let me describe them. They wear T-shirts and jeans, obviously heavily influenced by the image and engrossing personality of David Blame. One is covered - literally - in tattoos and has a shaved head. He teaches Tai-Chi and carries with him the sweet aroma of top- grade homegrown marijuana. The second is absurdly tall and has an air about him of a carnival attraction from the Victorian period. The third is a fast-talking, ducking-and-diving cheeky dodgy cockney chappie whom you like enormously within minutes but wouldn't ask to guard your car for a moment white you nip into the shop.

These three work in the most difficult of surrouiidings and are exactly the right type of people to do so. They constantly practise and when I hear their ideas for presentations, I am drawn to their originality and complete dedication to presenting plausible, unnerving magic. When the tattooed member of the group performs, he brings his knowledge of Tai-Chi into his work, downplaying, for example, the use of an ITR as a demonstration of 'palm-breathing':

allowing a bottle cap to rise and fall rhythmically in his hand. When he performs the Balducci levitation, he first invokes the Sun gods. Quite seriously. People buy into it, and it gives him a means of positioning himself correctly for the effect. Alternatively, they levitate each other across the room using a concealed signal device.

these are three performers who have a modest and strikingly mature attitude to their magic. They absorb ideas like sponges, and understand their niche and particular appeal. Above all, they have an originality in their presentation which has come from pursuing the aesthetic which they had in mind for themselves. They are aware of their characters as performers. They know only too well about the importance of making their magic meaningful for their audiences, for they are working with potentially very unforgiving and restless crowds.

They have learnt from actually performing, and from sitting with each other every day and playing with moves and ideas. They have not learnt from attending lectures and magic clubs. The result is that they present magic that is magical and persuasive, for it would not occur to them to do anything else. It would not, for example, occur to them to fill their presentations with one-liners. Neither would they use the patter and personality of their favourite performers. They would not perform effects that were out of line with their respective characters.

When I compare them to the bulk of magicians who perform in one capacity or another, it is clear that these three guys are far more imaginative than the bulk of what the magical fraternity puts out. Working together, they have quickly come to understand the importance of simple performance-related and magical basics that seem to be missed by the performers who are supposedly being guided and taught by clubs, or who are apparently gleaning knowledge and improvement from lectures and conventions.

It is easy to make that criticism without first seeing that to enjoy magic as a hobby is a perfectly noble thing, and that clubs are generally set up for hobbyists. But as Tommy Wonder says, if you are a hobbyist, you probably shouldn't go out and perform. Performing our art, especially for an audience of non-magicians, demands the highest standards and a knowledge and fluency with the stuff of performance. It is very different from showing tricks to friends and fellow enthusiasts, which is a fine thing but belongs to a different arena. Yet this creates a vicious circle. The hobbyists who make up most audiences at conventions and clubs are interested in picking up new tricks, not learning about performance. They feel that they have a right to know all the methods and secrets of an established professional simply because he is being paid to lecture, but are generally less interested in the real glue that binds those secrets together: the performance itself.

Good, professional performers who take their magic seriously will create effects borne from an understanding of themselves as characters, for it is this that begets their personality in performance. This means that for many performers, myself included, some effects are immensely personal. Having someone else perform your material badly can be like watching a neighbour sodomize your pets. And I know what that's like.

Unfortunately, there is not a glimmer of understanding of this truth from the amateur community at large. Imagine that instead of being magicians, we were stand-up comedians. Amateur, semiprofessional and full-time pros, we would go out and bring the magic of laughter to audiences, We would learn material, we would develop and practise it, shaping it to have the most powerful impact. We would develop our own characters, and create material to suit ourselves. Then once a year, we would hold conventions. Comedians would gather from around the world to enjoy each other's company, meet the famous, and improve somehow as performers. Talks would be given, questions answered by star performers, and the whole thing would end with a gala show.

Clearly, at those talks, the enthusiasts would hear about delivery, developing material, timing, character-creation and how to make it in a difficult business. The enthusiasts would be inspired by the experiences of the people they respect and would use their example to move further down theft own paths with more understanding. Can you seriously imagine that those talks would ever consist of top performers, respected by their audiences, standing and dictating their jokes one at a time while people wrote them down? That each performer would be expected to simply recite a long list of gags and invite the audience to go out and start using his lines the next day?

Can you see how pointless that would be? And how terrible for the lecturing performer who is expected to remove the very stuff of comedy from his performance and reduce it to a list of jokes? Now, for those that cannot attend, there are videos available. These are not the videos that stand-up comedians actually enjoy at the moment, where they can see their idols in performance, working the crowd and getting the most out of their material: no, these would be in- house videos for comedians which, again, consist of those same top performers listing jokes. You would watch the tapes, write down the ones you like (an on-screen labelling system even allows you to cue back and forth to particular favourites) and go out and use them.

If we follow this image through, we can see how comedians would become utterly interchangeable and lose the skills that make them funny. All over the world they would tell the same jokes. All over the world audiences would laugh politely. The comedians would not worry about pe~forrning those jokes, they would just tell them, believing that the joke itself would be enough to be comedy.

Comedy, as a performance genre, would be seen as identical to what happens when someone tells a joke after dinner. The top, professional comedians who were still genuinely artful at what they do, would have to deal with the fact that their very profession was brought into disrepute by a world of friends telling jokes badly to one another. Worse, those friends telling jokes would be the ones listening to the lectures, noting down the jokes given to them by (he top professionals who can only watch that circle bring the whole industry downhill.

