The Naked Magician
Imagine you walk onto your stage to perform your magic completely nude. No clothes, no pockets, nowhere to hide and ditch that special something. Removing all the embaressment from the situation, could you?
Don't get stuck on the word stage here, your stage may well be 18 feet by 36, but equally it might be table 18, followed by 36. It may even be 18 House Lane for a 36th birthday party. The Bard himself did say all the world's a stage. I choose the word because we are talking about performance. And specifically we shall be talking about that performance and stripping it down to its absolute effective minimum. Of course there are some necessaries we must keep, one could very well perform ventrilaquism without a puppet but to do so would turn it into something else entirely (and having said that Nina Conti does a marvelous spin on this where is controlled by her monkey puppet - a bit freaky but very entertaining). So if we are to deconstruct a card effect or a coin routine is should be fairly clear that the cards or coins must stay. But anything else is fair game. "If you can remove a sleight from a routine, it's more than likely you've improved it", wise words from Dai Vernon (1) and words we should certainly pay close attention to.
Let us look at some of the more dextrous or intricate routines you use. Disect them asking yourself at each action you perform "is this necessary?" followed by "why?". Is it really necessary for the two cards in that sandwich effect to be two jacks? Why not any two cards a 2nd spectator picks? Is it necessary for you to put the cards in the box again? Or put the coin in your pocket? Or recap the pen? Shuffle the deck? Make that gesture? Say that line?
Some effects require more 'work' than others, granted. Be that work sleights, linguistics or props, there are some thing some effects do not need but greatly benefit from. An idea that comes from Jay Sankey's Create Your Own Magic, which although more aimed at promoting creativity is still extremely useful to us here and now, is to work backwards through the effect. Take this approach to stripping the effect we are disecting. Remember that simple effects play big. Think of some classics of magic that still garner great reactions: card on ceiling, woman in half, making something vanish. What do these effects boil down to? Simple building up to one simple obvious climax. Card in ceiling is your standard signed selection lost and found, only on the ceiling. Woman in half has danger and excitement, two things that make illusion of this scale so good. And making things vanish is as age old as Merlin himself. On a purely mechanical level what does the magician have to do with these effects? Suprisingly little to be honest.
Working backwards through card on ceiling the big revelation is the spectator's own signed selection sticks to the ceiling of the room with no explanaion having been lost in the deck. Back one step - the cards are thrown up at the ceiling. Why? Maybe you can't find their card and 'lose your temper'. Back another then - you fail to find their card, again. Back another - you fail to find their card. Back another - you lose the card in the deck. Back once more - the spectator picks and signs a card. See how there are no extrenuous moves here? Everything is present because it needs to be, you can't just throw the deck at the roof you need a reason. The reason here is losing your temper. Let's quickly go through woman in half. Finale - the woman is put back together again and she's ok. Relief, you can breath again. For one scarey moment back there you thought that woman might not come out of this on the other side. Back one - the woman is in half. You've on the edge of your seat now, the woman is actually in half and her feet are still moving even though they're facing her head! Back one - the magician is sawing through the cabinet. This is starting to get scarey. What if it goes wrong? How is that saw not hurting her? Back one - The lady steps into the cabinet and lies down. You know what's going to happen but the suspense is building. You are eager to see it all happen now, you want to watch her sawn in half. Back one more - the magician introduces the lady and a wheeled cabinet made up of two halves. We all know where this going; he's going to saw her in half. Let's see how this goes shall we. Again at each step we ask "is this necessary?" and then "why?". At each step we answer yes to the former, and in answer to the latter because it builds up expectation, it creates tension and it makes for a more climactic ending. Run through one of your own routines now and stop at each sleight or move or event and ask those two questions.
