Withholding the Power

I want you to remember this fundamental theatrical ruLe: establish truly and precisely details that are typical and the audience will have a sense of the whole, because of their special ability to imagine and complete in imagination what you have suggested."


Suggestion and Presence

I remember fondly as a child — though why we called him 'Fondly' I now forget - finding the Wicked Witch of the West absolutely terrifying. Today, of course, a massive gay icon, she would lurch around with her green face and insane laugh in a manner that had me clutching my tiny boygenitals with foreboding.

Nowadays I don't find her particularly scary. As an adult, other things frighten me. Spiders the size of my bathroom squatting in the sink, my own mother's sexual advances —~ these things cause upset and trepidation to me as a nearly-thirty-year-old. As adults, we develop a sensitivity to finesse and subtlety, and find the implication of horror in a plausible and everyday mould far more terrifying than a woman with a pointy hat and a yeast infection. We respond more to Hopkins' deft portrayal of the mesmerising psychopathic cannibal Hannibal Lecter. The more he withholds the promise of danger beneath a charming veneer, the more we feel it. Compare Hannibal Lecter with Christopher Walken's hysterical portrayal of the headless Horseman in 'Sleepy Hollow,' and you will agree thoroughly with me that there is much to be gleaned from a sense of power comfortably and securely held back, and only hinted at through the expressions of character that may come with a subtle gesture or use of the eyes.

It takes confidence and a true sense of performance character to keep the sense of magic and intrigue at a level where the audience feel it and respond to it, but fed that they have sensed it for themselves rather than having had it thrust upon them. The mentalist who presents a two-dimensional, exaggerated character, portrays something most probably quite unbelievable, and ultimately dishonest. He makes a similar mistake to the magician who decides to wear one of those terrifying badges of aniateurship when performing: namely a playing-card tie. I realise that I have just alienated a third of the magic community by mentioning that, but trust me on this one, you look dreadful.

We all know that if you false transfer a coin into your left hand, it is generally bad magical technique to point and say, "1 have the coin in tiny left hand now." Overstating the obvious will make an audience question it. Furthermore, a person hearing any statement will have to do some interpretive work on it to make sense of it and fit into his version of the world. If you want a person to believe something, and you state that thing outright as a plain fact, they will, mosl of the time, do their little piece of interpretative work on that statement and in doing so, move away from it slightly. The more independent minded a person is, the more questioning they will perform.

Add to this the fact that you are going to, as a magician, invite a certain amount of cynicism from your audience before you get started, and you will see that most things that you state outright will not be taken on face value. On the other hand, your audience will hopefully be paying very close attention to you, which will make them very responsive to any tiny cue that you give them. The little things will be responded to: the bold stQtements will be cynically questioned.

If your audience is going to be doing even more interpretative work than normal, which they will as witnesses of illusion in order to feel that they are keeping their wits about them, then you have to understand the dynamic of guiding their interpretations even more than normal. If you make a bold statement, they will interpret away from the content of that statement. There is no other direction in which to go. However, if you imply what you want them to believe in .a way that seems unintentional, then they will interpret in the direction that you wish—i.e. towards the desired conclusion.

Apparently unintentional implication is an application of suggestion. Understanding the role of suggestion need not be daunting, nor does one need to get into such exaggerated nonsenses as NLP to use it, Kenton Knepper, in his gathering of electro-magnetic sound registration cartridges "Wonder Words," has applied Bandler and Grinder's 'Transformational Grammar' and other linguistic patterns, (which in turn go back to much of Chomsky) to magical presentation. NLP has always claimed to be 'elusively obvious,' in that it formulates and arranges ideas and phenomena that are already present and clear to anybody who cares to look, if you do not have a knack for persuasive or communicative skill, then learning NLP techniques may improve your abilities. More likely though, they will allow you to sound like someone with no real social skills who has learnt a set of 'rapport' techniques that, ironically, alienate and irritate people around you. If you already have a knack for communicahve subtlety, then the 'elusive' part of that claim is rendered redundant: the 'art of peopl&handling' becomes, in Stephen Fry's memorable words, 'the art of the-set uckingobvious-it-makes-your-nose-bleed.' Speaking as someone who has practised, trained, studied and worked with NLP for some time, it seems to me to be a mixture of part common sense (which are the parts that no one can seriously call peculiar to NLP), part reasonably effective techniques for turning the mind from such low-level pathologies as phobias and so on, and the rest over-hyped and evangelically-packaged seductive rubbish. But as long as many of its practitioners claim that anyone can become a genius in a matter of minutes, it's not going to go away.

