Meaning and Vision

What is the mug iced experience?

"Astonishment is not an emotion (hat's created. It's an existing state that's revealed."

"The experience of astonishment is the experience of a clear, primal state of mind that they associate with a child's state of mind"

"At that moment of trying to box the unboxable your world-view breaks up- The boxes are gone. And what's left? Simply what was always there. Your natural state of mind. That's the moment of astonishment."

Those lines are taken from Paul Harris' introduction to his The Art of Astonishment, and give a clear and very interesting model of understanding what the experience of magic might be. However, this idea that astonishment is also our primal state of mind seems a little too convenient for us as ntagiciaris. It is dangerously flattering to ourselves to believe that we are putting people in touch with something primal and perfect through the very act of performing magic. The problem is the temptation to theorize and unify a practice that is in its nature entirely pragmatic and opportunistic. One should certainly have a clear sense of what one wishes to achieve with one's magic, but at the same time when one is dealing with a craft, and occasionally an art, that is in itself a beautiful demonstration of how misleading our models of the world can be, one must be wary of objectifying that vision and mistaking it for reality.

As far as any statements can be made, I think that the situation is as follows. The experience of magic is not a universal; it is a direct result of the communications given by the individual performer. These communications may be intentional or otherwise. For example, if an irritating magician insists on performing for a spectator and the latter remains annoyed, then that spectator's experience of magic will be annoyance. Not a wonderful link to a primal, child-like state of mind. The experience of magic may be no more than the possibly quite mundane response of an individual spectator at any one time, for the magic does not happen anywhere other than in her perceptions at a particular moment. To insist that magic is somehow important and inherently cathartic when one is not making it so is nonsense. Magic is not inherently anything. It is what you sell it as.

Failure to understand this can lead only to misguided pretension on the one hand as well as trivialising our art on the other. Any magician who says what magic 'does' in a grand way is expressing his vision, which he hopefully communicates in his performance. His words have the same weight as those of the performer that insists that it is a vehicle for 'having a bit of fun and no more. Each is expressing his vision, and each if he performs true to his vision, wili make it true. Neither is correct, and both are. This is due to the unique nature of magic, in that it only happens in the minds of a spectator. If that spectator does not perceive the magic, it does not happen. Even if you are playing the part of that spectator, when you practise alone, that role has been filled. Accepting this, it is dangerous to insist that magic has any inherent qualities.

In understanding this, the issue then becomes one of creating an experience for the audience. Imagine for just a second that you were to put this book down in order to pour yourself a steaming cup of Earl Grey or chat to one of your delightful friends, only to find this handsome volume gone when you turned back to retrieve it. You experience would be one of bewilderment, rapidly followed by backtracking through your remembered experience to find out what you must have done to misplace the book. You would be doubtless very confused, and would start hunting for it around the place where you sat. You would move position to gain a more comprehensive perspective on a confounding situation.

This experience is not particularly child-like, neither is it magical. It is one of bewilderment, and of rapid rationalising to find possible lacunae in your understanding. You are eager to grasp a solution, and to relieve your mind by assigning meaning to the experience.

II magic were to be performed without any meaning attached to it, I imagine the end result would be something similar. However, the moment a spectator realises his role as witness/audience to a performance by a magician, much meaning has already been ascribed to the situation. The spectator knows that he is not to take it too seriously, and that he is being fooled for the purposes of his entertainment. The common experiences we have of things seemingly disappearing and similar confusions are probably close to what magic would feel like if we were offered no clues, context or meaning. In such a situation, we see that we would run through a rapid internal reality check that would continue until a solution was offered or we simply gave up worrying arid dismissed the confusion with a laugh.

The difference between this sort of bewilderment and the experience of 'astonishment' that magic should produce in one way or another, is the fact that in the latter case, the bewilderment is given a set of references and a context in which it operates, so that the spectator is given the option of finding the bewilderment satisfying, and seeing value in it. The more resonant the magic, the more satisfying it will be, unless the intention of the magician is purposefully to dissatisfy for deeper aesthetic reasons. Thus magic has no pure form: in a pure form it is merely confusion, not magic at all. It becomes magic when the performer gives it shape in the mind of his audience. He may believe it to be about achieving a child-like state of wonder or some such notion, but this is just his choice of shape, and if he does not deliver the goods in performance, then he is deluding himselim.

