Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Over Promise, Under Deliver

Hoo boy, this takes me back. I recently found on YouTube a little slice of nostalgia. This is the trailer for an old adventure game called Maabus. Way back in the days when DOOM was still flying high as a revolutionary title and freeware games were in vogue, my dad handed my brother and I a Game Empire disc and this trailer was one of the features. We must have watched it into double digits thinking it was the coolest thing ever. As the years went on I lost track of the disc and Maabus floated up into memory every once and again, usually when Google wasn't handy, and I found myself wondering whatever became of it?

Lo and behold, upon finding the trailer I was inspired to do a Google search for Maabus and discovered that the reason I never found it was because it sucked. Visually very impressive for its time and by all accounts an interesting and imaginative story, but it was bogged down by bad gameplay, unresponsive controls, and bugs up the yin-yang. Classic over sell.

This got me to thinking. Those of you who go trolling YouTube for magic videos, a practice about as much fun as looking for winning lottery tickets in a dumpster filled with medical waste, may have run across a young man who describes himself as the official best magician on YouTube. Okay, maybe you've encountered about a dozen of those. But the one I'm thinking of specifically came to my attention not too long ago. He was speaking in support of some talentless twit prostituting himself across magic message boards to edit people's videos. This young spark's videos were a lot of special effects, chromakey, and baffling music choices, but I digress. His supporter showed a video that this tool had made for him, which featured a minute-long disclaimer about how great the show was... from Lance Burton.

I don't know if you knew this, but... Lance Burton generally doesn't concern himself with teenage Criss Angel wannabes. Everyone was rather put off by this, naturally. It didn't help matters that by the time the video actually got around to showing magic it was so heavy on special effects and dramatic music that you started to believe everything this kid did was just trick photography. Didn't help matters that he wasn't a particularly impressive performer.

It's like the trailer for the third Twilight movie. The music is trying so hard, but it can't change the fact that it's a pair of bland teenagers staring at each other while giant CGI Pomeranians duke it out in the background. By all means, you should really sell me on your act/show/product. But there comes a point where you really should shut up and ask yourself how much this one case needs to be sold, if it should even be sold at all.

Readers of TV Tropes might be familiar with, "What do you mean, it's not awesome?" The overwrought, melodramatic cheesiness of videos like the one described above is a common pitfall of the trope and sadly it's a mistake that newbies, amateurs, and greenhorns make all the time. It's very easy to get caught up in the thrill of being epic. Whether it be a live performance or a video that you're dying to show the internet, there's always going to be a small voice in the back of your head insisting that it's not awesome enough.

A less glaring but just as egregious example is one of my favorite punching bags, Liam Walsh. Chances are, if you've had any connection to a large magic community that talks about card magic and flourishing a lot, you've heard of this guy. Or even had the chance to speak with him. If the latter, I'm very sorry. I've never claimed to be a humble man, but Walsh's egotism is so massive and aggressive it threatens to leap out of the screen and try to slash my throat with an ace of spades.

If you've never seen one of his videos of his performances, he's basically a desperately poor man's Dynamo. I have no love for Dynamo either but that's another story. But Walsh takes everything I dislike about Dynamo and his style and then manages to both make it bigger and stupider. Strip away the fancy cuts, and he's doing incredibly pedestrian material and not even presenting it in a very interesting or novel way. His wit is nonexistent, he's a tool to his audience, and he has the myopic arrogance to proclaim that despite his highly derivative and unoriginal style that he is unique and more artistic and magical than David Copperfield. I kid you not, he said that.

Over and over again, I see these guys trying to sell themselves to the public and their skills (such as they are) cannot possibly live up to the hype and all that zazz they preface their acts with. For a generation brought up on reality TV, viral memes, and the rise of the YouTube Cinderella story, it's hardly any surprise that we're seeing more and more young magicians who promise to spin straw into gold and turn out to be just qualified enough to turn beer into urine.

