Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleightly Negative

'Tis the season again! Apologies for the lack of posts, but the holidays have been keeping me derailed lately. I did want to get one post up before the new year though, but I didn't know what. Then I reminded myself that this is a season of peace and good will. We're all filled with positive thoughts. And then it hit me.

Here's something I'll bet you didn't know. The brain isn't very good at processing negatives. Really. Now, reading this paragraph intellectually you'll probably retain the previous negative of "isn't." But if you were in a more emotional state, the brain is going to be more inclined to edit the negative out and interpret the sentence differently. This is a trick political campaign ads have been using for years and something magicians can make good use of.

Let me illustrate. When trying to distort the sequence of events in an effect, magicians will sometimes say something like, "I didn't touch the deck at any point," or, "You shuffled the deck," planting in the audience's head that the magician was uninvolved in what happened. I find the latter to be slightly more effective because if I remove negatives and keep the attention away from what I did or did not do, there's less chance for their brain to accidentally edit out negatives and remember (correctly or otherwise) me manipulating the deck or whatever.

We already know that the brain is a very fascinating thing in its capacity for editing reality. So give this a try. Go through your scripts and routines and change any and all references to what you didn't do to what the spectator did. Even if it's a bald-faced lie, if they're emotionally involved and you say it with enough authority, their mind will edit the memory to match.

It's a bit knackier, but you can also use this phenomenon to your advantage by accenting and pacing a sentence in such a way that the negative being edited out by the brain helps the illusion. I myself haven't had a lot of chances to use this myself and wouldn't really recommend giving it a shot until you have more experience with the principle. It has to be used very deftly to create an embellishment and shouldn't be used as a main element of the deception.

So in the spirit of the season, cut out the negatives and be more positive. Happy holidays, everyone!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Too Cool to Be Cool

This is something I've had on my mind for a while now. A while back when I was auditioning for agents, I received a comment, "You're not like other magicians." I asked how so. Feedback is always appreciated. The answer was disheartening however. I was different in this person's mind not by virtue of anything unique I had done, but by what I wasn't. And while that's certainly not a bad way to approach building a character, it was the fact that this person considered magicians to be cornball, oily windbags with bad puns, stupid pickup lines and a sense of coolness about 50 years out of date.

I started watching more performances from both the old guard and the new guard and realized she was right. Most magicians come across as a stereotypical used car salesman. Most likely because that sort of corny act worked at one point in history. But not anymore. Times have changed. What was fashionable then is nothing more than an embarrassing novelty now.

There is a way for such things to continue existing however. They belong in the realm of ironic camp. People don't like it when magicians in real life tell their stupid jokes, but they still laugh when Gob did it on Arrested Development. Why? Because it was made abundantly clear on the show that Gob is not someone we're supposed to like as a person. The other characters' reactions to his obnoxious behavior mirror our own. Gob becomes cool by being interminably uncool.

Yet despite this very obvious lesson, magicians still persist in hokey, outdated one-liners and personae, totally oblivious to the fact that no one under the age of 60 finds this sort of thing funny anymore. They take themselves seriously. Too seriously in fact. They really do expect us to laugh at puns and pickup lines that are about as funny as prostate cancer. They think their cornball pseudo-Vaudeville antics that wouldn't make the cut in a Looney Tunes cartoon are endearing. They're trying so hard to be cool and command the spotlight that you can practically see the veins popping out of their necks under the strain and no one is fooled. It's the polar opposite of a lovable loser.

If they took themselves less seriously and didn't expect us to like them because of their campy image, they'd get a lot further. But they don't. And so here we are.

If you're going to try to be cool, you have to do it gracefully and with a sense of restraint. Or if you think you can be ironically entertaining, knock yourself out. But for the love of all that is sacred in this world, please stop aping the magicians of yesteryear and expecting people to like it and take you seriously because you're just going to end up looking like a tool.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

YouTube: Is It Really the Devil?

Much has been made in the magic community of YouTube and the various exposure videos and channels up and running on the site. It's drawn a lot of criticism, not always undeserved. But how bad is it really?

