Features Guest Column Published 8 October 2012

The Line Between Theft and Inspiration

The third in our series of guest columns by time-travelling magicians Morgan and West explores the consumer culture in magic.
Morgan and West

As magicians we go to see other magic shows as much for enjoyment as to see what the competition is up to. Obviously, when watching a magic show as a magician you tend to be looking at different things than the average audience member: technique, variations on effects, new ideas, and – perhaps most importantly – whether or not they are doing the same tricks as you.

Because, as previously discussed, originality in magic is always a challenge, and most magicians will inevitably at some point in their career find themselves faced with another act doing the same tricks as them. The most notable example of this in recent years was at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe where two high profile magic acts had shows which featured the same ending. Same prop. Same plot. Same gags. Two different shows.

Whilst this may seem an incredible coincidence, in the world of magic it’s actually not that uncommon to see one magician perform a trick or routine matching another magician word for word, move for move. What is more there is a good chance that neither of them came up with the trick in the first place, having bought it from another magician. It can never be assumed in magic that a performer will have created their entire act themselves.

This is nothing new. The majority of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries magicians would develop a particular act and then perform it for their entire career. Upon retiring they would either sell it – props, scripts and all – to another magician or train an apprentice to carry on their work. Most famously perhaps is the American magician Channing Pollock who, upon deciding to leave magic to peruse a career in Hollywood, gave his dove magic act to his driver, Franklin.

Today many magicians make their living from selling tricks rather than performing them: complete with props, jokes and patter. And this is how two different shows from two different performers can come to have the exact same finale – both will have bought the secret, and the rights, to perform it.

This consumer culture in magic, the idea that tricks and acts are products that can be bought and sold has led to a detachment of performer from material in the minds of magicians. ‘His trick’ and ‘her act’ become ‘the trick he does’ and ‘the act she does’, which inevitably become ‘the trick I could do’ and ‘the act I could do’. Magicians often feel that if they can work out how a trick is done, then they can perform it (they worked out the method after all), and apply the same ideals to jokes, script, costume and presentation. For an example of how brazen this theft can be, watch this.

So where do you draw the line between inspiration and theft? We could hardly complain if another Victorian themed magic act appeared on the scene, it’s not the most original idea. But what if they sold themselves, as we do, as Victorian time-travellers? We would probably feel a little threatened (after all that’s our ‘thing’). That said though, how much of our act is really ‘ours’? How much do we owe to The Prestige or Doctor Who or even Back to the Future? Would we have been inspired to work as a double-act if we hadn’t seen Penn and Teller perform, or Lee and Herring for that matter, or Lee? Or even Morecambe and Wise? Clearly every act builds upon the work of those that have come before; themes and ideas are reinvented, reinterpreted in new ways, given a new spin, a new voice.

The problem of copying in magic is perhaps one without a solution. Maybe the best strategy is to do nothing. If we do come across someone who has used elements of our act, we hope to feel the following: flattery, that someone values our work highly enough to borrow from it; pride, that another magician may learn from the thought and work that has gone into creating our material; and – hopefully – a sense of reassurance that, no matter which elements are taken in this way, no one can perform our material quite the way we do.

We started out in magic by learning other people’s tricks, imitating their methods of presentation, and trying to see if they fit us as performers; inevitably nothing really did and we eventually found our own way. Should someone start out by using our tricks in this manner we’d be happy – it’s part of the process – and hope that they too would find their own path. And if, by sheer hard work, creative thought or ingenuity, someone does happen to take one of our tricks and perform them better than we can, then we would hope that we would feel pride at being part of the creation of a better act than ourselves.

Morgan and West will be performing their show, Clockwork Miracles at the Lost Theatre’s Pop-Up Festival of Cabaret on the 11th and 12th October 2012.

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Morgan and West

Morgan & West are a duo of time-travelling magicians who have performed their magic shows all over the world. When not travelling through time and doing the impossible they enjoy theatre, circus, cookery, and drinking tea.

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