Consider perhaps that boasts are not the best way to draw people's attention.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pickup Artistry and Magic

Rich Ferguson recently came out with a book called Tricks to Pick Up Girls. You can buy it here if the mood strikes or you're into this sort of thing. Nevertheless, this topic and the title Rich selected for his book have a remarkable ability to induce bizarre behavior in magicians. Symptoms include self-righteous moralizing about how the dating scene should work, the constant repetition of trite platitudes, the desire to start flame wars, and spontaneous rage vomiting. Yes, we're at that old crossroads again of the pickup artist community versus everybody else.

I bring this up because I've seen people talking about Rich's book and I notice that the majority of its critics have not actually read it. Nor have they read any book or newsletter or message board or what have you on the subject of pickup. But they are just so bloody certain that those Michael J Fox movies and their grandmas were right with their overly simplistic morals about how to get the girl at the end of the day, and god have mercy on you if you ever have the audacity to have an opinion that is not the same as theirs. Some of them will flame you, but be prepared also for a round of guys ready to play White Knight and claim that the fact that they are not single at this moment makes them undisputed masters on the subject.

And yet... I who have read these books am a much more affable and entertaining performer than most of these guys. I'm not even saying that to brag. Thanks to YouTube and Vimeo one can get a good look at the performances of just about any magician these days. And most of us it seems are still convinced that the ability to manipulate pasteboard is all you need to be up to your eyebrows in tail and adoring fans.

It's actually in the best interest of the aspiring magician or mentalist to give a look at some of this pickup material. Sure, grab Rich Ferguson's book if you like. I don't have it, but he has a pretty good track record of material as far as I'm aware. But have you considered perhaps also picking up "Rules of the Game" by Neil Strauss? How about "Double Your Dating" by David DeAngelo? And I know what you're thinking. "Alex, this is all well and good for a charismatic exemplar like yourself, but why should I read these things? How is this in my best interest?"

Magic is an interactive artform. Say what you want about pickup artists, but the truth is that these guys are dedicated to using observation, experimentation, and science to achieve a deeper understanding of social interaction for the benefit of everyone involved. Like magicians, they are conducting a highly advanced study in psychology in real time.

Part of the problem is that most people do not believe that social skills are actually skills. Seriously. The most common rhetoric I hear bandied about is, "You either get it or you don't." This illustrates the concept of the Johari window however. It's a simple four square diagram showing the types of knowledge/awareness.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence. This means you don't know what you don't know. If you don't know that a skill, concept, or thing exists, you can't explain it or define it.
  2. Conscious Incompetence. This is the point where you know something exists, you just don't know much if anything about it. I know wine comes from grapes and there's a fermentation process, but if you asked me to make a specific type of wine like a merlot, I wouldn't be able to do it even with access to a facility. I know it exists, just not how it works.
  3. Conscious Competence. This is the bulk of the learning process. You know how things work and you're slowly working your way to mastery. Most of the skills you're learning at this moment are in this phase.
  4. Unconscious Competence. At this point, you're so good at what you're doing that you don't have to think about it. It comes naturally and effortlessly to you.

So when you hear someone saying that social skills cannot be explained in books and that you either get it or you don't, what quadrant do you think they're in? Which one do you think you're in right now?

Go to a Barnes & Noble or something this week, take a look at a pickup artist book and consider the advice therein applied to the larger social spectrum. Some of you probably think you're already pretty good with people. I guarantee you can do better. Some of you may be shy and are still trying to improve. This will help. Some of you probably think you're good enough already. No you're not. There's always room for improvement. If you don't want to spend the money on these books, some are available at the library. So what are you waiting for? You have nothing to lose.

Until next time.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Boo Moments

I love movies, and horror is my pet genre. But most horror movies suck and are a waste of time and money, like any movie made by Platinum Dunes (the remakes of The Amityville Horror, Friday the 13th, etc) or made by James Wan (Saw, Saw II, Dead Silence). Aside from this pattern of name recognition, I've worked out a system for determining the potential quality of a horror movie by watching its trailer and counting the number of Boo moments. What is a Boo moment? Anything that tries to invoke fear by startling you. The system is very simple:

1 point: A basic boo moment. Something jumps out or appears unexpectedly via a sudden reveal. Usually accompanied by a screeching orchestra hit.
2 points: An intermediate boo moment. This is when the something that jumps out does do directly at the screen or is revealed in such a way that it's looking at the camera.
3 points: Advanced boo moment. This reveal or pop out is preceded by several seconds of build-up. It usually but not always involves someone investigating a suspicious noise and finds nothing, only to have the killer or monster appear abruptly behind them, presumably having been standing there in anticipation of the hapless idiot backing up into them.