I'm of the opinion that magicians make a bigger deal of their secrets than is necessary, and in the grand scheme of things YouTube really isn't that big a threat to us. The exposure videos are annoying, but if you're good at what you do, you can still maintain the mystery to your show. There are obvious ethical concerns with the exposure channels, especially the ones trying to monetize them, but that's not really what I want to address here.

See, what I think is the bigger problem with YouTube exposure videos is how crap most of them are. A lot of newbies go online looking for a place to get started, and unfortunately the exposure videos are pretty convenient. I'm not angry with the newbies. They don't know what's considered proper procedure in this community. How could they? It's not like we go out of our way to publicize it. And doing so would just draw more attention to the exposure monkeys and killjoys anyway.

The problem this creates however, and it is one that we have to be aware of in order to remedy, is that a lot of new guys end up getting their start learning from a bunch of incompetent teenage attention whores with the manual dexterity of a three-toed sloth. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: YouTube tutorials are to learning magic what a Swiss army knife is to open heart surgery. The overwhelming majority of guys who post these videos are terrible magicians and worse performers. I've looked up some of these videos, believe me. They couldn't deliver good scripting to save a burning orphanage, their hands are all stiff and weird like they're doing an impersonation of a robot at the bottom of the uncanny valley, and they have the timing and character of a fart in the middle of a eulogy. Their webcam performances could not be any worse unless they were stabbing you in the face is what I'm saying.

Yet this is where a lot of new guys get their start. And it's a bad thing because then they develop bad habits early on and they have to spend time breaking them. Time they could have spent refining the material they have or gaining a better understanding of the fundamentals. Learning from YouTube is one step forward, two steps back.

But ultimately the magic community must share a certain amount of blame here. Being as dramatic about our secrets as we are, there's a certain degree of outsider unfriendliness and suspicion. Guys turn to YouTube because other magicians don't make themselves very approachable. The majority of us aren't complete jerkoffs, granted. It's more a sense of complacency. It's an unintended side effect of our culture of secrecy.

So YouTube is not the threat many of us imagine it is. The problem it presents is more indirect. And the best we can do to combat it is to just step back and consider if perhaps we might be acting a bit too secretive. If more newbies discover early on that there are better ways to learn and that we will happily volunteer that information, we'll see the audience for the exposure monkeys shrinking. They'll never truly go away, but marginalizing them means there will be fewer new guys who get a bad start due to the incompetence of Magic Exposure Channel #347.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Make the Other Guy Look Good

As magicians, we love attention. Don't try to deny it. To be a performer, you have to enjoy the applause to some degree. You have to have a bit of an ego to enjoy being in the spotlight that often. But there are times when it's appropriate to give up that spotlight and make one of your spectators the star of the show. I'm going to give you two examples from my own experience, but keep in mind that there are many, many more.

When I was busking in 2008, there was one day where a young boy walked behind me as I was in the middle of a routine and he caught me palming a coin. He of course had to announce this to everyone. I didn't make a big deal of it, and neither did the audience. Hey, these things happen sometimes. No sense getting bent out of shape.

Unfortunately, the young man decided to stick around. His father stood about 50 feet off, watching mutely as his son watched my next several routines, loudly voicing every idea he had for how he thought I did something, no matter how outlandishly wrong those theories were. I didn't give him any attention, but boy howdy was this kid stubborn.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of him trying to shout over me and getting in the way and his father doing absolutely nothing I decided that enough was enough. I called for a volunteer, and framed the card effect I was doing as the work of the volunteer (whom we will refer to as Jeff) rather than me. Of course, after the reveal the boy shouted out his theories, but this time I interrupted him. "Hey! Jeff was talking."

I gave Jeff a moment where he looked good in front of a small crowd and turned things on the kid to make him out as being rude, not to me, but to Jeff. Since I made Jeff look good, he was now on my side. Sure enough, at the next effect the kid piped up but was immediately shouted down by Jeff and all his friends barking in unison, "Dude, shut up!" The kid walked off after that. He wasn't going to get the crowd praising him for how smart he thought he was. They wanted to enjoy the rest of the show. And Jeff didn't want someone messing with the guy who just gave him some of the limelight.

