Thursday, July 7, 2011

Go on--give us a trick

I've been a magician for a while now. Amongst my friends, I'm the token magician (with the exception of those friends who are also in the business, of course, but I'm not speaking to them because they already know all about this stuff). Personally, I like it. I like being the guy who can do things other people can't do. It's not an ego thing, really, though I'm sure that's part of it. Mostly, I just like sharing things that people are unlikely to see anywhere else. I like the look of surprise when, say, the barista at my coffee shop sees her cell phone appear inside a rubber balloon. But I don't like to perform for close friends, and I especially don't like to perform for family.

To a poor magician (read: that uncle who does a card trick at the family reunion) magic is 90% methodology and 10% presentation. To a good magician, it's exactly the opposite. Sure, there are some real knucklebusters out there, and magicians in your audience are guaranteed to be astounded when you pull one off. But they won't be surprised. All you've accomplished is an amazing feat of juggling--not magic. To a lay audience, methodology doesn't matter. All they're supposed to see is the effect. So, that begs the question: what is the effect? On the surface, one might think the effect is, say, "my card showed up in his wallet." And sure, that is the effect. But on another level (I would argue, the important level), that is only the skeleton of the effect. The real effect is the show the magician puts on when presenting this miracle. The effect could be "he predicted what card I would choose and put a copy in his wallet." The effect could be "he made the card invisibly travel from the deck to his wallet." It could be "he hypnotized me and made me think I chose a certain card." Upon the framework of a simple Card to Wallet, there are countless different "effects" the magician could choose to present. And that, I would argue, is where magic lives.

Eugene Burger, one of my heroes in magic, and certainly one of magic's greatest thinkers and philosophers, describes magic as it is generally presented as a stunt. But that's not magic. Magic, when it's presented properly, is a true art. It points beyond itself to something else. It hardly matters what that something else is, but there is something to it. And so magic, at least the way I want to do magic, is all about presentation. It is about showmanship. And that's why I hate performing for friends and family.

Friends and family know me better than any other audience, and so in their ears, no matter what presentation I hang on a magical effect, it will certainly ring false. My mother knows damn well I can't do the impossible. And on some level, so does any audience--they aren't stupid. But when you're on a stage or in front of strangers, there is a willingness to suspend disbelief that is simply not present when performing for close acquaintances. You can't step into another character, you can't put on a show, because if you do, they'll know that you're just acting.

When I watch a movie, I know damn well that the actors are just actors. But because I don't know them personally, it is very easy for me to suspend disbelief. Mentally, for a period of about two hours, the actor really does become the character. But if I knew the actor personally, all I would be thinking about is how different the character is from the personality I know. I would see the performance, and not the art. Magic is no different.

There are other reasons I don't like performing to friends and family.

To me, magic is a business. It's what I do, at least in part, for a living. Sure, friends do work for each other from time to time, but I loathe the sense of entitlement that seems to come with knowing a magician. Try asking a friend who is an attorney for free services over lunch sometime. If you're in genuine need, a good friend will gladly help. Otherwise, he'll resent the feeling that you expect him to work for free. Likewise, if you're a friend or a friend of a friend and you've never seen me work, I'll be glad to show you something sometime. No problem. But beyond that, I'll dish out the freebies on my own schedule. And it's not that I don't like giving a performance for friends, either...but it's uncomfortable enough that I only like to do it when I'm really mentally prepared to do it.

And then there's the element of what happens if something goes wrong. While on some level it's nice to have people to try things out on and give new material a test run before I go public, on another level, it's exactly the opposite of what I need in many cases. If I perform to strangers and it goes wrong, it feels like shit, but then I'll never see any of those people again. If I perform to a close friend and it all goes to's bound to be a bit awkward in the future.

There's also an element of proper etiquette. When I'm performing to a stranger, they're generally expected to follow certain social norms. They're not, unless they've been drinking, very likely to be aggressive or pushy. When receiving a performance from a stranger, people don't heckle, unless they're given damned good reason to. When I perform for people I know, I can't always exploit these social norms. For instance, if I perform for a stranger, I know exactly what I need to do to make someone look away from the deck of cards at the moment of truth. There are numerous techniques I can use to accomplish this, and the methodology is not important here (nor will I reveal it anyway). Yet, just the other day, I was performing for my mother, and she was burning my hands like nothing I've ever seen. I think she feels like she's being helpful when she watches so closely and always points out if she sees a move. But that's hardly the point. I have people I work with (fellow magicians) to watch for moves. I also tape myself and watch for moves. If I'm giving a performance, I'm not looking for someone to try to catch me. I'm looking for the response I would get if I were performing for an average Joe Blow on the street. With friends and family, I will never get that same reaction.

So if you've never seen me work, by all means ask me to do something some time. I'd love for all my friends to see something of mine at some point. If you introduce me to someone and want me to perform, that's cool too. Just give me notice so I can know what I'm going to do. Beyond that, try to respect that when I'm out with friends or family, I might want to just relax. Card tricks may seem easy, but they're hard work, and they're infinitely harder when I know the audience personally. So lay off a little bit, and I guarantee I'll have something to show you some day. After all, I am a showman--I always like to show off. I just like to do it on my own terms.

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