My main concern is with creating presence and meaning through subtlety and implication, rather than localised language tricks that may or may not enhance the spectator's perception of an effect. II an unappealing magician with no presence presents effects trivially but with all of Mr. Knepper's techniques brilliantly at hand, I don't feel that he will succeed magically as much as a performer with immense charisma equipped with just a natural knowledge of word-power.

The most natural way of achieving the right kind of communication for the enhancement of presence and meaning is to simply believe in the magic as you perform it, with an understanding of how you are apparently achieving your miracles, and then to let that understanding leak through naturally. I have written before itt Pure Effect about the importance in mentalist effects of communicating an apparent (though fictitious) method for the achievement of the mind-reading. The more you can communicate those fictitious techniques without appearing to do so purposefully, the more believable they will be, for the audience will feel that it has spotted them for itself.

With all magic, this is a sound principle. I shall quote a charming passage of Tommy Wonder, in which he describes the Silent Script in application:

'lit pretend to place a ball into my left hand, but really palm it in the right, I would hold the left fingers slightly cupped, just as would if I genuinely held the ball, lithe ball were in my left hand, I would be able to see it. But since it isn't there, I can't really see the ball. However, lcaa force my imagination to see the ball. It is part of my silent script. [see the image of the ball being held in my left hand. Then I think the words, "Now vanish, n'y boy," addressing the ball in my left hand. As the ball obeys, I might see it first lose its color, becoming transparent until it eventually disappears. But whatever the imaginary mode of vanish I have fixed on, I acti.tally see it go in just that way. When it's gone, I might think something like "Good!" while I open the hand. I can open the hand now because the ball is no longer there and the hand needn't hold it. Of course the moves have been practiced so that in opening the hand the audience has a chance to see that it is empty. Then, as I brush my palms together I could think, "Cot rid of that one nicely."

From Acting is Not Making Faces, The Books of Wonder Vol. 1, p. 295

We have discussed a model of magic where the magician is not quite the omniscient figure who can control the universe whimsicaily though the click of his fingers. Instead, he is a more human guide to a realm of wonder that will shine through, a little unpredictably, if circumstances in this world are arranged just right. Although there will be times when a more traditional, whimsical approach will be called for, the magician committed to this more dramatically resonant model must believe it entirely in performance and allow that belief to lead his behaviour. For example, in the Floating Ring effect I have described, I must not be embarrassed about the fact that the spectator is genuinely and seriously to create the feeling in her mind, nor must I downplay to her the importance of her serious cooperation. It is by not compromising the magical cause and effect of the piece that it has the potential to become wondrous.

By imaginatively following the vanish of the ball with so much commitment, Tommy Wonder makes it more real and therefore more wondrous — in a way that the audience will feel for themselves rather than have pointed out to them. Similarly, if one commits to a dramatically profound model of magic in this way, the audience will be led to a greater involvement in the effects.

The times when I am disappointed in my own performance are the times when I have not been committed to my beliefs, and therefore performed arbitrarily. When I begin to perform to a group, there are certain beliefs I have in mind, and I will allow them to be communicated subtly:

- This demands your undivided attention.

You will treat my performance with respect.

This is the real stuff. I'm not messing about. I am going to freak you out.

I will communicate the first belief by taking my time before I start (to build up interest), then waiting until I have the attention of the group. If a couple of people are still talking, I will wait for them to stop. lii situations where they keep chatting, invariably other people at the table become irritated with them and make them be quiet. Then I will thank the group politely. If! see a mobile telephone (or 'cell phone' to our American brethren), I will usually ask for it to be switched off, along with any others. This does depend upon the nature of the venue: but if the group are in my performance space, rather than vice-versa, I would certainly make that request.

The second belief is communicated much with the first, but much can still be said by the amount of polite respect with which I treat the spectators around me. If someone is trying to mess things up for me, I will soon move them to 'let someone else have a go' —and my clear but courteous refusal to tolerate disrespect will be understood by the group.

The final two beliefs can be stated more obviously, as long as you are sure that you have the charisma and talent to back up your claims. I like to use the initial moment of introduction to sow the seeds in the right direction. Because the approach is such an important moment, and one bungled by so many performers, I shall spend a moment looking at what one can subtly communicate.

At my residency in Bristol', in the sprawling East-European lounge bar of a restaurant called Byzantium, I approach a group with something like the following words, and a well-practised glint in my eye:

'Good evening, welcome to Byzantium. If you don't know me, my name's Derren Brown, and I'm... a kind of magician. Hello there (shaking hands, getting a few names)... May I join you for a couple of minutes?... Thank you.'

