“Anytime magic is performed, whether it is on stage or in an informal setting with friends, it is the performance of a piece of theater. In an informal setting the audience might not readily recognize it as such; nonetheless, the ingredients that makes theater are there. Should what do you fail to contain the elements of good theater, your work falls under the definition of theater, but in this case it is simple bad theater. Nonetheless, theater is inescapably is. Whether you like it or not, whether you are interested in it or not, good theater or bad, it always be theater.”

Tommy Wonder, Conflict and Emotion, Books of Wonder Volume II

These words come from an artist I admire and respect a lot, Jacobus Maria Bemelman, best known as Tommy Wonder (1953 – 2006).  To me he is one of the most relevant figures in magic in the last forty years. His Books of Wonder volumes are among my most precious possessions.

I would say that magic is not a theater play (I do not think Tommy mean by the way), I rather say that a magic performance is a very particular and unique form of theater. But let’s discuss this from different points of view.

If we look at it from a puristic point of view we can state that a magician it is not an actor and he does not (or should not) play a character but interpret his own personality (more or less distorted). We could say that because it is true that when the magic is “theatricalized” or dramatized it easily loses much of its impact (this actually can happen anytime you mix magic with anything, like comedy, music or storytelling).

We can look from the other way and say it is OK to enhance other aspects of a magic performance at the expense of weakening the magic effect. I think we could do that but at least we should do it consciously measuring the balance of what it is gained and lost, never weakening the effect because of our ignorance. However, I am not addressing that topic in this article.

The truth is I don’t know which are the boundaries that define what purely belongs to magic or not. But I know our magic may lack of strength, interest, memorability and quality in general if we do no take advantage of dramatic structure, good scripting, suspense and intrigue, element disposition on the stage, information dosage and many others resources that are closely related to what we understand as theater (and I think that’s more likely what Tommy Wonder meant).

In this article I would to talk a little bit about dramatic structure, not from a theoretical point of view but analyzing and discussing about the structure of some routines.

We magicians use a structure constantly while presenting our magic, we could call it the Basic Structure and it looks like this:

  • THE PURPOSE: The magician announces he will intend to accomplish something impossible.
  • THE CLIMAX: The magician accomplish it successfully.

This structure has a demonstrative nature. Of course this structure has a proven effectiveness, but it may not be the most appropriate for all our routines or rather, perhaps we do not want to use it all the time.

This structure does not present any conflict (as an interest and action generator) but the one inherent to any magic act, “the magic conflict” in Pepe Carrol words (see article “Conflicts” by Pepe Carroll in his wonderful book “52 Lovers“), which is the spectator’s natural resistance to witness something impossible.

I think magic can engage more our audiences and even increase its impact by exploring the possibilities of richer dramatic structure. One example of that is Dai Vernon’s “Matching the cards” routine, I think the dramatic structure of this classic is almost perfect.

  • THE SETUP: A card is selected but its identity it not revealed (element of mystery)
  • THE PURPOSE: The magician announces he’ll locate the matching cards, cards of the same value (element of challenge)
  • THE PROGRESS: The magicians successfully locate three card of the same value (i.e. Three Kings)
  • THE TURNING POINT (an Apparent Failure): The selected card is revealed, surprisingly it is not the expected missing King but and Ace (Element of surprise, thrill of failure, empathy and fall short of expectations)
  • CHANGE OF PLANS: The magicians decides to fix the situation by magically transforming the three Kings into Aces accomplishing the purpose.
  • THE CLIMAX: The magician successfully accomplish the transformation of Kings into Aces (emotion of the impossible, thrill of success and sense of wholeness)

In Dai Vernon’s words this is one of the greatest routines one can perform with a deck of cards. To me this routine is a clear example of a whole that it is more that the sums of its parts (“Matching the cards” routine >>> Localization + Transformation).

The Turning Point or Plot Point it is actually a concept from scripting and it is defined as a significant event within a plot that spins the action around in another direction. In this case the Turning Point is manifested as an Apparent Failure (in Arturo de Ascanio’s nomenclature), I believe it is this very complex and still unexplored concept. What if the audience do not buy the mistake? Do we want the audience to truly experience it as a failure? We could also discuss about the revelation of the climax. Do we want to announce beforehand to enhance intrigue or we prefer to reveal it right away enhance surprise? What if the spectators anticipate the ending? Do we want them to do it? I would like to go deeper in this subjects but I’ll leave it for another occasion.

Now I would like to break down and talk a little bit of the structure of Tommy Wonder’s “Tamed Cards”, his version of Peter Kane’s classic plot “Wild Card”. In case you don’t know it please watch it, I am sure you’ll enjoy because is wonderful.

