No Skill Required
Is it me? Or does that phrase fill you with dread? I mean, let's imagine that you have little more than a passing interest in magic. You're not going to pick up the Royal Road and plod through that for 6 months, learning your sleights, developing patter and creating the basis for a style of magic that will become your own. You're going to skim read the mass of internet shops, check out all their effects and I'd hazard a guess, buy anything advertised as "no skill required". Worse case scenario is we end up with a bevvy of pseudo magicians doing the same trick badly with the same patter, same performance and the same lack of feeling and emotion. We end up with audiences saying they don't like magic because they saw this one guy perform this one trick once and it wasn't even good. We the hard working, passionate magicians take the stickier end of the stick. The man who simply throws his now month old trick in the bin loses nothing more than the money he spent on it in the first place. We lose months, even years of dedicated practice, and the money invested in the time and learning resources.
Ok, so it's a worse case scenario, but it illustrates a point. The point I want to try to get across is that all magic requires skill. Yes, even that self working super gimmick you bought because of the pounding techno hi-res demo video that says "NO SKILL REQUIRED!!!!!!" on the box. Maybe it doesn't require sleight of hand, but it requires any number of other skills many none magicians don't seem to appreciate our needing to learn; audience management, performance skills, public speaking, acting and misdirection. The trouble is that many magicians don't seem to appreciate needing to learn these things either. Many magicians seem to like to take the fastest route available to them to get a reaction. Many magicians seem to want to let the gimmick do all the work. The thing is, if the gimmick is doing all the technical work, what exactly is it that you are doing?
I buy gimmicks, don't think of me of some kind of "only sleight of hand is real magic" snob please, but when I do, I do so so I can put even more effort into my performance. I buy the gimmick so I can create something really magical, something that might be impossible without the gimmick, or something that would certainly be very hard. And, because I am now no longer focused on performing an incredibly difficult sleight necessitating huge misdirection I can focus in completely on what I say and do to the spectators. If I am focused in on my scripts, vocal and silent, then I can really sell the impossible nature of my effect, draw spectators in on emotional levels and create magic that is even closer to being real.
Another thing gimmicks do to my performance is they sometimes ease the pressure. If I've had a tough crowd, people burning my hands all the way through despite my best efforts to have them look at me, or each other, or infact anywhere else but the deck, and let's face it we all get that crowd once in a while, I like being able to pull out a self worker or a gimmicked trick where there is no move to see. It takes all the pressure of me, I don't have to worry about getting caught, they can stare at my hands from the moment I begin the trick, they won't see a thing. If I know they won't see anything, I can make things look even fairer, going slower (not that we should ever race through our moves in the first place, nothing says trickery like a sudden quick 'hands are faster than the eye' movement in the middle of a sedate routine) and really saying 'this my friends is as fair and real as magic gets' without words. And when I am using words I can say anything I want, look where I want, talk to who I want as I don't have to check my sleight of hand. I recommend using self working tricks and gimmicked tricks as the perfect playground for trying out your misdirection, you've nothing to hide granted but if you can make the spectators look away when you want them to you can apply this in your sleight magic.
So gimmicked tricks have their place in magic, and let's face it they're never going away. Plenty of gimmicks require some sleight of hand anyway, so the two really do go hand in hand sometimes (no pun intended). But as I (sort of) touched on a moment ago, self workers are included in this most heinous case of hyperbole.
Self working tricks are often advertised as requiring no skill. Maybe they require a gimmicked card, or a certain order of doing things, but they work without the magician having to worry about them doing so. The magician merely sets the ball rolling and before you know it it's at the bottom of the hill and you didn't need to do a thing. Or did you? Roll a ball down a hill and you don't have to worry about it reaching the bottom, gravity will do its own parlour trick there and cause this to happen. The thing is, if you invited a bunch of people to watch said ball who weren't really interested in balls at all, you'd have to get them interested and make them look. You haven't a worry in the world regards the ball's desired path from top to bottom, but you yourself are in charge of creating the interest. Don't be fooled into thinking "this trick requires no skill, it won't matter I've never performed in front of people before, it'll slay them". I would advise all magicians to steer clear of wishing to slay audiences, and to focus more on creating whole shows that invoke wonder and joy, but that's not for here. If you are unskilled in performance you will need to pick up some skill there first. With performance skills come audience management skills, and you'll need those to garner maximum reactions to anything you ever do. As you carry on your performance you will become a more skilled actor, playing the part of the magician more and more naturally. Acting and public speaking are related skills, so if you have any chance to brush up on your orating in public before you start playing to crowds I'd say go for it. Slowly but surely in magic you build up a whole language of skills that allow you to have a much more detailed and entertaining conversation with your audience.
For those of us with these skills in place, to what ever level we may have them, a gimmicked or self working trick can be a godsend. Pick the right one for the right audience and I don't think I'm going too far to suggest you could probably make a reputation from it. David Blaine is a name that comes to mind when thinking about that. Everyone that hears Blaine's name remembers him vanishing the coins from spectators' hands just by waving his hand over theirs. Pretty real looking magic no? And his performance (albeit a bit hit and miss with the magic community) was rather good, he had a mystery and general oddness about him that made this feat look like something he just might be able to do.