Remember that we are not focusing on sleight of hand exclusively here, but seeing as we have touched upon it let's carry on for now. Remember what The Professor said? Take any one of your more knuckle busting effects and think long and hard about what you do in it. Really think about each and every sleight you have to perform in the effect. Now, think; are there any sleights there that I find hard or can't quite get clean as I'd like? If you've got one or two think about this: do you need them, and if you do is there an alternative move that acomplishes the same? One example I can give you is that I am rubbish at the pass. Hopeless. And not for a lack of trying either, it's just that I've tried for so long now that even if my pass was good enough to fool spectators, I would feel so self-conscious performing it I would give the game away. So I have a card returned to the centre of the deck and want it somewhere else, what do I do? Double undercut control. Or, if I don't want to 'lose' the card anymore, I do a turn over pass, the pass I can do happily. There's alternatives to the classic pass that acomplish the same result, so I use one. A second is that I absolutely cannot one hand top palm to save my life. But I can 'standard' palm from the top of the deck. Thus, if a routine requires a palm I will always use the standard, even if in the explanation of the effect says use a one handed top palm. Another example I can give is when I create my own routines or handlings of existing effects, I always question every move. I devised a sandwich effect in which I gave the spectator a number of cards they asked for. After I had counted the cards off the deck I counted them into their hand. Then I started to think why? I just counted the cards almost outloud, the spectator knows how many cards they asked for, why should they need it proving to them a second time I counted, say, 12 cards off the deck unless I didn't? So instead of performing my steal as I counted the cards off the deck and then a completely moot false count I just ditched it. Now, when I perform the routine I ask the spectator to hold onto the cards nice and tight as soon as I give them to them, that way they don't double check themselves (not that many ever look like they would anyway, but linguistically reinforcing what you want to happen is always a good idea in my book). So think long and hard about the moves you use and whether they are necessary.
Sleight of hand behind us let's turn our attention to bettering peformance by taking the clutter out of our effects. Now, this first thing may not sit right with everyone I appreciate, but it's my opinion that story tricks tend to be a bit, well, rubbish. I say tend to be because I have a story or two for a couple of my routines, but it all borders on the weerd and bizarre, and without stories that kind of magic falls flat on its face. And I'm not saying that, for example, performing Miser's Dream on stage to a beautiful piece of Debussy dressed as a beggar, buying a new coat with the magic money, seeing a homeless young lady and upon failing to make the can work for her giving her your new coat is to be sniffed at; far from it, your large scale stage show is theatre, and theatre works better with a well written story. I'm talking about that kind of childish Four Robbers thing, sandwich effects where the spectator picks a murderer card and your two detectives Kojack and Black-Jack go find him, giving the prisoner card an escort into 'prison' (card box) and him 'escaping' or saying that your queen of spades is a witch and burning her at the stake, only to have her reappear in the deck/table/pocket/where ever (that said, given a more weerd/bizarre presentation this last one might just work). How many children pick up a cut and restored rope effect, learn the fairly standard patter provided word for word and start their story led presentation with the words "I have just returned from India where I studied magic under an Indian Fakir. He taught me how to perform the following trick"? Think about it for a second. I reckon it's more than you'd probably like to think. Here we are with hundreds of thousands of 6-12 year old children who have travelled to India, finished their magical studies and are about to perform a trick. There's so much wrong with this it's maddening. Firstly, I have an issue with the fact that if you were learning magic with an Indian Fakir he would teach you how to cut and restore rope. Second, I don't care who delivers this line, it's so sad and dated that it's going to make me wince. Third, I dislike calling anything I do a trick as I feel the word cheapens magic, reduces it to a level of puzzle to be worked out; nobody likes being tricked. Finally unless you are actually renowned the world over as the finest magician on the globe and show no signs of needing improvement in any area, there is no chance that whoever delivers this line can claim to have studied magic in the past tense suggesting his studies have ended. For a presentation to be successfully story led we should look to what makes successful story led presentation work.
Firstly there is the effect. I perform a routine in which two spectators are alluded to have a strong psychic connection. They have a packet of the same 10 cards each and though we cut the cards and mix them thoroughly as we deal them onto the table, both spectators have subconsciously caused both their packets to be placed on the table in exactly the same order, turning over the cards of each packet one by one showing 10 matching pairs. This effect requires a 'story', a justification as to why we are doing what we are doing. Because this is my own original routine I had a blank canvas to start from so coming up with a story that fit my presentation style was quite easy. There are several other stories I came up with and thought about using, but as none really suit my style I left them as additions, extra ideas to suggest to anyone that learns the effect. You could present the effect with tarot cards and suggest that two friends are more connected than they think. Put one in control of the other's 'destiny' by instructing how his friend's cards are placed on the table and vica versa. When I was performing my last stage routine I had an effect from Sankey which uses a list of words and a drawing prediction. To bring in the performance of the effect I shook the hand of a spectator volunteer that I no longer required to be on stage and as I did so got a strong vision of something, it wasn't hugely clear but I saw it. So I drew it, performed the effect and it worked really well. The story here is I had a psychic episode, predicted something she would choose in a moment, she chose it.
