By Leo Kanzelberger
If after reading that title you feel in any way attacked, or offended, or triggered, I apologize. But I encourage you to keep reading as the title may not in fact be as offensive as it appears. The simple fact is that I cannot think of saying what I mean any more plainly. Magic is not for you. Period. It is not for any of you. Or me. And now that I’ve completed my all-important attention grabbing device (thank you Eugene Burger), I will explain.
Modern magic is flourishing in many ways (and I’m not just talking about the Buck twins). The magic market is saturated with innovative tricks and methods. The Internet, labelled by some as the death knell for magic, has in fact made the art form more accessible to budding magicians than ever before. Consider how many videos of masters such as Cardini, Tommy Wonder, Fred Kaps, Juan Tamariz, and more, are readily available to watch on YouTube. This opportunity to watch and study the masters at work is an incredible gift to magicians of the 21st century, and I know that I would be a worse magician without it. And because of this incredible amount of accessible magic, added to the popularity of TV magicians such as David Blaine, Darren Brown, Dynamo, etc, I feel that it would not be unreasonable to surmise that there just might be more interest in magic today than there has ever been!
However, I feel that magic is hurting in one particular area. And that is the performance of magic. It seems incredible that with such an interest in magic, so many magicians, and so many products, there is so little performance of magic. Why is this? Could it be that the public is simply not interested? But that is absurd. Much of the popularity of magicians such as David Blaine and Darren Brown exists among laypeople! Not magicians. And in my experience, when people find out that I am a magician, they cannot wait to tell me about a magician they saw on TV and how he blew their minds. So, again I ask: Why so little magic performance?
Professional magicians aside (and there are not many when compared to the veritable army of hobbyists), why aren’t magicians performing? At the various magic club meetings, or at conventions, no one performs. Sure, people will show you a new move, or that new flourish, or the latest flap elastic magnet gimmick, but when asked what they perform for real people, it’s endless excuses: “I don’t really do that much close-up,” “it’s just a hobby for me,” or just a blatant “I don’t really perform.” This is, of course, a generalization, but in my experience, it is all too common.
Now some may most assuredly disagree with this opinion. I am sure that many will jump to the defense of magic conventions protesting that in fact, there are excellent examples of performance present. They would mention the numerous shows provided to the attendees, the sessioning back and forth, and all of the mini-performances for people in the lobby. And they would wonder how I could so blatantly ignore all of that. I agree with these people in spirit; I love magic conventions! However, as a venue for magic performance, I must take a different stance.
It is important, first, to understand what I believe constitutes a magic performance. Firstly, it requires a magician, and it must contain a magic trick. That much I am sure is obvious. Secondly, it requires an audience. Magic is an art. Art does not exist without an audience to experience it. An artist doesn’t paint a picture and then put it in their bottom drawer. They share it with people. An orchestra doesn’t play for an empty house. They play for people. Hollywood doesn’t make a movie and then give the actors the film. They show it to people. Magic tricks are reliant on an audience. A magic trick with no audience is no magic trick at all. One could then make the argument that a magician who does not perform is no magician at all. I won’t be that harsh; however, if you think that doing a magic trick in the mirror is magical, then you’re only fooling yourself.
So, a magic performance requires a magician, a magic trick, and an audience. But what is an audience? This may not be so obvious as it sounds. By audience I do not mean your webcam, I mean real flesh and blood people who are physically present while you are doing the magic trick. In today’s atmosphere of digital everything and social media, there are videos of tricks all over the web. Often, lay people will tell me about the latest viral magic trick video that they watched, do I know the secret, etc. And they seem to enjoy watching these videos. However, I maintain that a layperson watching one of these videos will have a very different experience than one that he or she would have if they were watching the same trick live.
A camera is an unblinking eye, does not have an attention span, feels no emotion, and cannot be directed. Imagine a real person behaving that way when watching a magician. A spectator from hell, right? Additionally, a video can be re-watched, rewound, paused, played in slow motion, etc. These aspects come to together to collectively reduce magic to a puzzle. The last thing that laypeople always tell me about magic videos is their possible theories, and how many times they have watched and rewatched the video. It’s a puzzle that they are trying to solve. While it might be an entertaining puzzle, even a baffling puzzle, it is a puzzle nonetheless. And I am certainly willing to risk standing on a soapbox to say that magic should be more than a puzzle, and I hope that the reader would agree. Therefore, the audience must be physically present.
