There is a theory often discussed by magicians called the "too perfect theory". This concept was first popularised by RIck Johnsson in the magazine Hierophant in 1970. The basic idea is that a trick might be so good that it makes audience members feel inadequate as human beings and therefore they will be unwilling to accept being fooled by the magician. As a result of this, they will settle on an explanation, either correct or incorrect, regardless of how absurd. This is obviously something that happens much more often with children than adults. For example, I do a trick where a coin seems to fall upwards from one hand into another, apparently defying gravity. Very often, I'll have kids say that I have magnet under my skin, which is perhaps not impossible, but would have required much more effort and dedication than I am willing to put into any of my tricks. Another example was when I was working at a restaurant once, I guy insisted that I had marked his card by bending it. There was a slightly bent card in the pack, it wasn't his and it hadn't been bent by me, but despite me explaining this, he refused to believe me.
From my personal experiences of performing I've found the 'too perfect' theory to be silly. Certainly, I will occasionally get spectators who will refuse to admit that they have been deceived but this tends not to have much to do with the quality of the tricks I'm doing, but rather the character or mood of the spectator.
Just imagine if I took your hand and then you could visibly see me fade away like a ghost, right in front of you, while you touch me. Obviously the trick I just described is currently not possible, but imagine if it were. How would you react? Would you just be jealous of me? Or would you be blown away because you've just witnessed the most incredible magic trick anybody has ever seen.
As magicians, I believe it is obviously our job to do our best to give our spectators a good time. To do this it is of course very important that we fool them. However, we must acknowledge that usually, being deceived, is a negative shameful thing and that our spectators are right to have their guard up. We have knowledge and expertise that our audiences lack and this gives us power, power we must be careful not to abuse. For our spectators to enjoy our performance you need them to submit to being fooled, and for this to occur they must trust you and feel that you have their best interests at heart. There are a number of ways you can achieve this. The most obvious one is to play a clown. Performers like Lennart Green, Dani Daortiz and Juan Tamariz deliberately act sloppy and clumsy to put their audiences at ease, showing them that the performer is not superior to them, whilst still deceiving them very badly. Another way is to have the spectators perform the tricks themselves, for example, there are many self working tricks that only require the performer to describe a series of actions to the participant. They will be amazed but can only give themselves credit. A final means, if you are too dignified for clownery, or it just doesn't suite your style, simply be honest and open about the fact that magicians usually guard an empty safe.
On the other hand, you don't want your audience to just let you fool them. If they are just being nice to you, they are not fully enjoying the experience, they will only pretend to for the sake of not hurting your feelings. You must therefore find a careful balance, you must challenge them to try to catch you without appearing conceited. If they do not believe that they have eliminated every possible explanation for the illusions they have witnessed, then their experience will be diminished, they will not feel astonishment. Magicians must anticipate how their audiences will attempt to explain what they have seen. Sometimes we can just make an educated guess, but sometimes you can only find out from experience. You simply need to perform magic and then ask people how they thought you did it. We need to be careful of fooling ourselves, like the countless vaudeville sleight of hand artists who thought that their hand washing and direct hand aquitments were deceptive. If your spectators think you forced a card, you need to find a better force. If they think you ditched a coin in your sleeve, you need to pull back your sleeves. If they think you deck as stacked and therefore want to shuffle it, you need to let them (even if it is stacked).
I hope you can find some useful advice in this rambling blog post.
Just last week I got a new job regularly performing at Archie Brothers Cirque Electric in Alexandria, right next to Skyzone. They have a bowling alley, a video game arcade and a bar. You can buy amazing alcoholic milkshakes. They have this exhilarating/nauseating virtual reality roller coaster and werewolf shooter game. My bosses Tom and Tyler also seem cool. I'm excited to start working here.
