0 ver the course of the three afternoons that it has taken me to write this book, I have spoken to many professional and semi-professional close-up magicians about how they feel about their work. There is an issue that always used to linger in the back of my mind, which I often bring up.
It goes something like this. We, as magicians, are aware of the huge industry that caters to us. Because of the enormity of the magic scene, it has given rise to massive in-house politics and ethical issues which often affect our performances, if we are conscientious professionals. We perform such-and-such a trick, for example, but not with such-and-such a presentation, for that belongs to so-and-so, and we change this part, which is ours, and add this bit here, and feel ethically relaxed in showing it. Or we perform an effect a couple of times because the perfect moment arises and feel guilty because know that we shouldn't, for it is the signature piece of another performer and we have no right to do it. Similarly, there can exist an enormous weight behind the effect. For example, I have on a number of occasions performed the Chan Canasta Book Test. Those who follow my opinions will know that I am not a fan of book tests, but any road up, I occasionally perform the test, and it is for me by lar the most elegant effect in its class. It is a sheer delight to perform, and I have the glow of knowledge that I am performing a superior piece, created by a master, and which relies so much on sheer personality and brazenness.
All of these involved issues may be in our minds as we perform for a group at whatever unpleasant event at which we find ourselves. But I ask these magicians the same question: doesn't it all seem ludicrous, when you weigh all that against the fact that most of the time to our audiences, we are just providing the trivial delight of a passing hired entertainer? If we are using techniques deemed superior by the cognoscenti but which mean nothing to the uninitiated, isn't there a note of silliness to it all? Over recent years I have seen a couple of effects shown to me by other performers, which I would love to perform. But it would be wrong to do so, and moreover
1 have no wish to perform other people's material. So I don't, but when I look at my work from the point of view of ordinary, non-magical spectators, the issue of intellectual property just seems so laughable.
A case in point: Friends of mine attended a function with me, where one of the absolute greats of magic was performing close-up. This was a name known to us all, but not at the time known to the general public. He was using a lot of his hallmark psychological techniques, but kept missing with them. His use of these skills was a wonder to watch, and his handling superb, but as one would expect with such techniques, bad nights must occasionally occur, and this seemed to be one of them. After having seen this modern Father of magic perform his beautiful art for them, their reaction was "God, that magician was crap. Not like that guy in the pub he was great." The guy in the pub had been a local enthusiast performing a few routines with a pornographic deck of Svengali cards.
I, who had just marvelled at this great man and cringed at the dirty man in the pub, did not know what to say. Were they wrong? No. Were they right? Well, no. One was an artist, the other was not a particularly good magician. Not because one was only using a Svengali deck, but because one approached his profession with the mind of an artist, and one didn't. But at the same time, the incident showed me so clearly how little prestige or expert appreciation means in the real world.
It is an odd situation with magic, quite peculiar In the world of the fine arts, it is only the appreciation of other artists that matters. The public are politely held to be ignorant. A painter or sculptor has far more interest in how his or her work is seen by her peers, than what the lay public make of it. Yet in magic, quite the opposite is hue. While many magicians do seek the respect of other magicians, which is a blameless activity, it is clearly the case that their approval means nothing compared to the views of the ordinary spectators who see them work on a daily basis, There are plenty of coin- and card- workers whom we delight in watching at conventions, but who would quite possibly bore an ordinary spectator fairly quickly. Indeed, professionals with a true appreciation for their art know that the respect of the fraternity is a hollow victory, and means very little indeed. This is an odd cynicism, yet we would be very suspicious of a magician who spoke of his yearnings to be respected primarily by the community.
I was struck by the peculiarity of the sftuation when I spoke to a friend with no particular interest in magic about lecturing for magicians. I had been asked to speak at a few clubs but was not eager to do so. I tried to explain that one had to be careful about courting the admiration of the fraternity, as it was distracting and irrelevant compared to following one's career and vision as a performer. Her reaction was complete surprise: it struck her that to be respected by other magicians would surely be a sign of truly remarkable ability as a performer. It seemed to her to be the pinnacle of success.
A curious conundrum! In any other field. I imagine that would be the case. Perhaps the difference is that in magic, the people who make up that fraternity are primarily hobbyists - whereas in fine art, the artistic community is one of, well, artists. On a recent excursion into the sexy, thrusting world of television-watching, I caught an episode of your popular 'X'-Files, one that dealt with the exploits of two apparently feuding magicians. Here, the work of the young expert was compared to the rather dated and merely adequate performance of the older, jaded magician. One of the two FBI persons, and I forget their names but remember that they sounded rather contrived and silly, commented that the two performances seemed essentially rather similar. "Ah," replied our young genius, "but Mozart and Salieri sound the same to the layman."
This really stuck in my mind. Is there truth in this? Are there objective standards, which can be allocated to magic in this way? Is the lay audience really the judge and jury when it comes to sorting the wheat from the chaff, or are they just that — laymen who, in their essential ignorance, do not have the ability to decide? Should we judge a magician's standard by his popularity amongst his peers, or his commercial success?
