Looking for the Magic
Last night, at a gig, a trick of mine went wrong.
It happens. In this particular case it was a trick I don’t often perform and so, back tracking it, there was one moment when I was clearing the table and didn’t have my eyes on the volunteers. If, as I suspect, it was at that moment they shuffled the deck – which absolutely can happen even just through habit – then that would explain when I smugly flipped over cards it all became a bit of a nightmare.
The test of a great magician is how often that magician makes mistakes. The test of a great performer is what that performer does then things don’t go to plan. Of course we work hard to ensure that things don’t mess up, but sadly, inevitably, they do. In my case is was performing a trick that I know how to do perfectly but, as I only do so rarely, I am unused to how a volunteer might act and react. This can be awkward for a magician. Interestingly, it was my comfort with the routine that led me to messing it up. Usually I’m rather nervous and pay close attention, ensuring that I don’t make a mistake. This time I knew what was going on, and so paid a little bit less attention instead enjoying riffing with the audience. That was a mistake.
Still, onwards and upwards. At times you can get out of a mistake by turning the trick into another. This wasn’t an option for me this time. Still, onwards and upwards! Laugh it off, make sure the audience are happy, and move on. I performed my version of a classic routine called Immaculate Connection which is an absolute mind bender. This reassured them that I really do know what I’m doing. Next I moved into a trick using books. The calumniation involves me having predicted the exact word that would be chosen from a page selected by a member of the audience, from a book selected by another member of the audience. Now and then there are problems with people forgetting the word, or reading out the wrong number, but over time I’ve learned the right kind of wording I should use. I’ve not had any problems with the trick for a long time now. Until, that is, last night. Before the big reveal I stumble and pretend to not quite know the answer. It was at that point that another member of the audience – WHO HAD NOT BEEN TOLD ANYTHING AT ALL – shouted the word out. He had read the book a lot, and had guessed the word! I was tempted to make more of it, make out that he had magically known the answer but unfortunately I had used him to hold a pad of paper that was being written on. This meant that I could very easily have just written the word on the back for him to see. Better, I thought, to laugh with the audience at an incredible moment and then continue with the trick. Afterwards, one of the other performers suggested just that to me, that maybe I could have pretended he had magically known the answer. However, once I’d told hi I’d thought of that at the time and explained my reason, he just nodded. “Considered and rejected. Got it.”
This ability to think on your feet is, to me, fundamental to performing. Kieron Johnson, a great performer and creator of magic once told me a piece of advice he had once received from another great magician, Rocco. He said that ‘All around there is free magic’. I’m not going to go into that discussion too much, but it perfectly sums up what a great performer knows. No matter what your script is, no matter how you’ve practiced it, you must be aware of those moments when something wonderful has happened, when you can improvise and create a moment that is unrepeatable.
Not only is this wonderful for the audience, its also vital for me as a performer. It keeps me fresh and interesting to watch, but also it’s how I stay interested. It’s why I love being a magician. Those moments of true magic, that will last forever. Even when things go wrong.
Paul's Edinburgh Fringe show “Illusions of Depression” will be showing at Tollbooth Market, Gladstone’s Court, EH8 8BN from the 15th August to the 25th August.