Friday, July 1, 2011

Is It So Wrong?

I used to do tricks.

No, not like that.

I used to pester my parents, and anyone else I could force to sit still long enough, to watch me murder an idea that some very talented people had worked on and brought to market.

I pretended to do card tricks and tricks with coins. I had canes that disappeared and one that came back. I had a floating ball and a storybook about a magician who could make a rabbit appear from his hat depending on how I held it.

But I wasn't a magician. I was the person that magicians love to hate. They love people like me because we buy their tricks, but they also hate us because we can never do their stuff justice. We rush through the instructions in order to figure out how the trick works and then we try and "perform" our latest miracle to a less than enthusiastic audience.

Like so many of my peers who discovered magic when "normal" boys were discovering girls, I would go to the magic shop and fall in love with whatever the demonstrator showed me and think that when I showed it to my family that I was every bit as good.

So deluded was I in my pretense of being a magician that I did birthday party shows for children in my neighborhood for the princely sum of $5.00.

Today, at the other end of the telescope, I think I owe those parents their money back, with interest.

I had no business getting in front of an audience. Any audience.

The father of modern magic, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin said that "a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician." When I first read that, I took it as equivalent to the kind of koan uttered by Master Po on the Kung Fu TV series. A magician is an actor? The two were nothing alike. I knew from being in plays in elementary school that actors have to learn lines and pretend to be someone they're not. Magicians know things that others don't. They know secrets and that makes them eminently cool. It also didn't hurt that while I was deepest into magic during these years that there was a TV show about a magician who travelled the country in a private plane and a white Corvette helping the helpless and righting wrongs with his powers.

Magic could be cool; much cooler than being in drama club.

In one of my many courses in a master class of life's ironies, it would turn out that I would spent almost 20 years working in and around the theatre. 

I did what I could to integrate my interest in magic with my surroundings by gravitating to the world of stagecraft.  Instead of being the jet-setting, wrong-righting Anthony Blake, I became the person who stood in the shadows and handed Mr. Blake his equipment. 

I consoled myself by saying that I was in the business of creating the illusion of the world of the play.  (That I can write a sentence like that will let you know just how much of a theatre geek I was.)

"A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician."

Why would you get an actor to play the part of a magician when you could just get a magician?

Like most beginners, I got into magic with equipment that did the tricks for you.  Instead of investing the time in learning the difficult manipulations that, in combination, can create the most devastating of effects, I invested my money in tricks that did themselves.  I bought hook, line and sinker into Marshall Brodien's mantra that "magic is easy once you know the secret."

I can remember being so pleased to have my first deck of his TV Magic Cards.  They promised to impress with the greatest of ease.  When I got them, I was impressed with the secret, but also afraid that the secret was so obvious that I would get caught if I tried to perform with them.  All it would have taken is for one of my patient family member to reach over and snatch the deck from me and I would be discovered to be a fake.

As this fear was imbedding itself in my consciousness, I was also reading about the history of magic.  I recall reading about the fakirs of India and their reputation for supernatural powers.  While we can quickly see from an Internet search that the name of fakir covers a variety of ascetics in South Asia and the Middle East, at the time, my young mind connected my fear of being caught as a "fake" with the formal term "fakir", or as I read it at the time "FAKER."  I want to amaze in the same way that the demonstrater in the magic shop had amazed me, not be a faker.

This drove a kind of magic arms race where I kept looking for effects that would be bulletproof.  They would work everytime and be invulnerable to my "handsy" relatives.

A reasonable person might conclude that, given some time and experience, I would be able to overcome my fears and acquire the technical skill needed to keep my critics at bay.  Perhaps, if I had been more disciplined/driven in my study, I would have done just that, but I rushed into doing birthday parties and to performing magic at family gatherings.

Comedians have a term to describe a challenging audience, one where they were not able to meet the crowd where they were and when the jokes aren't working.  They call those shows "tough rooms."  Working for my two primary audiences was a relentless onslaught of such rooms.  Both crowds, my extended family and parties with 6 year-olds, had a stake in demonstrating that they knew as much as, or more than, I did.  Through my combination of fear and lack of experience, I virtually surrendered control of my show before the first trick.  Audiences for magic and audiences for other blood sports are looking for the slightest sign of weakness and, once spotted, will be relentless in exploiting it.

Unlike the birthday party audience, my relatives saw the magic trick as not an end in themselves--they were not waiting for me to produce candy at the end of the show--they saw my performance as an opportunity to engage in their favorite after dinner game which was to see who could make the funniest critical remark.  That they seemed to really enjoy that aspect of my show made me very conflicted about performing for them.  On the one hand they could be brutal in their criticism, but on the other they really did seem to be having a good time, so I was entertaining, if inartful with my magic.  A reasonable person would escape that experience once and never go back, I, on the other hand, suffering from a kind of magical Stockholm Syndrome, went back time and time again. 

I did find the strength to stop dong kids' parties.  I was forced to admit that my interests in magic were not those needed to be a successful kids performer.  Like many would-be magicians, I was fascinated by card tricks and, you know, kids really aren't.  I was intrigued by the technology of magic and kids want a good story.  Without the story, it's just another adult trying to fool them with what are, in essence, some pretty cheesy props.

And it was at this precise point, that I began to understand what Robert-Houdin meant.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a good start to your month long quest. Would like to have seen some pictures of the young performer or Mr. Broudien or Mr. Weiss' inspiration. Just a thought of something to add to future writings.

    Did enjoy the video of 'The Magician'.

    All in all an interesting post about the passion and study many share. Keep up the good work.