Magic and Theatre

Were I writing a book about stage magic, theatrical issues would seem immediately appropriate. However, this is not about the wretched, irrelevant dove penetration acts still, unbelievably, performed for disappointed and bored audiences in seaside towns and convention centres across God's beautiful Earth. No, no, no: this is a book about the performance of my first love (In actual fact, Debbie Boon, Reedham Park Primary School, 1978-9), close-up and parlour magic. Actually, for those who are astute enough to read between the lines and are well-versed in nineteenth-century erotica and advanced code systems, the real subject matter of this book will be abundantly clear.

Talking about close-up magic and theatre needs a little more qualification, lest it seem an unnatural pairing. After all, we think of close-up magic as tricks, as nothing grand, as fun, light-hearted amusements. Yet we are aware of the importance of creating moments of wonder, and of issues regarding the engagement of the audience. Theatre, on the other hand, seems a disproportionate notion in comparison: a grand, magical fusion of text, performance, coughing and same-sex unions. Should magic be as resonant as good drama? Is it reasonable to expect a magician to present something cathartic or subversive to his audiences?

However high one's ideals, the fact seems to remain that for most of the time, our performances are barely performances at all rather impromptu routines given in noisy surroundings where it would not seem possible to create any true sense of wonder that transcended mere trickery. Or at least that was roy view a few years ago, but now I no longer believe it. At a recent event, I asked a fellow magician what he would be performing around the tables. "Oh, you know — crap," was his answer, an eloquent presumption on his part that with the pressure of table numbers and the need for effects to reset, he would not be performing any miracles that evening. Such, 1 am sure, is the attitude of many commercial professionals. Myself included at one time. But since then I have discovered the possibility of artistry in magical performance, and feel very differently. A classic situation: the most prosaic, charmless surroundings, and as you stand at the bar someone nonchalantly says, "Go on then, show us a trick." Their demeanour is uninterested, the environment is loud and upbeat, and no particulars of circumstance are going to aid you in the creation of a moment of poetry. In fact, you abandon any hope of performing with a subtle and resonant style, feeling the need to keep in rapport with the mood of the event. But imagine how much stronger, how much more resonant, how much more rnagictl it would be, were you to do something utterly anomalous to the surroundings, and provide amidst all the noise and laughter and mindlessness of the party a miracle for this one man, a true moment of wonder that mesmerised and disturbed. Imagine how much more magical it would be, spec qica!ly because of its disconnection from the environment. It would absolutely lift him out of himself.

The issue here is one of control. When we begin as close-up magicians. we have no understanding that we are entering the personal space of our audience and making demands of them. We do not see how ill-mannered this could be. Instead, we are rightfully intimidated by the perverse dynamics of the situation and become insecure. This insecurity, more often than not, manifests itself in ham-fisted ways of approaching groups, and an eagerness to bludgeon the spectators with magic before they are ready. This is the activity of a performer who sees the problem, and solves it by figuratively hiding behind his props. Later, we grow in confidence, and see that the space of our spectator groups should be respected. So we develop more natural ways of introducing ourselves, and rather than hiding, allow our personalities to show. If this personality is pleasant, honest yet theatrically honed, then it will allow the group to feel confident in the performance, and to enjoy the experience rather than resent it. A skilled performer will pride himself on his rapport skills, and his ability to blend in with any group, and adapt to their demands and preferences as a group.

However, my understanding of resonant magic and its relationship to theatre means that this more 'confident' stage is flawed and incomplete. It is wrong to focus on that ability to adapt to any group. This is a worthwhile skill to have, and infinitely preferable to the former option, but I would suggest that the first key to powerful performance, and to creating the experience of real magic, is precisely that you make your group adapt to you. Now please don't misunderstand this. You must develop the ability, if you don't already possess it, of making any group feel comfortable, and learn to read their cues and desires in such a way that you can tailor certain aspects of your performance to them. Approaching a group cold, your first task will be to get them to like you and feel comfortable in your company. I feel that at this point, a natural ability with people is essential. But once that rapport has been established, and you have gently come into their space with the respect that deserves, it is now fundamental to serious magic that you reverse the dynamic and make the space yours: that it now becomes a serious performance area, on your terms. Only when you have your audiences eager to see what you will do and happy to stop what they are doing and pay attention according to your rules, will the foundations be laid for magic that reverberates with wonder.

