It's All About Respect 0

In the past, I have written and spoken about the stage contestants who turn the stage into a garbage dump during their acts. Some contest acts at the combined convention seemed to take this to extremes. In the past, the need to sweep the stage before setting the next act has caused large lag times between acts. At the combined convention it was decided that the way to alleviate this problem was to tape down drop cloths before each act; the thinking, I guess, was that the drop cloths would make clean-up faster. Unfortunately, all the drop cloths did was to move the lag time from after the act to before the act. And since the drop cloths had to be taped down carefully (you can’t have a performer tripping over a loose edge), this procedure probably increased the lag time.

Let me offer some reasons why I think treating the stage like a trash can is an approach that should be discarded. 1) It shows a lack of respect for the performance area and the stage crew. 2) It shows a lack of respect for the audience. Lag times between acts drain the energy and attentiveness from an audience. Even an expert emcee is going to have problems maintaining their enthusiasm. 3) It shows a lack of respect for the other performers on the show. If, because of the mess on the stage, the show lags and audience energy drops, the next performer is going to suffer. A show should build in intensity. This can’t happen if each act has to start from square one. 4) An act that trashes the stage will have a hard time finding a home in any revue show in the real world. I have spoken to many friends who are professional stage and stand-up performers; none have told me that a booker would consider hiring an act that left the stage a mess.

I think it’s time to admit that this has gone on long enough; the solution is simple: change the rules of the contest. If an act’s props can’t be struck and the floor cleaned in sixty seconds (or whatever small, arbitrary amount of time you want to choose), there is a penalty – a penalty severe enough to affect the chances of winning a prize.

The young magicians who are in the process of developing stage contest acts look at the acts that have won for inspiration. If a winning act trashes the stage, they will do the same. Instead of perpetuating the mess, let’s force them to think outside the box and see what ingenious methods they’ll come up with to avoid the litter. If we give them the opportunity, I think they’ll surprise us.

One More Thing to Think About 0

The average layman probably experiences close-up magic fewer than six times in their entire life. (I’m referring to an in-person performance, not a performance on television.) This means that every encounter with a magician is an important one, because the spectator will base his opinion of all magicians on that one experience. This has a profound implication. When you are out in the real world, performing for people who do not have a vested interest in your performance (family, friends, magic buddies), you represent all of magic. It is as if no other magic exists, other than the manner in which you choose to represent the art. If your performance leaves a negative impression, all of us suffer, for it is unlikely that the spectator will be enthusiastic if he encounters another magician. Generally speaking, this is the current state of affairs; the public’s opinion of magic is low, and its opinion of magic’s practitioners is even lower. This saddens me.

I’ve tried to do my part to counteract this negativity, but I’m only one person. My challenge to you is to be evangelical in your desire to raise the level of magic performance. Be so good that your spectators leave with a hunger to see more magic. Express your individuality, your point of view, and your humanity through your performance. Magic is a gift; through it our spectators can see the world through fresh eyes. Offer that gift. Watch the result. The person who is most surprised may well be you.

[From Closely Guarded Secrets]

  • Michael Close

Venue and the Repetoire You Choose 0

When I began to work at the Houdini Lounge, I made the amazing discovery that almost none of the repertoire I had developed in the past twenty-five years felt right in that venue. Part of the problem had to do with the physical space. The tables were smaller, and most of them were circular. This eliminated The Card, the Forehead, and the Saltshaker. The lounge has a dignified, elegant feel to it. The chairs are overstuffed and are deep red. The walls have dark wood. The Illusions restaurant, on the other hand, was lighter, more open, and more playful. Because there was magic going on throughout the restaurant, lightheartedness (and even downright silliness) was tolerated without judgment.

A trick like The Frog Prince, with its whimsical nature, seemed wrong for the more serious vibe of the Houdini Lounge. Even the Unbelievably Useful Comedy Prop felt out of place. Lighting was also a factor. The lounge was quite dim, making it difficult to appreciate tricks like Dr. Strangetrick. After a week or two, I realized that I had to create an entirely new repertoire to fit the clientele and the room.

This leads me to the first important point, which is: Venue will dictate repertoire. Actually there is more to it than that. If your goal is to make your performance feel real, to make your show grow out of the environment, then venue will absolutely dictate repertoire. If you simply take the tricks you know and perform them without considering the venue, then you will just look like a guy doing tricks. That’s what I felt like when I tried to paste my old repertoire into my new venue. I felt like a guy doing tricks, and I hated it.