I'm shaking hands and learning a few names, repeating my own of course, knowing full well that the words 'a kind of magician' are hanging in the air. The timing is such that they are all left questioning that description, but have no chance to verbalise their curiosity. I don't want to have to explain what I mean, and 1 want to get them into a responsive and curious state. Any cynicism that may have resulted from introducing myself as merely 'the magician' is disarmed by the implication that their preconceptions are going to be inaccurate. Also, by welcoming them to the restaurant, it is clear that I am part of the place and not someone in from the street. And by taking the time to learn some names and asking if I might join

Note Ed. Sadly no more. They cant afford me. Tue resisted the urge to plare this section in the past tense, but it seemed unnecessary: as is clear, when this book was written I u~,s eanung my living table-hopping. There i~ no greater fOrm of instruction than these regular xixs where one develops material at an ~ rate and has the time and space Iv hone everything tea fine point. If you are beginning a career as a magician, go and get yourself such a residency — aside from their instructional value. you'll gel 99% of your work through them once 10u settle in the right sort of place.

them (and no one's going to refuse after all the hand-shaking and so polite a request), I have communicated a respectful tone, which will be reflected in their attitude towards me.

Much, therefore, has already been said in a few moments, and in a way that will have the spectators feeling what I would like them to, and apparently of their own accord. This can only come from practising extreme self-awareness — literally seeing yourself, in your mind, approaching a group and introducing yourself. While it may seem that I am making a lot out of a very small point, one only has to see how most magicians alienate their audiences from the opening moments to see how vital it is to get this right.

Now, don't get roe wrong, please don't. If you find yourself getting me wrong for even a moment, stop immediately. I am not suggesting that the approach to a table need be an enormous issue. The words I say are perfectly nawral, and I do not stick to them rigidly. People that are naturally affable may never give this a moment's consideration, but feel so delighted and confident about approaching a group that they communicate all the right things with no need for thought. When performers do make a big deal out of the approach, they generally try to be too clever, and work out an opening effect that has happened before anyone has a chance to realise what is happening. David Williamson, on an early lecture video, describes a spoon-bending routine, with which he then opened at tables. He would ask to borrow a spoon, perform his excellent sequence, and then introduce himself afterwards. Perhaps this comes down to no more than cultural differences, but to approach the table of a Dining English Family in this way would seem a little rude. However good an opening sequence one may have devised, I cannot overestimate the importance of invoking curiosity and responsiveness in the group before you officially begin.

My first few routines are, currently, of the mind-reading variety. The description of myself as 'a kind of magician' now starts to make sense: clearly I am not someone who is going to do clever tricks with coins and bits of rope. My style is gentle and serious at heart, with some strong points of humour to keep the tension well-paced.

In my mind, I have the attitude that I am performing the 'real' stuff, and merely give the description of 'kind of magician' to help them apply a label. Because I am not touting myself as a serious psychic, I am happy for them to think, of me as an elevated magician of sorts. At the beginning of one routine, I say the words, "As a few of us get deeper into magic and move away from the sleight-of-hand end of things This subtly trivialises mere trickery, which in turn suggests that I am doing something altogether more real. And rare, for only a 'few of us' go so deep.

When I am concentrating on mind-reading effects, I close with the floating Ring. By this point, however, the mood has been so created th—it to think of physical trickery would seem insulting. Having established that I work with deeper forces than mere prestidigitation, a couple of strong, visual magical effects — presented with a serious tone — become that much more powerful. To sustain this I must not, in this set, perform anything that is clearly the result of clever fingers. Therefore the preceding mind-reading effects lay a core of suggestion as to my methods and talents, which colours the presentation ot my non-mental routines.

Therefore, routining itself can communicate much of your vision and the perception of magic with which you wish to leave them. The misguided point is made often by magicians, mainly nonprofessionals, that if an audience perceive you first as a sleight-of- hand magician, it will make it difficult for them to believe in you later as a mind-reader. Magicians make such statements while a large proportion of the general public, at the time of writing, are happy to believe that David Blame has some occult abilities even though his repertoire is based on card-tricks. David Berglas also exquisitely blended the two performance areas — in the end it is all down to the performer. Either he makes it fit and is able to hold it all together by the force of his personality, or he fails because his performance is meandering and unclear. It is ludicrous to make objective statements about whether magic and mind-reading mix. In fact, one might even consider the converse of the misguided maxim and suggest that ~f your audience perceiv~ you firs! as a nzind~reader, it will be more d~fflcu1t for them later to believe you as a sleight-of-hand magician. Given a wise choice of material, and the right sort of presentation, the resonant effect of good mental routines will lay a suggestive base that can turn a magic trick into a miracle. The two areas of magic can absolutely be mixed and lie congruently with each other, provided one is intelligent enough to routine and perform them sensitively.

