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Magic Trouble Shooting

by Jordan Allen 4 years ago in entertainment
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Originally Published 2012

What Is Magic (Vol. 1 Issue 1)

Author Note: I originally wrote The Magic Trouble Shooting series in 2012 - 2014 and I left it alone. It was going to be sent to Richard Kaufman at Genii Magazine but I never got a response from Kaufman after pitching him the idea. My ideology and thoughts on magic have changed but I have not bothered updating - I want to leave the content of the series as it is as a benchmark to my own growth - I will probably revisit and the series with updates. Please enjoy and I'd love to receive feedback. Let's begin.

What Is Magic

This was not the first time I have tackled magic theory. I wrote a thesis a few years ago, probably somewhere between 2009 and 2010. I do not claim absolute knowledge and I have no intentions of out-staging Eugene Burger, Max Maven or Darwin Ortiz in their various written works on magic theory. I also only claim a certain amount of expertise (close-up and stage illusions). Moving along in my list of confessions I will admit I am not at all an expert on card magic. I will discuss that later on in this issue. But I want to make it clear, though I have read on Darwin Ortiz, Maven and Burger I am familiar with the fact that not all their advice and suggestions are universal. I want to touch base on some issues that I have had, my solutions and how to apply the solutions in a performance-real world application. Ortiz, Maven and Burger have great works and I admire them, however, if you specialize in a certain area of "magicdom," their advice may not work for you.

What is magic?

This is perhaps the most important question to ask yourself. Again, there is no set in stone definition for the term. Me, I am a practical person and I personally think that the magic magicians perform has to be related to the real world. For example; mentalism is very practical and there are certain areas in mentalism that are more practical than others (mind-reading mentalism is much more applicable in a performance than spoon bending). At the end of the day, anything the performer does that defies the laws of physics is deemed worthy of the title of being magic.

While escape artistry is very applicable, it is not necessarily a feat of magic. Neither is sword swallowing or fire walking. They are feats, stunts or testaments of endurance but they do not necessarily constitute my personal definition of magic.

On the contrary, if the performer disappears from the bolts and shackles of his restraints, he, the performer, took the escape stunt to a newer and much higher dimension, that to the realm of magic. With all this being said, I dare say Harry Houdini did not spend a vast majority of his life practicing MAGIC. Same is true for David Blaine, in a majority of his television appearances. Most of all the feats are STUNTS and testament of brute strength and or endurance.

Lets recap; magic is any feat that defies the laws of nature.

Magic can be broken into many categories (some may not even be listed here!!)

  • Vanish
  • Appearance
  • Penetration
  • Transposition
  • Transformation
  • Levitation
  • Mentalism/Mindreading

The cups and balls, with the exception of levitation and mind-reading, incorporates all the categories magic has. The balls (depending on the performer) can vanish, reappear and penetrate the cups. In my presentation of the cups and balls, I allow the balls to transist magically from one cup to another. Jason Latimer's rendition of this effect is a very good example; the balls penetrate, vanish, reappear and transist from cup to cup.

Why can't the audience dictate what is magical?

I have (and I am sure you have too) heard of the dogmatic statement that "It's all magic in the spectator's eyes." Go ahead and raise your hand if you have heard this dogma before, go on don't be shy. When I was growing up (I dare admit) that I bought into this idea.

TRUTH is, the audience knows what is magical and what isn't.

Remember that scene from The Sixth Sense? The scene where Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist who is showing Cole Sears (Haley Joel Osborne) the coin "trick?" Remember what Osborne's reply was after seeing it? I bet you do. The statement of "That's not magic," speaks volume to what the population of non-magicians think. The audience knows what dictates magic. I have not once done any stunt or feat (escape/strength) where someone called it "magic." No magic was involved in me getting out of the handcuffs or showing some abnormal pieces of human brutality.

Now that we have covered the basis of what magic is, let's look at the role of the magician......

Hundreds, no thousands of years ago magicians were viewed as wizards. They were the primary source of knowledge and wisdom. If a farmer was worried about the weather affecting his crops or if the king was worried about his time on the throne or if a war general was curious about his enemies, they would all consult the magician. The term wizard comes from another term "wise-man" and the term magician is a more modern theatrical variation of the word "magi."

From ancient Egypt all the way to the 18th Century C.E, magicians were treated as gods.

Then came a clock-maker turned illusionist from France by the name of Gene-Eugene Robert Houdin (pronounced Rober-Hudan). Robert Houdin revolutionized magic and brought it into modern age. He exchanged the magician's attire from flowing robe and pointy hat to the classic image of tails and top hat. Magicians of today owe Robert Houdin a great deal.

Robert-Houdin mentioned in his writings that:

"The magician is a not a wizard but an actor playing the part of a wizard."

Many of my peers have broken this down to mean a variety of things but the quote forever changed magic history.

I will have to preach to you in contrast. Do you remember my pervious dictation of what constitutes magic?

