Recently (and not for the first time) I got into a debate about whether stooges and, more broadly, lying are defensible strategies in magic. As is often the case, the opposing positions taken in such a debate help bring us to a much deeper understanding of the issue, but also of our basic understanding of magic as an art form and our reasons for performing it. That’s great because we are not always perfectly conscious of these things, let alone able to articulate them, which is what I intend to do with this post.
Depending on your understanding and definition of magic, you may or may not find it acceptable to use certain methods such as stooges. Intuition always comes first, to me it is clearly wrong to use them even if I cannot totally understand or express why.
For some the ultimate goal in magic is to get people believe (or suspend disbelief during the show) that they have some kind of super natural powers, if not for real then at least in fiction. From this point of view, the goal is therefore to sell the «truth» of the act and to make sure people buy it, in other words to get away with a lie. From this standpoint the use of stooges or any other form of dishonesty is automatically justified because the very goal is untruthful. In that case, the enjoyment or entertainment of the spectators can be seen as a mere byproduct.
For others, the ultimate goal of magic is entertaining the audience and ensuring they are happy with the time and money invested. They typically use magic effects and comedy to achieve that goal. Even if the comedy ends up weakening the magic, as long as it “works” it doesn’t matter. Sometimes they use lines, gags or complete routines of others, (both published or unpublished), but given that the ultimate goal is to please the audience in front of them, this is not seen as a problem. The use of stooges here would be also acceptable as long as it serves the same goal.
For others magic is some sort of performing art, a view which paints the magician as a unique individual whose purpose on stage is to express himself with magic in a personal, meaningful and truthful way. For those the experience and the reaction of the audience is very relevant as feedback but not as the ultimate goal. For those performing a magical piece which faithfully expresses their ideas, wishes, fears or concerns makes them feel good, and whether this does not happen to some extent makes them feel unease. For those lying gets in the way.
To experience a magical effect the spectator needs to make false assumptions of what is happening in front of him all the time, and of course he needs the help of the magician to accomplish this. It may appear contradictory that the magician can be honest about it, but this is in fact the case. To me magic is not the art of selling lies but an invitation to play a captivating and meaningful game. Not only is lying not necessary but avoiding it a great strategy to create a solid illusion. With enough care and attention, it is possible to avoid expressing any form of lies, yet still have the spectator interpret events and actions in such a way that the impossible can manifest in front of his eyes.
For me magic is the celebration of the triumph of the intellect, not its defeat. It is widely known that the more intelligent a spectator is, the better the illusions will work for him. There is more than one reason for this. Deception in magic is based on the ability of our brain to filter out unnecessary information, something which we do all the time and largely without being conscious of it. Such a process is of course necessary in a world where we are exposed to a massive, almost unlimited, amount of information. From the point of view of the secret method, magic is the art of exploiting this process. For me,this kind of deception is a compliment to the public, and I always try to think the best of the audience’s intelligence when designing routines. When we think the best of our audience, we are often rewarded in turn, and of course the reverse is also true.
It is a very different matter to exploit the trust of the spectator on our competence and integrity as the basis of our deception. In my mind, the shortcut of the stooge (as well as many other shortcuts) isa betrayal of that trust, a betrayal of the spectator I intend to perform magic for. The only reason to use a stooge is when it is the only way to achieve a certain effect, but the majority of the time it is not the case, but lack of hard work,
still many hold that argument.
What I think is relevant is to consider what are, both achieving that particular effect and using stooges, in relation to one’s goal in magic.
Thanks for reading