I just finished doing my tax return and was surprised how quick and painless it was, probably because my accounts have been much better organized than they used to be. In this process, I found out that I did 92 gigs in the last financial year. It made me look back on the last couple of years of performing and I realized how dramatically my level of organization and business skills have improved. 2 years ago I never collected deposits for my shows and customers would often flake at the last minute. I didn't own a smart phone and to check if I had time available for a booking I would always have to wait till I got home to check my calendar. I once turned up a week late to a booking. When I arrived at the venue I called the customer to ask where everybody was and they just told me they were just about to leave a horrible review on my google profile because I never showed up for their party. I guess they took pity on me, they never ended up leaving this criticism. I would also always find my way around Sydney by printing maps from my home computer or asking random people for directions. I remember once I had a job at a wedding near Mosman. I had to start at 8pm, and I caught a bus there. I didn't even have a map with me, I just knew roughly the area the gig was in. When the bus driver dropped me off, I asked him for directions and he told me the quickest way was to take a short cut through a forest, and this was what I did. It was about a 15 minute walk through a pitch black section of nature reserve. When I emerged staggering from this jungle I was covered in cobs webs and my shoes were really muddy. Eventually I bought a Samsung Galaxy so I can constantly have a calendar and my customers contact details with me. I also didn't have any vehicle to get around, so I would just catch public transport everywhere and walk, even though my gigs were all over Sydney. I once had to travel from Hornsby all the way to the Sutherland shire between two gigs. I bought a cheap second hand bicycle to make my life easier. I bought a lock for it, but it got rusty from the rain and after a while it was impossible to open, so I cut through the cable with some bolt cutters. After this I just never bothered chaining the bike up because I thought it was too terrible for anyone to bother stealing. The seat wasn't adjustable and it would rattle around for some mysterious reason, the brakes were also extremely worn down. I rode this bicycle around almost every day for at least 6 months without every locking it up. Eventually some people stole it from outside of a pub near Sydney Uni where I was drinking with some friends. I guess some drunk Uni students just decided to ride it around for a laugh. Three weeks later, I found the bike chained to a fence post in front of a terrace house in Redfern. I knocked on the door of the house andtold the woman who answered the door, that they had my bike. She told me that she had just found it ditched in the middle of a park. This clearly was not where I had left it, so I imagine she was not the initial person who had taken the bike and perhaps it had traded hands several times since I had left it. She was happy to let me take it again as it was taking up space on her front porch. About a year and a half ago I bought a decent motorbike, lock and insurance and it has made my life so much easier.
I swear I didn't have any of these problems because I was impoverished, I was purely just an incompetent stingy human being. My family is upper middle class.
In this article I will share some of my thoughts and opinions on how a magic act should be presented. For many years my act was just faff, random tricks that had little to do with each other. I would make lots of coins appear, then put a phone in a balloon or cut and restore some rope etc.
For a while, this scared me away from thinking about my presentation as I'm a simple guy. When I try to be profound, there is a great risk of it sounding cheesy. My opinion is that we should leave philosophy to philosophers, art to artists and storytelling to script or novel writers. A magic show should be about magic. I believe my job is just to entertain people, or brighten their day a little, not to tell them the meaning of life or provide nuanced analysis of the human condition. If you try to include too many different fields of expertise in your performance you risk diluting your efforts too much, ending up with a chaotic act with too many elements that are unrefined. You can either do one thing very well, or many things in an average way. For this reason, for many years I just aimed for my act to just be as deceptive and magical as I could, or as impossible as possible. This can sometimes be very effective, if your magic is strong.
Having said all that, there still needs to be something that ties the whole performance together to prevent your show from just being a bunch of random meaningless tricks. Recently I've been trying to structure routines around a simple concept, theme, plot or message, like my routines about being sick, cleaning up garbage or planting a pot plant. I've seen this approach work very effectively in an number of acts. The fact that Hector Mancha is not wearing any shoes and looks a bit scruffy suggests to me the he is supposed to be a tramp or homeless person who has just discovered a miraculous solution to his desperate situation. His act would probably be great even without this little story, but I feel it definitely adds something very important.
Another good example is an act that won FISM in the late 1990s that was built around a story set in the 19th century about a pretentious gentleman who was having his shoes shined. He was very rude to the shiner boy, who used magic to take revenge by magic knives appear and then passing them through the snob's head. It was an uncomplicated story, but a very entertaining performance. Unfortunately I can't find footage of it on Youtube.
In short, I think magical presentation doesn't need to be complicated, but you do need a central concept or story to structure your act around.
Believe it or not, this random person was never a hired audience plant or 'stooge' and they were genuinely chosen at random. However, when they claimed they could not see the secret, this was a lie. As the audience member walked up the stairs to the stage, the magician would whisper in their ear, “please don't tell the crowd the secret and please don't touch the wires”. The lady was suspended with an array of 50 very fine wires and a special mechanical device which allowed the hoop to apparently pass around her body. From a distance and behind the dazzling footlights of the stage, the wires were invisible. However, close up, they could be seen.
