Saturday, April 16, 2011

a rant from an illusionist... oddly... written in 1990... and it's still relavent!!

 There have been several books published on illusion in past years, but none have focused on presentation, the key ingredient that so many illusion shows lack.  Several of the books also stress the importance of originality, but none offer any specific suggestions to foster original thought or any exercises that promote creativity.

Originality and creative thinking are not things that one does naturally or because one is told to.  These are things that must be taught and cultivated like fine wines and pearls.  Performers and other artists are told from an early age to adopt a style and are often told to pick someone whose work they admire and use them as a role model.  Rather than use this role model as a teacher, they use the inspiration to make a copy.  Like most copies, the original is always better.

Unfortunately, most parents are the worst offenders at promoting this, and not encouraging individuality.  From birth, kids are taught morals like, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."  They are encouraged to "dare to be different" and then are ostracized for not staying within a prescribed norm.

During early performances,  no matter how bad or awkward, the parent is usually the one to say  "Wow! That was wonderful" They do this for a variety of reasons, primarily to boost the performer's fragile childlike ego and as often as not, to keep from seeing the same trick, dance step, song or whatnot, over and over and over.  I was very lucky when I was younger. When I loused up a trick, my parents would tell me and try to work out a better alternative.  When I started inventing my own magic, they would tell me when an effect had merit and when it did not.  I know that they became tired of seeing my Zombie routine over and over, but they told me what they liked and disliked This helped me to form a philosophy behind that effect that led me to the routine that won awards , and the applause of my audiences.

Magic is a little different from most of the arts because the whole realm of what we do revolves around secrets.  Dancers, painters, musicians and other artists can show a  spectator how a step, technique or song is done and that will not necessarily lead to the spectator being able to duplicate the feat.  A magician, especially stage magicians and illusionists cannot do this without the spectator being able to duplicate the feat, however crudely the presentation.  Does this make magic less of an art form?  I do not think so.  I do think that it means that the magician must work harder than any other artist on philosophy, technique and presentation.  Without skills in these areas, we are no better than people who  paint by numbers and call it art or people that paint ceramic statues and expect it to be called anything but a craft.  Sure,  a magician can follow all the steps and the effect will work, but until the presentation is perfect, it is not art.

This leads me to the subject of tutelage, or" lessons."  A dancer can take a dance class and get better. So can many other types of artists.  Since magic is grounded as much in the mechanical as in the technical, learning how more and more magic works does not necessarily make you a better magician.  In order for a magician to become a better magician, he/she has to not only study magic, but acting and dance as well. What younger magicians have to be taught is not the secrets to the tricks, but the frame of mind they need to perform real magic. It is not good enough to merely fool the audience, you must make them believe that what you did could have actually happened, much to the dismay of their eyes and the logical part of their brain.

Many magic teachers make the mistake of teaching a student an effect, and a routine, but rarely touch base on the "why." Why does this mis-direction work when another will not?  Why does the move need to be here rather than a different moment?  The concept of the why is something that most magicians are left to develop on their own, well after they have learned bad habits and well after they have been doing bad magic for many years.  Many magic teachers are not capable of passing on this knowledge because in most magicians it never fully develops into a  solid philosophy. In some magicians, it tries to gel and becomes a river of muddy sludge,  and some magicians think that the secret is the thing, making their teaching ineffective and their magic mediocre at best.

The sad fact is, many magicians go through life never having a good teacher and muddle through show after show, learning on their own things that could have been taught to them at a much earlier level.  There are several magicians that consult and offer advice specifically to magicians.  This is a costly solution and one a beginning magician can avoid.  Young magicians should take magic lessons not from a magician, but from a competent acting coach. 

The magic in a magic show is secondary to the showmanship required to pull it off.  Nearly anyone can make the tricks work. It takes a magician to turn a trick into magic.

