What it’s Like to Work in Magic
It’s been a good 7 years or so since I first started working with Magicians. When I tell people, I almost always get asked the generally bewildered, “wow…what’s that like?”
It's pretty damn special, I'd say but it's a much harder than any artistic medium I've ever worked with.
That's a sweeping generalization, I agree. I can’t help but point out Magic as an outlier in the performing arts, I realize I am heavily biased because I’m spending a disproportionate amount of time with Magicians with aside from designers and filmmakers. In my observations over the years and being the quiet spectator at many heated “definition of Magic” debates, the similarities and differences are starting to surface more distinctly about why working in the field of Magic is so different from other performing arts.
Here’s my small attempt articulating what's a stake when working in Magic by observing the motivations of a Magician and their metaphoric cousin, a Comedian in effort to illuminate the obstacles at hand and what is gained when performing in a spectacular, yet equally unforgiving discipline.
The Intention to Perform
I heard a comic once say that a good Comedian exposes the truth in clever ways. This is a great reinforcement of a general evolutionary psychology theory that laughing is how Bonobos ⎯ one of our closest animal relatives ⎯ respond to the stimulus of learning something. Sure, those are monkeys and we’re the evolutionary marvel of the Earth’s history ⎯ how dare you claim we still act our primitive ancestors! Well, it’s because we kind of do. It’s the reason Seinfeld is the most successful and longest running comedy shows ever. The premise is 4 friends just going through their everyday life in New York City and the punchlines are these self-aware moments of insanity about the nuances of everyday interaction. It’s a show about nothing, yet it exposes the truth that underlies our day-to-day that we overlook. When we recognize this truth, we laugh; the more the truth resonates, the harder we laugh – the more we learn about ourselves.
Ever see a bad comic? A kind of innate rejection occurs that often manifests as a biological response, like gut twist of empathetic anxiety or an eye roll, maybe a squirm of visceral shame. When Comedy sucks, it’s painful, much like when you’re sitting through a disingenuous moment but when Comedy is good, the high from a good laugh is delightful and addictive.
A Magician practices exposing the truth and then bends that truth right in front of you. When experiencing magic the Magician leaves the audience with a choice: do you accept the limitations of your reality or will you, for a moment, believe mine?
To fool people in a way that they’ll enjoy it is a bold way to live. To not be the ‘Asshole Magician’, as Derren Brown says, you have to fool them in a way that doesn’t feel deceitful or malicious but wonderful, which makes it even harder. To make matters worse, not only are you bending reality for the audience, you have to be confident enough to believe that what you’ll show them is presumably better. Basically, you’ve got to be quite the cheeky, charming son-of-a-bitch that people won’t hate.
This is why when you see bad magic it momentarily destroys your soul of joy and wonder and it leaves you empty, betrayed and annoyed. It takes a lot out of people to be open enough to trust a Magician to deceive them in a way that will be worth it. A bad effect will not only extinguish the audiences’ trust, they will carry the impression that anyone who shows them a variation of that same effect will also be terrible. A Comedian may have a bad night and ruin a delivery of a joke but jokes can be reshaped, recycled and recontexualized. A Magician shows a terrible trick, that trick is now a symbolic experience for the audience because the significance is placed in the subjects they manipulate, whether it be objects or even people. The next time that same audience encounters that same trick in a different presentation, there’s a good chance the bad taste of that memory will rear itself. This memory flavors the experience, the skepticism brews in their mind and it’s the responsibility of the Magician to make sure that this effect will turn the ever-present skeptics into believers, even for a second. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
That moment is what we do it for. It’s what all of those hours of obsessing over details, practice and mania over ‘perception’ in all its forms amount to. And when it really works, the practitioner will even surprise themselves.
Let’s not forget that Magicians, sadly, are not super humans with extraterrestrial abilities; if they were, this whole thing would be a lot easier to do. It’s the fact that these skills even appear to be otherworldly in quality and at the end of all of it you realize, they’re just a person like anyone else but with very, very niche interests. As humans, we have very serious flaws in perception and cognition and we all are naturally prone to them, this is why things like misdirection and optical illusions are so powerful when done right. To create a moment of “magic” is to use these cognitive processing limitations to our advantage to create something seemingly impossible. A Magician, in spite of these cognitive limitations, must successfully manipulate the perception of their audience to see something different, knowing they won’t be able to perceive their method ⎯ this a little more than an act of confidence. It takes a very specific kind of person to be sure enough about their ability to defy the crowd’s perception and impress a new reality upon them when they themselves have the same limitations.
Underlying all the theory, technique, charm and the inevitable pretentiousness, we’re all a bunch of monkeys gathered around each other watching another monkey show us how to open a coconut with a rock. We laugh, scream and run away and back again as we realize that we’ve all played with rocks before but not like this. This is new and astonishing and now we’ll never look a rock the same way again. Maybe, we learned something about ourselves or how the world isn’t always as it seems.