LuckiJy, we do not need to find an answer to this question. There are different ways of measuring magicians, and the best will always have their eye on the way that the public respond to them. The genuinely infi~rrned, professional element of the fraternity should see their members from the viewpoint of a lay-audience and judge in a welt-rounded way. But an interesting issue is raised. Namely, that unless we have had the good fortune of our own television shows and are known already to our audiences, any prestige that we have amongst our peers means absolutely nothing unless we can communicate that to each audience that we sit down with. Each time that we begin performing for our audience, we have to communicate those aspects of us that make us good at what we do, and give us authority within the group. This will grant us our prestige. Because, to pick up on an earlier point, if we don't conmitmicate it as such, it ceases to exist. However good we feel we are, and however much excellent feedback we have received, we cannot rest upon that and lose sight of the fact that if an audience do not know our work, then they don't care a fig for our estimations of our talents.
In close-up work, this is especialiy important. I have caught myself on occasion, after an evening of excellent work, which carried me on a wave of satisfaction and delight, approaching a final group as an after-thought before leaving. Still in a world of my own sell- satisfaction, I would forget the preliminaries and move straight into more magic, which was all flowing so well. Afterwards, I would realise that that final group, despite my own florid estimations of my art at that time, had just seen a couple of tricks. Whilst I was imagining myself and my magic as impossibly special, I had forgotten to communicate that to them.
Prestige, real or imagined, is a fallacy in any magic performance where the audience are unaware of it. When this Great Magician performed his effects and missed with his psychological ploys, he was seen as clearly rubbish. When the effects did work, they were received only with an air of detached amusement. for his prestige had failed from the start. I, who was bathing in his prestige, thought it all to be wonderful.
Prestige is just suggestion. It is communicating a perceived sense of authority, which renders the person with the inferior staths a far more suggestible. But if it does not exist in that cloud of knowledge and awareness that precedes us, then we must create it through deft scripting at the start of our performance. Every single time.
Now, this brings us back to that original question. Here we are, essentially amusements in the eyes of our audiences, getting all worked up over something that is. by nature of that fact, essentially trivial. Doesn't it all seem daft? Arid when I used to ask that question, my personal answer was invariably in the afftrmative. I still feel that there is something of value in seeing the trivial side of what we do, but I have also come to see another aspect to it, which while it may not be exactly important, can be certainly wonderful. Yet when 1 asked it of the working magicians whom I encountered, I often received essentially the same answer. Yes, I am increasingly aware of how trivial it is, and I hate doing this run-of-the-mill stuff- which you can't really expect anyone to take seriously. I urn bored of doing the same tricks, and even if I start doing a new one I get bored of that too, and 1 know it all seems so pointless and I hate the fact tim! they find it pretty pointless too. I do the same tired tricks, and because 1 know they're trivial, 1 sort of make frn of them too, because they seem stupid to me now too. I want to do something else with my magic, to have people take it and me seriously, but I don't know what.
lit is the disillusionment of the working close-up magician. Hopefully it means that one more magician is about to change for the better and never look back. When we reach that point, when our performance and attitude become jaded and weary, self-effacing and apologetic, there are two options. One is eventually to stop performing, bored with the whole thing. Which means one less jaded magician in the world, which is a good thing for the rest of humanity. But the other option is to re-discover the art completely, and change one's idea of what magic is, and what one's role as a magician might be. This way, we get to experience why being a magician is the best lob in the world. We can go out to perform, curious as to what the evening might bring, and what we might learn for ourselves.
I reiterate to you, Dear Reader, that you should not think of yourself as a mere hired entertainer even when you are. You must play that part to the booker, and fit in appropriately with the venue, but you are actually there to give a fresh bunch of people an unforgettable time. You are going to create a corner of the party where guests wifl be lifted out of themselves for a whiie. You are going to provide moments of wonder that will be the anecdotes told across dinner- tables or to other magicians at other functions twenty years in the future. You are to move between the guests with the quiet and sly agenda of your own unnerving potential. You are the magician, you control the magic. Don't do the tired routines, borne from an arbitrary series of choices you made ten years ago about what to perform. Lose the sponge balls and anything that you feel that you couldn't hold a room's attention with, and start choosing material that stilts the impact that you would most like to make. Have the courage to think from this starting-point, and to leave ninety-percent of your repertoire behind you. Then go out to perform fresh and eager to improve even more, and from the moment you arrive, invent and walk your own prestige. Carry it around with you with the quiet nature of the man confident in his authority. Communicate it thoroughly and subtly before any magic begins.
Start with the presumption that performing magic should be the most enjoyable and beautiful thing imaginable, and let your imagination take you along the path of discovery. What you learn is your right as a performer to embody: you are the magician, you perform magic in the way you feel it should be, you control the magic, it doesn't (through dictating what is 'tried and tested' or a 'sure-fire commercial winner') control you.
It's a whole new job.
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