Even though everything flows naturally there is a lot going on from the dramatic structure point of view.

  • THE SETUP: The magician interrupts his act to ask for permission to do his hobbie, the audience agrees (and laughs). In order to do that the magician let a spectator to select a card in a very awkward situation; people do not understand what is happening.
  • PURPOSE: The magicians explains that is hobby consist in collecting cards selected precisely at a certain hour of the day, he explains that surprisingly everyone always selects the very same card (Four of clubs). He displays his collection while explaining. The selected card is expected to match the collection.
  • TURNING POINT I (Apparent failure): Things go wrong, the selected card do no match the collection of Four of Clubs because it is a Jack of Diamonds.
  • CHANGE OF PLANS I: The magicians kindly asks to the spectators to let him transform the selected card to match the collection. The audience politely agrees (and laughs).
  • TURNING POINT II (Perverse Magic*): The magician it is unable to transform the selected card, not only that but the magic “goes wrong” and one card of the collection accidentally gets transformed into a duplicate of the selected card.
  • CHANGE OF PLANS II: The magician decides to transform the collection into duplicates of the selected card to sort things out rather than changing the selection.
  • CLIMAX: The magician successfully accomplish the transformation of the collection into the selected card (Jack of Diamonds).

NOTE ON PERVERSE MAGIC: A few years back a close friend of mine, Jaime Figueroa, who is an extremely talented magician, comedian and illustrator, and myself conducted a research project on Perverse Magic, we presented it to the magic community at Arturo de Ascanio’s Memorial in 2013. Much of the content of this article was contained or inspired in the Lecture notes/booklet we prepared for the event in which we discussed the topic in detail. I hope someday we will translate to English.

I think the routine contains as many lessons in magic as one is willing to find, here I resume briefly the ones I have found:

  • How the motivation of the effects comes naturally and everything develops logically from the point Tommy decides to share his hobby with the audience (Alfred Hitchcock’s McGuffin concept). Look how he manages to remove the packet trick “smell” to the routine by doing that.
  • How he manages to dose the information carefully while explaining what his hobby is about and what it is happening, keeping the tension and making the process interesting. He does not over explain everything as most of the time we magicians do. Other would screw all up by starting like “Hi! I got a hobby, I collect cards people chose at a 8 o’clock and they always chose a Four of Clubs, do you want to see it?.”
  • How he manages to avoid tedious, uninteresting and unmotivated counting and displays of cards, rather that that he manages to integrate them (for the shake of clarity in the Initial Situation as Ascanio said) seamless within the performance. This not only is way more interesting for the spectator but it is far more convincing. When he is displaying the collection of Four of Clubs people do not question that action because they are anticipating to the upcoming effect of coincidence (that incidentally won’t occur) Why on earth that collection would be another thing but four of clubs??.
  • How he let the audience to be ahead of the magician in the plot points, when it is revealed that the card was wrongly selected (Turning point I) and when the transformation is accomplished in the wrong card (Turning point II). The spectators are aware of those incidents before the magician does, enhancing the comedy of the situation and letting the magician react to the audience’s reaction rather than acting alone.
  • How he breaks the sequence of transformations in two stages, to help the spectator understands what is happening and letting him touching the cards (exploiting the method as much as possible) and to change the rhythm of the revealing process to avoid monotony.
  • How he manages to capture the spectator’s attention from the very beginning rather than asking for it (Gabi Pareras dixit), and he doesn’t let it go till the end of the routine.
  • How the complexity and richness of the dramatic structure do not get in the way of the magic effects, which are crystal clear and strong.

I think Tommy took the Wild Card plot and made a beautiful composition out of it, a unique performance piece and a very personal magic routine. I do recommend you to check all the subtleties and mechanics of the routine as is described in detail his books. However, if you feel tempted to include as it is it right away in your repertoire, please read these words first.

“… I enjoy reading books of tricks, but never with the intent of finding new material to perform. I see such books as sources of knowledge, and occasionally even inspiration… My approach is like a painter taking pleasure in a book of art… It would seem very strange for a painter to look in art books for paintings to copy. Can you imagine? “I am a real painter. I paint what others have painted before me” or “Sure, I do copies. But, hey!, I found the originals in an art book. For what other reason would my colleagues publish their work if not to teach me how to paint their paintings?“ Yes, you can look at it in that way, even make a defense of a sort for the practice but what a poverty!” 

Tommy Wonder, Preface, Books of Wonder Volume I

Thanks for reading!


Itapevi, SÃO PAULO


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