Got your boo moments sorted out? Good. Now here's the scale of quality based on the points scored by the number and type of boo moments in a given trailer:

3 points or less: Probably good with the potential to be great. Examples: Rosemary's Baby, Shudder Island, Daybreakers
4-6 points: Might be enjoyable, but could just as easily suck. Defer to track record of screenwriter and director when possible, but this is no guarantee either. Example: Land of the Dead
7 points or more: This is the cinematic equivalent of repeatedly hitting yourself in the junk with a meat tenderizer. Examples: Anything made by Platinum Dunes.

Why am I bringing this up? Because a lot of bizarrists want to do scary stuff and prove to have just as much sense of subtlety, restraint, and pathos as Michael Bay and his cronies. There's a difference between scaring someone and startling them. And to do so requires genuine pathos, intelligence, and an understanding of what actually scares people.

Jim Pace's The Web is a neat little effect and everything, but it's more of a gag than a horror routine. It's scary in the same way that Twilight is romantic: cheap, emotionally exploitative and quickly forgotten. It takes absolutely no talent to get reactions like that. If you want to actually do something that people will remember and enjoy, you need to have more of a method to your madness than just sneaking up on a person and screaming "BOO!!" at them.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Props to My Peeps

If there is one thing that bizarre magic really loves, it's props. Incidental items, devices, brick-a-brack, curiosities, novelties, antiques, crafts, oddities, tchotchkes, sundries, and other odds and ends. Bizarrists are all over props like ugly on ape. The issue however is that just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Think for a minute. Do you have the budget to live in an Old World abode, travel the globe, and collect occult paraphernalia like Ronnie James Dio? No? Then perhaps you should leave the accursed antique whatchamahoochie at home for your next performance. In fact, how much do you really need props? Rick Maue, author of the superlative The Book of Haunted Magick, has some truly astounding mentalism and haunted magic routines with materials culled almost entirely from Office Depot.

Now while I concede that theatricality can aid the willing suspension of disbelief, there are limits based mostly on the little/big rule, which I'll cover in the next entry. The gist of it is that people are less likely to suspend their disbelief when the devil is in the details. I frequently use a pendulum, which isn't a big deal. They can be bought at most New Age or Neo-Pagan shops and are pretty easy to track down through the internet as well. If anyone questions where I got it, I tell them the truth because there's no reason not to. The pendulum is just a tool that enables the effect, there's nothing particularly special about it as a prop. On the other hand, people would be more skeptical if I were to pull out a pair of antique thumb screws because it just seems so unlikely that a shaggy young guy fresh out of college would be able to get his hands on that. And if I were to actually start talking about how they're haunted or something, we have officially crossed the line into a serious WTF moment that is going to bring your credibility and the immersion of your act to a sudden... screeching... end.

When you're young, you have to play to your strengths. If you do use a prop, let it be something fairly unremarkable used in the same way as most magic props are meant to be: incidental. There's a school of thought in magic that we need to be honest that we're doing sleight of hand all the time, that we need more flourishing, all to make sure that we get the credit for the effect and not the prop. I don't buy that logic. Whatever prop you use should be entirely incidental and a matter of convenience.

Docc Hilford has a superb close-up routine called the Nightmare Coins which you can find in his booklet Band of the Hand and the Monster Mentalism DVD set. This is an excellent usage of a prop incidentally and the narrative starts with the idea of having a dream within a dream. A lot of people have experienced this phenomenon or are at least familiar with it. It's believable, provided it's congruent with the character you've established. Remember that you're an actor. So act.

Overall, props can be great but it's very easy to overuse them or mishandle them. Don't get overly exotic for its own sake, and don't do something hokey. I once had a chat with a young spark who thought he was clever for coming up with a "creepy" routine vanishing a fake severed finger. He said to claim it was real and that it was discovered at the site of a grisly murder and that the ghost of the murderer was trying to reclaim it. Try not to injure yourself face-planting your desk in exasperation. I don't want that on my conscious.

