About a month ago I came to a serious realisation. The Sydney rail network is shit. I was catching a train to Blacktown to do a job when the vehicle randomly stopped at Lidcombe. The driver told us we should get off an listen for announcements as the timetable screens were incorrect. I waited for about half an hour for information about a train to where I needed to go when there was another announcement saying that trains would be delayed for an indefinite amount of time and that we should seek other means of transportation. It took another half an hour to get in contact with a taxi company as countless other people were also calling for cabs and the telephone queue was huge. I was late to the gig and had to spend $100 on the ride. I realised I needed a car as public transport was unreliable. Within a week I bought my first second hand automobile from a guy called Leon who was migrating to Canada.
The awful day with the Cityrail delays was a blessing in disguise, a car allows me to put on a much bigger magic show. I've been building a whole range of props that I have long wanted to include in my act but have been restricted by what I could carry in a backpack or suitcase. I'm not sure if this was product of minimalism or stinginess. Transportation has long been a problem for my business, I once had to travel to Coffs Harbour to perform at their buskers festival. I caught a train from Sydney but didn't think to check how I would get from the train station to the hostel I was staying at. I arrived at about 10pm and upon realising I still had quite a distance to travel I asked the other two people who had gotten off the train with me if there were any buses going to where I needed to be. They said there wouldn't be until the next morning, however I managed to hitch a ride with them. I'm not sure if this was a result of how charismatic I am, or how pitiful.
I also am creating a box that could perhaps be used to make a small animal like a duck or rabbit appear or vanish. There is also an idea I am pondering for a translucent Chinese paper lantern in which I could make something slowly appear or vanish although I will need to study how these are made.
Obviously, in most first world countries or nations with high literacy rates, people are quite familiar with the concept that a magician is just an entertainer who creates the illusion of a magic. However, I have had a few experiences with spectators who have genuinely refused to accept that I am just a sleightly sneaky guy. These events were much less flattering than they might appear a first glance.
Many years ago, when I was busking at Circular Quay, an Indian guy approached me and wanted to buy my wand for $500. His english was quite poor, I guess he was new in Australia. I told him bluntly that this was just a piece of dowel from Bunning's Warehouse that I had cut to the size of a magic wand. He would not believe me. I showed him how I palm cards and coins and some other sleights. He still wouldn't believe me. At this point I was tempted to accept his offer. I had been honest with him, if he wanted to throw his money away on a piece of wood, that was his problem. I'm not going to say no to some free money. However, I figured, considering Circular Quay was one of the few places in the City I could regularly busk and make good money and my show is quite conspicuous, I probably shouldn't make any enemies. This guy would sooner or later realise that there was nothing magical about the wand. I refused to accept his money and he walked away seeming genuinely annoyed.
Another time, a man approached me at the end of my magic show in Sydney Darling Harbour and made some vigorous hand gestures. Apparently, he was a deaf and mute person and was trying to explain to me with sign language that he wanted me to heal him. A friend of his who was guiding him around the foreshore, probably taking him to the Aquarium or Imax Cinema, explained the situation to me. My morals are loose enough that I might sell a stick for $500, but I'm not going to let some disabled person think I'm Jesus and that I have descended from heaven to heal him. Even if I did, this lie could be very easily exposed. Again, I had his friend translate for me and explain that I just do tricks. Unlike the Indian man, he was more willing to believe me, although he was very disappointed. I felt like shit for the rest of the day.
I later had a very similar experience on Pitt street mall with a guy who seemed to be unable to speak. I'm not sure if he could hear me. He was on his own and had no translator. This man hung around for about half an hour trying to communicate something to me and he seemed quite distressed. I wondered if again, someone wanted me to miraculously cure them, but I'll never know.