What, after all, is the alternative? Magic, I suppose, that merely fools. Missing from the scenario where the magician tries to fit in with what he perceives the demands and preferences of his group to be, is any sense of creating and sustaining a dynamic, of performer qua performer and audience qua audience. There is only a trick, and no one is even being told that it's important. Our friend at the bar or our group at the table expects little and gets little, and magic means nothing.

ibis controlling of the dynamic from the outset, and the management of spectator response to which it leads, is a fundamental notion upon which my ideas are based, and I will return to them in detail later. For now, it is enough to say that my understanding of the role of 'theatre' and of magical dramaturgy begins with understanding performance space, and an acute awareness of the dynamics between performer and audience.

I am not talking abou.t drama that replaces magic. Magic is our end goal, and my consideration here is how to create magic that feels real and is as strong as possible. I believe that a certain dramatic sensibility in the structuring and performance of effects is fundamental in achieving this, but I am not suggesting that achievement of dramatic effect is the greater goal: drama must support the magic, not vice-versa.

Darwin Ortiz warns against this in his marvellous work, Strong Magic:

"While every magic trick tells a story, it's important to realise that the prime goal of magic is not to tell a story but to create a sensa!ion.., Some of the magicians and magical writers most concerned with presentation make the mistake of thinking that the point of a magic effect is to support a dramatic premise, much like theatrical effects or film special effects do...

If, however, our fundamental premise is correct that the unique strength of magic is that it gives the audience the experience of confronting the impossible, it follows that the point of a dramatic presentation is to enhance the magic. The magic is not there to validate a dramatic premise, the dramatic premise is used to add impact to the magic, to make the experience of the impossible that much more powerful."

I agree with this, and many of us have seen routines which tell an atmospheric and dramatic story to the accompaniment of a magical routine. I find these presentations ultimately quite alienating. Aside from misplacing the focus of performance, they remind the spectator that he is watching a scripted miniature act, as opposed to watching something resonant and real. And too often, the weighty story is pretentiously disproportionate to the 'trick' that accompanies it. Stories are told as the focus of magical routines to entertain children, because the performer knows that an entertaining story will capture their interest more than the shiver of the unreal. There is no need to continue this with such obviousness into adult magic. Despite the conviction with which the stories may be told, they are too often alienating and wearying excursions into self-apotheosis on the part of the performer.

However, Mr. Ortiz abandons the importance of drama too early. While he goes on to talk much about such issues as suspense and character, I think that the issue of dramatic resonance unifies many disparate ideas and brings much into focus. It leads ultimately to a kind of histrionic sensibility, through the exercise of which, so many of these issues will fall natura]ly into place.

The key here is something to which I shall return later: one of withholding. The importance of keeping the grandeur of performance withheld in such a way that it is felt rather than seen is vital to giving it substance. The mistake made by many sell-styled 'dramatic' performers who are concerned most with presentation is that they manifest that dramatic sensibility too much in a way that becomes ultimately rather daft. Many, of course, may enjoy it, but it neither draws an intelligent audience in, nor creates real intrigue: it just presents a caricature. That overmanifestation of sensibility may occur in character, grooming, or over-indulgent scripting of effects. The performer is merely portrayin.g a two-dimensional caricature of an ill-thought-out stereotype. I believe that the type of indulgent use of drama objected to by Mr. Ortiz is related to this kind of nonsense.

The alternative that I suggest is a histrionic realisation that takes place quietly beneath the surface, withheld but felt by the audience in a way that they would find difficult to parody. And at this level, drama is of fundamental importance. In his The Work Of Art Of The Future, Wagner writes:

"Every branch of art addresses the understanding only to the extent that its core — only the relation of which man or its derivation from man can animate and justify the work of art — is maturing towards drama. All artistic creativity becmles universally intelligible, wholty understood and justified to the extent that it passes over into drama, that it is inwardly illuminated by drama."

