“The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.”
Before beginning, I would like to state that these thoughts are based on my own performances and which I've seen in others work as well. My self-scrutiny is completely responsible for the criticism which I put before you.
Insecurity exists within all of us and only those who have managed to accept that will find themselves comforted by it. Give that a second to sink in. Insecurity can take on many shapes but they all stem from one thing, fear. Fear of rejection, fear of not being accepted, fear of losing, etc... In magic, especially when starting out, we tend to put tremendous thought towards becoming a more confident and secure performer. The type of insecurity I'm going to discuss however, isn't that of those (although applicable) who are beginning their journey in this wonderful art, but of those who believe themselves not to be insecure. An interesting thought: What if we're convinced of our secure appearance and demeanor to a point that we don't recognize what it looks like? What if how we perceive our insecurity within our performances was objective? I know by now you might be a bit confused by the notion, but let me clarify with an example:
Magician: This might not work, but let's try something. Think of a card. Got it? Name it out loud.
Spectator: Nine of hearts.
Magician: Are you left handed or right handed?
Magician: We'll use the clean one (laugh). Why did you think of the nine of hearts? Is it a favorite card?
Magician: Is there any way I could have known that?
Magician: So it's a free choice? You could have thought of any card, and you didn't choose it, you just thought of it, correct?
Magician: I'm going to snap my fingers and the card will appear.
I suspect some of you see what I'm getting at by now. Let's look in to downplaying for a second. Starting with “This might not work, but let's try something.” We've all done this once if not repeatedly, the idea of downplaying the effect in case of failure is quite obviously a massive sign of uncertainty. Then why do we do it? As a fail-safe? I'll tell you right now that if you don't get the trick right, saying “I said it might not work” won't make you or your spectator feel comforted. In fact, if it doesn't go as planned, just move on. This sentence is then followed by “Let's try something” This and “Are you left handed or right handed?” and “Is it a favorite card?” all fall in to the same category, clouding. Clouding is something I've discussed with Xavier Spade recently and it occurred to me that it was everywhere! We all do this. We almost always cloud the effect with completely unnecessary and unrelated junk. Is it really vital to the trick that you ask them if their right handed? Is it equally necessary to state that you will try something, isn't it obvious that you're going to do something already? Is it important that they tell you if it's a favorite card or not? It's a fucking playing card and I guarantee you they've never thought of a card as a favorite, their just cards to them, they aren't magicians! We cloud effects constantly in an attempt to make the trick bigger than it is so that we maximize their reaction but it achieves the opposite. Making everything so convoluted and scrambled only deters from the effect we're presenting. Believe in the effect you're performing, trust that it will hit and they'll love it for what it is. And if it doesn't, make it better. Another form of clouding is asking for recognition or trying to relate things to them so they have a sharper image of what you're thinking, ie: “You know when...” or “It's almost like...” Attempting to have them relate to what you're talking about seems like you're trying to convince them of something which they might not have experienced. To that I say, trim the fat. Cut out all irrelevant lines and just perform the damn trick. We lose nothing by taking things away and risk everything by adding too much.
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
And finally we'll take a look at “No, the clean one.” and “When I snap my fingers”. Lines such as these are commonly used among magicians and therefor widely accepted as acceptable patter. I mean, why question the classic jokes, gags and lines, they work, don't they?
In acting these are known as crutches. Actors use them to support their character. According to “The Film Director Prepares.” by Myrl A. Schreibman “A crutch is an impulse or emotion that an actor plays on a line of dialogue in a specific way that is not the intention of the text. It is an impulse that they are comfortable in showing because it has been pre-programmed as a part of their acting psyche by some kind of acknowledgement, usually in the form of applause or someone noting that a line of dialogue they once said left a positive imprint. These positive reactions from observers reinforce the impulse (subconscious) in the actor's psyche and they use it instead of taking a risk and showing deeper vulnerability.”
Now the line that really sticks out is “...instead of taking a risk and showing deeper vulnerability.” How beautiful is that?
In other words, let's say we perform an effect for the first time and in that moment, decide come up with a funny “one liner”. Something which doesn't necessarily aid in the effect or character portrayal but it gets a good laugh. Instinctively we'll inject that line in to every other performance of that effect because we feel that it's a “strong” line and it made people laugh. This is a crutch.
So what's the trade off for not using crutches, then? Deeper vulnerability? Exactly. Not only does vulnerability aid in connecting with your audience but it prevents them from being extracted from the moment. Using these terrible lines usually show the audience that you're a professional and always on the ball but they can have an adverse effect which the performer might not be aware of, the audience can find these things to be disingenuous. As in “He's done that joke a thousand times.” What this does, and I refer to my previous blog post, it removes them from the fiction you are creating. We went from creating a wonderful piece of fiction to bastardizing it because of our own insecurities and will justify it by measuring the applause or laughs. We'll sacrifice our artistic integrity for a cheap laugh but then expect them to walk away feeling amazed. They'll walk away feeling entertained, which is fine but allowing them to be immersed in what it is you're doing will entertain them thoroughly but leave them with something more. The only thing you need to do is let yourself be vulnerable. Be awkward. If that means looking at your audience in the eyes for more than 3 seconds, then do it! Showing them that you've put your heart in to this routine will only bring them closer to you and will inevitably not only make you a better performer but also a better, more authentic person. Someone people want to love.
Now all of this isn't embedded in stone and making people smile and laugh is a big part of what we do, but let those moments of laughter be organic and let yourself take risks. Because nothing to me is more depressing than calculating and trying engineer reactions. They aren't machines and neither are you. Insecurity can be a beautiful thing when you realize we're all in this together.
“You need some insecurity if you're an actor, it keeps the pot boiling.” - Al Pacino