THE PURE SLEIGHT OF HAND ARTIST
Before we begin -
I started writing this particular essay years ago while sitting in a hospital bed. I then lost the essay in a wonderful display of how a computer can crash and magically transform from an expensive piece of equipment into a rather useless and impractical paperweight. So early last year (When I was once again in a hospital bed,) I decided to write it again and amazingly I once again was witness to another delightful display very similar to the first which resulted in an empty page.
I now sleep in my own bed and I am hoping this makes all the difference.
When I first began performing in paid environments at the young age of 14, I recall wandering through the front door of the restaurant with my pockets packed with my various marvels of gimmicked deception. And I continued like that for the next few years.
But then I put the gimmicks aside and never looked back. I became a Pure Sleight of Hand Artist.
Within this essay I shall be discussing the Pure Sleight of Hand Artist, the performer who creates entertaining deceptions using nothing ‘extra’ in terms of gimmicks or gaffs. No fake cards or TT’s, no threads or wires.
1- Starting Fresh.
There are various arguments against the performer who decides not to use or avoid effects or routines that use a gimmick. These arguments hold a kind of superficial water but fail to acknowledge the performer’s own point of view and mental satisfaction as ultimately, very valuable to the performance as a whole. I shall be answering these arguments here.
I shall also address and refute the stigma that the purist is simply self-indulging and that this is always at the expense of the viewing audience. I shall argue that on the contrary, it can be for the audience’s benefit.
I will state very clearly right now that I make no claims the sleight of hand performer is superior to the performer who chooses to use gimmicks and devices in some or all his effects. I think both styles of performer can be equally entertaining and intriguing and the main thrust of this essay shall be attempting to make that point clear.
The purist is not by any means more skilful than a magician who uses a gimmick. Indeed hiding or using a gimmick or gaff always requires audience management and sleight of hand in itself many times. These skills sometimes require just as much practise as many sleight of hand moves. So this is not ultimately a question of skill.
In many cases learning a sleight that would replace a gimmick is much more difficult and time consuming and that may be a reason for a performer to not bother. Indeed such a performer may desire to spend the time they save not figuring out another way, on presentation which is a very good idea. On the other side of the fence, some people decide to spend all that time on the sleight and spend the same amount of time on presentation as any other performer. It only depends on ones dedication.
I do not play the game of ‘which great magician’ uses gimmicks or ‘look how many magicians use gimmicks’. The majority opinion makes not one tiny bit of difference to me nor does the popularity or success of the performers. Just as I do not point to which great magician does not use gimmicks or how many perform many tricks without a gimmick at all. I could write an entire essay on how I could not care less. One has to decide within themselves which path they should take and not who’s shoes they wish to walk in.
It seems to me that there is less argument about using sleight of hand rather than a gimmick and more argument about the reasons a performer may choose to use purely sleights rather than a gimmick but these arguments seem to get confused.
There is the common reflection that the method does not matter to the audience, it is the presentation that matters most of all. I agree and believe the method is important in the sense that it is the canvas upon which a presentation is painted, but no matter how nice the canvas is, the art itself needs to be appealing. If the method is not important to the audience then there is no reason to speak down on the performer who decides to use whatever method they desire for whatever reason they want. It is the reason a performer decides to use the method that is ultimately important.
It is also not about the apparent ‘impossibility’ or magnitude of an effect. There are some absolutely brilliant magic effects that require a gimmick and in order to duplicate it without a gimmick one would have to sell their soul (or that of a loved one) to the Dark One himself.
Every performer worth his or her salt is well aware that presentation can turn a potentially dull visual experiment into a mind tripping experience for all those who witness it. Those same performers also know that even the most amazing visual stimulus can turn into a snooze fest.
There are some things of course like a levitation that is a marvel regardless of what the magician says or doesn’t say, but that is not performance, that’s an oddity that without a convincing performance ends up being less about ‘who’ is doing it and more about ‘what’ is happening. ( I shall add to this point soon. )
The Two Reasons:
There are two main reasons a gimmick is used which, when one scratches the surface most can see there is barely an issue beneath, but I shall describe both of these with the latter being the most significant. My point is not to make a case against gimmicks but to hopefully show that the problems do not reside here.