At another time, I was doing a set for a guy and his girlfriend. I had a suspicion that the guy liked the show, and wasn't going to chase me off, but he wasn't entirely on my side. I asked them if they felt they had some sort of special connection and that I wanted to test it. I had the girl select a card, which I controlled to the bottom of the deck. I asked her to look at her boyfriend and try to focus on her card.

When I turned to the boyfriend, I held the deck in both hands and tipped it up slightly so that he could see the bottom card but she couldn't. As I told him to look into her eyes and reach out mentally, I tapped the card and gave him a little nod. He understood. He looked into her eyes, paused a few seconds, and named her card. The look on her face was priceless. Her boyfriend of course left a generous tip in my hat.

If you make a spectator look good in front of a crowd or their friends or even a significant other, they will be your buddy. And they will thank you for it. Leave an anecdote in the comments section about any times you've used this principle yourself.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror Movies for Dummies

A friend challenged me to watch 30 horror movies this month, bonus points if I could get some ones I'd never seen before. Sadly, my schedule has been frenetic at best, and I don't think I'll be able to meet the challenge. But it did get me thinking. There are different kinds of horror. Some are better than others. Not all movies are created equal. And horror is a very ghettoized genre. It certainly doesn't help that it's difficult to write but every anonymous twit with a word processor thinks he can turn out something shocking and scary when he's really just aping whatever clunkers he saw at the box office recently.

So it occurs to me that it's time to provide a list of essential horror movies for those who are still relatively new the genre. If you want to do bizarre, shock, or haunted magic, you have to know how to do it right. You have to know the history of the horror genre. Since movies are my thing, I'll that there. So here, in chronological order, are the horror movies I believe are mandatory viewing if you want to add horror to your magic.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: This is the granddaddy of all horror films. a surrealist tale of madness and entrapment. It set the bar for the rest of the century.

Nosferatu: The original "Symphony of Horror." While some contend that Werner Herzog's 1979 remake with Klaus Kinske was better made, the original still has a strong place in film canon.

Haxen: If you're not into documentaries, large portions of this movie are going to be difficult to get through for you. However, it contains some striking visuals and will give you an introduction to real world superstition and religious fanaticism that shaped Western culture for centuries.

The Universal Studios Monster Movies: Take your pick. Whether you're watching a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy or the creature from the Black Lagoon, it's all magic, baby!

The Val Lewton Horror Collection: I argue that Val Lewton is one of the most underrated horror filmmakers of the Golden Age. His clever use of light and shadow and camera work made his movies unbelievably creepy.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers: This was arguably the birth of paranoid sci-fi, and though I love the remake as well, the original is still worth watching.

Psycho: This is Neo-Gothic horror at its finest. A tiny pocket of wrongness and evil in an otherwise normal world. There's a reason the shower scene became a pop culture icon.

The Haunting: Please see my earlier review for why you need to see this movie.

Night of the Living Dead: I'm not just recommending this one because I'm a Pittsburgher myself. This was a game-changing movie that redefined the zombie mythos and created a new face of evil for artists all over the world.

Rosemary's Baby: Forget that Paranormal Activity crap. If you want demonic overtones, this is how you do it. An intensely creepy movie with a bleak, tragic ending but not for the reasons you might initially think.

The Wicker Man: This is without a doubt one of the single greatest movies about the evil that men do. The creepy behavior of the villagers juxtaposed with the sunny locations and cheerful Scottish folk music really gets under your skin.

Halloween: This is Movie Zero for the slasher genre and actually has comparatively little gore and a small body count. It builds itself up on unrelenting creepiness and atmosphere, which is a good lesson for performers to observe.

The Thing: The next two are for the shock magic fans. Body horror in the 80's was all about the spectacle of the wet death. It hit audiences in a very vulnerable place. John Carpenter's foray into the genre is one of the bloodiest and bleakest films you'll ever see.

The Fly: What separates a virtuoso artist like David Cronenberg from a kitsch king like Herschel Gordon Lewis is the intelligence behind their works. This is one of Cronenberg's most successful movies, despite its intense gore, because it plays out more like a tragic opera than a monster movie.