As long as we are creating magic and not opera, the issue remains of how to sustain this chthonic dramatic stratum correctly, unpretentiously, effectively. In many ways, that is the subject matter of this book. It leads to two clear areas for consideration: the designing of routines with a sense of dramatic structure in mind, and the creation of a character with the same dramatic sensibility behind it. When character and performance are fused with a magical effect in a celebration of elegant and subtle theatrical awareness, the experience of real magic is born.

One of the interesting aspects of considering magic theory is that, like most of the arts, theory pursues practice, rather than follows it. The Creek theatre's brightest period was in the fifth century BC, but Aristotle's Poetics, the grand work of dramatic theory, did not follow until late into the fourth century. Throughout theatrical history, theorising has been slow to follow theatrical output, and the great authors have been, in the main, reluctant to wax theoretical about their works, aside from a few snippets of obiter dicta here and there in occasional prefaces. In magic performance, there is no room for empty theorizing: unless the principles involved have a real and reliable effect on the spectator, they have no value. Magic is an entirely pragmatic art. Writing in the fifties, Friederich DUrrenrnatt noted that "in art, anything is possible as long as it works." (Theatre Problems, 2954-5). Infusing magic with the notions that I concern myself with in this book has no value unless they work, and do so in that they extend the magic beyond the experience of trickery and deception, which is my aim.

I am not considering other performance aims held by magicians that use magic to promote specialised concepts. Gospel Magic, Motivational Magic, Trade Show Magic — these things do not interest me within the scope of this book. Magic can certainly be used to promote a socio-ethical programme, but I find the very idea quite perverse. Horace raised the question of whether instruction or delight should prevail in drama. In magic we have a variety of 'uses' for our art beyond magic itself, which reminds me of the notion of 'art therapy.' The rendering of art inferior to therapy is an interesting one: interesting in the sense that it makes me want to vomit angrily. Therapy is one possible product of art: ii a work speaks to a troubled individual in its perfection or inspires another to improve some aspect of their life, then a good thing may have happened, but art is indifferent to us, separate and concrete, though borne from very human passions. Good art connects us with the infinite and promises to transcend the force of human experience that has necessitated it. But neither art, nor magic as art, should be subservient to the delivery of an agenda that exists independently of the performance, however empowering that may be for the audience. I repeat, the audience may experience the magic as empowering, but it is not the role of magic to promote empowerment. That can be left to the expanding number of gurus in that field. A reaction of true wonder — that peculiar experience that is part existential but primarily aesthetic — precludes any appreciation of moral awareucss.

An agenda in magic can, however, exist that is one with the performance, where the 'higher' communication is the Greater Effect of the performer himself and beyond that, magic as a whole. Then every moment of bewilderment and every aspect of the performance can be ruthlessly geared to the promotion of those concepts. I will consider this at length later on, but for now it is enough to say that in my opinion, this should be the aim of making improvements and the true agenda of the performing magician.

In his essay, Theatre Without a Conscience, the English author Howard Barker tells the following tale which nicely demonstrates this misapplication of performance art:

"A drama teacher, a pacifist, visited me. He told me of his production of Antigone, in which instead of a set he hung a massive map of the world on which every war currently being fought was illuminated by flaming red light, Of course, there were tots of these, and the actors played in the glare of them. At the end, he flung on the house lights and dragged chairs onto the stage, obliging the audience to engage in a debate on the so~'cal1ed issues the production had raised. He therefore succeeded in eliminating the entire experience of the drama, humiliated the text by using it as a means to an end, a starting point for the endless curse of debating things, wrecked the invention of his actors, turning them into mere didactic instruments, and liquidated any possibility in the audience that their structure of feeling and thought could be inflamed by what they had witnessed — he had reduced the non- cerebral event of a play into a pack olarguments."

In making this point, I am warning against what I might call 'over- presentation,' the activity of some performers who rightfully wish to endow their effects with meaning but do so in a misguided fashion. Books that deal with presentational issues generally warn against having nothing to say at all and no appreciation of meaning. I want also to warn against the dangers of inappropriate saturation of meaning. I hope I have made it clear that to believe that a sense of drama and gravitas must be pushed right to the surface is a mistake. The approach to magic that trivialises it will lead to the display of transient, amusing trickery or mere masturbatory technique. The very opposite mistake is to perform an histrionic act of self-love that, ultimately, drips only pretension.