Unlike performers of sleight of hand,  who spend hours practicing in front of a mirror before being able to fool an audience, a budding illusionist can buy an illusion and with only basic knowledge of its workings, can get on stage and blunder through it. Performing  sleight of hand before it's ready would only make the magician look like an idiot.  It would fool no one.  Because illusions generally contain mechanics or an assistant that help the effect work,  an illusion requires less dexterity and, some people think, less rehearsal.  The effect still works and though the audience will still be fooled to a certain extent,  it gives a bad name to the blundering performer and on a larger scale to all magicians trying to find honest work.  Properly rehearsing an illusion is boring, tiring and can be very expensive, especially if you have to rent rehearsal space and pay your assistants.  The time and money spent is well worth it if you use the time and your brain wisely. To start a point that will be expanded later, video taping your rehearsals is not an option, it is a necessity. You cannot fix what is wrong if you cannot see what is wrong. You cannot see what is wrong if you are handcuffed in a box on stage.

The lack of commitment to proper rehearsal and the "I know the method so I can do it now" attitude come from each magician’s grounding  in magic.  If first exposure was in a book, and they read and followed the directions and warnings of the book, then the new magician is more likely to rehearse and carefully routine a new item before adding it to his/her repertoire. 

If first exposure came from a catalog or from a trick in  a box, the more likely the student was to listen to those instructions and think that all magic was "E-Z" and he/she could do it "with no practice, just five minutes after reading the instructions."  Trivializing the secret and the importance of rehearsal gives young magicians a bad foundation on which to build the habits of their careers.

There have been several "Ages" in the history of the world. The Stone Age. The Ice Age. The Bronze Age. The Industrial Revolution.  We are currently creating the Age of information. The speed and accuracy that information is passed on has changed dramatically since the invention of the telephone, which was once thought to be the most miraculous invention of the age. Information can be passed more quickly and more easily than ever before.  Technology has had a profound effect on magic and on its popularity.

The early twentieth century brought us Vaudeville and the thought that the secret of a magic effect was really worth something.  There are stories of people being killed for the secret to an effect.  I don't know if these stories are true, but it does illustrate the point.  Audiences thought that magic was special and took discipline and skill beyond that of ordinary human beings.

During wartime in the forties, there was a surge in the popularity of magic and hobby books and Adam's magic sets. Magic became a popular pastime. Magic became available in five and dime stores.  The secrets and discipline became less important.   Soon after this, came the invasion of television. In the sixties came Marshall Brodien, hawking his wares during commercials and, later, Mark Wilson on his Magic Circus inspiring millions of youngsters nationwide.  In the seventies there was a mysterious outbreak of E-Z magic, Magic Hat Magic and Doug Henning.  Magic had swung full circle from the art form it had become in the twenties, to a hobby available in toy stores and a travesty whose most sacred secrets were given away in Dover Paperbacks and the back of cereal boxes.

The past several years have seen magic and philosophy merge slowly.  The wonderous magic of Doug Henning, the beautiful magic of David Copperfield, the clever magic and solutions of Jim Steinmeyer and the philosophic ramblings of Eugene Burger, Jay Sankey  and others has started the restoration of magic to the art form that it once was.  The discipline required to perform it is being preached and is slowly being listened to. It is imperative that the E-Z Magic generation is taught that magic is not  possible to accomplish five minutes after the box containing the trick is opened.  Making magic is not merely the action of making the "trick" work.  Magic requires making the audience believe as much as the magician should.  The magic must start within the basic belief system of the magician.

Building a solid foundation is good in any art. It is vitally important in magic because a good magical philosophy is the only thing that separates the hobbyists from the professionals.  When an artist practices painting, he becomes a better painter. The same goes with dancing and, to some extent, singing.  Magic is less of a concrete art form.  You can't practice magic.  Real magic doesn't exist. You can only practice  the performance of  magic. Like an actor, the more you rehearse the more believable your art becomes.  You have to believe in what you are doing as much as the audience does. You have to believe that what you are performing are not mere tricks, you have to believe that you are performing what your audience perceives you to be performing.

My biggest piece of advice to beginning magicians is to learn all that they can not only about magic, but about theater as well.  Any performer that knows about acting, sets, lights, and  costumes is going to be  much stronger than a performer that merely has a working knowledge of his props and nothing about the space in which they are performed.

My other piece of advice is to be aware of the fact that there is such a thing as bad magic.  Catalogs tout the wonders of many tricks and give glowing praise to the inventors of the curiosities within their pages.  What they fail to remind us it that the object behind the catalog is not to sell us good magic, but to sell us magic, period.  It is said over and over that any trick in the right hands can be a miracle. I think that saying was invented by a dealer trying to sell a piece of crap to a magician whose ego he was stroking.