The Hitcher: A distinctly less gory 80's affair than one would expect. This film is mostly defined by Rutger Hauer's chilling performance.

Se7en: Not a pretty thing to see, certainly, but a great example of the evil that men do. Other than that, I'm have to be honest. The 90's was pretty desolate. There were very few good horror movies that decade, and even fewer great ones.

28 Days Later: Zombie purists will argue this isn't a true zombie movie, but it stands out as a strong entry for 2000's horror for being the best of the scientific zombie flicks of recent years.

The Mist: This is seriously one of the bleakest films on this whole list. Really. The ending is such a friggin' downer. There are some parts that are a bit cheesy, but the atmosphere is great.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Geese - There's a Lesson in There

I looked out a window at lunch today and saw a flock of geese flying south for the winter. I remembered that the reason they fly in a V formation is to make the trip easier. The strongest of the flock are at the front, taking the heaviest winds and drag. The weaker members are at the back of the V where they take less wind resistance. In other words, you can tell who the leaders of the flock are based on their strength and status by watching how the flock flies.

My point? Humans are not so different. If you watch people long enough, you start to notice subtle signs and signals. When performing for a group, watch for who's got the status. Who is the leader. They're the one you really need to win over. Impress them, and the rest of the group will follow.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Friendship is Magic (Literally!)

So the new season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has started this month. Yes, I watch the show, as I'm sure some of you reading this do as well. Trust me, it stopped being ironic a long time ago. If you don't watch the show, then being connected to the internet at all in the last year means that you've probably at least heard of it and the immense, sometimes psychotic, fan following that it has generated. I was tinkering with the idea of working references to the show into some of my all-ages routines, and that's when I decided that now would be a good time to bring up the subject of being topical.

When you're in the entertainment industry, it's actually very important to stay on top of trends, fads, and patterns. Some do it very well, such as Cracked dot com. Some do it very poorly, such as the studios that still refuse to screen horror movies to critics, even when they turn out to be a hit with the social media crowd. Being topical is not easy. You have to pay close attention to the ins and outs of pop culture and get a good sense of what's selling, what isn't, what's popular, what's not, and why. Then you need to ask yourself if this is of any use to you. And then you have to actually research the topic in order to present it intelligently, smoothly, and in a way that doesn't make me the audience want to punch you.

If you want to see some of the worst attempts to be topical, take a look at early 90's cartoons that featured a rap song in some way. Bear in mind that rap was only just going mainstream in the late 80's and early 90's. The genre had been around for years prior, but groups like Run DMC and Public Enemy were taking it to the surface. Artists like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. also lent their respective talents to expand and refine the genre artistically. On the other hand, there were also more commercial hip-hop acts like The Fresh Prince and MC Hammer who were making a style of rap that was... let's say, much less scary to white people. With the trend of rap as a mainstream genre on the rise, a lot of media moguls and producers tried to be topical and capitalize on it.

The result was some of the worst music ever made and subsequently marketed to children. I still remember cartoons and the commercials accompanying them with awkward MC Hammer references and some of the worst rhymes and flow I've heard in my life. Even as a kid who at the time only listened to whatever I happened to catch on Alternative Nation (a show back from when MTV was still about music), I could tell this was awful.

The sad thing? The same fate is befalling most performers who try to be topical. They come across as awkward, pandering, and ironically out of touch. They show no actual comprehension of the pop culture trend they're referencing. They end up looking like an old fart using anachronistic slang that's 20 years out of date in a desperate attempt to sound hip. I'm reminded of the documentary Uber Goober, a film about the history of games and the lifestyle of gamers. One of the interviews was with a musician by the stage name The Great Luke Ski who lamented that most humor about games and gamers was based on shallow stereotypes that took zero thought to come up with. He elaborated that he tries to deliver actual wit and humor by cracking jokes as an insider, someone with real knowledge of the subject he's singing about.