To replace a sleight.
If the presentation is what is most of all important, then method is of little consequence. Some objectors seem to think this effectively stacks the deck in their favour for some reason (no pun intended) by claiming the moves are needlessly difficult when a gimmick could make something technically easier.
If one chooses to perform a DL and some sly replacement instead of using a double backer, is there a problem with this ? Is it unreasonable? It removes the requirement to have an extra card (a phony one at that), the performer may use a pack of cards regardless of back colour, they may be borrowed or examined. He or she can then flow into any other effect desired without having to ditch the offending card, is this detrimental to the performance ? Clearly not.
Perhaps one could object and say that it is needless to borrow props, or hand props out for examination if performed correctly but clearly the freedom to do so (if desired) is not limited in the ‘sleight situation’.
I do not think that many performers would disagree with this which is why I indicated it is a rather weak reason to object to using a sleight.
Some magicians might simply say “Well maybe I just couldn’t be bothered to practise and learn the sleight, it is not worth it to me” which is fair enough, more power to them. I have no problem with anybody who chooses that route.
The second reason a performer may use a gimmick is because it creates a trick no sleight of hand can accomplish.
This is a more substantial reason that I still see very little issue with under the surface.
It is also an objection based on method and not presentation. It is as some may say, based on the trick and not the effect. All magicians have heard stories about how simplicity can trump flashiness with the right presentation yet many seem to object when it comes to a simple ungimmicked effect compared to the latest, flashy, gimmicked effect. The door does indeed swing both ways and the objection can be turned on its head by stating the simple fact that there are in reality many amazing things that can be done with sleight of hand that gimmicks cannot accomplish or would be incredibly impractical to bother with.
With the ingenuity of the creative performer’s presentation, the benefits and freedoms of his own particular choice of methodology can be exploited to good end. The impact of an effect is within the minds of the audience and not in the hands or gimmicks the performer uses.
So to state that some ‘tricks’ are good by default is to remove the magician from being necessary. To state that a good gimmicked trick, plus a good presentation is better than any good ungimmicked trick and good presentation is to place an assumption on taste. One cannot throw a blanket rule over all audiences when it comes to what they will be amazed by or what they shall be interested in. Put a floating napkin in front of a group of poker enthusiasts and they may be impressed, produce four aces out of a shuffled deck and they may be future clients.
The example could of course go the other way also. The reader can see how such examples could go forever while not concluding anything and further away from the point of this essay.
Does this make sleight of hand better for everybody ? No.
Does it make gimmicks the obvious choice for all ? No.
My point thus far has been that there is no compelling, practical reason to suggest one side of the issue holds the best cards over the other side. I am hoping at this point the reader accepts that there good reasons for using gimmicks and for using sleight of hand.
The next part of this essay is to deal with why a performer may decide to become exclusively a pure sleight of hand performer and why this might in fact make them a BETTER performer than they otherwise would be.
These reasons have to deal with how one views themselves as a performer and what they find of value in performing.
So why not use a gimmick ?
This brings us to the stigma that is based on many assumptions of the performer’s psychology and not progressing further to see all the reasons.
There is an assumption that learning sleights and never using gaffs is all about self satisfaction. And for me that is true in a way.
I hear some of my dear readers cry at this moment..
“That makes you care only about yourself, you are performing only for yourself”
which reminds me of a Simpson’s episode where Bart Simpson is sceptical about going to Sushi for dinner and says “This might be just something you hear in the school yard but isn’t that RAW FISH ?” to which his sister Lisa replies “As usual the school yard has the facts right but misses the point entirely”.
And this is what I mentioned a moment ago about assuming psychology and not progressing further. It is not only because I enjoy it that I do it, but because the audience enjoys it as well. These are not incompatible with each other.
