Stories and other devices

by Ariel Frailich

If you’ve read my earlier articles, you probably know that I like story presentations. Here I’d like to discuss this and a few other presentational approaches.

Stories are a great way to enhance a mystery. By moving the context of the performance away from the here-and-now, the audience can relax and take in the whole show, rather than focus on just the physical proceedings. This, of course, allows for great misdirection, which makes the overall effect much more magical and mysterious.

There are stories in which the plot centers around magic. A typical example is the Magician-versus-gambler plot, in which the gambler seems to be getting the upper hand during a challenge, but the magician turns the tables and wins in the end. Another example is Eugene Burger’s presentation of the Hindu Thread (or Gypsy Thread), in which he relates the Hindu story of the creation of the Universe.

Other stories are non-magical in nature, even if they contain magical elements. In DIY Ambitious Card (from my book, Card Stories), for instance, a child plants a packet of seeds, with the wrapper, from which a bush of seed packets grows. If the story is non-magical, the magic lies exclusively in the performance of the trick, where it supports the story by illustrating it.

Some magicians feel that a non-magical story — or any story, in fact — dilutes the magic, reducing the performance to storytelling with magic thrown in as an accessory. One only has to watch René Lavand perform his Three Bread Crumbs to see this is not the case at all. If the magic — and the magician — is good to start with, then a good story enhances the magic… and the magician.

The Gambler-versus-magician plot is one example of a story in which magic is used to turn failure into success. This device is extremely useful; almost any trick can be made to appear to fail, allowing the magician to succeed in the end. All it takes is a scenario in which the failure carries a reasonably severe penalty, such as embarrassment, punishment or loss.

The failure-to-success plot can also be used in here-and-now presentations, but there is a danger that such presentations end up highlighting the performer’s skill (see It’s what you say). The one area where here-and-now failure works particularly well is in Bizarre magic; if the performance is convincing enough, it can be frightening when the performer appears to lose control over the magic — and a great relief when the performer gets it back!

In here-and-now presentations, failure-to-success tricks belong in the category of ‘sucker effects’ which, by definition, are tricks in which the audience is led to believe that the magician has failed. There’s nothing wrong with sucker tricks in and of themselves, but many performers present them with a ‘Ha, ha I fooled you!’ attitude, which is both despicable and immature. Sure, spectators watch magic to be fooled (in a very limited sense), but not to be made to feel foolish, which is exactly what sucker tricks usually do (see Bill Nagler’s writings). I think it’s far better to conceptually stick out one’s tongue at the powers that be, or the universe, or bad luck, or whatever, than at the audience.

Taking this a step further, we arrive at the ‘incompetent magician’ plot. Here the magician seems to be unable to do anything magical, or even has the magic work against him, which makes the performance very funny. Here, too, the magician’s skill is of paramount importance: for the performance to be genuinely enjoyed, the audience must know, beyond any doubt, that the magician is actually quite competent, that the whole thing is an act. Otherwise the magician comes across looking genuinely incompetent, which is embarrassing for both the magician and the audience. Some of the biggest names come to mind: Fred Kaps doing the Eleven Dollar trick, Britain’s irreplaceable Tommy Cooper, the zany Topper Martin and the legendary Cardini. And let’s not forget Mickey Mouse in Fantasia!

Although each of these approaches take some thought and reasonable performance skills, the most important requirement is conviction. No presentation can succeed if the performer simply pays lip service to the spoken part, delivers it as if it’s a joke, or obviously ‘goes through the motions’; whatever is said has to have the ring of truth, with all the emotions that go with the situation. For this, some acting technique is good to know (see, for instance, Henning Nelm’s Magic and Showmanship).

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