I love watching good comedy and am pleased that it has not given rise to quite the same type of scene that we have in magic. I am pleased that comedSns have real respect for each other's art. It is a very good thing that comedians frown upon plagiarising material from each other. I like the fact that while, like most performance genres, it attracts at the amateur level a quota of enthusiastic but bad would-be performers, the comedy industry does not cater primarily for that percentile.

The result of this sad approach in magic is that everyone in the magic fraternity apart from the novice enthusiast has an area of disifiusionment within him when considering the 'scent' Lecturers know that the important points regarding performance are not what their trick-hungry, over-saturated audiences want, although it is absolutely what they should hear. So they turn theft lectures into dealer-demonstrations, or choose to perform their second-rate material which they are happy to explain.

By far the best lecture I have attended was given by Tamariz on the correct placement and use of comedy in magic. Ue taught me things that I did not know in a way that made sense and was utterly memorable. No tricks were taught. How rarely do we lean things at conventions that are actually important to us as performers?

I fully realise that the novice performer has to ape his idols for a while to find his ground, and in order to learn the moves and ideas that will form the working basis of his own future effects will probably have to take material from other performers for a while. But such performers as Guy Hollingworth and Lennart Green, favourites of the community, learnt their original approaches with little recourse to the teachings of others: they sat and played with cards in comparative isolation and arrived at their own destinations, ones that appear to suit them marvellously. The three lads I described, though influenced at first by the Blame repertoire, followed their own presentational ideas and now perform, in the main, very original magic.

The magic community does not promote creativity. People may enjoy the fraternity for various reasons, but a personal drive to create original performance art is not one of them. Magic is a wonderful hobby, and the opportunity to share it with fellow enthusiasts is a good thing, bringing people together and keeping them safely off the streets and away from children. But it is a rare magic club that is prepared to really teach its members about performance, and magic is not magic without performance.

In isolation, we can learn to develop the creative process for ourselves. Those performing magicians who say that they are simply not creative talk nonsense: if they can perform well enough, they can begin to think along theatrical and aesthetic terms- The trick is to change your approach from a passive one into an active one.

Passivity and laziness amongst magicians are everywhere. The more we learn from videos and lift routines out of books, the lazier we become. The creative, active approach is different: we decide on an effect which would be marvellous to achieve and then give ourselves the space to find the solution, We learn through play, perhaps by focussing attention on a deck of cards for a few hours a day, finding interesting new ideas there. Be careful, though, with the latter approach: for finding a method before an effect often produces magic far more satisfying to perform than watch But whatever we achieve on our own in this way will be individual to us: it will have stamped upon it the hallmark of our personality. The more we tread this path and refine our creations, seeing them entirely from the audience's angle, the more our magic will resonate an individual approach worth experiencing.

There is nothing like the moment of discovering the solution to a creative problem. For me) it is normally one of discovering a presentational structure or approach that will enhance and give meaning to a magical idea. When 1 find the answer that works for me, I am elated. 1 do not even ask for friends to suggest those answers, because I would hate to deny myself that moment, or be seduced by someone else's vision. Since pretty much abandoning the performance of anyone else's effects, I have come to enjoy magic in a very different way: and everything I now perform is, in my mind, as good as magic can be. The only way any magician can really feel this, and believe in his worth, is by designing and performing his own routines to his own highest standard. For those who are unfamiliar with this aspect of the magician's life, it is a truly splendid one. Bristol offers some charming countryside through which to stroll alone and dream up solutions to beautiful, magical pictures. It means that when I do go out and perform, I am putting these ideas into practice, and refining them as much as I feel is possible. That makes each performance an excellent opportunity, and far more interesting to me than when I was just presenting a string of dealer items.

It does not take long to gain a grasp of the basics of magic, and most importantly, to gain the magical, deceptive mind-set that you need to think up ideas. As soon as those are in place, it should be time to start to follow your own vision of what magic should be. What are you looking for when you buy those dealer items? What strikes you as a good type of effect? What binds all those good effects together for you? Why do you ignore certain others? How could they be better, even the ones that are already your favourites?

If you can begin to identify the qualities that you see as most important in a magical effect, you will begin to get a sense of your own approach to the art. Next, you can begin to dream up ideas for effects along similar lines. Create wild and impossible ideas, but ones that are clear and simple in their wondrous impossibility. Then start to think of answers, and play with the ideas without compromising them. Work from the top-down, not bottom-up: i.e., start with the big picture and work down, leaving the intricacies of the sleights for last, for they are really the least important aspect of the whole. If you find yourself working in the wrong direction, from the individual moves upwards, return to the larger pictures and the grander ideas. Allow yourself to think for the moment in terms of lasers, twins and impossible rigs of machinery: think big, and after a while you will hit a moment of absolute inspiration.

This demands of you the very opposite of the dynamic of the magic club. Thinking in this grand way is not about sharing ideas, nor is it about settling for the standards of the amateur. It is about a personal quest, and a passionate search for an ideal, and is the stuff that magic is made oL If you are a hobbyist, think bigger than just hobby. 1 would hate you to become one of those embarrassing Undes at Christmas. Begin the creative changes in the approach to your performance, and give yourself the respect and the effects the weight that they deserve. Start to see the material of other performers that you watch in lectures or on videos as their material, and although you may have the right to perform what they have published, start to notice how doing so would only make you into an unimaginative copyist, an amalgam of different styles and arbitrary tricks.

Love the effects that you perform, but never mistake them for the magic. And realise that to perform well, you must step out of the fraternity into yourself, and see of what stuff your dreams are made.

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