Making Things Hard For Myself
Last year I wrote about a routine Paul Daniels used to perform. In that blog entry I mentioned the Cups and Balls. I mention this because last night I was a little stuck for inspiration for today’s piece, and so the idea ‘hardest trick you’ve ever had to learn’ was mooted. Well, the Cups and Balls probably isn’t the very hardest routine I’ve ever had to learn, but the version I put together created some unique challenges I thought you might find interesting.
The first reason I found the routine so difficult was probably due to the respect I have for the illusion. The book Modern Magic, which was one of the first books produced to teach people how to really do magic, was published in 1876 by Professor Hoffmann who described the Cups and Balls as "the groundwork of all legerdemain,” and no less a magician than Harry Houdini believed that no one could call themselves a magician until they could skilfully perform it. The one time I’ve seen most of the magicians at The Magic Circle genuinely fooled was when Shankar Jr. performed his version of this routine. I remember one friend turning to me and saying simply ‘That was just magic.’ Given all of that, I felt a responsibility to perform the trick well. Obviously I try to perform every trick well, however if I get unlucky and something does go wrong I usually muddle through. I didn’t want to do that with the Cups and Balls.
As if the weight of having to satisfy Houdini’s ghost wasn’t enough, I also created quite a few other issues for myself. Though I had worked on some of the slights and moves involved in the Cups and Balls previously, I had never put together an actual routine. I had always been a bit nervous for all the reasons I’ve already given, plus the fact that so many of my friends already performed it. But then at Magical Mischief one month I was given the board game challenge of using the X-Wing Miniatures Game. As per usual after that performance I pulled the game from the shelf and scratched my head for a few moments looking at what pieces it contained. Very quickly though I noticed two key elements. Firstly there were the models. The Tie Fighters really appealed to me and I knew I wanted to do something with them. The other thing I noticed was the range ruler. A long piece of cardboard, it instantly struck me that it would make a perfect ad-hoc wand. When faced with a couple of smallish items and a wand I imagine there are few magicians who won’t think of the Cups and Balls, it’s just a natural fit. So I quickly declared that I would be doing the routine to anyone around me. I then spent the whole time before the performance regretting it.
At its core there are two elements of this trick. Cups and balls. Obvious when you think about it. I didn’t have any cups and I quickly realised that the models I’d chosen do not make good balls. The big give away was when literally every magician I showed them to laughed in my face. First off, they are actually very big. The traditional crochet balls used for this routine are about an inch in diameter. The Tie Fighters are about two inches at their longest point. The other important factor that I might have overlooked in my haste to use them is that they aren’t actually balls. Oh sure, the middle bit is round, but they have these two massive, flat wings that were each attached by an incredibly fragile spoke. Thus I found myself with an oversized and bulky item that I had to be very delicate with. Next came the cups. I have a fairly cheap set at home I thought I might use, but quickly decided against it. The spun metal cups I have were simply too hard on the delicate models. If I used these it would damage the models in no time. For those of you new to the murky world of miniature purchasing, they are not cheap. Each of the models I was using retailed for around £10 a pop. There was no way I could afford to just smash these and replace them. So I couldn’t use my cups or even borrow anyone else’s either. But then I noticed that d20 do take away coffee. In paper cups. Sure they were lightweight, flimsy, and the plastic models rattled about in them louder than I was happy with, but at least it meant I had the fundamentals of my trick in place. Now I needed a routine.
I’m going to try and explain to you how one puts together a magic trick. Think of each routine as a melody. Melodies are made up of notes. In a magic routine these notes translate as moves, or slights. For a melody to work it’s important that it flows, that each note moves naturally into the next. It is the same with a magic routine. Each slight is a note and the beauty doesn’t just come from how well you can play that note, but how they follow each other. Sadly, because of the materials I was using, I found the notes I could actually play severely restricted. Despite several hours of practice and many more trying to cut up coffee cups to work I simply couldn’t get the penetration effect to work (quiet at the back). On top of that I found the number of vanishes I could actually use severely restricted due to the size and fragility of the tie fighters. In essence I was trying to write a melody but had decided I would only use a couple of notes, rather than the whole scale. Still, I’d told everyone I would be doing it, so no backing out now. I decided to use two cups rather than the more traditional three. This was partly out of necessity and party because I’m a big fan of David Williamson, whose routine convinced me I could do it with two and it would be fine. Once I’d made that decision things became a whole lot easier and it was just a matter of hard work. I finally came up with a three stage routine. For those of you who are geeky enough to care this was vanishing the two balls, to reappear under the cups, the spectator choosing which cup to invisibly transport a ball to, and then the appearance of additional balls. All that was left was my final loads.
The cups and balls traditionally has a grand finale. Something incredibly unlikely and unexpected is produced by the magician, which always gets a strong reaction, but that is then followed by an impossible item. For example a lemon appearing, followed by an orange supposedly too large to actually have fit under the cup it has only just came from. I was working with tie fighters and so I wanted to bring it all together with these final two loads and so would make them Star Wars themed. To me this meant two obvious choices. The Death Star and the lightsabre. Sadly, the Death Star model produced by Fantasy Flight Games who make X-Wing Miniatures was too small, but necessity is the mother of invention. Fruit has always been traditionally used with the cups and balls, and so I thought I would mimic this with my penultimate production now going to be an apple drawn on to look like the Death Star. I just reread that last sentence and it feels as though this blog has turned into a modern take on some Lovecraftian journal. Which isn’t far off actually. I remember being sat in the cafe on the day of the performance, studiously drawing all over an apple with a sharpie, when I glanced up and noticed I was being stared at by a table of young men, all looking a little worried about what I was doing. The conversation went something like this:
“Are.. are you okay?”
“Oh, er… fine, yeah….”
“Would you like to join us? We’re about to start a new game.”
I looked down at what I was doing and then back at them. “I’m so lonely.”
However, Apple Death Star was such an odd thing that I felt it would get the perfect reaction, allowing me to set up my final load: turning the cup into the handle of a lightsabre.
There are ideas that are both brilliant and stupid. I like to think that this was one of them. Yes, it would be a great finish, but the amount of time, effort, and work that went into producing the final effect almost certainly would never be worth it. However, is there is one thing I’ve noticed about any decent magician it’s that they can get very focused and highly obsessional about things. Making a lightsabre appear from an empty cup became my Moby Dick. I won’t go through all the slightly different things I had to do to get it to work, but when it flicked out, light up, and made that famous buzzing noise I was absolutely thrilled. Even better was the fact that the magician watching the performance was grinning the whole way through and was the first to congratulate me when I was done, having not seen any of the things I had done.
All of the hard work I had put into that routine had been worth it. I was proud of myself, and encouraged that I could do the Cups and Balls properly. I may not have made any of the great magicians of the past proud, but I like to think that they at least laughed when, upon hearing that someone liked Return of the Jedi more than A New Hope I bit a chunk out of Apple Death Star and threw it across to him.
It’s the little things that make it worth it.