However, the matter of the audience is even more complex. I do not believe that all audiences are equal. The most meaningful example (and perhaps the elephant in the room) is performing magic for magicians. This is simply not the same as performing magic for lay people (and herein lies my problem with magic conventions). A good magic trick, successfully performed for a layperson, will trigger shock and wonder. There will be no possible method in the layperson’s mind, and they will simply bask in the warm glow of astonishment. This is simply not what occurs when performing for magicians.
Magicians may not be cameras watching magic, but our heads are crammed full of methods. And while I can attempt to watch magic without trying to figure it out, I cannot prevent myself from spotting methods when I recognize them at work. It is like staring at a jigsaw puzzle and trying to not see the pieces. It just doesn’t work. Our heads are full of methods (magic’s puzzle pieces). How can we possibly look at a magic routine and not think about any of them? I have tried many times, and I fully believe it to be impossible.
Therefore, magicians simply cannot watch magic without turning it into a puzzle. I will not attempt to declare it impossible to fully and completely astonish a magician. However, I can confidently say that this is extremely rare. I along with almost any magician I have talked to will lovingly reminisce about that one time that we were actually fooled. It is a beautiful thing, but cannot be called typical. For some, these times can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And even in these rare situations, were we really fooled? Did we have a magic experience? Or were we merely puzzled? I’ll leave that up to you.
Thus, a true magic performance can only be one where a magician performs a magic trick for an audience of laymen. Now let us at last turn back to the issue at hand: performances at a magic convention. Following through with the argument I have just postulated, magic performed for convention attendees cannot be called a true magic performance, but rather an exhibition of magic technique. The same is true of jam sessions, though in a less refined form. And finally, let us address the example of tricks that are performed for that one layperson at a magic convention.
Are these true magic performances? They can be; however, much of the time they are not. *I hear you protesting: “Enough with the verbal trickery!” This is the last bit, I promise. * Like watching a video, or performing for magicians, if I am performing for that one lay person at a magic convention, it is radically different from performing in the real world. The reason? The environment and the intent.
It is a group of magicians, and maybe a couple laypeople. I am in a magicians’ equivalent of a “safe space”. I am surrounded by my magician friends (my support group). If I mess up, they don’t care. There’s no pressure. And here’s the truth of the matter: I am not really performing for the lay person. I am showing off for my magician friends. The layperson is not the focus. Rather, they are functioning as guinea pigs. If you disagree with this, just think back to all of the really bad magic you’ve seen magicians perform at magic conventions. If you haven’t had this experience, good for you. Having talked to several laypeople who have been to magic conventions (my own girlfriend included), seeing bad magic is common.
The fact is that most magicians in these situations aren’t thinking about the quality of magic that they’re showing that one person. In fact, I have frequently been in discussion with magicians about some move or principle, and one magician will say, “let’s find a layperson so I can show you how this looks.” They then proceed to demonstrate some move or half-developed trick, and I’m sure that the reader will agree that this cannot be called a magic performance. It is a fragment at best, and a train-wreck at worst.
This is incredibly different from performing for people and giving them a magical experience. In this convention situation, the focus is not on or about the spectator, and neither is the magic. Therefore, I do not consider it performance. And I’m not saying that good magicians don’t ever perform magic for laypeople at conventions, I’m sure they do! But that is not the norm.
For magic to exist then, magician and muggle must come together in the real world. I do not believe that magicians are ignorant of this. After all, why are we magicians? Because we saw a magic performance and we were enchanted. The problem is that many magicians are simply afraid of performing, and for good reason. They’ve had a poor experience. They were caught once, it was humiliating, and they’d rather not risk it again. Why did they fail? It could be for many reasons. Perhaps they did not practice enough beforehand, perhaps they had a bad spectator, perhaps they just screwed up (everyone does), perhaps their buddies at the magic club were not honest and told them that they were ready to perform the trick, etc. Now, I could go on about how these possible reasons are our own fault (they are), but rather than point the finger of blame, I’d like to extend a hand of fellowship and encouragement.
We’ve all been there. A bad performance can make you feel hopeless as a performer. I know that I’ve experienced this multiple times. It can even put you off magic entirely. And when magicians are honest (as if), even the most seasoned professional will admit that they’ve felt this way. However, nothing makes a magician more excited or brings a magician closer to magic than a successful performance. It is the greatest encouragement one can receive.
And so, I encourage magicians everywhere to get out of their bedrooms, out of the magic clubs, out of the magic conventions, and off of their webcams. If you’ve had a bad history with performing, it’s time to write a new and improved one. Perform magic! Be a MAGICIAN! It can be hard; it might take a concerted effort and lots of practice. But when you see the looks on their faces, when you hear the squeals of surprise and astonishment, when you see the amazement, the wonder, and the happiness that you created…it is all worth it.
Because magic is not for you.
It’s for them.
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