Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Wisdom of Solomon

I took up the challenge of blogging about conjuring, in part, because I was challeged by a friend to write about something that I had a passion for.  Over the course of almost 25 years, he has listened to me whine about doing work that is unrewarding, working for people that I don't respect and generally about my avoiding taking responsibility for my own life.  In that time he has advised, bullied and challenged me to get off the bench and get in the game.  For most of that time, I have been able to resist him, but, when he challenged me to write about magic, I really didn't have a good reason to not do it.

Magic is easy to write about because I find it endlessly fascinating.

I worked for a number of years in live entertainment production and, during that time, I came to appreciate the dialogue between performer and audience.  In most performance forms, the audience comes to the show expecting to be entertained and more than ready to accept the given circumstances of the production.  Audiences at school pagaents are just as enthusiastic as those who attend a Broadway musical.  It's not a matter of art or skill or production values, but an implied contract between the performers and the audience:  each invests their time and attention and imagination to share an idea.

I should stop here, before this begins to sound like the intro to a show tune. 

Let me illustrate my point in another way.  Years ago, I was getting ready to direct a play about a comedian and, in order to do the show justice, I set out to learn a thing or two about stand-up comedy.  I took a class that promised to teach me the "secrets of comedy" and that by the time it was over I would have 5 minutes of audience-tested original comedy.  Our "final" was held at an open mic night in downtown Sacramento. 

I have written elsewhere about the experience, but the important take-away for this piece is that, on that night, I had a practical lesson about audiences.  Suffice it to say, my material, while original, was not really comedy, but the audience was cordial and polite and found opportunities to laugh even when I had no idea I had written a joke. 

At one point in my "set" I managed to lose my place.  In the language of the theatre, I "went up" and, for what had to be about the longest 30 seconds of my life, I stammered and I floundered around trying to remember the next "joke."  What was truly remarkable was that the audience made up primarily of other comics, who were waiting for their own chances to try out new material, stayed with me and waited until I found my way out.  I'm not saying I "killed" or even that I was any good at all, but the audience wanted me to be successful.  They had come expecting to laugh and they found the funny.

In general terms, the same is true for a play, or a dance recital, or a concert.

When it comes to magic however there might be some who come expecting to be amazed, but there is also a healthy percentage of skeptics in every audience.  The contract between the magician and their audience is different than between the actor and their audience.  The magician promises to lie to the audience, to accomplish by trickery, that which is impossible and, furthermore, he challenges the audience to discover his secrets.

Talk about a hostile work environment.

Perhaps it was because my first experiences doing magic were in front of my family and relatives followed by working children's birthday parties, but this notion of a confrontational dynamic between audience and performer made sense to me.  I recall thinking that, presuming I could get them to sit still long enough and pay attention, if I could fool my cousins then I could fool anyone.

Turned out to be not so easy, but it was a compelling idea.

I stopped performing and turned by attention to working in the theatre.  I thought there were many analogs between the work I was doing in production and that done by the designers of illusions.  By controlling what they saw and heard, we were cueing the audience to accept a version of reality where, within the context of the performance, anything was possible.  It was a kind of an illusion and, at any rate, even if it wasn't, it was enough to get me out of bed every morning and into work.

Another aspect that has sustained my interest in magic has been the technology itself.

I was a big fan of the George Peppard show "Banacek."  The character was an insurance investigator who got called into recover items which had been stolen under seemingly impossible circumstances.  These were really locked room mysteries where the only explanation for the robberies seemed to be some sort of sorcery, but before he walked off into the sunset with the hot girl of the week, he would reveal the far-too-elaborate explanation.  In one case, the crime involved the theft of a flat car from a moving train and, in another, a horse apparently disappeared while running a race:  puzzles that seemed to defy logical explanation.

To highlight the complexity of the problem, Banacek would always have a rival investigator who would act as the audience proxy and either develop a completely improbable explanation, or else talk about how the item seemed to just disappear like magic.

When the correct solution was revealed it invariably was some iteration of Occam's Razor: the simplest answer was usually the correct one.

Now there may be some who take issue with this characterization of Banacek, but like most shows, some episodes were stronger than others.  The solutions of the stolen flat car episode and the stolen prototype jet engine episode strain the definition of simple, but the thefts are based on assumptions that turn out not to be accurate.

The same is true about most magic tricks:  systems with too many moving parts tend to be more unreliable.  For a performer doing multiple shows a day and touring six days out of seven an effect that works on a straightforward method is a better and more profitable choice.

I can remember reading a description for a trick called the Zig Zag Deck.

The idea of the effect captured my imagination and, like Banacek's rivals, I came up with a number of overly complicated possible solutions.  Eventually, I had to order it just to find out how it worked.  Turns out, it works just exactly how it has to in order to do what you see in the video.  Through the skill of the performer--and in my case the writer of the catalog description--the audience is led to a number of false assumptions that suggest very complicated mechanical solutions and none of them are accurate.

Big or small, illusion or packet trick, this is how magic works. 

In 1919, Houdini made an elephant disappear on the stage of New York's Hippodrome.  When asked about the trick, Houdini is reported to have said that it was so simple even the elephant doesn't know how it's done.

To this day, I am impressed everytime I learn the secret of a new trick by how simple the technology behind it is.  For those who are skeptical audience members obsessed with figuring out how a trick is done, I can't imagine how they would feel if they knew they were being fooled by a piece of black thread or a simple magnet.

At our most recent lunch, I was describing to Barry a current topic in magic circles concerning the psychology that makes magic work.  In the last couple of years there has been some work published by psychologists about why tricks work, but there seems to be comparatively little in the magical literature about it.

At one point in my monologue on trying to figure out how what has to be a pretty sophisticated understanding of how audiences can be lead to accept what ever a magician wants, is passed down through the craft from one generation to the next, I recognized that I was sounding a little obsessional.  Barry, in his usual Solomonic fashion, immediately and accurately described what it was that I was doing hanging around magic all these years.

He simply said, "You're Salieri," and I knew immediately the moment in "Amadeus" to which he was referring.  It is a scene it which court composer Salieri understands the elegance of Mozart's compositions and also recognizes that he will never be able to write anything comparable.

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