Remember, my model here is not one of pretending to be psychic. It is one of presenting magic that does not feel like trickery, and which captures the emotions and imagination (while distracting the intellect) in a way that makes it feel real. So I am not trying to convince the audience that because I can read their minds, I must have super-human powers that allow me actually to make an object vanish. I don't expect it to be intellectually credible in the way that the mind-reading sells itself to be. But by setting the stage with some ethereal effects that are clearly far removed from trickery or sleight- of-hand, a tone is set of non-physical techniques and psychological manipulation. Once this is established, I can finally push it just beyond those bounds, to further disarm the group. When the watch stops and the ring twitches, the 'ethereal' has just manifested itself visibly. When the ring then floats, it is designed to sentimentally overwhelm the rapidly adjusting intellects of the group. Rather than undermining the mind-reading, I aim here to elevate it to something more aesthetically charming, something that has its raison d'etre in the world of wonder rather than puzzlement: fundamentally emotional rather than intellectual. Something that is essentially a magical effect can achieve this, liftirg the act to a new level, provided it is in keeping with the premise of what has come be ore. (Therefore a four-ace production to linish would not work, whereas something visual and bizarre and beautiful like a penetration effect or levitation could imply that the group is hallucinating, something in line entirely with what has come before.) A magical effect becomes more serious and eerie, while the mind-reading becomes more wondrous.

To summarise so far: we must seek to absorb the model of real magic at the level of belief, then allow it to leak through in the way in which we approach our audience and the thought behind the structure of our routines. Our words and actions must presuppose that we are performing the real stuff, and in order to be doing so, greater demands will have to be made on everyone's investment. The spectators have a greater role to play than if we were just going to manipulate a few cards for them.

That presupposition is a very powerful form of suggestion. The audience will take their cues from what we presume to be true, and work towards the conclusions that we would like them to have.

Suggestion and Character

At another level, there are various techniques for communicating through suggestion the kind of presence and character that will enhance the feeling of magic being real. This is an immensely personal area, and I do not wish anyone to try to clone my performing character. However, I would mention one particu'arly powerful tool, which is the use of silence. This can be used to unnerve an audience (I begin my stage and platform set by just silently looking over the audience) or to convey the difficulty and intensity of one's technique (through extended moments of obvious concentration on your part) — either way, it can create immense tension very plausibly. Again, this is because it implies meaning, tension or presence, without you having to verbalise it. It can make you very frightening to an audience by invoking massive selfconsciousness on their part, to a degree that could not be reached by actively trying to frighten them. And the fear that results is the right kind: the chill that comes from unnerving theatre. Above all, it communicates very powerfully a confidence on the part of the performer and allows him to hold a room on tenterhooks through presence alone. Of course, it also lakes immense confidence on the part of that performer, and a complete committal on his part to the model of real magic. In any other situation, where the magician does not aim for any resonance, the magic will be communicated at a shallow level: therefore, the silence will be perceived as shallow and be rendered as unnecessarily stow and boring. If, however, you are making the audience work imaginatively, then they will do the same with your silence and find it very effective. if silence is used at the start of a performance, then it catches the audience at a moment when they will already be at their most imaginative and responsive, and will go very far to establishing your character as quietly intimidating and powerful. This may not be your aim, but to an extent I wish it to be part of my character when performing for large groups, before deflating in it such a way that re-establishes rapport but leaves a background intensity lingering. For the creation of the experience of real magic, other than where the performer is creating the character of the idiot savant or bumbling, unwilling vessel for otherworldly forces., establishing a character with the potential to unnerve seems immensely valuable.

By paying close attention to how subtleties can be communicated and implied, you will go a long way to forming an engrossing character. The lascinating magical qualities that you apparently possess will be communicated as subtly as any character trait which is absolutely a part of you, without need for overstatement. Therefore there will be a richness and a three-dimensional quality to you as a performer, rather than just being a worker of tricks.

The simplest way of thinking about this in practical terms is as foUows. When you are performing magic at an event, make it such that people are getting to meet you. They are going to interact with a very fascinating and gently unnerving you who clearly has some very marvellous abilities. Your whole manner, your looks, the way you speak all these things communicate those abilities and that character. You will of course offer one or two demonstrations of those skills, demonstrations which will have an air of unpredictability to them, and the feeling of being mere glimpses into a wealth of esoteric knowledge that would make you fascinating to talk to. You bear the weight and the joy of your profession and passion in you.r very being: there is a calmness and a magnetism to you that anyone remotely sensitive wifi pick up on. These are attractive and immensely engaging qualities. There is nothing of the sequinned entertainer about you, no alienating 'personality' slapped on like stage make-up. You resonate real magic, and do not just look like an act.

Later we will look at forming character. But for now, presuming that you are a capable magician, the presence that you exude is your most important asset. Where your personality radiates the quality of magic, an enormous amount of suggestion will be at work. En that situation, you can perform what could otherwise be seen as a mediocre trick and have it play as profoundly magical.

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