Magic is unusual as an art form as it has an absolute. For something to be considered magic there must be a trick, a moment of impossibility realised on stage. If a ball is found underneath a cup where before there was no ball this is magic, whereas if a ball is clearly put underneath a cup and then revealed to an audience, no matter how much gusto and flair this is done with, it’s still not magic. The same is not true of comedy, where a joke which leaves one person cold may send another into hysterics. Theatre is similarly broad as a term, able to encompass everything from a major production at the National to two people being driven around the streets of Edinburgh in the back of a ‘hijacked’ taxi.
Where does this absolute leave the performers of magic? Whilst in theatre anything is possible and in comedy anything can – in theory – be made funny, in magic there is always the constraint of the trick. As magicians, not having supernatural powers or telepathic abilities to fall back on, we must find other ways of making the impossible possible.
Taking conjuring as an example, it can be loosely broken down into the following categories:
Six distinct happenings. Well, three actually if you think of teleporting, transforming and penetrating as variations on appearances and disappearances. Or only two if you consider appearances as the reversal of disappearances. All of conjuring therefore essentially boils down to making things appear and making them move: not a huge amount to go on. The challenge then is to make the magic feel original. There needs to be something more to it.
Many magicians would refer to this something more as ‘patter’ – the bits in between, the magician’s words – and for some performers new patter constitutes an original trick. It’s akin to dancing. You could, if you wished, take a fixed set of steps – to, say for humour value, Beyonce’s Single Ladies – and perform them to another piece of music with the same tempo; you could even then argue that you have created a new dance. But really it’s still the same dance, the same steps. This is often the case with patter – more often than not it’s used as a veneer on an otherwise old trick.
Now imagine instead breaking the dance down into pieces: into individual steps, gestures and poses. If you were to now take your new piece of music and construct a dance using these moves but in an entirely new order, shifting them around in whatever manner you liked, then you could truly be said to have created something new. It will be tonally, rhythmically, aesthetically, and aurally different, but the basic building blocks are the same.
Magic works in this way. We can take the same principles, the same misdirection, the same deception, the same vanishes and appearances that have been used in thousands of other tricks before, but it’s how we put these elements together that make a trick original. The tone of the trick, the rhythm of the trick, the visual and aural appeal of the trick will be new even if the actual moves, the sleight of hand involved, may be centuries old.
But why bother? This whole process sounds like a lot more work than simply coming up with a few new jokes, a bit of new patter. However variety is a tough business and unless you are an incredibly specialised act you won’t be the only performer in your line on the circuit. This means at some point you will be compared to someone else with a similar act – you may even appear side by side on the same bill. An audience is unlikely to appreciate that your three-cups-and-three-balls trick, despite being visually identical to the act before (even down to the melon coming out of your hat), is a very different trick because of the story you tell as you perform it. Perhaps the acid test for originality then is this comparison – is the trick still entertaining when performed alongside one which uses a similar prop or set of moves? If the answer is ‘yes’ than you may well be on to something.
Everyone in the entertainments industry knows that part of success is standing out from the crowd – you need only to look at the stars of the British magic scene in the last decade: from Derren Brown, whose creepy, all-knowing persona made him the biggest TV magic hit since Blaine lost his way, to newer faces like Pete Firman and Barry and Stuart, who gained renown as being the young, edgy and slightly twisted faces of magic. Not only were they stylistically different from the vast majority of magicians you see working in the UK, but they also were producing new, exciting, original magic for their audiences.
This is the second in a series of columns on magic and its methodology by Morgan and West, read the first one here.