THE MAGIC OF MEANING

“Thus is one who apparently accomplishes the impossible in an entertainer manner. It naturally follows that the performer who demonstrates a few tricks without playing with the imagination of his audience is not strictly speaking a conjurer at all, but a trickster.

… Where the imagination is not stimulated there is no real mystery.” NeoMagic S.H. Sharpe 1932”

BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE

I am awfully passionate and grateful to Magic, it has rewarded me hugely (and still does). It is one of the places where I find meaning. It all comes with a price though, Magic also provided me with plenty of frustration and discomfort. As they say, hate is not the opposite of love, but indifference.

Talking about opposites, Magic presents two curious and apparently contradictory features. On one hand Magic seems very altruistic and indulgent since someone without putting too much work, under some circumstances, can impress the audience. I am sure everyone has seen someone performing “the invisible deck” word by word gag by gag, even poorly, and get a good reaction from the audience, audience that is of course unaware of how heavily the performer is relying on the talent and work that it is not his own. On the other hand, Magic is tremendously challenging, shameless and rude, if you are brave enough to listen she would unmercifully throw your shortcomings at your face saying things like “You are painfully boring! This thing you did sucks so bad! You are lazy! You don’t mean that, you are liar!”

No wonder I feel so bad about it sometimes… At times is easy for me to understand why I am worried, maybe I screwed up something in a performance or I got stuck in the creation process of a routine… other times I would see an extraordinary magician and my flaws would be exposed in comparison… However, other times the reasons of my uneasiness and bitterness are not so clear… something just doesn’t feel right in the background I would ask myself things like “why I am even doing this? Why that much effort? Why I put myself in the line? Is this a pointless endeavor?”

NO, IT IS NOT. Now that I’ve been involved in Magic for a while I am starting to understand a few things. I am not (only) trying to impress or fool people, if that was the case they would be no need to desperately work and search that much, there are plenty of ready-to-use outstanding material available. We magicians figured out how to fool people and get away with it long ago. Not only that, my capacity to impress or entertain people is somewhat independent of me feeling unease about magic. There is of course something more to it. What I think I was striving for was to dig deeper, to get shaper and wiser, to challenge my talents develop myself further… it was meaning what I was looking for, and if I was not up to the task it wouldn’t feel right.

It took me some years to understand that spectators are also looking for the very same thing. Sometimes spectators don’t seem to care to much about magic… sometimes Magic is poorly performed, and they can see through the methods, but I’ve also seen how an impossible effect, one that they are clueless about its inner workings, can be meaningless for them and therefore, ultimately uninteresting. Turns out that sometimes times we magicians are the oneswho not care to much about the spectators.

THE FORGOTTEN ONE

I think Sharpe almost a century ago nailed it with that quote. When I read “NeoMagic” I was already familiar with this kind of thinking because fortunately I am very close to who I consider one of the most relevant figures in magic nowadays, Gabriel Pareras. I will outline some points of his Fictional Magic approach, particularly regarding the spectator.

Although we magicians are always trying to impress the spectators, we tend to use them as props and, even against our own interest, we tend to give them the role of judging what we do. Gabi considers the spectator to be “the forgotten one” in Magic, he points out that his presence is absent in 99% of magic books, it is sometimes refereed to when a card needs to be selected or a number needs to be chosen… we also borrow their hands occasionally because we’ve been told magic in the spectator hands is stronger. Other than the spectators are mostly ignored right till the climax of the effect when we expect they react vividly.

When was the last time we asked something to a spectator during a show that really meant something for us? Something whose answer we were genuinely interested in? When we ask to a spectator to choose a number between 1 and 52 and we say something like “think a number, any number will do” we are also implying, sometimes even explicitly, that we really don’t care about the number they chose, but then, why the spectator should care about it too?

Back to Sharpe quote, he states that we must “play with the spectator imagination” otherwise we are basically tricksters (and it doesn’t sound very cool). What does he mean by that? In the performance of magic, we usually find a childish element of “Look Mum! See what I can do!”.  Of course, we start by demanding the spectators’ attention one way or another, but the next thing should to do is to capture it, so they give them to us voluntarily, and then fascinate them, so they forget about everting else. (Gabi dixit) Well…How do we do that?

Magic performance should be something like proposing a meaningful experience for the spectator to play with, a very singular one because things apparently impossible will take place in front of their very eyes. If we want the spectators to play they must do it actively and in a creative way, it doesn’t mean they have to grab our props and play with them, they will be actively be involved within.

Just like when we completely lose track of time and space while watching a movie or reading a novel, we are one hundred per cent engaged with the narrative, our imagination is working at fullest trying to figure out what is going on and what will happen next, and we come up with it in the precise moment it is happening! If we see it coming from far we disconnect, and if it falls from the sky we feel cheated. The great thing is when one second before it is unexpected, then we put all the pieces together, then it happens, makes perfect sense and it is totally irremediable and in a way, it belongs to us, because we were involved in the process. This is the kind of attachment I believe is desirable the spectators have with the magic we perform.