Magic, therefore, is only inherently about how the performer decides to frame it. This is a behavioural issue regarding the performer, riot an identity issue regarding the material.

How you decide to frame your magic, whether or not you find yourself responding to the frame I give it, will be irrelevant — for all the same reasons —unless you can effectively communicate that framing to your audience. If you don't communicate it, it doesn't exist, and you're not doEng what yc;i think you're doing.

Ascribing Meaning in the Place of Conjiesion: Determining the Vision.

The first task of the effective performer is to decide upon what meaning his magic should have. And then, to be true to this vision, he should delude himself into believing that vision to be absolutely true. If that vision is one of magic as a light-hearted blend of comedy and puzzling tricks, then so be it. If it is one of a dark and disturbing art-form, then so be that too.

There can be no short-cut to achieving an artistic vision of any sort, unless one borrows from another artist. This, of course, does not achieve the goal of arriving at a vision that will define the artist, although it may allow him to adopt a style, and feel second-best. From my own experience, the growing magician starts off pretty much without any discernible style, delighting in packet tricks and bad clothing. If he comes to adopt a style, it is of a generic, fast- talking, vaguely humiliating and bouncy magic-man. The magician, when asked to perform a trick, will shift from being a perfectly pleasant, sweet young man into Mr. Light Entertainment, developing suddenly exaggerated body-movements and, in England at least, traces of a regional accent that is not his own. He will say words that are obviously 'lines,' people will recognise his 'patter' as being such, and any connection to the person they knew and liked only moments before will be severed the moment the card box is opened. Any experience of real magic is lost before the game starts.

Then, through a series of events that radically alter his approach to performance, as well as through time and consideration, that magician will hopefully come to settle into his performance. Instead of communicating tension and weirdness, he will resonate complete congruity with his performing persona. The material he performs will reflect that persona, and the congruity will expand further. As that happens, the audience will sense real professionalism, and also feel utterly confident in his hands.

I am describing an ideal path for the growing performer, but we are all aware of the almost tangible difference between a comfortable professional performance and an uncomfortable amateurish one. The former will control a room, the latter will suck all energy from it like an extractor fan.

The hobbyist performing for his local club is not expected to fill the clubhouse with a well-honed presence. But any magician working professionally who should know better has no business insulting an audience, especially one trying to eat, with sub-standard performance. Few things annoy me more than paying to watch bad, self-indulgent performance, let alone having it thrust upon me while I am enjoying a meal with my few remaining friends.

Clearly we all have to start somewhere, which is why I emphasise that I am criticising those performers who should know better. We watch a first-time stand-up comedian die at the open mike and cringe in embarrassment and hope that he will go away and change his material, but we don't resent him for it (as long as he refrains from blaming the audience for not being responsive). But when a more established comedian who is working the circuit stands before us and is blatantly unfunny from beginning to end, we have reason to feel insulted. If a reasonably seasoned performer cannot see that his audiences are not responding, then he must re-think his material, not force it on further audiences. A performer may be so enamoured with himself that he is blind to audience apathy or irritation, but that is not a pleasant thing to watch.

Jesus, let it go. Take a chill pill.

The magician who does control a room and richly satisfy his audience will have a vision of what he feels his magic to be. That vision will have arisen out of years of defining his performance and the development of a style. The vision will propel the magic and give it meaning, while the style is the natural expression of that vision, If the magician comes to feel that magic is about the creation of a particular feeling, then everything in his being will point towards and encourage that feeling. And the ~vision' will be just that the magician will have in his mind a clear imag.e of idealised magic performance, and will strive to achieve that. He will know when he has failed and sold himself short, and the humiliation stings for a long time. But he will also know when he has touched that ideal, and created exactly what he feels magic should be.

My own vision — and the one with which this book deals — is one of magic that feels real, and ultimately serious (though not necessarily solemn). hi close-up quarters it suggests a magic which is charming and gentle in tone, but devastating in content. On stage or television I can afford to be more openly disturbing, but when I am invited into the space of a few spectators, I must respect that. It is a vision of magic that enthrals and emotionally touches rather than just entertains, although it also encompasses a variety of light-headed amusements too, for I am paid to entertain. It is also very much based around character/ego issues: it is not a social vision, or one that contains a message that pertains to anything other than the performance. The message of the performance is the performance itself. It is about a commingling of character and material that is deeply affecting, and which will transport the spectators for a while to a magical plane, through deli emotional involvement. I don't mind if they know it's all illusion, but I would like them to feel that that is not the point. And finally, I would like them to attach all those feelings back to me as a performer, so that I create a certain level of intrigue about myself in theft eyes — and to walk away from the performance looking at the world with a wider perspective.

