Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Genii Bash - Episode IV: A New Hope

The next lecturer at Genii's 75th Anniversary Birthday Bash was Charlie Frye.

As was the case with Mr. Long's presentation, there was a torrent of information broadcast with a similar nervous energy.  

Master Genii, Richard Kaufman, introduced Mr. Frye by saying that he had seen him lecture in Asia and had been very impressed.  I came away from the Orlando presentation wishing I had seen what Mr. Kaufman had seen. This is not a comment on Mr. Frye's skills as a performer--he put on a hell of a show at the closing night gala--but more about the structure of his lecture presentation.

Not being familiar with Mr. Frye's work prior to his lecture, I had no contect for the torrent of gags and stunts that he demonstrated.  That he performs a high energy cabaret act that clearly seems to have been informed by a lot of street performance experience helped to frame his presentation retrospectively.  Having just listened to Eugene Burger talk about scripting and the idea of tricks as pictures without a frame, Mr. Frye's presentation seemed a clear demonstration of this idea.

I largely kept my notebook holstered for the evening show.  It was exciting to see a performance of Thurston's Rising Cards by Jonathan Levit ably assisted by the lovely and talented Mr. David Regal.

The effect was recreated for the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History which is a tough ticket to get so seeing Thurston's signature piece brought back to life was a rare and genuine treat.


After the evening show was the lecture I was most excited to see.  Magician, writer and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss was going to talk about mentalism.

This last sentence deserves a second look not because it is so artfully crafted, but because it conveys something of a conundrum.  How does a skeptic, an advisor to the James Randi Educational Foundation perform mentalism without irony?  As Mr. Swiss repeated near the beginning of his lecture, "Jamy Ian Swiss is not a mentalist, he's an asshole."

Listening to his presentation, it's hard to think of Mr. Swiss as anything other than a thoughtful and passionate advocate for his art.  As Rick Maue noted in reviewing Mr. Swiss's book Shattering Illusions, "Mr. Swiss doesn't hate mentalism, he hates bad mentalism."

Mr. Swiss went to some lengths to differentiate between mental magic and mentalism.  He referenced a conversation with Teller of Penn & Tell wherein Mr. Teller defined mental magic as being concerned with the revelation of proper nouns ("You're thinking of a_____.")  Mentalism, by comparison, Mr. Swiss defined as the revelation of thinking.

As a mentalist, Mr. Swiss claims no special powers which, he noted, was unlike another performer attending the convention.  Mr. Swiss accomplished his effects as a result of observation, experience and some specialized knowledge.  

It is perhaps because I have been listening to a lot of old radio dramas, but as I listened to Mr. Swiss, I was reminded of one of the old Sherlock Holmes programs.   Holmes would make pronouncements about visitors to 221B Baker St. that would, with different framing, rival those of Alexander or Kreskin.  As Holmes explains, his pronouncements are the result of a string of observations and deductions.

Holmes was a rationalist and Swiss is a skeptic so is it too much to describe Mr. Swiss as the Sherlock Holmes of Mentalists?

I am not a big fan of mentalism per se, but I am fascinated by the psychology of it.  Reading books on the subject, it has always seemed to me that there are so many different ways that an effect could fail and that uncertainty made it very unsettling as a form.

As I write this, it occurs to me that the critical factor in mentalism is the experience of the performer.  We audience members imagine ourselves to be wildly individual and capable of an infinite number of choices in response to any situation.  To the experienced performer, one closing in on Gladwell's 10,000 hours to mastery, the patterns of response become apparent and the selection of 37 as an uneven number between one and fifty less and less of a surprise.

It would also make sense that, after mastering magic's carefully structured classics that the more bi-directional quality of mentalism would have a strong attraction.

Somebody, and it may have been Mr. Swiss, likened mentalism to performing jazz and the comparison seems apt in that it requires a mastery of skill and technique and the ability to listen and adapt to the input from the spectator.

Mr. Swiss also spoke about the importance of "clarity of effect."  The audience should be able to describe what happened in a simple sentence.  Too many effects, both in mentalism and in traditional magic, have lots of process and that can undercut the magical moment.  As Mr. Swiss said, "Just because the audience is confused doesn't mean they've had a magical experience."

Too often the processes of a magical effect exist to disguise the method and the effect on the audience is not so much magical as confusing.  One thinks immediately of the 21-Card Trick and its endless counting and pointing.  When you contrast that with magician shows hat empty and pulls rabbit from hat, you quickly understand the difference.

The last thing I wrote down was "You have to talk away the box."

To be frank, I no longer recall the context in which the remark was made, but as I reflect on my impressions of Mr. Swiss's presentation the comment makes sense to me as integral to the creation of a piece of theatre.  Absent supernatural forces, every effect will have a method that creates boundaries and limitations on the performer.  It is therefore incumbent upon them, through their scripting and presentation to deemphasize those limitations for the audience.

More easily said than done, but foundational to the creation of magical experiences.

Dare I say, "elementary?"

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