I reiterate, the role of drama in magic is to strengthen the feel and impact of real and resonant magic. Sometimes it will be appropriate to perform an effect 'off the cuff,' in a downplayed fashion: what one might call a whimsical act of change in the primary (i.e. the immediate) world, which seems to have no connection to a deeper stratum of hidden mystery. For example, you may walk up to a bar, pick up a teaspoon arid cause it to bend. And do so as if you do that sort of thing all the time, with no sense of drama played out in the effect. Yet the dramatic element can be found in the very carefree attitude with which you play it, and the quiet self-awareness with which you create a state of total bewilderment in the observer. In other words, there may still exist considerations of character, role and audience effect in the most (apparently) whimsical performances. D~ramatic sensibility, which as I have said should operate primarily at a subtle level, will guarantee that a supposedly casual display still has a powerful impact.

However, in an ideal situation, the close-up magician will take a small group and collectively transport them into the experience of wonder. Rather than an off-the-cuff demonstration, he will take the time to set the scene, and ensure that the spectators are playing their roles properly. The effect would be of a mysterious character using his esoteric talents to create a moment of real magic, one that surpassed mere trickery, and mere technique. Indeed, it would not just be a case of one man's learnt skills: rather he would be a connection for the audience to something beyond, something a little disturbing. If it were real, the magic would have to come from a place just beyond the performer, from a place to which he serves as that gateway. This is the key. When he clicks his fingers and cards change to the four aces, we know we have experienced sleight of hand. Real magic would not be quite that quick and easy. Real magic would take investment. Real magic would draw you in, and make you nervous.

My model for understanding dramatically sound magic is as follows. The magician's role must change from a whimsical god-figure who can click his lingers and have something change in the primary world, to a hero-figure who, with his skills and intriguing character, provides a link with a secondary world of esoteric power. He must arrange circumstances in the primary world — such, as the correct participation of his small audience — in such a way that if that precarious balance is held, a glimmer of magic (only jusi held under control for a while) will shine through and illuminate the primary world with wonder. That requires investment of time and energy from him and from his audience, and involves the overcoming of conflict. When the routine is over, something has shifted in the world, for both spectator and performer. There is a true sense of catharsis.

It would be inappropriate and laborious to make every routine in a set conform to that process, but it is something that can subtly weave in and out of a repertoire. I understand that this may sound heavy stuff indeed for a bunch of card tricks. but bear with me. Consider the shift for the role of the magician that it suggests. To be most dramatically sound, and therefore emotionally most powerful, the magic has to move out of the realm of effi?ct into cause and effect. Into a realm where action and effort are vital. I am talking about subtle and vital changes. I am suggesting that the magician shift his role slightly to be more plausible and human, to make his magic resonate more.

If a casual bending of a teaspoon is the virtuoso caprice of the first violin, then the sustaining of tension and resolving of conflict is the driving force of the symphony in which the delightful frill finds its context. Well-placed in routines, the whimsical display of ability can work to build or check the tension of the greater piece.

Again I reiterate, these are principles to be subtly applied, and are to have the aim not of creating great drama, but of involving the emotions of your audience at a greater level and providing them with an experience that feels real, Not every trick in a routine need follow this, for the need to provide an entertaining set will mean that you must shift to different modes, arid to a comic rhythm of sorts to provide something wholly satisfyin. But if your aim is primarily to provide strong magic rather than just be a jolly entertainer, then an ultimate fundamental seriousness and plausibility will be of great i [Ii portance to you.

A concrete example from my repertoire seems worthwhile at this point, in order to illustrate how these rather large ideas may be incorporated into a routine to shift it slightly into something that has, I hope, a genuinely magical effect, as opposed to one of trickeTv.

Many magicians, myself included at one time, perform the 'Floating Bill.' it is a beautiful trick, and has all the necessary components of a strong and memorable effect. But the effect that remains after the trick is over is "How did he do that? Was there string? I couldn't see any..." and so on. Let's examine this. When a magician floats a bill, he is playing a god-figure who can snap his fingers and make marvels happen. Any audience member over the age of six knows that he can't really do that. They know it's a trick, albeit a very good one, and it doesn't really pretend to be any more than that. However convincingly it is performed, a straightforward presentation of this effect will not move the spectators beyond the experience of seeing a good trick, and not knowing how it was done.

