Saturday, October 27, 2012

Our Chief Weapon Is...

A recurring theme in the notes I took at the Genii 75th Anniversary Bash has to do with magic as a theatrical form.

Like theatre, magic is primarily a medium of storytelling and the magical moment--when the trick happens--is not so much the climax of the story, but the inevitable outcome of bringing a specific set of elements into conflict with one another.

What does that mean?

Stories take many forms, but all involve conflict and resolution.  Whether we are talking about the Joads, or Indiana Jones, or a playing card that wants nothing more than to rise to the top of the pack, the storyteller's job is to set the scene, establish the characters, introduce obstacles, raise the stakes and resolve the story.

Stories are about transformation and so is magic.  Melodrama is about the peaks and valleys of experience, but truly powerful stories affect the characters and, by extension, the audience.

While it may seem that I am advocating for Sam the Bellhop as the apotheosis of magic tricks, I am merely pointing out that which was stated explicitly, or conveyed implicitly, by the lecturers in Orlando:  witnessing raw technical skill may be engaging to technicians, but lay audiences want to invest their attention in a compelling story.  Put another way, while the patient has a vested interest in the outcome of the surgery, only other surgeons care about what instruments were used during its performance.

I find it remarkable that so many of the presenters and performers who lectured at the convention chose as their performing character one who was equally amazed as the audience that a particular trick worked.  This was less a reflection on specific technical skill as a choice of framing for the audience.  The magic was happening for them at the same time as for the audience.

Case in point was Chad Long.  From the outset, he projected a torrent of nervous energy that clearly masked a high level of technical skill.

The note I took away from his presentation reads as follows:  "Take a thing they know..., add something and it's a new thing."

That's all I wrote down.  I have been trying to work out why that stuck with me long enough to find my pen and I think finally it has to do with surprise and storytelling.

We humans are quick to recognize patterns.  It is a fundamental component of our decision-making process.  We observe and then make predictions based on those observations.  Anyone who has ever pulled out to pass a car on a two-lane road will know exactly what I am talking about.

Storytellers use this primal skill against us as a way of sustaining out investment in the outcome of their tales.  They establish the conventions of their story and then intentionally subvert or destroy those conventions.  And magicians do this all the time, for what is a "kicker" ending if not a demonstration that the assumption of the audience are mostly, if not completely, in error.

Mr. Long's notion of taking the familiar and adding new elements to create a new "thing" speaks directly to this.

Surprise, this subversion of convention, is closely tied to the magical moment.  The power of the magician comes, in part, from the ability to present the idea that whether through skill, or "strange and hypnotic powers," they can, if only in the context of their performance, live outside the conventions to which the rest of us are held hostage.  When you or I put the "ambitious" card in the middle of the deck, it stays in the middle of the deck.  But when the magician does it, there are no rules, no telling where that card will end up.

A big part of the discoveries I made at this convention was in recognizing a kind of universal coherence across the various silos of my life.

After four decades of following magic and bemoaning my complete lack of skill, or ability to perform, I find that my "safety" interests in theatre and storytelling are more closely related to magic than I had once thought.  My appreciation for a well-told joke and the associated comedy arts draws on similar skills as those used by the magician.

I wrote earlier about wanting to master The Pass as a way of connecting to the sleight of hand masters.  This is still a goal, but I now understand that technical skill without context--without a good story--is like being a comedian without timing:  you may know where the punchline is, but nobody else will.

So, I will end this installment of my report on the conference by illustrating a combination of elements that in combination create a magical moment for the audience.

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