The point is, that example neatly illustrates an itemized checklist of the things bizarrists do with props that they shouldn't, and neither should you.

Until next time.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reactions and Bad Taste

I mentioned earlier that I had heard some real horror stories about bizarrists who thought that any reaction was a good reaction. Today we're going to develop that thought. No, I will not name anybody as they have long since either learned from their mistakes or will probably never learn at all. Let them be anonymous here.

I'm going to start with the most common mistake of all: the Death tarot card. There is a time and a place for everything, and more often than not, the Death card does not belong in your act. I've heard no less than half-a-dozen stories of magicians doing a tarot effect using this card that ended with an audience member in tears. Usually, the bizarrist was congratulating himself for getting such a strong reaction, but riddle me this: if someone scared the hell out of you or a relative or a friend in such a way, driving them to tears and genuine grief, would you ever book that person for an event again?

This is one of the reasons bizarrists so seldom perform for live audiences. They have no concept of how far is too far. That may sound strange coming out of my mouth, considering I've gone on the record saying that for me there is no too far, only too soon. But I know for a fact that not everyone agrees with me on this. In Robert Greene's bestselling book "The 48 Laws of Power" he states that law 38 is, "Think as you like but behave like others." There are many times when it is best to put up a veneer of agreeability and keep your more unconventional ideas to yourself. Being in front of an audience is one of these.

So with that in mind, what kind of reactions have you been hoping for that would be a bad thing? That might actually be offensive to others? Consider it from the perspective of the other audience members. The magician reveals the Death card to a woman and she bursts into tears. You know the reason she's crying is because she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Yes, this actually happened. Once again let's say hypothetically that this happened to a relative or friend of yours. A mother, sister, girlfriend, fiance, that sort of thing. What would you think of the magician? If you're anything like me, you're probably deciding whether you want to break his arm or his leg.

Let's say the magician does something to make your child cry and become inconsolable. How about a parlor show that ends with the magician "dying" and no one sees him for the rest of the night? Doing a Russian roulette routine with spikes and then using a spectator's hand? All of these things and more have been done and they seldom end well.

It may look cool to you, but you really need to step outside of your own head. Once you've crossed a line, you've created a lot of ill will. That damage is incredibly difficult if not impossible to repair. You permanently close doors in doing these things.

I've met young magicians starting out as bizarrists who go for scariness for its own sake. I understand where they're coming from and know the thrill of creating something frightening. As a lover of horror movies, I totally sympathize. But audiences won't. You need to give them a reason to want to see this, and by virtue of magic being a live, interactive experience the rules are different from film or music.

So consider what reactions you want, why you want them, and what the audience will think of them. Do this with every act or effect you're working on and you'll end up dodging a bullet that could seriously damage your reputation and magic more than once.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Getting Over the Approach Anxiety

Approach anxiety is a term commonly used in the pick-up and seduction communities to describe that first twinge of nerves or fear you feel when approaching a total stranger. This is natural and nothing to be ashamed of. For all the progress society has made, we still have millions of years of evolutionary wiring in our brains telling us to follow certain concepts despite the fact that they are no longer as important as they used to be.

Approach anxiety comes from the old tribal days of the cavemen. Such small bands of hunters and gatherers operated similarly to a wolf pack, with a structured hierarchy based on merit. We felt approach anxiety because it forced us to make a critical cost/benefit analysis. If you asked one of your tribesman for a favor or tried to court a member of the opposite sex and they rejected you, everyone would see it and your status would take a blow as a result. Back in those days taking a moment for that brief analysis in your head to determine if success was likely enough to risk the approach was very important. But not anymore.

The truth is that most people are not going to be crass with you just because you said hello. A lot of people would like to have an interesting experience, have a friendly conversation, or just meet a fascinating new person. So what are some ways to overcome approach anxiety?

Start small and work your way up. Maintain eye contact when talking to people. As a little tip, focusing in particular on a person's right eye when they're speaking tends to create more of a bond while looking directly between the eyes suggests that you are in a position of dominance or control. Hypnotists use the latter frequently, but for everyday conversations it's preferable to go with the former instead.

