Monday, December 27, 2010

Billets: What Kind Do You Use?

Can't do mentalism without eventually having to get to using a billet or two. The biggest question I always had starting out was what to use. Below is a list of various types of paper I've used and how they stack up.

Post-It Notes
These are my least favorite. The adhesive, while weak, does get in the way and they don't fold more than once or twice very well. They have a good opacity and can be marked easily, but their application is a bit limited. Pencil dots and some impression device techniques make these nice to have for parlor and stage mentalism. But if you plan to use them in close-up you're going to have to finesse it a bit.

Blank Business Card Stock
These fold awkwardly at times, but are excellent for all other applications. They especially hold nail nicks and pencil dots well. There are some sleights out there that make use of them for peeks, though I don't use them much personally. If you want to try them out and see if it's a good fit, by all means go ahead. They're especially good when using dousing paraphernalia such as a pendulum. If you do peek work with them, don't attempt a center tear. It's more trouble than it's worth.

Memo Pads
For peek work, these are my favorite. They fold very nicely, are not too transparent and carrying them around looks natural. They don't draw much attention to themselves. They don't hold nail nicks very well, though pencil dots are fine. They also rip nicely, which makes them great for center tears.

Cigarette Papers
These are very translucent and ink will show through them. They're not very good for folding and center tears as a result, but they're small and wad up really tight, making them great for pellet work. Eugene Burger's Spirit Magic DVD offers a nice little setup for just such a routine. Try it. You might like it.

Department Store Tissue Paper
This has one big advantage: it's free. Seriously, just walk into Macy's or some place like that and ask if they can give you a sheet of tissue paper they wrap clothes in. They'll probably give it to you no questions asked. It makes a nice switch with flash paper as visually it's almost identical at a distance of more than a foot or two. Like the cigarette papers, they're very translucent and best used in pellet work.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas to the Readers

Christmas Eve is finally here. In the spirit of the holidays, I'm offering this gift to my readers: from now until midnight tomorrow, both of my ebooks "Say What?" and "Exalt of the Weird" are available for free. Just shoot me an email at specifying which book you would like (or both) and I'll send the PDF(s) to you free of charge.

Happy Holidays

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Social Media

My father, a business coach, recently showed me this YouTube video. I think you need to see this if you plan on going pro as a magician.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Exotic Locations!

"I acquired this while exploring an abandoned cathedral in rural Germany."
"I got these coins from my great uncle Les."
"I found this in a haunted house down the block from where I grew up."
"I learned this after the gypsy curse took hold."

No you didn't.

If there's one thing that makes my blood boil, it's the stupid excuses magicians dress their effects up in. We all need to motivate our effects, obviously, but my disbelief can only be suspended so much. Hearing ridiculous crap like that takes me out of the experience so fast it creates a sonic boom.

I have a theory that this is a call back to the golden age of magic near the turn of the century. The Mystery of the Sphinx! The Chinese Linking Rings! The Princess from the Temple of Love in India! All worked fine for their time, but these days the ease of world travel and global communication just makes it sound ridiculous.

As for the heirloom plot, let's be honest: that one is trite and played out at this point. These folksy, homespun stories had their time, but today they sound like a Family Circus comic took a crap. It just adds to the stereotype of magicians as a bunch of cheesy losers who specialize in bad puns.

So what's the answer? As I've said before, stop calling so much attention to your props. Stop explaining things to us. Just let everything be smooth, natural, and most importantly incidental.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Improv: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Portuguese have a word with no analog in the English language: desenrascano. It means roughly the ability to "disentangle" yourself from a problem by making up a solution on the fly with limited to no resources at your immediate disposal. The Portuguese value this skill so greatly, that they teach it in their universities and military. And that's just it: it's a skill. One that must be learned over time.

The fatal flaw most people have when considering improvisation is the belief that it is a shortcut. That it is not in fact a skill, that it just happens. This is patently ridiculous. Where it hurts magicians is the way they try to improvise their performances without having rehearsed a good routine first. What some like Garrett Thomas call "jazz magic" is actually a skill they developed over many years in a professional setting.

But how does one learn a skill based on spontaneity and a lack of resources? Like anything else, it's equal parts theory and execution. Harry Lorayne has reached a point where he doesn't even rehearse routines anymore. He creates his routines on the fly in response to the audience. But Harry has had decades to master his craft. Most of us haven't. And those that have are a still a way's away from that level.