As Gabi puts it, Magic is an act of communication, the magician is the sender, the spectator is the receiver and the magic is the message. All three elements play a key role to create “Magic Experience” or what Arturo de Ascanio called the “Magic Atmosphere”, which is never guaranteed beforehand and we have to build it every time from scratch. So, deception is not the ultimate goal but a means to an end. In my experience working in that direction with the spectators is way better than thinking of them as the people I must impress, because that also put them in the role of judging what I do, which I think is a very bad for everyone.

As a practical example, when I face the audience at the beginning of every show I don’t like to perform a quick strong effect to “win” the crowd.  I don’t think is the best approach because is like using the Magic as a shield to hide behind. To perform a trick to impress the audience, so they like me… even worst, so they get to decide if they like me or not based on the trick. For me it sets the wrong precedent, so I prefer to do it exactly the other way, make the audience like me or find me interesting so they are willing to see me doing magic for them. I like to be my own opener. One of the best examples I can think of is my good friend and truly genius Mario López, you like him the very moment he enters the stage, by the time he arrives at the table you in helplessly in love with him, you are already in his universe and then you just get carried away down the slide…

IT IS NOT (ONLY) ABOUT THE SPECTATOR

All in all, is not the spectators what matter he most but us, it must be US. The spectator doesn’t get to decide what it going to happen, just as you don’t get to decide about the script of your favorite movie. The performance is unique because of we are there, as another great friend an outstanding magician Ricardo Rodríguez puts is, the Magic we do is not required to be original, but it must be personal. That’s a MUST.

I personally think I am doing something terribly wrong if after my performance I get the feeling that the audience didn’t got to know me a little better, that means I didn’t put any relevant part of myself on what I was doing, meaning I am completely replaceable. That’s one of the cases I would feel worried regardless if the audience is left impressed or entertained.

WHAT I MEAN BY MEANING

If we want the spectator to find meaning in what we do, it must be there in the first place. There are effects, pretty much all the classics, that have symbolic meaning built-in such as “Torn&Restored thread” or “The miser’s dream”, sometimes we are aware of it and sometimes we are not, but this symbolic meaning still works. But I am talking about putting what is meaningful to us, and it has a lot to do on that is truthful to us. Although some will find it contradictory I do believe a good magician is very honest.  

I’ll explain first what I don’t mean by meaning. I am not talking about imposing a “deep” and moralizing discourse, explaining the meaning of life as we perform our 9-phase “Oil and Water” routine, pretending to illustrate our unenlightened audience… please don’t do it. I am sure you’ve seen a kid performing a gambling demonstration as he talks about his days on back on the cruise in the Mississippi playing cards with some of the most dangerous gamblers of the middle east. That’s not meaningful because it is not true, we can excuse the poor kid but we grown-up magicians do it all the time.

I think If we want to perform a routine, share an idea, tell a joke, a poem, a quote… we must earn it first, it must be meaningful and truthful to us… otherwise I think is better no to use it, despite its effectiveness. For instance, I cannot wrap my head around the mentalists that use tarot cards in their routines and talk about them in a solemn tone, even coming up with stuff about the archetypes, but they believe everything about tarot is total BS. I find it dishonest and disrespectful to the spectators… if I think something is meaningless I would never put it in “my message” for the spectator, I would never think is “good enough” for them. I am not saying we cannot use tarot cards if we are not believers, but we must use it in a truthful way, in a way which reflects what we have inside. If we are skeptic about Tarot if would more truthful to use a tongue-in-cheek tone, I bet it would work much better also… That little example is extrapolable to everything we do. Yeah, I know, disclosing what we have inside can be very scary, what if it is rejected? but, on the other hand… what is really the alternative?

To close I will use the example of Juan Esteban Varela, a magician and a mentalist (yeah also a good friend of mine!) He performs this routine in which always guess right in which hand the spectator is holding a coin. He uses an in-crescendo dramatic structure because he is an expert magician who knows what he is doing, but that not the point I want to make. Juan Esteban uses a method (a magnetic coin) but HE DOESN’T LIE. He has studied thoughtfully the literature on body language and cold reading because he finds it really fascinating and he use that extensive knowledge in the performance, he doesn’t just come up with stuff to fit the situation, it is REAL. So that performance piece in his hands is a unique and meaningful experience. That is why I also believe our repertoire choses us in a way, because we don’t decide which things are meaningful to us.

There are plenty of room to put meaning in our acts, yet many times is wasted, everything we do, the effects we perform, the order we chose, the way we connect them, every line we say and everything we don’t say, every gag, the clothes we wear, the music we use… I encourage you to use it!

Pipo

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