Of course, sometimes it works very much against us. I remember the 13/14 year old lad that would come to Russel Hall's shop Magick in Sheffield on Saturdays (when he wasn't playing ice hockey - hotbed for hockey is our Sheffield), rarely did he do magic that required sleight of hand. I sold him the pen through anything once, demonstrated it in the shop with the money he was going to pay for it and he took it straight off Russ's hands. I own a pen through anything and I think it's awesome. But I'd do it in the middle of a money routine, maybe as a kind of magical relief from the metalism we could do with the cash (I never suggest to my audiences that I am anything but a magician, it just so happens that my magic is magic of the mind. Thank you Banachek). Our little fellow would probably have stuck it right inbetween his latest packet trick and the cig through card he bought last Saturday. Don't get me wrong, he was a relatively good magician, but he was young and wanted reactions now. He was swayed by "no skill required" effects that he would rarely use because they required some careful audience management due to angles, or similar.
I do not believe that you can become a good magician without learning some basic sleight of hand. That's my own personal view point and I'm prepared to argue it. Basically, the reason I would always have some sleight of hand in the arsenal is because of A) when things go wrong and B) always having something to do. Banachek (him again) says in one of the interviews in his PSI Series that luckily only once in his career has his bag not followed him to a gig. When it happened, he went out to the local office depot and bought index cards, paper, pens, pencils and clipboards (maybe a few other things he doesn't list). Then, he cobbled together a show using the basics of mental magic, and went on to perform a full hour long show to his audience. His knowledge of the basics saved his pay cheque. Also, think about Houchin's Coin in Soda can; that trick is 100% gimmick free. It requires a borrowed coin, a borrowed can and you can even borrow a pen if you want the coin signed. Then, at the end of the effect you can give everything back to the spectators straight away, no fuss no waiting no nothing. Sankey has a signed coin in can and I have to say, compared to the Houchin deal it's way too contrived, set up and I will never ever use it. I have so far in my own little amateur career never been so unlucky as to have all my magic gear appear the day after the show, but I have been in situations where I've needed to use sleight of hand to save an effect when a gimmick has not worked. And I am sure I will find myself in this situation again before my time in magic is up. And I think this is where my real hatred of this phrase is rooted.
It's more than just the sleight of hand thing for me though, even if that is the root of the problem. I have taken time and effort to learn these skills of sleight of hand, audience management, acting, misdirection, public speaking and performance, and to have someone tell me I didn't need to take the two and a half years it's taken me to get here because their brand new effect is so easy there's "no skill required" feels like a real insult. It's like the advertisers of the trick are laughing at me; look at that stupid fella working for two and a half years to become a skilled magician, why did he even bother? When I read the words "no skill required" I feel my blood pressure raise a little. I think to myself "yes there is" and rattle off my list that has become something of a constant in my writing. I'm all for effects that don't have me in a sweat because the sleights are so hard to do I'd be delighted if a Harrier Jump Jet broke the sound barrier over my head the second I wanted my spectators to just look away for a moment. It's just that I'm worried that the future of magic is being taken into the hands of people who watch hollywood demo videos with no actual performance in a performance setting of the effect, have multiple cuts and clever editing, and end with reactions you'd expect to see if someone turned into one of the spectators and back again without any cover or smoke and mirrors, swearing and jumping around and screaming so loud the sound distorts, and immidiately reduce their paypal accounts. If magicians who are just beginning their journey down this Royal Road are lured by these "no skill required" effects thinking that they do not need the sleights and the hassle then they will do themselves no favours. Many new magicians may be afraid of getting caught, or of not being good enough without the help of magic gadgetry, but as a wise 900 year old muppet once said, it's fear and the quick and easy path that lead to the Dark Side. Don't be afraid to work hard, and begin by pleasing your audiences; come back to them again in the not too distant future and blow their expectations of you out of the water. The more you put into your magic the more you will get out. If you invest in the skills of audience management, performance and acting given enough time you too can be performing routines ala Kenton, Jermay and Banachek. Invest your time and energy into public speaking, misdirection and performance and you could easily become as sucessful and entertaining as Sankey, Strebler, Noblezada and Mayne. There's a thousand names we could drop into this paragraph as example of how even gimmicked tricks and self workers require these other skills to be as sucessful as they can be.
Don't ever think that "no skill required" means no effort required. Conversely, these effects can take more effort to pull off, but only if you're willing to put it into the performance of the effect and create something really magical. As I said before, if the gimmick is taking care of the techincal side of things what is it exactly that you are doing? Taking care of the audience is what. Selling the impossibility of the magic, getting the spectators involved on an emotional level and making it all look real. Focus all that spare attention on yourself and your other skills you'll bring to the effect and you'll do yourself very proud.