Women and Children First

Excerpted from Brad’s new lecture notes. Check BradHenderson.com for more information.

Whenever I go to a magic club meeting and watch the performances, I notice that in almost every situation where a magician requires a volunteer they inevitably pick a woman (or girl, if available) or a child. My heart goes out to every magic spouse/girlfriend who has ever made the mistake of sitting in the first few rows at a magic convention show. Just how many times will they be “picked on” to come to the stage?

Once, at Mystery School, my friend, a young woman from Texas, was chosen to “help” in EVERY performer’s act in the first half of one of the shows. I was going on early in the second half and spoke to her at intermission. When I took the stage, I mentioned I needed a helper and she leaped to her feet, arms in the air and said, “I’ll do it.”

It got a laugh, but we were hoping that by calling attention to the situation she might receive a respite from the other performers. She made it half way through the second half without being recruited.

Why does this happen?

Now, I know some magicians who always pick a woman for certain tricks and presumably a man for others. But even then, why?

I’d like to explore these two issues.

First, magic fundamentally is about power. But as Eugene Burger has pointed out, many magicians are afraid of that power. That’s why we insist on mucking up a perfectly good moment of mystery with a goofy line. Max Maven contends that most of us who became involved in magic did so during our adolescence and often in response to some social or psychological maladjustment. Magic gives us power, and it is a way of dealing with the world. We know something the other kids don’t and we are special.

I have taught magic at summer camps for over 15 years, and I saw this everyday. I also saw the wonders magic could work in a child’s life, the confidence it could help develop. But in each of these cases, I intentionally tried to wean these children off magic. Magic is a tool, not a crutch. Once their latent personalities bloomed, I wanted them to realize that THEY were special, that the magic was just a vehicle for sharing that.

There is nothing wrong with a 12 year old kid using magic as a social crutch. There is something incredibly creepy about a 40 year old man who does.

Which brings us to the women and children issue. Many magicians, I contend, are deeply insecure and their magical “personas” are a way of hiding it. But deep down, that insecurity remains.

When it comes time to pick a volunteer, the magician, not confident enough in his own power and not committed enough to the power of the alleged magic he is about to present, chooses those among his audience who are less powerful than he: women and children.

Even when the trick at hand is inappropriate for one of these representatives, they still choose the woman or the child. For example, how many times do we see magicians present card tricks that require some degree of handling and they ask the 6-year-old to do it. Or how many times have we seen the performer ask for the loan of a bill and instead of having the bearer bring it to the stage, insists that it be passed off to the child or spouse.

(This is not meant to be taken as a sexist comment. The fact that many of these situations still result in theatrically tragic outcomes for the magician points to the fact that women are equal in “power” if not greater than that of the person on stage. Nevertheless, I contend that socially women are seen as less intimidating than men and though we won’t say it, I think this relates to perceived power. Is this right? Of course not. But other than any self-deluded deviant thoughts that they may have a chance of scoring with their “volunteers”, I can see no reason why this trend remains.)

Interestingly, instead of taking advantage of the fact that a woman or child is on stage, the magician handles them as if they were nothing special. In working with Bob Fitch I learned a lot about the dynamics of characters on the stage. A male magician and a female assistant evoke certain relationship dynamics. They must be dealt with and capitalized upon, or acknowledged and redirected. I seldom see this happen. And it sickens me every time I see another magician make an inappropriate comment to an underage girl as if she were someone he met at a bar.

Now to the issue of picking certain genders for certain roles.

First, some people believe that women are better “reactors” to magic and therefor sell the happening more strongly to the audience. Maybe. But how much more effective would it be if you got the company CEO to flip his lid. I mean, that’s novel.

(In fact, it can save your show. I was working a merger party for 2 mega-companies. Both CEO’s were present and everyone was on their best behavior. I began my stand up, mind reading show and could see the people looking to the power players to see how they should react. Realizing this, I walked right up to one of the CEO’s and featured him in a quick demonstration. After I told him what he was thinking, he blurted out, “This is some scary shit!” The crowd roared and became one of the most responsive I have ever had.)

It reminds me of all the children’s magicians who talk about how important it is to get the kids to scream, and that the parents think this is a measure of their success. Well, most roomfuls of kids I see, left to their own, are screaming roomfuls of kids. Doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. I would think the magician that can spellbound a room of 8 year olds and hold them quiet would receive the awe and recognition of the parents.

Further, some people feel (and perhaps rightly) that certain tricks are just better for men and women. Gambling tricks with men make sense because, at least as of 20 years ago, gambling with cards was a “guy thing.” But I encourage each of us to reevaluate our casting decisions on a regular basis.

Once, at band camp…I mean Mystery School, I presented a piece using a heart and arrow. The opening line was, “Have you ever wished you could make someone fall in love with you?”

Anyway, I always did it for a woman. But in one of our seminars, I was asked to present the piece and choose a man. Ok, kind of different, but I was comfortable enough with my own heterosexuality to give it a try.

Wow! It was the most powerful performance of that piece to date. Asking a woman about love and watching her deal with those issues is common place. Seeing a man confessing that he knows the pain of unrequited love, that’s DRAMA.

Likewise, finding a lady who knows her way around the poker room makes for a fun head to head demonstration. Think of “the Cincinnati Kid” or “Big Hand for a Little Lady.” There is something mesmerizing about seeing a woman in that element.

I’m not saying “don’t pick women and children,” and I’m not saying “don’t always use a woman for a certain trick.” I am simply encouraging all of us to be aware of certain choices we make which may not be supported by any sound theatrical reasoning.

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