The Role of Playing Cards, and Choice of Material
I have a dear, delightful Grandmother whom I see occasionally in the warden-assisted flat where she ekes out her twilight years. The transient, crepuscular period between saucy middle-age and violent, painful death has, in the case of this heavy octogenarian, been a time of variable madness. One minute she is a sweet old silly, knitting herself a set of syringe covers and talking about her favourite flowers, and the very next moment she has just told you and your friends that she has a ring supporting the back wall of her vagina.
The prolapse of a madwoman pushed neatly to one side for a moment, her candid, off-the-cuff confessions got me thinking about the issue of propriety. When I ask her about her day and receive the reply, "Well I got up this morning and I needed to post a letter so I went out to the post box at the end of the street and then I thought I'd need some stamps so I went in and got some then I came home and had a shit and then I went out an.d bought a lettuce," I am delighted by her happy ignorance of what is or is not appropriate to the situation at hand. In the wizened filigree of her old, old mind, such things are all part of her daily tumble of thoughts and experiences, and there is no reason to hold back, even if she quite turns her relatives from their tea.
What may feel a natural expression to one person may be odd and inappropriate to the receiver. In magic, you may perform material with which you are entirely comfortable, and believe you do so with the right kind of professional charm, yet that material may be utterly inappropriate — either to your character or the mores of the venue.
In Pure Effect, I mention briefly my handling of 'Ring Flight,' or dme Flying Ring,' where the ring climactically appears in my sock. After a couple of vanishes and returns to the key-fob, its arrival in my ankle-hair is a surprising one indeed. I would gingerly lift my trouser-leg at the knee to expose the bump in my sock, and ask the lady in question to reach into the sock and retrieve her jewellery.
I was so delighted by the effect that I didn't question whether it might not be quite what polite company would appreciate. On one occasion I performed for a rather taciturn and unresponsive couple at my residency night in Bristol, arid after realising that they were seemingly not in the mood, I left them alone. It turned out that they were friends of some other magicians I knew, and were weary of the ways of the thaumaturge. When I heard through these mutual friends about them, and received feedback about that performance, one of the things that the couple had rather disdainfully remembered was that I stuck my foot on the table and made the lady stick her hand down my sock. Hearing it like that, I realised how inappropriate it had been. I, who am so careful to remove any disparaging, humiliating humour or references in my performance, had made the crass mistake of glaring impropriety. I was deeply embarrassed, and immediately removed the effect from my repertoire.
Aside from issues of propriety and taste, choice of appropriate material should lead one to be ruthless. Let us consider a clear fact. If you were able to provide a link with a magical world and cause it to shimmer through for the wonder of all concerned, you would not be using card tricks as a vessel for this. Unless you make some absorbing and plausible qualifications, a deck of cards will give a clear message to an audience that sleight~of-hand trickery is about to ensue. If you are to perform magic that feels real and has an aesthetic and emotional impact that renders it unnerving and wonderful, card 'tricks' (i.e. those light-hearted routines that delight in the antics of the cards) cannot be at the heart of your performance.
Card 'tricks' do have their place in the model of Real Magic, as those delightful fireworks for solo violin have their place in the symphony. That is their home. Displays of skill, magical in theme. Regardless of how heavy the patter, cards changing and transposing will be taken to be the results of comfortable skiil, not a call from an esoteric underworld which the performer would try and harness.
I am very specific about how I deal with the issue of the appropriateness o.f playing cards. I have a few effects using cards that can be included in my main routines. One is 'Plerophoria,' given in Pure Effect. This uses the deck cards as a unit: they are shuffled by a spectator and I can name them in order while turned away. There is no 'handling,' and I am performing something conceptually very simple. There is no 'business,' and no plots or contrivances. A second effect occurs as an apparent explanation of how much of the mind-reading is done: three spectators each pick a card, and I ensure them that they will each give away the cards that they have picked. The first does so in a richly entertaining and utterly plausible way, as I explain my techniques. With the second I show how quickly the card can be arrived at. The third is named, piecemeal, by another spectator who has not seen if: I use verbal technique and gesture to force the right choice of colour, value and suit. All emphasis is on the clues given off by the spectators, each desperate not to give away the identities of their cards: it is a richly human and amusing routine, with a three-fold progressive structure. The third routine I use is an effect, also described in Pxu'e Effect where a friend of the spectator, called on the telephone, is able to identify a card in the keeping of that spectator.