You must remember that lesson if you want to be topical. Yes, I know that which is topical has a limited shelf-life. Most of the time. Some pop culture phenomena live longer than any of us ever will, so some things will be pretty safe to work into a show years from now. But in the short term, being topical has its advantages. It opens doors. It's something everyone can relate to in some way. It gives them something to talk about. And it gives them an easy point of reference. In an earlier post, Brandon Porterfield described his experience doing a Pokemon-themed birthday party. Brandon didn't have much Pokemon merchandise to work with, so he was forced to be creative. He had to learn about different Pokemon, what they did, and get a decent idea of the franchise's premise and appeal. These circumstances allowed him to create a show that was both topical and effective.

So all you bronies out there, producing a Rainbow Dash figure out of thin air like would a coin or a card just isn't going to cut it. You have a chance to get in front of people and book shows because you can give them magic based on a show that a lot of people love. But you have to know the show, you have to take the opportunities it gives you, and you have to be creative with it. Be topical, but don't screw it up.

As an aside, I wrote this entire post without once making a single horse pun. You're welcome.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Whoooo are you?

Can you tell I'm having a bit of a classic rock binge?

A while back I learned a mnemonic device from Docc Hilford. The problem with names is that they're abstract. It's true that if you trace the etymology of a name far enough back you can discover it's meaning, but that's still an abstraction. If I told you to think of a car, you might think of different brands or models, but you can think of a car because a car is a specific thing. But what if I asked you to think of a Steve? Or a Jessica? Not quite the same, is it?

All memory is based on recall, the ability to connect thoughts together through association. The trick Docc Hilford shared with me is to associate someone's name with something memorable involving that name.

"What's your name?"

"What's your name?"

"What's your name?"
"I've got some jobs for you."

"What's your name?"
"Like Alba?"

Don't worry if they get the joke or not. As long as the association makes sense to you. If they don't get it, just wave it off with a simple, "I don't know what that means," or, "Nothing, I'm just spitballing."

I've been using this technique for about a year now and it works every time. Give it a shot.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

More Visual Characters

In a previous article, I talked about how visual design says something about a character, or rather that it should say something. Mystery Men is and always will be one of my top examples, but it is by no means the only one. I asked for contributions for other examples of this concept, but sadly came up short. So I scoured my own collection and came up with a few examples to elaborate on this concept.

Agent 47

The protagonist of the Hitman games is an example of very good, elegant design. Black suit, white shirt, red tie. An appearance of professionalism appropriate to the character. The lack of hair anywhere on his body, even eyebrows, gives him the look of both a fighter and something slightly alien. It's a subtle wrongness. That menace is complimented by the black gloves. This is a man who will kill you because it's his job and he will feel nothing.

Captain Marvel (Shazam)

Long story short, there are two Captain Marvels, one owned by DC and the other by Marvel. Marvel owns the copyright on the name, so DC has to market their Captain Marvel under the Shazam moniker. Look it up if you're really curious. Anyway, striking red, white, and gold color scheme that conveys a sense of regality and authority. Chiseled looks giving the image of a clean-cut good guy. The overly muscled physique also implies the power he wields and not just physically. The cape and double-breasted shirt give an old-fashioned military apperance while the sash suggests a touch of the exotic, anachronistic, even mystical. That mystic angle is enhanced by the embroidery on the cape and the lightning emblem on his chest. Archetypal Golden Age superhero with a mystical background. He is easily identifiable as a good guy and the color scheme and silhouette make him instantly recognizable as soon as you seem him in a comic panel.


From Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Toshiro Mifune's character is a farmer impersonating a samurai. It soon becomes apparent to everyone. His perpetually hunched gait implies a life of manual labor in the fields. His top knot is sloppy and poorly grown. He's always dirty and itchy, obviously not bothered by getting his hands dirty with farm work. He carries a sword as almost no soldier would and possesses little if any combat experience. He clearly has no idea what he's doing and this quest to save a village from bandits has put him in way over his head.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Throat Infection Remedy

As I write this, I'm unable to sleep due to pain from a nasty throat infection. However, I thought I would take a moment to share with you all a home remedy that is quite nice for dealing with these things: apple cider vinegar. Organic and unfiltered if you can get it.