At the time, magicians who new the secret of this levitation were outraged by Thurston exposing the trick to a layperson, especially Howard's old friend and mentor Harry Kellar, who had given him the secret of the levitation. However, this was a compromise, by covertly revealing the secret to one person, the whole trick was much stronger and impressive for the rest of his audience. Bizarrely, even though Thurston performed the trick multiple times a day, most days of the week, for more almost a quarter of a century, there are no known examples of any audience member refusing to play along with the magician's request not to reveal the secret.
Surely, there must have been at least a couple of people who had this experience who found the magician's claim to be the “World's Greatest”, pretentious, and therefore wanted to hurt him. Among these audience members must have been a great variety of people with different personalities, some jerks, some kindhearted. Thurston made himself very vulnerable and gave these spectators a huge amount of power, they could have easily embarrassed him, right at the climax of the show. You might expect that after the huge number of performances that there would have been at least one newspaper article titled something along the lines of, “America's Greatest Magician humiliated during his Grand Finale”. Such a juicy headline would have been too irresistible for any Journalist to ignore. In fact, Thurston was not taking a huge gamble, there was absolutely no risk. When he showed the audience member the wires, he was not merely exposing the secret of an illusion, but also his humanity. The magician was non-verbally communicating the idea that, “I think of you as an equal. If you don't believe me, go ahead and destroy my reputation. I need your help in order to create something incredible”. The inconvenient truth that all magicians (including myself a Sydney Magician) must face is that the secrets behind our performances are almost always much less impressive than the illusions they create and are often very simple to understand. Mostly we are just guarding an empty safe. This is not to say that magicians don't work hard or spend a great amount of time studying and practicing their performances, rather that this skill is not a very profound rare talent beyond the reaches of mere mortals. For audiences to enjoy a magic show they must voluntarily give the magician power. If an audience member does not like the performer and has decided that they cannot be fooled by the magician's tricks, then they may be much harder to deceive, but even if the person is, there is little chance they will enjoy the experience. For people to enjoy a magic act, the magician must not let them think he (or her) believes he is superior to them. Under the veil of being the “Greatest Magician”, Thurston just an ordinary man who wanted to make his audiences happy. The exaggerated claims in his advertising were simply a means to this end. Surely if someone believed they were seeing the “World's Best Magic Show”, they would enjoy it much more than they would otherwise. Perhaps the magician's advertising seems quite narcissistic and socio-pathic but such behaviour was a necessary moral compromise in the highly competitive and anarchistic live entertainment industry, with literally all acts using such tactics. His fame undeniably allowed him to entertain enormous numbers of people. While he was incredibly famous for many decades, when Thurston eventually passed away, he was not a wealthy man because he made numerous unfortunate investments. His exposure of the levitation illusion, combined with the fact that literally everybody played along with his ruse, demonstrates that voluntarily giving other people great power over you is a formidable force for generating trust. It is a means of creating mutually beneficial relationships with an equal balance of power. It is also just as effective for restoring broken relationships. On the other hand, this is only true if power is given from a position of authority, otherwise, power cannot be voluntarily given up, as it was never possessed in the first place. Someone may be powerless and genuinely desire to help the people around them, it will simply be difficult for them to persuade others of this fact. For this reason, the powerless are very entitled to be selfish, nobody should settle for being treated as less than innately equal to the human beings around them and everyone deserves to love themselves. It is also important to remember that in this situation, you are not just acting egotistical for your own benefit, but for the gain of the people around you.
Deep down, we all want to work together for our mutual benefit. Some people just have more trouble trusting the people around them, perhaps because they are used to being exploited and misunderstood and they therefore interpret kindness as weakness. Thurston understood this fact and therefore went to great lengths to demonstrate the sincerity of his generosity and the fact that he was not giving from a position of superiority although he was certainly a powerful individual. How much power someone possesses tells us nothing about their innate worth as a human being. If we can trust those around us, generosity undeniably makes us all stronger than we could be individually.
Julian is a magician in Sydney helping you make the most of your special events. He has performed many hundreds of magic shows over the last 11 years. Call him on 0437896344 or email email@example.com