What if I Get Caught?

“What do you do if you get caught?” The room got very quiet. The young questioner instantly felt it had been a mistake to ask this question, that the question was somehow inappropriate, somehow wrong. Before he asked, the questioner thought it was a good question. It was also one that he really wanted answered. The truth was that he had been “caught” while performing his magic, and he really didn’t know how to deal with it.

The speaker looked at the teenager, laughed and mumbled something about practicing and not getting caught, and everyone else laughed, too. The boy’s face reddened — my face reddened, for I was that questioner — and he learned, once and for all, that some questions should never be asked in front of a group.

Lincoln was right. The truth is that you can’t fool everyone all the time. Sometimes you do get caught. What do you do then!

When we get caught, when our magic fails to be deceptive and fool people, it is important that we ask ourselves why. Since this is a touchy subject involving our egos, it is not always easy for us to find out why our performance failed. It is easier to blame the audience or simply to avoid thinking about the failure altogether. But that isn’t the way we grow.

Often when we fail it is our fault. This is readily observable in many who attempt sleight-of-hand card or coin tricks. Without adequate practice and rehearsal, our sleights “flash” — which means that we failed to execute them in a manner that was deceptive. Other times when we fail it is rather that the method we used failed to deceive everyone present Even though our performance might have been flawless, some of the people saw through the effect’s method and we didn’t deceive them. I have found, for example, that architects, perhaps because of their spatial sensitivity, are rarely fooled by the effect Card Warp. Many seem instantly to see through the method and their only puzzlement is how the card was torn. When confronting such audiences, performing magic can be surprising even for the magician.

So what do we do when we fail and get caught? Here are seven thoughts for your consideration.

First, I don’t believe there is a “universal line” that we can memorize and then speak that will make everything perfect. Sometimes, I wish there were such a perfect line but, more often, I like the excitement of not having one.

Second, what works for one performer may not work for you. This is why lines lifted from the acts of other performers usually seem out of place in our shows. My ways of handling these moments of failure, you should realize, are derived from my work as a close-up magician, where people talk to us and we can talk to them. My way of handling this unpleasant (and seldom discussed) situation, then, may be completely wrong for you.

Third, it is often easier for us to begin by asking ourselves what not to do in such a situation. For me, what I don’t want to do is lie or pretend that an audience member’s explanation is wrong if, in fact, it is right. If the spectator actually saw through my performance or the method used, I only look stupid if I try to deny it. Better for me to say, “Well, back to the drawing board with that one!” and go on to something else.

Fourth, make sure you have some thing else! If I am introducing a new performance piece, an effect that I have never done for anyone before, I always have a back up effect I can do should the new piece fail — or fail to get the response I am hoping for. To me, this is simply common sense.

Fifth, the line, “Well, back to the drawing board with that one!” accepts the fact that the spectator either saw through my performance or through the method, but aims to move beyond this moment as quickly and easily as possible. After all, even eye and brain surgeons mess up. But let’s move on!

Sixth, another line I have used on occasion – and actually to rather strong effect — is this: “Well you are certainly observant, aren’t you! Only very observant people see through that deception!” The psychology is simple: knock the spectator off balance with compliments — and then do something else! In a close up situation, such compliments can turn an aggressive adversary into a smiling person who will cooperate with you.

Seventh, and finally, this whole question of what to do when you get caught is worthy of your time and reflection, before you get caught! The aim here, as I see it, is to minimize the awkward moment and move on smoothly. In those moments when I get caught, I still want to be seen as smiling and friendly and confident and, especially, as not thrown off balance by this moment of adversity.

Originally published in Genii magazine, August, 1995.

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