Fear of magic?

by Ariel Frailich

The definition of a magician is one who has — or claims to have — supernatural powers. Yet, very few magicians perform as if the magic were real. Obviously, it isn’t always necessary nor appropriate for magicians to create the illusion of magic, but there’s no reason to banish such an approach altogether.

Many magicians feel that the notion of magic is no longer relevant today, because modern audiences are too sophisticated to believe in the supernatural. Personally, I would welcome the opportunity to leave everyday drudgery behind and re-experience child-like wonder. I don’t think I’m alone here: witness the popularity of Far Eastern religions, the birth of the New Age movement, the success of books like The Celestine Prophecy.

Magicians also feel that it’s unethical to claim supernatural powers. We’re not trying to convince spectators that we possess such powers; we’re simply trying to suspend their disbelief for a while by acting as if we are real magicians. It’s no different from the actress trying to move the audience to tears with her portrayal of poverty and misery. When the movie is over, we can think about her mansion in Hollywood and her astronomical salary; similarly, after the show, we can come back to earth and be mere mortals again.

Creating the illusion of magic is no easy task. For one thing, contemporary audiences are used to the idea that magicians are entertainers who do tricks, an image we perpetuate. We tend to downplay the magical aspect of what we do, sometimes even denigrate it in subtle or obvious ways. Our presentations usually highlight the intellectual aspect of the mystery, and the emotional reactions we try to elicit are laughter and amazement. While these things can be interesting and are often entertaining in and of themselves, they are not particularly magical.

A good first step would be to eliminate words like ‘trick’ and ‘fool’, and use magic words — or gestures — with conviction, or not at all. Surely that’s better than snapping one’s fingers, presumably to cause the magic to happen, after having done flourish after flourish that leave no doubt as to our manual dexterity!

A second step would be to create presentations that involve the emotions (see It’s what you say and A richer tapestry).

A third step is to add conviction, to believe — in the same way an actor believes — that what we do is real. A useful technique, borrowed from acting, is described in Henning Nelms’Magic and Showmanship: it consists of thinking of every action as it appears to be, rather than what it actually is. For instance, instead of thinking “I’m doing a false shuffle”, I think “I’m mixing the cards”. Instead of thinking “I’m doing an Elmsley count”, I think “I’m showing four cards”.

Finally, mastery of the techniques used and attention control (what we erroneously call misdirection), particularly in the form of directional cues built into the presentation, help greatly in creating the illusion on the visual plane. The slightest flash brings the spectator back to reality, and the experience of magic is lost. By the same token, quick and flashy moves call attention to the performer’s skill, which negates the idea of magic, and running through a trick too quickly confuses the spectators and makes them miss the magical moment.

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