Apple cider vinegar is very rich in vitamins and minerals and when mixed with honey and hot water makes an effective remedy for acid reflux as it allows the body to absorb calcium faster and balance your internal pH. It also improves the immune system, helps maintain the liver and kidneys, aids in weight loss, and improves digestion. Good to have in your pantry in general. But for throat infections... well it's slightly less pleasant. In that case, gargle a tablespoon of it. Straight. For about 5-10 seconds.

Yes, it's going to taste unbelievably horrible. Your tongue will wither. Your taste buds will organize a protest rally. But the vinegar will kill bacteria and viruses on contact, impeding the infection and aiding the healing process by acting as a natural antibiotic. Obviously you should still stay hydrated and get rest, but a little extra help never hurts. As a performer your voice is one of your most valuable assets. Take care of it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Ever met a fast talker? Maybe you are one. Ever hear someone use a lot of filler like "uh... um..." or a lot of crutch words and phrases like, "you know," or "so" or "like?" You ever wonder why people do that?

The short answer is that they're afraid of being interrupted. After a while it just becomes a habit. They don't want air in the conversation because they're worried the person they're talking to will take that as a cue to cut in. But the reality is that through voice tone and body language you can much more effectively tell someone that you're not done yet than if you hem and haw for half a minute as you think of how to finish your sentence.

And if you do get interrupted, so what? Just pick up where you left off. It's not the end of the world. Just don't interrupt other people. In fact, talking less and listening more is a good way to build rapport with an audience. And the less you talk, the less they know about you, thus increasing your air of mystery. Bonus!

So stop worrying about being interrupted, slow down, and take your time with your sentences. Not everything that comes out of your mouth is going to be a razor sharp display of Oscar Wilde worthy wit, but you can at least remove all the white noise and crutches to make it sound smoother and more confident.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Out and About

A recent conversation reminded me of something. First, a little background.

I've been a nerd for as long as I can remember. And that carried with it a certain social stigma. I always assumed that it was just because I was a nerd. For a while, I just sort of resigned myself to it. Around high school I started coming out of my shell and in college I really transformed myself.

But some aren't so fortunate. And that's when I noticed a pattern. A lot of people who are socially awkward or play the wallflower harbor a not-so-secret resentment of the people who are more outgoing and popular than them. I've met them in high school, college, and as adults. And without exception, every single one of them are giant douchebags. Their mistake is similar to the one I made: they're mixing up causality.

It's not your hobbies or your looks that determine whether or not you're socially adjusted. It's whether or not you actually socialize. People who are popular and well-liked are that way because they go out and talk to people. They know that not everyone will like them, and they're cool with that. A hundred snubs and rejections is nothing to them compared to the value of making another friend.

I recall an individual I argued with once about my lifestyle as a pickup artist. This guy was a piece of work. He loudly boasted about what a nice guy he was, and how much better a person he was than me based on his straw man characterization of my beliefs and lifestyle. I would provide scientific studies backing my claims, and he bragged about not reading them. I extended him olive branches, trying to be nice, and he hurled insults at me, even accusing me of being a potential serial killer and rapist. He was rude, hostile, condescending, arrogant, holier-than-thou, sexist and just generally an unpleasant human being. Does it come as any surprise then that he didn't believe it was possible to build up social skills like actual skills and cultivate charisma? That he was utterly fatalist and defeatist about social situations? That his evaluation of people's social status was based largely on how pretty they were or how much money they had? That he admitted he didn't even try because he didn't want to go through life constantly being rejected and that people should approach him instead of the other way around?

The fact of the matter is that your social life is dependent on you. Your successes are your responsibility and your failures are your fault. A magician must be able to assume a leadership roll because when performing, you are taking control of the conversation. And to do that, you have to have social experience. That means putting the cards, coins, and gimmicks away and just socializing.

I bring this up because I see an alarming number of young magicians who have never performed for a live audience. They're afraid of rejection. They don't know how to handle it emotionally. If you're one of them, it's time you understand that the reason you're not more popular is because you haven't put the work in. Some of you may have some excuses lined up, but I can say with certainty that they're all crap. It comes down to the fact that you're not trying or you gave up. Yes, it's a cliche, but it is true that you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

So put down the cards for a week and for the love of George Romero, just go out and talk to somebody.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anger Management

Have you ever had a tough spectator or even a heckler who got really smug with you? Maybe you flashed something and they spend the rest of the show blurting out whatever theory enters their skull. Or maybe they didn't like you taking their spotlight and are trying whatever cheap shot they can think of to get your goat. Doesn't that piss you off?