The worst improv I've seen in magicians involves a lot of filler ("um... uh..."), stolen jokes, double words ("It's like... like..."), and general stumbling. They don't seem cognizant of the fact that their performance is stiff, stilted and lacks flow. You can practically hear the gears in their head straining under the effort of trying to grind out something snappy. The problem stems from a lack of respect for the learning process.

Suppose you're trying to be funny. Do you know how to construct a joke? Do you know how to make funny comparisons? What about timing? If you don't know how to do any of this, what makes you think that improv is going to magically fix that? It would be like trying to make dinner with no recipe or even knowledge of what the various tools and appliances in your kitchen do.

The justification I hear most often for improv is that it looks more "natural." This is a lie. If the videos are anything to go by, natural is just a codeword for awkward. A spontaneous one-liner can be great, but not all of them are going to be hits. Occasionally you'll deliver one that falls flat on its face and you'll just have to move on. If they all fall flat because you don't know what you're doing, then you're screwed.

The Portuguese approach desenrascano very seriously. It is a skill and the learning process must be respected and approached pragmatically with an open mind. If you're going to develop this skill yourself to be able to adapt on the fly in a live performance, you must do the same.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What a Character

"Just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character."
-Winston Wolf, Pulp Fiction

In preparation for a special event I'll be taking part in in the near future, I want to introduce you to some of the don't's of characterization for performers.

Never Describe Yourself as "Laid Back"
If there is one expression that I would like to strike from the English language, it's "laid back." Why? Because that's how every Tom, Dick, and Harry describes himself when he can't think of anything remotely interesting to say. I'm not kidding when I say that 99% of all young magicians when asked to describe their performances say, "Well, I'm really laid back."

Ask yourself: What does that even mean? How am I as a person inquiring about your act supposed to react to or interpret that? The simple fact of the matter is that the phrase is nothing more than a cliche. Whatever meaning it once possessed has been nullified through inappropriate overuse. It's like when you say a word over and over again until it's reduced to a collection of meaningless syllables.

You have to realize that generic phrases like "laid back," "easy going," and "funny/fun-loving" are really just the Fohrer effect at work. People who describe themselves this way possess no self-awareness and as such are incapable of describing their performances accurately. The most egregious mistake they make is to say, "I'm myself when I perform." That's a laugh and a half because they don't know who they are. And if you possess even a passing familiarity with the name Erving Goffman, then you know that who we are changes depending on setting. You are not the same person to a complete stranger that you are to the President that you are to your grandmother that you are to your lover.

Technically Right Doesn't Mean Correct
Are you familiar with the term purple prose? For those who aren't, it's literary in context. It refers to writing that is overly lurid and descriptive. So much so that rather than making the prose more sensual as it intends, it only bogs everything down, sometimes even confusing the reader by giving them mixed signals. This is most commonly seen in the genres of romance and fantasy, though any hack or amateur writer is liable to make the same mistake. Let me give you some examples from the now-defunct webcomic The Broken Mirror:

"Stay here for a minute whilst I go and get some ice creams."
"You have the most tremendously melancholy green eyes."
"Shouldn't I furtively thrust a wad of fifties into your palm before heading to the sewers... clandestine, intent on pursuing my perilous trade?"

I kid you not. The creators of the comic stopped producing it about a quarter of the way through the story and let the domain expire. You'll just have to take my word for it that these and other literary abominations really happened.

Why am I talking about this? It's the opposite side of the coin to meaningless phrases like "laid back." An exotic word here and there can add spice to a description. But there's a difference between a pinch of salt and a whole bowl full of salt. Don't play an ace when a two will do. Is "clandestine" better than "secret?" Is "virulent" a better word than "strong?" Would the description of your act really be improved if instead of saying "marvelous" you said "incomprehensible?" All of these words would be technically correct as substitutions for one another. But they wouldn't be the right word choice because they imply different things than what you would want to convey.