I do not particularly like sitting down and learning a bunch of sleights sometimes. What I do enjoy is standing in front of an audience and showing them the mastery I have achieved by doing an effect that both impacts the audience and satisfies me personally.
In performance it is not just important that the audience is stimulated and enjoying the presentation, the performer should as well.
As the reader may have realised, the assumption that how the performer feels about what he or she is doing makes no difference to the audience is something with which I strongly disagree. The thing I love as an audience member is not just that I have a good time but also that the performer is having one also. One could always act of course. I don’t watch a movie and wonder “Is Morgan Freeman really having a good time?” because I know he is playing the part of another individual I cannot judge on appearances, but I assume he is having a decent time otherwise he would not be in the movie. If Morgan Freeman hated acting, then he would not do it and I wouldn’t want him to, end of story. So it IS important for the audience’s benefit that the performer is doing what they enjoy otherwise they would not be a witness to the performer in the first place. One could always point to money or fame as being the reason to do something, a concept somewhat Faustian, but that is another issue.
This is the point:
If a performer is doing something they dislike for a living simply because other people like it, then this is not compatible with a healthy attitude about themselves. If a performer hates or dislikes doing something and does it anyway, that is detrimental to performance. I am not saying that the audience will hate it as well but they may ultimately miss out due to the performer not wanting to perform or simply not desiring to progress.
Eugene Burger puts it ever so nicely and illustrates this point :
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!
Excerpt from “Drawing the Line” May 9th, 2005 by Eugene Burger.
Now why would a performer possibly find such a huge problem with working with gimmicks or special props ?
There are many reasons that can spring from something trivial to something deep within. Some people love pushing themselves to the limit and seeing others do the same. The same reason many prefer to watch a new Cirque du Soleil than the latest big budget movie with a $100,000,000 special effects budget. Some absolutely love seeing what they can truly accomplish and what others can as well. This is not to indicate that performing with a gimmick is less of an accomplishment to everybody else, but it is to me personally if I do it.
As an example, I remember reading in Ian Rowland’s ‘Full Facts of Cold Reading’ as he described witnessing memory expert Dominic O’Brien memorise a list of 100 digits called out in under 2 minutes. He said it was one of the most amazing things he had ever seen. Now, one can also cheat this (not as cleanly I would argue) by using many ‘tricky’ methods and is actually a popular demonstration by some mentalists and parlour performers.
But does this not present an opportunity to add an invaluable skill to a performers personal, mental arsenal ? Learning techniques such as these add improvements to many aspects of a person’s life. It is a great thing to have a mental utility device that can be used at any random moment for a myriad of other purposes.
This way of thinking is not for everybody but this stimulates some, and using some of these very skills can allow the performer to present effects that are beyond any kind of exposure video on youtube and beyond any quick trip a person can make to the magic shop.
The fact that I personally love learning such things, that I have set upon myself tasks that having achieved them make me feel so wonderful, is the reason that I rush to perform. And I love it, and it shows. I have had countless audience members come up to me after a performance and express how they can tell I love doing what I do. And they are exactly right. If I did not love what I was doing, they would not be watching me perform because I would not be there.
It is also due to loving the reactions I see in the audience that helps me want to continue to discover new things and presentations that both keep in line with my personal way of performing and add excitement and amazement to their lives.
My dedication and study into all aspects of sleight of hand and mental deception has even granted me opportunities that exist outside of the realm of magical performance and into other areas that can help others.
I feel fortunate that not only do I love to learn and perform, audiences love me doing it.
So, my dear readers, when the next prop comes out that everybody rushes to buy, I wish you all to know I will be in the audience cheering for you and applauding your dedication. But I shall applaud louder if I can see your passion for what you do coming through. I love watching all magic, and it does not matter to me if the performer uses gimmicks or not, and if you are creative and thoughtful, the audience will not care if you do either. Whether you use your sleights, gimmicks or hopefully both to amaze and inspire your audiences, know they are there because of you.