A staggeringlly large number of variables, both genetic and environmental, converge to create each individual's character. The perceptions we form of each other are usually gross oversimplifications. This idea can be illustrated very clearly with a deck of playing cards. A deck of 52 playing cards can be shuffled into a great number of different sequences. There are approximately 8 times ten to the power of 67 different possible orders that a deck can have. There are only a mere 10 to the power of 20 stars in the universe. In contrast, there are approximately 20,000 genes in the human genome and like a deck of cards these get “shuffled”, each time we reproduce.1 Geneticists estimate that there may be roughly 3 to the power of 1.42 million different combinations of possible human genomes. This number dwarves the number of atoms in the universe by an unimaginably large margin. Genetics aside, there are obviously countless other environmental factors that can shape an individuals personality, a huge range of information, ideas, beliefs, practices and values that exist within each culture, the complex flexible relationships that each person has with their family, friends, community, state or entire species and what they learn from each of these groups. The question of why each person has the characteristics that they do, is totally and utterly chaotic, it is far too complicated for any mere mortal to comprehend. Our lives are chaos.
There is a card trick known as the colour changing deck. It's method is very simple, but also surprisingly deceptive. The basic principle is that the human brain overgeneralises and extrapolates limited information. The entire deck is all one colour except for several cards near the top, which are of a contrasting colour. The pack is usually shuffled with the faces towards the spectators, however the top few cards is retained in position with sleight of hand. These contrasting ones can be spread slightly to non-verbally suggest the entire deck is this colour. The effect of the colour change can be achieved in several ways. A common method is to discretely “palm” a card into one of the magician's hands and then to place it on the top in the action of apparently wiping the deck with this hand. The secret of this trick sounds very simple, but I can tell you from experience that it fools many people. This principle of overgeneralisation is exploited by magicians frequently in sleight of hand and stage illusions. I work as a professional magician and my career entirely depends on the faults in the human mind and senses. After doing this for years I am still surprised by how often people fail to see things that happen right in front of them. We frequently make these sorts of cognitive/perceptial errors when we form judgements about the people around us.
I recently had an assignment in a unit on historiography at the University of Sydney in which I was asked to "historicise myself" in 350 words, in other words, to summarise the historical circumstances that created my character. To expect someone to boil the answer to such an immense question down to several hundred words is so incredibly shallow and irrational that it is only marginally less stupid than racism.
The first thing you need to be aware of is sensory stimulation is by far the most important factor in gathering a crowd. If you set up next to something incredibly eye catching like a large screen or fountain, it will be much more difficult for you to capture people's attention. For example, at Vivid festival several years ago I found it impossible to stop people at circular quay or darling harbour as the light projections simply overwhelmed my act. Also, if there is another performance nearby with extremely loud music, this will also cause you problems. You should aim to be as spectacular as possible. Juggling acts that end with the performer riding a huge unicycle have become incredibly common because it is visible from very far away, allowing audiences of a hundred people or more to accumulate. You must also be as loud as possible, ideally with a PA system that plays background music. If do a silent show, people will only be aware of you if they happen to be looking in your direction, however if you are making sounds, everyone within hearing distance will be aware that a performance is taking place.
Many buskers will attempt to attract an audience by talking to random people walking past, inviting them to stop and watch, advertising and talking up their own show. This can be very effective especially if the performer is funny. Personally, I prefer a more passive approach. I tend to just start my act and wait for people to stop and watch. I have several tricks or routines that I use mainly for the purpose of gathering the crowd, like a trick with coins and cards or the cups and balls. I do these on the ground on a mat and do not look up at or talk to people walking by. I feel that this is less intimidating, people are less hesitant to stop and watch because they invest less when they do so. It is easier for them to walk away as the neither of us have acknowledge each others presence. I only do this for the first five minutes or so until a small group has stopped, I then introduce myself and announce that I will start my actual show. I then describe the big finale to give them a reason to stay for the whole show.
Several months ago I met a very talented busker from Hong Kong who was doing a soccer juggling act. His crowd gathering technique was simple but very effective. He would place a bag full of soccer balls four meters or so in front of him and put on some suspenseful music. The guy would just stand there with his hands in front of him like he was about to run and grab one of the balls. It created a great amount of tension, you could tell something big was about to happen. Eventually, over about 2 or 3 minutes a group of 20 or so people would stop and he would just suddenly rush over to the bag and start his incredibly complex juggling show. Sometimes less is more, seeing him perform made me question why I just start doing magic when nobody is watching yet. This has always been effective for me, but maybe I am working too hard.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org