In my mind these things form a picture — a literal vision — and I can do everything to ensure that the reality of the situation gets as close to that picture as possible. Few will share my vision exactly as I see it, but I absolutely have to believe that it is the way of performing tragic while making sure that it does indeed provide the response I expect it to. It is pointless presuming that the floating ring effect that I have described is better just because it conforms to my principles: it must then get the response I wish it to, otherwise I am deluding myself The important point is not so much the individual aspirations of the performer, but whether they make for better magic, and whether he can congruently perform in a way that attains them.

As for how one arrives at such an imaginary picture of how magic performance should be) the process will begin, usually, negatively. One normally decides first what one does not wish to do. I realised early on that I would not feel comfortable performing rope magic, neither would I be entirely happy with coins, and never would I be a home to Mr. and Mrs. Sponge Ball. The first task is to question what the reasons for one's preferences may then be: if not this material or these props, then what? And why? And as one begins to form a sense of one's preferred material, a feeling for what one would most like to achieve in performance starts to form.

Another question here would be — what exactly do I want my audience to feel has occurred, and what do I want them w think of me? For magicians who do not keep this question in mind as they design and perform material, no clear answers will develop. The magician will just do the trick as best as he can, and then move to another one. If pressed, he wilt say that the audience should feel amazed and amused by his skill.

This brings us back to the analogy of the violin cadenza in the symphony. Appreciation of skill can enhance the magic, if it happens within a certain context. Or returning to our hero metaphor, we need to appreciate as an audience that the hero is equipped with certain skills that make him intriguing in some way. If the audience understands that we have the deftness of response, enviable physical dexterity and ability psychologically to manipulate that they enjoy being part of, then our character is defined as someone worth watching and rooting for. If we then take the audience to a point of crisis, where in order to make the shimmering point of magic occur we must invest effort into resolving a conflict, then their understanding of our intriguing skills will only enhance the drama. The opposite view of this is to say that such things as card flourishes have no place in magic, for displays of skill are not compatible with magic being real and independent of the performer's technique. But this is a flawed argument. To pretend that we are not utilising skill is daft and patronising, and to display it to just the right degree to define our characters (or in another way, to gain credibffity early on), makes for more resonant relations with the audience.

The magician who does ask himself the question of exactly what response does he wish his performance to elicit from the group — and continues to refine his answers — will perform in a way that is borne from an appreciation of the spectators' experience of an art-form. In that he realises that magic is all about the experience of the spectator and is as far removed from technique and sleight-of-hand as music is from fingering notation on a score, he will be set in the direction of efficiently creating powerful magic, if he has the skills and sensitivities of a composer of magic to back up his intent.

In forming the vision, it is also vital to ensure that it develops from the right perspective. As you think about your performance, and allow that vision to form, it is important to note that the mental image is of you pelfonnh2g for a group in whatever surroundings. If when you think of performance, you see what you would see out of your own eyes, then you are seeing what you do from the wrong perspective. You must be sure that you view yourself when you think about what you do. Partly from the perspective of the audience, and a1~v from the perspective of an imaginary third party, so that you can see the interaction and dynamic between you and the spectators clearly. If you are not used to this, then it will take you by surprise. Seeing everything about yourself - your looks, your dress, your manner and body—language, the effects you perform — all from the perspective of how thei~ actually come across rather than how they feel to you is vital as a performer. A performer who cannot view or criticise himself from these external perspectives probably has no business performing professionally.

As I have said. I don't believe that there are any shortcuts for arriving at a vision of how your magic must be. Indeed, it would make no sense for there to be one, for the vision will change as you grow, expanding and developing your ideas. But I think it to be the case that having saute idea of what you believe magic to be about is important at any stage. This book is about what I have currently decided magic means to me, which I must treat as if it were absolutely what magic is. But along the way I must remind you that these things are merely my opinion and far from fact — for, as we have discussed, magic is not inherently anything. So if you do not agree with my vision, I hope that means that you have formed one for yourself.

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