The specific definition of bad magic is a little vague and is hard to pin down.   An effect that offers unclear magic is bad magic.  If you can perform an effect for a group of people that don’t understand your language and keep them amazed, that’s pretty good magic.  With rare exceptions, good magic should be able to stand on its own and any patter added to the routine is just icing on the cake. 

If you expect the audience to assume anything in order to fool them, the magic is bad. 
Any effect  invented to clone an existing effect, but designed to fool magicians familiar with the original  effect is often bad magic.   Very often the difference in the effect is not substantial enough to warrant the new version.  Magically speaking, if it only fools magicians, it probably is too technical to make it worth the time it takes to desert the old effect and learn the new one. 
I’m not saying that good magic should be performed as a pantomime, just that it should be able to be and still be effective. Developing good patter to go along with good magic is a challenge in itself.

A bad illusion is one where the audience sees it, and either can't figure out the magic or  can't figure out what was supposed to happen without substantial explanation.  See: nearly every packet card effect or trick with multiple climaxes.  Any illusion that has the audience thinking immediately of a possible solution,  even if it is a “sucker” trick, and even if the supposed solution is wrong, is bad magic. If the audience has come up with a solution, even if they are mistaken,  they have still have a viable answer in their own minds.  Arguing with them over their solution of the secret often only drives them closer to the actual  secret.  I've seen magicians reveal a secret to an effect they saw on TV  to a layman  just to prove  the layman had the wrong solution.  That's the sign of a bad magician.  Other examples of bad magic need examination on a more individual basis.  If you see an effect and can't figure out what was supposed to happen the first time, more than likely, the audience won't either.  Remember though, there is a big difference between what is categorized as bad magic and what is categorized as a bad magician.  Get them together and you have what I call Deadly Magic.

Deadly Magic is often performed by magicians that refuse to think for themselves. These are magicians that perform a routine word for word from the instructions or from another magician's routine.  These are the magicians that perform magic for themselves rather than their audiences.  These are magicians that perform ugly "box magic" and don't repaint it because they think that the designs are pretty or they figure that they paid good money for the prop and that painting it would  ruin it.

I've seen many illusionists that have the money to buy the props and none of the talent to perform them well and make them exciting. They roll the boxes around and the girls climb in and out, but there is no mystery or interest in what  is happening.  Having the props is not enough.  Costuming your assistants in next to no clothing is not enough. Only weeks of planning and rehearsal and work are enough and even then, there are magicians with  no talent. These are magicians that work regularly  with small circuses and Las Vegas.  The illusions are performed as quickly as possible with as many lights as they can fit on the prop but with all of the originality of a Disney Kids sit-com. 

One of the purposes of this article is to offer alternatives to these magicians and to the standard presentations that we have come to expect from mediocre magicians that can buy the props  but don't have the imagination to make the routines exciting.

This is not a treatise about secrets.  If you are interested in illusion enough to read this, you should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of basic secrets.

I once had a magician who was much older and more experienced than me compliment me on an effect that I had invented and brought to a local Society of American Magicians meeting.  He told me that he'd never be able to invent magic like that because he did not like to think that much.  At that moment, I lost all respect that I had for him as a magician.  People who do not think, whether it be scientifically or creatively, are the kind of people that mooch routines off other magicians and mooch life off  the rest of society. There is no room for this in a field that has been mooching for far too long.  The thinkers are getting bored and sick of those that don't, won't or can't.

This is a tribute of all the magicians and producers that can take a standard illusion and turn it into something special, something beyond the ordinary by adding a new twist, a special moment or a sense of humor.  This can be a good start for magicians that can't think for themselves or simply don't want to because they don't want to take the risks.  I can not offer the secret of instant success.

Thinking is not difficult, it just takes practice.  Creativity is not difficult, it just takes practice.  Putting them both together is not difficult, it just takes practice.  Just put one foot in front of the other and keep on truckin’. Remember you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.

Monday, April 11, 2011

a gaggle of trashcans, a flock of trashcans, a pride of trashcans...?

The last of their kind!  I have just a few of the Tiny Tricky Trashcans left.  Smart  in inventive school show magicians are snapping them up!!

Time to save a couple of pennies... and get yours before they're gone!!