Eye contact and a sincere smile will go a long way. As authoress Leil Lowndes once wrote, many people are too quick to smile and it comes across as fake. If you smile too quickly, people think you're only doing it to humor them. Learn to realize that you don't need to rush yourself to smile. Make eye contact and let it come naturally, slowly. That might sound counterintuitive, and I have had people tell me I'm crazy or an idiot or whatever for doing this, but the results don't lie.

Ask every person how their day is going. "What's up?" Most people are happy just to have someone ask that of them. Do this with people on the street, on the bus, the wait staff at a restaurant, the cashiers, everyone. The point is to condition yourself to remove the anxiety of approaching a stranger.

As you get used to this, you can work your way up to having brief conversations with people on the spur of the moment. It will seem awkward and counterintuitive at first, but you'll get used to it. It's all just repetition, repetition, repetition until it becomes second nature.

By getting rid of approach anxiety, you can apply this to your magic. A good performer needs to be approachable himself. I know a lot of you out there probably like the idea of the detached star or the distant mystic or the reclusive wizardly type. But take it too far and no one will want to talk to you or watch you perform because they can't get any sense of who you are and you end up looking a bit creepy. I'll let you in on a little secret: you can be approachable and sociable and still have an air of mystique to you. That will be discussed in a later post, however.

For now, make a promise to yourself to leave the magic paraphernalia at home for a week and just work on being a more socially stand up guy using some of the exercises talked about above. If you can do this with 50 people in one week, you'll notice a difference almost immediately. In Pavel Tsatsouline's book "Relax into the Stretch" he talks about how most inflexibility is the result of involuntary muscular tension and that if you gradually widen your legs as they relax, you'll eventually be able to do a full split once you show your body and brain that nothing bad will happen when you do this. Same thing here. Approach anxiety will vanish and you'll feel much more confident approaching strangers (and doing magic for them) once you've shown your brain that all the bad things it imagines are not going to happen.

Until next time.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


This is The Pitt and the Pendulum, dedicated to bringing bizarre magic out of mothballs and putting it out in front of audiences. Specifically, if you're a young guy starting out in bizarre magic and mentalism, this blog is specifically about helping you to get your material in front of people as well as improving your skills at writing and theatrics. My name is Alexander Vornoff, a Pittsburgh based magician and mentalist with a penchant for bizarre/haunted magic.

Let me start by telling you where you're not going to find good advice on bizarre magic and mentalism: that wretched hive of scum and villainy known as The Magic Cafe. The majority of people there are not going to be able to help you, there are comparatively few working professionals, and the moderating staff enforce the rules strictly but without any real effectiveness, often just deleting posts or closing threads based on a report without actually investigating. To put it simply, the Cafe is more politics than actual magic and it's Jekyll and Hyde reputation of being a hug box one moment and a feeding frenzy the next is because the community embodies the old saying, "You have to get behind somebody before you can stab them in the back."

Perhaps later I'll develop this thought more, but for the time being this is all you really need to know about the Cafe. Just stay away and try to avoid getting yourself tangled up in magic politics. Getting involved only brings headaches as I learned the hard way.

That said, when it comes down to finding communities specifically dedicated to bizarre magic and mentalism it's hard to find a really good one. You're much better off keeping your ear to the ground for lectures and trying to network.

If you're wondering why I opened with this, let me restate that the problem with most bizarre magic is that it never gets performed. The reason being is that bizarre magicians, myself included, are for the most part... well, nerds. Being a nerd means having your own language. It means having a comprehensive knowledge of a subject most people aren't into or only have a cursory awareness of. Making it accessible is always a challenge. Most bizarrists do not actually perform for a living, and I've heard some real horror stories of what happens when they do and end up crossing a line or 20 because they make the mistake of believing that any reaction is a good reaction.

Can I tell you how to make it as a professional? No. That's not what I'm here for. I will be telling you about people who can tell you more about the business side of magic, but for the most part my aim is to help you expand your horizons and get in front of audiences in the first place.

Until next time.