Drawing the Line

Can you keep a secret?
Do you think I’m joking?
I’m not.

As one who, as we say, “earns his living” entirely from the performance of close-up magic and sleight-of-hand for adults-in cocktail lounges and restaurants, and at corporate and private parties — I think secrets are important. Please don’t treat them lightly.

I have long suspected, however, that the real secrets of close-up magic as a performing art have little to do with the position of your first finger and thumb during some sleight-of-hand maneuver, or with the latest card force, or even with some wonderfully exotic new way to “lap” an object (hopefully, not with your tongue hanging out!). These things are important, to be sure, for the performance of magic has a technical dimension which performers ignore at their own peril. Fifteen minutes spent with a performer who is unable to conceal the fact that he is doing “secret things” that one is evidently not supposed to know about — no, you don’t know exactly what it is that he or she is doing, but you know in your heart-of-hearts that he is doing something “funny” if not downright sneaky — and you’ll discover that fifteen minutes can be an eternity. (A friend once defined “eternity” as traveling from Minneapolis to Houston on a Greyhound Bus — but, then, he had no experience watching magicians.) Such performers are exhausting for audiences because a good deal of the fun of watching magic is the element of surprise. As you watch a performer who constantly seems to be “messing around,” surprise itself begins to disappear from the scene.

But doesn’t a magician need to “mess around?” How, after all, does one get a selected card to the top of the deck without, as you say, “messing around?”

True. Yet if your performance is to be perceived as being magical (as opposed to feats of juggling), your audience simply must not be aware of these secret maneuvers-and that is the challenge of close-up magical performance, isn’t it?

Performers meet this challenge by employing a variety of strategies that conjurors unfortunately have tended to lump together under the single name “misdirection.” These strategies — and there are many — are designed to so involve the audience in the theater of what is going on, in the dramatic plot and character that is being created, that they do not also perceive the “secret maneuvers” that the performer must invariably execute.

I am saying, then, that the real secrets of magic as a performing art have to do with making the effects that you already know really magical and entertaining for your audiences. These secrets deal with the ways in which you work with people so that your (hopefully, subtle) control over what they perceive is strengthened and your impact upon them is, thereby, sharpened and intensified.

There are many such secrets. Those that follow, while perhaps not even the “most” important are, nonetheless, strategies upon which close-up performers might do well to reflect.

But, first, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere!

By this I mean: As a magician you know the workings of a great many magical effects. But as a performer, you need to know exactly which effects you are capable of performing in an entertaining way before living, breathing people. These latter effects constitute your performing repertoire. Those other effects, while part of your knowledge and thinking, your mental accumulations, are not part of your performing repertoire.

The first step, then, is to find out exactly what your performing repertoire is. I am convinced that the easiest way to do this is to write it out and put it in your notebook (You do have a notebook, don’t you?)

This listing of one’s performing repertoire is a tremendously therapeutic thing for most magicians to do. By writing it out, you see it in black and white. No confusion. And, in the process, you cut out all of the material that does not have much impact as you perform it. Granted, Jay Marshall’s “Lefty” is a classic routine from which you can learn every time you see it. If your routine with “Lefty” isn’t that good, drop it. (And if you don’t think that there are magicians who have ripped off Jay’s creation — and who perform it in the secret recesses of church basements at Father and Son Banquets, you have a “purer” view of these things than I do.)

You need to know exactly what your performing repertoire is. The easiest way is to write it out. When I became a full-time professional magician some years ago, my performing repertoire consisted of six effects!

Now where did those six “new” effects (or “tricks” as we used to say in less racy times) come from? They weren’t new effects which I had purchased or which I had recently found in a book or magazine. They were, rather, effects which I had performed as a teenager and which I upgraded — that is to say, for which I worked out entertaining presentations — so they could become part of my performing repertoire.

The first and very basic step is to write out exactly what your repertoire is — in black and white — so you can see it. Once you’ve done that (and really do it), ask yourself what, from the material you have just cut, do you now want to work on and add to your repertoire.

Start with the material that you have reluctantly cut as you listed your repertoire. (You see, we haven’t even gotten to the books yet, have we?)

As an aside, let me add that two of the greatest needs of all speaking performers are a blue pencil (to edit your script or presentation) and a wastebasket in which to throw all the paper that will quickly begin to accumulate. Our aim here is to have in our repertoires only that material which is strong; not items that are passable, but only the strong.

This really is a challenge because, in magic, there is a great deal of junk: dreadful, awful, non-magical or even puzzling material. There is so much that is stupid and dumb and which doesn’t fool people or sometimes even entertain them.

Why do it? Why be seen performing magic of this caliber?

When Doug Henning was performing his marvelous show in Chicago in August, 1981 (a show, I might add, that was far more wonderful than any of his TV specials — especially in communicating Doug’s personality which, on the TV shows, too often seemed to me to be buried in “Happy Valley” children’s magic scripts), he did the usual round of local television talk shows. On the NBC affiliate, he was interviewed by Jorie Lueloff, a bright and tough lady who isn’t at all shy about interrupting performers and asking to check out that deck (as I discovered from personal experience at a party 1 worked which she attended) or asking some other, potentially embarrassing, question. Doug performed a cut and restored pocket handkerchief effect wherein the handkerchief was twirled by its diagonal corners, Jorie cut it in half, Doug put the pieces together and pulled the (opposite) diagonal corners and twirled it again-showing the handkerchief “restored.” Jorie immediately asked: ”Aren’t you going to open it out?” Silence. She repeated: “Aren’t you going to open it out?” Doug replied: “I only open it out when I use it.”

As I watched, I could only think to myself: Why didn’t he do the torn and restored cigarette paper — or any one of the sleight-of-hand miracles that he has done on TV and is tremendously capable of doing so very well? This version of the cut and restored handkerchief just isn’t that strong — particularly for a close-up demonstration where a spectator’s questions can be as spontaneous as breathing. Perhaps on a stage where your audience can’t talk back. Perhaps.

I tell this story not to embarrass Doug Henning, who, aside from being a most excellent performer, is also a very real part of the reason that I and many other close-up magicians work as much as we do. I tell this story because we all can learn from each other’s experiences. And so I would say throw out the junk! Never, ever do it again!

You might, of course, reply that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Really? When I look back over the years on the many packages that I received in the mails from magic dealers, I begin to wonder.
In any event, throw out what you perceive as junk and keep in your performing repertoire only what you perceive as treasure.

You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

When you select material for your performing repertoire, always choose items that you find challenging enough to keep you from becoming bored by repeated performance.

And always select material that you find entertaining.

As a rule of thumb: Always entertain yourself! The simple fact is, if you are being entertained by what is happening, your audiences will “catch” your enthusiasm and energy-somewhat like catching measles or chicken pox from a carrier. If there are effects that make you nervous when you perform them, stop performing them!

Spare your audiences!

If you really want to do them, start working on them until you reach that point where you can perform them without being uncomfortably nervous. And, if that point never comes, never ever do them before an audience! The impact of a close-up performance is cumulative.

One bad apple can spoil the bushel.

One or two weak effects (and you performing them) will weaken your impact.

And “impact” is what performing is all about.

Draw the line!

Excerpted from Mastering the Art of Magic, Kaufman and Company, 2000

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