Anyone who spends enough time practicing and studying conjuring will reach a point at which they can fool the hell out of anybody. The question then is: Why am I doing this? Deception is at the heart of conjuring, but there should be a reason for the deception beyond ego gratification for the magician. Ego gratification is the reason most people get into magic in the first place. The magician’s need for ego gratification is also the main reason why a lot of laymen hate magic. “I know how it’s done, you don’t. I’m smart; you’re stupid.” (To paraphrase an old Jerry Seinfeld routine.)

I haven’t got this all figured out yet, but what interests me right now is putting people in a position in which their hearts and their heads are in conflict. Their heads say, “What I just saw can’t be real.” Their hearts say, “But it felt absolutely real.” Somewhere at the core of this dilemma lies the great puzzle of human existence. What is real? What isn’t real? How can there be any reality at all when each of us sees the world in a different way? This is the message I wanted to impart, but the only way I can even begin to achieve it is not to look like a guy who is doing tricks. The only way to make that happen is to let the show grow out of the environment.

The only way to do that is to study the venue and to understand the conditions it imposes. If you go back and reread the first three routines (The Trick Lance Burton Showed Me, The Magnetized Cards, The Luckiest Cards in Las Vegas), you’ll see how they evolve out of the environment of an elegant lounge in the middle of a busy casino. The prop is one of the most common objects in that environment – a deck of cards. The presentations are situational; they come from the experience of working in a casino and living in Las Vegas. If I do my job well, I draw the audience in before any magic happens at all. I hook them with the story; I bring them into my life; and before they realize it, they are seeing something that is unexplainable. And it feels completely real.

[From Closely Guarded Secrets]

  • Michael Close

Making it Feel Real 0

In Workers 1, I discussed my philosophy of magic. I want to perform magic that leaves the audience with no explanation and is entertaining in the process. At this stage in my life, I don’t need to show off; I don’t need the ego gratification of someone telling me how skillful I am. Instead, I want to be a conduit that allows my audiences the opportunity to feel the thrill of astonishment, and to use that experience to reawaken the memory that that the world is an astonishing place, full of mysteries that will never be solved.

In order to accomplish this, I must construct my routines so there is not a single moment that feels false, contrived, or unnatural. The entire experience has to feel real. I’m not saying that I want people to believe that I have supernatural powers. In fact, most of my routines are structured in a way that minimizes my involvement. The magic just seems to happen. This was the great lesson I learned from Harry Riser. Many were the occasions when he would finish a trick and I would say to him, “But you didn’t do anything.” This is what I want my spectators to say.

Making a routine feel real is not easy. It requires skillful, underplayed acting. It means that I must be fearless enough to allow my personality to come out so my audience thinks of me as a person first and a magician second. It also requires that my routines are seamless: every action is motivated by the situation rather than the method. Incidentally, there is an easy way to see what actions of a trick are motivated by method. When studying a new trick, videotape yourself performing the trick as if you had the powers of a real magician. That is, perform the trick, but don’t do any moves. Simply handle the props as you would if the magic were real. Obviously, the trick won’t work, but you will have an ideal model of the trick. Now videotape yourself performing the trick using the moves that the method requires. Any discrepancies between the ideal model and the actual trick are places that have to be fixed if you want the trick to feel real.

I’ve written this before, but I’ll repeat it now. For my audience, no logical explanation should seem possible, and no rationalized explanation should satisfy. The repertoire in the Workers series and the routines you are about to read fit these stringent criteria.

[From Closely Guarded Secrets]

  • Michael Close

Evolution: Old Repertoire - New Environment 0

The other problem in adapting my old repertoire to my new environment had nothing to do with the venue and everything to do with me. The problem was evolution. The Pothole Trick is a prime example of this. When I developed the trick I lived in Indiana, and in Indiana potholes in the roads are a part of life. Talking about potholes and figuring out a way to get rid of them (although symbolically through magic) felt real and natural to me. Then I moved to Las Vegas, where there are no potholes. All of a sudden, the trick felt false; the words, which had felt so natural back in Indiana, now felt like someone else’s patter. I have tried for six years to come up with a presentation that feels as real as the old one did, but to no avail. So, I don’t perform the Pothole Trick. (Note from 2014: Since moving to Canada, potholes are again a part of everyday life, and I can do this again.)