Secondly there is the story itself. As touched on a moment ago your weerdists and bizarrists live off tales and stories, almost to a point where their art is nothing more than playing vampyres in candlelight withouth them. Bizarre magic (a term I shall use for both weerd and bizarre magic from now on) requires stories because it is a very theatrical stylised version of magic. Making a lit candle appear from nowhere is quite magical, but to produce it so as to see your tarot cards or your diary of Jack the Ripper brings with it a whole new macabre feel. The stories in bizarre magic are just that - bizarre - and as such are told with flare, with character, with pizaz (if you will). Obviously not all bizarrists are walking around looking like Manson's better look and less musical brother, but their magic is so enfused with the gothic and the ancient that to present them as magic would do them a diservice. Ask yourself this - who performs magic with a major arcana deck? The strange man who performs experiments that involve the spirit world handles his Spanish tarot deck with little difference to the gentle comedian who plays with Bicylce Poker 808s, but handles himself very very differently. So these stories these tellers tell are steeped in mystery, often difficult to separate from fact or fiction and almost always sending a chill down your spine. Just as Blaine is rather hit and miss with the world so too are the bizarre wizards, the mystics and the psychic entertainers (of which I am becoming one it would seem). But those who enjoy this branch of magic will defend its stories to the last man (I imagine), and those on the outside looking in must surely appreciate the craftmanship and showmanship that goes into the presentation of these weerd effects.
I guess my argument against story tricks is aimed more at the blantant, close up, offenders. All effects need a story, a structure that takes us from the beginning, through the middle to the end. You have stories like the four robbers, the detective Jacks, prison guards, haunted cards, giving the King of Spades a hair cut or saying the Queen's got sore feet cause she walks around all day, and God knows what other madness which I personally think we could do well to steer clear of. We need stories like pick a card, lose the card, find the card in my pocket. Stories like Magician's Insurance Policy, Ambitious Card, Sponge Balls, Cups and Balls, Monte effects, Rising Card, vanishes, appearances, transformations, mind reading, divination and prediciting the future. These simple stories, subtle and underwritten, make the magic move forwards. Just be careful when coming up with stories for things that you don't revert back to the Indian Fakir patter of the Vauderville. The last thing I would want to inflict on any audience is the story of a lonely card who tries so hard to get picked for a trick, only he tends to try too hard and look, he's back on the top of the deck - isn't that cute?
Almost rant over and done with there is more to cover I feel. When removing clutter from our effects we should be as questioning as an audience will be, and try to think like one. When I ditched the count from my sandwich effect I did so because I felt if I was an audience member watching the effect I would first off feel like I was being patronised somewhat - here's a magician who thinks I can't even count - and secondly because I would question why so much attention was being given to how many cards I was supposed to be holding. Anything I do I try to make look really natural. If I need to make a deck switch I throw the cards in their box and drop it on the table, drawing all attention to the one card or artifact I kept out. As soon as said item is in the possession of the audience I make a switch by picking up the deck with my left hand, dropping both hands in my pockets and bringing the new deck out with my right hand. I don't do this quickly, or try to make it a secret; I'm merely putting my hands in my pockets while I let the spectators play. When I bring my hands out of my pockets I bring my hands together to open the box and nobody connects the dots and says "that must surely be a new special deck you've pulled out of your pockets Chris - I saw the deck in your left hand but moments ago and now it comes out in your right?". Think like a spectator. What looks more natural than holding your deck? It's yours right, hold it if you want to. And if you're comfortable in the company of your spectators and waiting breifly for them to finish looking at something why wouldn't you just drop your hands in your pockets momentarily? Obviously, if you drop your hands in your pockets holding the deck it's going to have to come back from your pockets. Nobody ever remembers what hand held what.