The greatest problem with a number of magicians who work with mechanical props view and treat the props as mechanical props and ultimately fail their audiences into a conviction. A magician, after all, is still a person who the audience would like to think can perform wonderful magic. They do not want to see someone who is an apparent actor working with a machine. With this being said, the best method for doing magic is through the old-time tested and true sleight of hand. Yes, it requires hours and hours or even years of practice but you will almost always get the conviction of real magic.

This leads me into the discussion of magic as a theatre. It was Robert Houdin who made magic a recognizable form of theatre. Today, unfortunately a majority of entertainment is brought to the masses via movie theaters and television. No matter what media the audience seeks for entertainment (film versus stage), they are still after an escape route from their everyday woes. It was in the fall of 2009, I was in a production of The Three Sisters, a classic in Russian theatre written by Soviet-era playwright Anton Chekov. I was playing the part of an old janitor and door handler, Feraponte. The story of The Three Sisters has a fairly sad ending and I made a comment on it during a dress rehearsal in which a co-star of mine noted that "people don't go to theatre to be sad."

The fact that people go to a theatre to escape reality is of vital importance for the magician to keep in mind (and I do regret to say that many do not recognize this, thus we have horrible magicians) that the audience wants MAGIC and to suspend from reality. They do not want to see something that is obviously mechanical.

How do you reach a conviction?

The audience will never reach a point of conviction unless the performer reaches it first. The actor (magician in this case) must be of complete control over his audience's awareness. Mentalists and hypnotists call this suggestion.

Darwin Ortiz in his book Stronger Magic, remarks on the power that suggestibility has on the audience by recalling a time where he performed a self-levitation on himself. He only levitated an inch off the ground, but he suggested to the audience ahead of time and yet they percieved that he had levitated off the ground somewhere between six and 12 inches!!! Going back to the mechanical prop, the audience will see a mechanical prop only if the magician treats it as a mechanical prop. On the contrary, the audience will see the mechanical prop as a magical artifact complete with magical properties only if the magiican treats the mechanical prop as a magical artifact with magical properties.

Take this simple example; I pretend to place a coin into my hand while retaining it in the other. I do not play my hand as if it was holding something. I don't move it up and down giving the suggestive assumption that something heavy is in it. The audience, because of my hand's behavior, will only see the hand as an empty hand and the illusion is destroyed.

Try this; grab a ball (preferably a ping pong ball or one slightly bigger) and hold it in your closed fist. Notice the shape your fingers make while concealing the ball. Now imagine you are doing a fake transfer of the ball to the other hand, you better hope the fingers who are "receiving" the ball behave as if the ball is really there.

Trick Versus Magic

Many magicians (you know who you are) have failed to realize that there is a fundamental difference between a puzzle and magic. A puzzle or trick by it's very nature has a plausible solution. However, magic if performed correctly must remain a mystery for all eternity with no answer as to how or why. Unfortunately, too many magicians (a lot of those in the rank of amateur and semi-pro) are guilty of treating their magic as a trick/puzzle. For one reason or another, they end up treating their audience members as a guinea pig in a puzzle experiment. This egocentric incident is plaguing the magic community and is the reason why there are many people outside the community who do not like, sorry I mean HATE magicians and magic. Many laymen (non-magic folk) do not get an everyday chance to see a magician and his/her magic. An incident with the puzzle magician will end all hope for other magicians to get the chance of performing for that one member of the lay public. Another prototype of the puzzle magician is the uncle prototype. We all had one growing up (and some were destined to be one and to help condemn the lay public). These prototypes are the obnoxious ones who will constantly do the same trick/puzzle over and over at every family gathering or picnic. Nothing new, just the constant flow of quarters from behind the ears or the constant pulling off the nose. To the uncle prototype, the audience is nothing but a captive lab rat.

Presentation of Magic

Let's assume you are not the uncle or the puzzle prototype mentioned above. You can be an amateur too, that's fine. But if you have any desire of moving on through to the next level you will be presenting magic to people (unless you are collector).

Magic with the exception of music, is one of the rare forms of performance art that is capable of breaking down any barrier thrown at it; language, racial, socio-economic, cultural, any barrier and magic is immune to it.

I've performed magic for people of the hearing impaired and I know plenty who have performed even for the blind! Magic is the rare art form that allows just about anyone the chance to enjoy it.

There is no true right or wrong way of going about presenting magic. The old and some of the classic books say that you must present magic with patter.

Stop and think for a minute.


Patter is the term magicians use for scripted speech for a routine. There are many cases where patter is necessary and there are many cases in which it must be avoided or at least kept to a minimum.

I will discuss the issues of pattern in the next installment. Please check back later.

Until then, good bye,

Jordan Allen


About the author

Jordan Allen

Jordan Allen is a Kentucky based entertainer with 20+ years of experience. Graduated from Murray State University where he studied both psychology and theatre ( among many many more topics). Jordan Allen specializes in magic and mentalism.

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