Don't Get Caught Up with Adjectives
Grant Adams is a marketer and dating coach with a degree in semiotics, which is roughly the study of signs and symbols and the meanings that we associate them with. I may do a future article or two on semiotics as it's a fascinating subject, but that's for another time. One thing I heard Grant bring up in an interview is that many people pigeonhole themselves with adjectives. They are a passive thing, easy to mentally file away and dismiss. Once a person can own you in their mind, you cease to be interesting.

The antidote is to change the way you describe yourself. Move away from adjectives and don't touch adverbs if you value your dignity. See my above comments about purple prose for my thoughts on adverbs. Nouns aren't bad, but they still leave room to pigeonhole you. Use them with caution. Focus more attention on verbs. Become a proactive force. It's okay to say for example that you're a sly practical joker as long as you can give us more than that. I've been described at different times as a mad genius, an Old World occultist, and (my personal favorite) a "naturally occurring Bond villain." One of the few times I allow an adverb to be used in a description of me.

Again, it's okay to hear people describe you in such ways now and again. But when describing yourself, you need action and dynamism to grab people's attention. Be more than just a collection of adjectives.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Your Opinions and You

I suppose it's gotten time for me to hop into the confessional. About ten years ago as of writing this, I was a wreck socially speaking. Only a couple of friends and about as much social grace as a particularly misanthropic snake. I had a really hard time communicating because I couldn't relate to a lot of people I met and I have a fairly obsessive mind so that once I got started on something that interested me I wouldn't shut up. After a point though, I started to have the importance of networking pounded into me and became cognizant of just how bad I was at social skills.

For a while, it was hard to do anything about this because back then I still believed as many people still do that things like charisma, charm and wit are indefinable its, traits you are born with and that cannot be learned. There was no real dramatic turning point for me. Over time that belief just sort of fell by the wayside. College was when most of the progress was made. I experimented a lot in high school, of course, but like everyone else at that age it was all trial and error. I had no real identity and was struggling to find a group I could relate to. The less I say about that period of my life, the better.

Sometime in my freshman year of college, I decided to finally start dealing with the problem by deconstructing it. I came to realize that since becoming self-conscious of my habit of talking too much, I tended to shut up when people got really into a subject and let them dominate the conversation. In certain situations it wasn't appropriate for me to talk about things like my personal politics. And when I didn't and just let people talk, they eventually walked away assuming I was on their side.

After that little revelation, other patterns began emerging. I approached my improvement like a scientist, testing hypotheses and trying to repeat results. I listened to new ideas I wouldn't have considered before and tested those too. It paid off. Now people who meet me have no clue how much of a social pariah I used to be. They assume I was always like this.

The point I'm getting at here is that there is really only one effective way to solve a problem: to deconstruct it. It behooves us to step back every now and again and consider why we believe the things we do. Do you recall I mentioned earlier how I used to believe that social skills were something you either get or don't, that they can't be contextualized and taught? Well, why do we believe that? If one cannot learn social skills, then why aren't we still communicating like we did at 3 years of age? We have scientists studying psychology, sociology and anthropology, but why is putting our social nature in paper and ink taboo or even impossible?

Here's the problem: when you've been one way your entire life, you don't think about it. You take it for granted. And with nothing to compare it to, it's much more difficult for you to describe to others. I've argued with many people who think I'm lying through my teeth about all this. Nearly all of them turned out to be at best mediocre with social situations and had been for as long as they could remember, or had otherwise been part of some social station their whole life and never experienced anything outside of it. Those who weren't were either still just plain attached to their opinions or were ignoramuses determined to avoid admitting they were wrong, no matter how badly they had to mangle logic and reason to do it.

The first step in the learning process is always to look at the world beyond yourself. Your experiences are not universal. Your ideas are not always right. Very often, we come by our opinions via other people. We don't actually give them any conscious thought and simply defer to "conventional wisdom." However, if you look at the successful people in this world, many of them did counterintuitive things to get where they are. Don't make excuses for that, simply ask yourself why the counterintuitive thing worked.

What is an opinion you currently hold about magic or people or art or business? Why do you hold it? When did you form this opinion? What are the dissenting opinions? What logic would you use to justify them if you held them? It's a difficult process to undergo, but necessary. Do that over the next week. If you have an "A-ha!" moment or a personal "Eureka!" leave a comment about it, because it's important that we show anyone reading this that opinions are not infallible. And saying, "That's just your/my opinion," is not a defense. It's a way to escape having to think.