Audiences are not stupid though, oh no! Don't be thinking you're performing for people who can't count, spell, work simple logic problems through, do any maths, or even comprehend what's happening in your/their hands so far as to require a running commentary. Say less and try not to overprove. I've yet to come across a spectator that wants to see the two jokers when I perform Developmental by David Forrest; the blank faced odd backed card that just printed a selected card complete with signature yes, jokers no. So what do I do when I hit the revelation at the end? I pocket the jokers. Simple. What else would I need to do? Nobody asks to see them, I certainly don't offer, all I do is put them away and get ready to move forward. I see magicians cluttering their effects with over proving all the time and for little gain. It slows down your magic, it makes you look a bit silly and all in all it's just not needed. Spectator asks for something by all means let them if possible, but don't offer it and certainly don't make a fuss. You've used your sharpie a few times already tonight signing cards and making predictions and you pull it from your pocket again. You offer a demonstration of psychokinesis and place the pen on the edge of the table. You concentrate hard and after 6-10 seconds the pen slowly tilts and then suddenly drops from off its perch. You stoop down and pick it up as the applause grows from smattering to round, and put the pen in your pocket. You continue your psychic demonstration. Anything wrong with this performance? I don't think so. You pull the pen out for the 5th 6th, maybe 7th time that evening. The spectators have been using it as much as you have all night. They've signed things, you've written things, it's fairly obvious although unsaid that it's a normal sharpie. The second you offer it out for inspection before or after the effect you raise the alarm. Why is he handing me a pen I used ten minutes ago to sign a card? You're not going to better your effect by having your examinable gimmick handed out and inspected if you've been using it's duplicate all night long. If you've been playing with cards all night and your ending is to change the deck's back colour from red to blue, you wouldn't exactly show all the backs to be red before you started would you? By the time you come to the end of your show it should be fairly obvious to all involved that these cards are red. Suggest nothing and it'll hit them hard. Show them the back of your blatantly red deck before the final effect and you suggest something will happen to the backs of the cards. Thus, when it does it's not a surprise. Do that working backwards thing again. The finale is the cards all change colour bar one signed selection (let's say). So the previous step would most likely be lose the selection. And before that would come select and sign the card. And before that would come showing all the cards as red. Now you can see clearly why this move wouldn't better the effect. Working backwards it becomes obvious that it is unecessary, it is doing something because you can. As we say in the UK, school boy error.
Thinking like a magician is brilliant for getting new routines sorted, coming up with effects of your own and making magic magical. However, if there's one thing magicians seem to love it's clutter. Showing the whole deck different before they start. Letting you examine their key before it changes places with a coin. Letting you play with their wedding ring before they make coins travel through a table. Why? Simply because they can. It's an amateur error, and one the pros are picking up on. When you pull out a deck of cards only the most awkward and frustrating spectators are going to question the validity of it, especially as to whether it's a trick deck or not, if you treat it like an everyday normal packet of cards. Open your Svengali or stripper deck and handle the cards like you would your normal cards and nobody will suspect anything more than sleight of hand. Fan through your blank faced deck as if it were your normal blue deck and everything will be fine. Start showing faces of cards to be different while not going through the entire deck will send up question marks. No, the audience is not stupid. But they're not magicians either. As such they tend to be quite ignorant about a lot of what we use and how we use it. So avoid over proving.
Feel more up to that natural performance? Stripping effects down to their bare essentials is something we should all have a go at. Take the effects that you feel are long winded, complicated or convoluted and work through them backwards taking out each unecessary element. At each event in the routine ask yourself "is this necessary?" and "why?". If you can't answer yes to the former then remove it from the routine. If you find your answer to the latter lacking in conviction then consider cutting it out and think hard about whether it is necessary or you just like that part. If you find something hard or even impossible to do but know an alternative method of achieving the same goal then substitute in your preferred method. Don't fret about all this, once started it's easy to do (although hard to stop) and it'll make you and your performance much better, and better received. And put some clothes on man, it's a family friendly forum...