Thoughts on Setting the Bar in Magic

I was on my way home from a very productive weekend with Jeff McBride and other magical folks in Las Vegas when I put into words the following simple truth: one fundamental difference between doing a magic act of one’s own creation and doing a magic act that is a copy of another magician’s presentation (or an act constructed of the pieces of several magicians) is who gets to set the bar of whether the act is outstanding. In the first case, the performer sets her own bar, and in the second case the bar is set for her by the creator of the piece she performs.

I’ve been to several Master Classes with Jeff and Eugene and have seen many students perform there — the acts range from completely original to verbatim and move-for-move copies of published/videoed performances of other magicians. I guess not too surprisingly, many students at Master Class perform parts of Jeff’s act, usually his card manipulation. I’ll freely grant that I’ve seen a few people do Jeff’s act with nearly equal technical skill, but they’ve never managed to match Jeff’s energy, his spark. Why? Because it’s Jeff’s piece, created by him, to match his personality and performance style. And since Jeff has set the bar for his card manipulation, I get the same slightly dissatisfied feeling watching these copies as I do drinking off-brand soda. On the other hand, when I watch an original piece (not necessarily an original effect, but an original presentation), there is no pre-set template for comparison, and the standard is created as the piece is performed. A case in point is Eugene’s The Thread of Life and Death.… On the technical side, it’s “just” the gypsy thread, albeit very well-done… but when Eugene brings in his passion for world theology (and knack for setting a scene), he creates so much more.

Another place I see this truth in a very positive sense is in the “passion piece.” This is an original creativity exercise from Master Class in which students are asked to match an effect they already perform with one of their passions outside of magic to create a new magical presentation. Each student constructs their own piece in a few hours at most and is given the option of performing for the group the next day. While they are usually rough around the edges, all the passion pieces I’ve ever seen have been wonderful — the personality of the student and their love of (whatever) comes through in an original and totally engaging way.

I speak from experience. I come to magic rather late in life. I was working on my PhD in physics when I met my husband (who started performing magic at age 8 and earned living as a professional magician for a time) and was inspired to take my interest in magic from watching whatever specials came on TV to doing a little performing myself. Bryce is a good friend of Jeff and Eugene’s and exposed me to their work and introduced me to them. After seeing what really talented people could do with the art of magic, I made an observation and a decision. These three were so many years ahead of me technically, that I realized I couldn’t match their skill on that front for a very long time, so I decided to put my efforts elsewhere and play to my strengths. My first magical piece was totally original. The script was based in my dissertation field, cosmology. The effect was inspired by a demonstration (totally unrelated to cosmology) I had seen in an undergraduate physics class. My first performance was at Mystery School and was a rousing success. While I was gratified to have performed an effect that baffled all but a couple of the people I talked to about it later, the far more satisfying comments were directed towards the originality and the disbelief that this was my “first performance” (a fact that I didn’t focus on, but that Bryce mentioned to a couple of people). In point of fact, it didn’t feel like a first performance, it felt more like I was in front of a class teaching physics, something I do every day of the school year. In bringing one of my passions to my magic, I set a completely new standard for myself and reaped the rewards.

It’s almost as simple as a matter of respect for yourself — an acknowledgement that you are interesting and that you know your strengths far better than does some distant publisher/creator of magical literature or videos. When a magician frees herself from the scripts and presentations of others, she is able to set her own bar of excellence — set it as high as any “famous” magician — and because the passion, the story, and the magic come from within they fit perfectly with her personality, and she surpasses herself.

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