Each of these three routines is of a mind-reading nature, and none delights in the cards for their own sake. The end result, hopefully, are routines which play much larger than card tricks: they are about the personalities of the people involved — about the signals they give off, how well they can lie, or the impact of geography in the case of the telephone effect.
Other than these effects, I keep my card routines very separate from my math set. If I am to spend time performing for a group, my priority is to affect them deeply with rich and plausible magic. Nothing about what I do for them will alienate them unless I choose to make them feel very self-conscious for a moment. The sight of cards is not conducive to magic that claims to transcend the ordinary.
The strength of card effects lies in their elegance. lVhen I perform my card material professionally, it is usually at a champagne reception, where my aim is to provide a sophisticated focal point to the mingling. I set up my table, with its green velvet cloth, and invite a few guests to join me. I choose men rather than women, for the former are generally more interested in such things, and I allow them to feel a sense of 'Ah, we are experiencing professional card- magic now of the best kind. This guy is so smooth.'
I will perform card material early in the evening, mingling it with some conjuring effects of a nonmental variety, to gain interest and achieve rapport, and have some fun with the group. In my mind, I am following the logic that I am getting to know the guests and gathering my wits, to later move to the 'real stuff' once I have a psychological handle on the group.
In order to play up the elegance, I do need to create a sophisticated environment. The table, combined with my costume and manner, allow me to do this. If I must mingle with the guests. I never use a deck of cards, for then the controlled elegance is too easily lost.
In short, card routines can be very lovely, and your audience will probably be divided between those that love them and hale them. But few card tricks will have the resonance of reai magic: their appeal lies elsewhere, in the display of immense skill that they offer. They should be kept separate for that reason, and presented in a way that focuses on their strengths, with the emphasis on elegance and professionalism.
I am, however, no longer inclined to use card routines that lack any humanity. Although card tricks may always suggest manual dexterity rather than links with the underworld, I see no reason why they shouldn't be richly warm and visually beautiful. They can resonate a feeling of artistic magic through the extent to which they provoke a purely aesthetic response from the spectator and engage her emotions. For example, a trick where the red and black cards keep separating, however cleverly achieved, is not an engaging or human plot. I have a well-structured and baffling Oil and Water routine of which I am proud, but I cannot for the life of me find a presentation that lifts it out of the category of 'Yes, very clever.' The Ambitious Card left my repertoire years ago, and 1 have never had any desire to find the four Aces in a puzzling manner (unless I were demonstrating gambling subterfuges to an interested group). One must be ruthless, for to create magic that fills the air with an unnerving wonder, one treads a very narrow path.
I take it that we are in agreement that sponge balls, finger-choppers and lengths of rope cart happily be excluded from the list of vehicles for wonder. I have, as I have said, very little use for coins, other than in a few mental effects. In coin magic, the little devils move magically from here to there, and for a real thrill may suddenly become quite large. This is not enough for me, and again, I suggest that if you insist on performing coin magic, keep it separate from what you are coming to develop as real and wondrous,
Once you are clear what should nQt be performed, your efforts should be taken up with developing presentations for the routines within the scope of propriety that are already in place in your repertoire or which you find commercially available, or ideally designing routines that are born from an absorption of this model. I will discuss the creation of such effects later. But for now, it is clear that you will need an arsenal of weighty effects, and probably one's that have that intimate and ethereal quality that good mind-reading offers. It will be difficult to create a plausible and affecting experience if you can only make a card jump to the top of the pack.
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