Now, let us take the potential offered by such a great trick and shift the magician's role ever so slightly so that he is no longer a god but a hero. Let us make him an intriguing personality who offers a connection to a secondary world of wonder, which will shine through momentarily if circumstances are arranged correctly here in the world which we experience. Let us make this trick have real meaning for the spectator, and let us give them a little cathartic journey with it that will not revolve around the mundane question of 'How did he do that?'

I remember seeing Terry Lunceford float a ring on a video, and it seemed a much more charming idea than borrowing something as impersonal as a banknote. So my first thought was to use a ring, but the issue remained of how to invoke a real emotional response and to make my role warmer and more human than the implausible nerd-god that many magicians portray. Here is my routine - meaning and magic inspired by Mr. Luncelord's video;

I sit next to a lady, having obtained her trust and intrigue with preceding effects and my general demeanour. I might take her hand, and ask her if any of her rings have particular and pleasant memories attached to them. After she has pointed one out, I tell her, unless it is obviously a wedd.ing ring, to remain quiet about the memory in question, as it is none of my business what it might be. Then I ask her if I might borrow it for a minute or so.

As I take the ring, I load it onto the thread that is anchored to my wallet (or some such personal item that would be rude for anyone else to touch) on the table. For loading details, see the video mentioned: I want to describe the presentation here, not dwell on matters of handling. Suffice it to say that the ring can be plucked from the air at the end of the routine without needing to break the thread. As the loaded ring is placed on the palm of my right hand, I take her hand in my left and say, '~l'd like you to think back for me to that memory

— that pleasant memory, And to help you get back into the feeling for me, I want you to take whatever you saw at the time as you see it now, and expand the picture.., brighten it, enrich the colour.., that's right, and add some s p a r k 1 e ..that's excellent, so that you can really feel that good feeling inside of you now like a white light." As 1 say this, I ensure that she really does get back into the feeling, which she will. Everything about my verbal and non-verbal communication is telling her to take this seriously. Because it is a little weird, suspense and interest builds up in the group.

I continue. "See that white light inside you like a swirling vortex of good feeling. Really get into this. Now, keep your eyes on the ring. As you focus, see that light swirling in your mind's eye. Now make that light move slowly inside you, start to grow and spread. Keep looking at the ring. Make the light move. Make it" - suddenly the ring twitches 'move." That twitch is small but clear, and the group will come in closer.

"No, don't be distracted. Keep your eye on the ring but see the light shifting too. Make the feeling spread and move, that's right — don't be distracted by the ring, keep your mind on the feeling — spreading, moving..." As I describe this, I let the ring twitch a little more, then start to slide around a little on my hand in a very eerie way. Of course, if she has really involved herself in the proceedings, the movement of the ring will start to control her experience of the feeling, and as it moves more freely, so she will experience the spreading of the feeling accordingly. I am still only allowing the ring to move in a small area of my hand, so that when the moment is most tense, I can say: "You see, I want you to understand what people mean when they talk about their heart soaring, or their spirits lifting and suddenly, beautifully, elegantly, the ring floats right up in the air above my hand. It hovers as I say, "And I want you to know that you can completely circle and surround that feeling t~ circle the ring with ~ny fingers in a deceptive move given on the tapeJ with the knowledge that you can just pluck it out of the air any time you need it [1 remove itfrrnn the air] and keep hold of it for the rest of your life [and hand it backj."

The reaction to this effect is ten times more powerful than that with which the 'Floating Bill' met. There is genuine tension at the start, audible gasps at the first tiny movements, and then the most beautiful, silent swell of emotion as the ring suddenly lifts. When I circle the ring with my fingers, a few people start applauding, or making their enthusiasm known, while others look dumbstruck. Handing it back with the warm message of being able to recreate this good feeling nearly always results in the lady clasping my hand tightly and saying 'Thank You.' That is the most rewarding reaction I could ever hope for from magic. A heartfelt word of gratitude: an acknowledgement that she had been transported by wonder. Once after performing this, a chap said privately to me that it was 'the most lovely thing he had ever seen.' On other occasions, ridiculous as it may sound in print, the rou tine has evoked tears from the participant — happy ones, I might add. (On one occasion where the lady did not have a ring and the performance was privately in my own home, I had her secretly write down a word on a slip of paper, which would evoke a happy memory for her. The slip was placed in my hand, and the routine was combined with what became an accu rate description from me of the entire memory, and when the paper lifted at the end the poor thing burst into floods of joyous tears. Perhaps a llttle inappropriate for table-hopping, but evidence of how much more impactful magic can be made when sensitively handled.)