For several years I have suggested to magicians that the effects they perform and the manner in which they perform them be an expression of their lives and not a substitute for them. Whatever the artistic medium – jazz piano, oil painting, stand-up comedy, or close-up magic – the audience should gain insight into the artist, his life, and his worldview. Most magicians hide behind their tricks. They offer no opinion, no point of view. We learn nothing of the magician as a human being, because he reveals nothing. The magician serves up tricks – someone else’s tricks – and blindly parrots someone else’s patter, smugly secure in the erroneous belief that it is enough to simply offer puzzles. This is why intelligent (and even not so intelligent) laymen dismiss our efforts as being suitable only for children. The magic is being presented at the most superficial level. Because our performances are trick driven rather than personality driven, we are interchangeable. We are the removable heads on top of the cheesy tuxedos. As magicians we are all alike because we never make the effort to reveal our humanity, to use our effects to express our individuality, and to allow our spectators to leave our performances feeling like they got to know a real person.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this ebook, in my capacity as a product reviewer I have watched most of the contemporary close-up and stand-up magicians. Only a tiny percentage allows their personalities to transcend their tricks. Fewer still are the performers who actually offer a point of view, who offer real intellectual content.

The finest example of personality driven magic is the show of Penn & Teller. This show has evolved into the most intelligent magic show in the history of conjuring. Each performer exhibits a distinct personality. Occasionally these personalities are in conflict, and the conflict adds real drama (something not often found in a magic show) to the performance. The show not only offers a unique worldview, it offers intelligent information. The audience leaves the theater with more to think about than “How did they do that?”

In order to evolve, you must have established a starting point, and this means developing presentations that express who you are at this moment in time. My guess is that most of you have never tried this; you’ve always hidden behind someone else’s presentations. Letting go of this shield is a scary proposition, but the rewards are great. If you have already taken this path, then be sure to pay attention to what you are saying when you perform, and be sure that these presentations reflect who you are now. Thoughtlessly spouting words strips the humanity from a performance; we want our spectators to remember us as a genuinely interesting human being.

[From Closely Guarded Secrets]

  • Michael Close

Self-working Tricks: What’s the Price? 0

As magicians, our main tool for deceiving our audience is offering false or misleading information. Spectators observe events as they unfold, and from what they observe they draw conclusions as to the outcome of those events. But because they have been given false information, their conclusions are faulty, and the outcome is unexpected and surprising (perhaps even magical).

Sleight of hand provides us with an effective way to offer false information. I wrote in Workers 5 that there are three types of sleights: sleights that simulate real activities (such as false shuffles and false deals); sleights in which the secret action is concealed within an overt action (the double lift, culling, the Elmsley count); and sleights that contain no concealing mechanism of their own, and must be performed without the spectators’ knowledge (the pass, the top change, palming). In each of these cases, there is a discrepancy between what the spectators observe happening and what is actually happening: a deck is being shuffled, a card is being turned over, or (in the case of a well-executed palm) nothing is happening at all. When the spectators attempt to reconstruct the series of events in order to figure out how the trick works, they are stymied because they are basing their reconstruction on bad data. They do not have all the facts.

Using a gaffed object such as shell coin or a double-faced card produces the same result – the spectators misinterpret what they are seeing.

But what happens when we do a trick that does not involve sleight of hand or gaffed objects, for example a self-working card trick? In this case the information the spectators are being given is uncorrupted (although some information, such as a set-up, may be withheld). And this means that a clever spectator might be able to reconstruct the workings of a semi-automatic trick.

One great way to derail the reconstruction process is to toss in some low-level sleight of hand. For example, in Stewart James’s classic Miraskill, we add in (usually through palming) four extra cards before the start of the second phase. In Paul Curry’s Out of This World, we false shuffle the deck as we deliver our opening patter. But if we don’t use sleight of hand or gaffs, then we must distort our spectators’ memories another way, using words and gestures.

In self-working magic what we say is of vital importance. If we choose our words carefully, we can make it much more difficult for an astute spectator to reconstruct our tricks. The Guatemalan Miracle makes use of this approach.

[Excerpt From The Guatemalan Miracle]

  • Michael Close