Looking Beyond the Trick

When I was a beginner in magic, one of the things which I firmly believed was that in a magic performance everything centers on the strength of the magic trick. Among beginners — and sometimes even among those who have been involved with magic for a long time –specific magic tricks are often referred to as “reputation makers” or “show stoppers” or even “killers.” These labels suggest the idea that if the magic trick is strong, deceptive and amazing, then that is all that is required to produce a successful and entertaining magical performance. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

The magic effect, the trick, is but one element in a successful and entertaining magical performance. Another element, which is equally important, is how we present the individual magic trick: what we say and how we say it, what we do and how we do it; indeed, how we behave in general toward those people who, for brief moments, comprise our audiences. If the way in which we present the magic trick does not capture the imagination and interest of our audiences, the individual trick, no matter how strong it might be, will never be enough, by itself, to produce an entertaining performance of great impact. This means that each of us must put a great deal of thought into how we present our magic.

Consider, for example, the question of how we begin our magical performance. What shall we say? What shall our very first words be? These are not easy questions, but they are important ones.

Many of those who are new to magic begin a performance by saying something like this: “Let me show you a magic trick.” While surely correct as far as the performer’s intentions are concerned, as an opening line this one hardly generates much interest on the part of our prospective audience — unless, of course, that audience is made up exclusively of magicians who do take great delight in watching magic tricks. Nor does this opening line do much to stimulate the imaginations of individual audience members.

In my experience, creating an opening line that instantly captures attention is often an exceedingly difficult task It isn’t easy, so if you are experiencing difficulty with this, take some comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

There is, however, something that you can do to help you develop some elementary skills in creating your own opening lines. When you read magic presentations in books, pay close attention to each effect’s opening line. Ask yourself some questions. Is this opening line strong? Does it capture my interest? Does it stimulate my imagination? Can I think of a better opening line for this trick? What exactly would a better opening line be?

As we need to become conscious of the opening lines that we use with each of our tricks, so must we also become conscious of another part of our magical performance: how we are acting or behaving as we present our magic. This is a theme to which I will no doubt return because I think that it is absolutely crucial and basic for your audience members, especially in an informal or close-up setting, is directly related to the way the performer is behaving. If, during our performances, members of the audience become combative or aggressive toward us, we must look at our own behavior, and ask ourselves if we are in some way stimulating these kinds of negative responses.

Too many magicians, beginners and those who should know better, use condescending and insulting humor when they present their magic If this is what you choose to do, don’t be surprised if audience members begin acting condescending and even insulting in their humor toward you. This is but one more example of what in the Hindu tradition is called the Law of Karma: the view that every action inevitably produces a reaction. If you don’t want an audience of wise guys, don’t be one yourself.

When confronted with a difficult audience, many magicians, of course, simply blame the audience. They talk about “bad” audiences. This is the easy way to “explain away” a show that we wished had been better. It is much more difficult to stop explaining and making excuses and to look, instead, with deep honesty at ourselves and at how we are presenting our magic.

Kirk Charles, a wonderful professional magician who lives in Seattle and has written two excellent books, told me a story about a woman friend who was enjoying a drink in the lounge of a popular restaurant. Suddenly, as she described it to Kirk, an unkempt man appeared at her table and announced that he was the magician and that he was going to show her a miracle. Although she wasn’t really interested in seeing a miracle at that particular moment in her life, the magician blustered on.

As Kirk explains it, the magician handed his Friend a deck of playing cards and then began giving her a series of complex and confusing instructions. The young lady followed the instructions as best she could and arrived at a card. At the end of the process, the magician took the cards and asked her to name her card.

“Four of hearts,” she replied.

The magician looked a bit surprised and then grunted, “You screwed up!” — and he threw the deck of cards at her!

An extreme story, to be sure. Is it surprising to you that some audience members, even those who might typically be mild in manner, sometimes decide to become a little combative when confronted with rude and obnoxious behavior?

Originally published in Genii Magazine.

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