The question of how the ring floated is neither here nor there. There is a warmth and a beauty to the effect, I hope, that means more than that banal question of method. The emotional response is greater than the intellectual one, which means that when they think back to the trick, their minds will be seduced by the warm message of the effect and that emotional reaction, and it will be an enormous effort to consider it coldly in terms of handling.

Now, let us look at this in terms of its dramatic resonance, for that is the key to its success, Firstly, I could take the ring and have it rise at my command. Then I would become the implausible impostor again. So my first task is to shift my role. In this effect, I am not playing the omniscient character of the Bill Floater, but rather someone who will take her literally by the hand and show her how to connect with a magical realm separate from both of us. That is the major shift that makes this routine so effective. I am not saying 'Look at me — I can do thisl,' and therefore not inviting any cynicism.

Secondly, I create conflict and tension. I do this by insisting that she not be distracted by the ring: and by giving her various images and ideas to juggle. This will involve effort on her part, and vicariously from the rest of the group. She is investing emotional effort, and trying to sustain a precarious balance. When that balance is held, something magical glimmers through. My task as the magician is to help her maintain that, so that the moment occurs. The tension is controlled, and as it moves to a crescendo, the attention of the group has been focussed into a tiny space, and they have become physiologically geared to perceive and expect very small movements. Thus, at the peak moment, the ring rises and blows away their rapid intellectualising and leaves them with an entirely non-cerebral event.

Thirdly, there is cause and effect here, unlike in the classic magic paradigm of mere effect. But the cause is of a magical nature: it is not spelt out. Part of the delight of this effect for the audience is experiencing the movement of the ring as a metaphor, and understanding that. As they make the connection between the movement of the feeling in the body of the spectator and the movement of the ring, without having it explained, there is a resonance felt. This is quite the opposite of the normal technique of patronising the spectators with dreamt-up, crowbarred-in explanations of why the red and black cards are separating or the knot on the rope is able to slide around. So here I do not talk about psychokinesis, or energy travelling along her arm and through mine. I just let the effect speak for itself, and allow the spectators to find the magical and emotional cause for themselves.

I have loosely structured this book around the model of magic 1 have in mind. We have begun with setting out our aims, in the same way the magician or hero sets out with a certain goal in mind. In the second part we will look at areas of conflict and practicalities that he must deal with in order to achieve that goal, and we will finish in the third by drawing conclusions and ending that journey — hopefully, like our hero, with a new level of understanding and perception.

From Peter Brook's The Empty Space:

"When a performance is over, what remains? Fun caI~ be forgotten, but powerful emotion also disappears and good arguments lose their thread. When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself— then something in the mind burns. The event scorches onto the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell — a picture. It is the play's central image that remains, its silhouette, and ii the elements are highly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence what it has to say. When years later I think of a striking theatrical experience I find a kernel engraved in my memory:

two tramps under a tree, an old woman dragging a cart, a sergeant dancing, three people on a sofa in hell — or occasionally a trace deeper than any imagery. I haven't a hope of remembering the meanings precisely, but from the kernel I can reconstruct a set of meanings. Then a purpose will have been served. A few hours could amend my thinking for life. This is almost but not quite impossible to achieve."

Let us turn to how we might, in our small way, achieve it.

The Art Of Cold Reading

The Art Of Cold Reading

Today I'm going to teach you a fundamental Mentalism technique known as 'cold reading'. Cold reading is a technique employed by mentalists and charlatans and by charlatan I refer to psychics, mediums, fortune tellers or anyone that claims false abilities that is used to give the illusion that the person has some form of super natural power.

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