Here's the good news. There's nothing wrong with thinking that. I've had a couple of tough spectators and even a heckler or two whom I wanted to beat down with a hammer made out of concentrated hatred. I've had fantasies of slashing tires, busting heads and kneecaps, and issuing the kind of threats that would make a man sleep with the lights on for the rest of his life.

But I never acted on it. Every person has a little voice in the back of their head that tells you to eliminate competition to secure your place in the pecking order. It's that little devil on your shoulder whispering, "Destroy him." My dogs have no choice but to listen to that voice because they're dogs. But I'm sentient, capable of abstract thought and second guessing my impulses. So are you.

You can do a lot about your frustration and anger by reminding yourself that those emotional responses are something everyone has to deal with. It doesn't make you a bad person to think of these things. Acting on them does. The curious thing about inner demons is that when you drag them into the light and objectify them, they lose their power over you.

So go ahead and have that fantasy of keying that douchebag's car. Enjoy that mental image of your fist in his face. But keep it in the private theater of your mind. Remember that you hear the, "Destroy him," voice and know better than to listen to it. A tough spectator probably isn't out to get you, so he's not really a threat. Just a guy you haven't won over. A heckler on the other hand has heard that voice from the inner demon and he didn't have the willpower, self-awareness, or insight needed to ignore it. You've already risen above, so refusing to let your demon do battle with his will give you the advantage every time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Silence, Magic and Music

Another mini-post. I recalled an old quote that goes, "All form of art endeavor to be more like music." It's an interesting observation. Regardless of how much you agree or disagree with it, consider an important part of writing melodies: rests, that is places where an instrument doesn't play any notes, are just as critical as the actual tones themselves. Think of that start-stop rhythm in Roxanne by The Police. Or the iconic riff from Smoke on the Water.

Actors call pauses in dialog beats. In the play or screenplay, a beat is usually indicating by an ellipsis (...). It's hard to point out a good example of the use of beats as you're not supposed to consciously notice them. Though I will say for a bad example, watch any movie Kristen Stewart is in.

Make it your homework to watch some really good movies this week and watch out for actors using silence, beats, and pauses to subtly increase the drama.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Horror and Vulnerability

I stumbled across an old blog I used to read but lost track of sometime a year ago. Jack Monahan's blog on game design specifically. He does little "reboots" of games, trying to point out flaws in the design and illustrating suggestions for how to fix them. Even if you're not a game designer, it's interesting to read to learn more about aesthetics and practical considerations in media. Anyway, here's a link to the article he posted that got me thinking today in which he talks about a design reboot of Clive Barker's Jericho:


And this quote in particular got my eye when he described the characters in the game:

What's horrifying about these gothic sulks having to deal with the end of the world, aren't all their own apartments furnished in the same style as the oozing rivers of blood and hellscape they now traverse? In other words, the team seems to be lacking dramatic contrast to their environment. Far from being put out and suggesting fear and terror as appropriate responses, they seem at home.

Stop and think about that for a second. Could there be a problem of contrast in your own performances? Especially if you're doing bizarre magic. Just let that stew for a while and ask yourself honestly if you really have the right look for what you're doing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Who You Are vs. What's Expected

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but as of late I find myself strangely fascinated by Lady Gaga. I'm ambivalent about her music, and think she's rather full of herself, but I can't deny that she's made pop stars interesting again. For the sake of fairness and expressing an open mind, I listened to her most recent album and found that all of the songs featuring her "be yourself" message and heavy on bombastic self-empowerment were the worst songs on the album. It got me thinking.

Who we are is not the person we project to every person. You are not the same person to your mother that you are to your lover. You are not the same person to your boss that you are to your dog. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself. The Japanese built their whole culture and society around the idea that there is reality as you perceive it and as how everyone else filters it. They even have unique words for this: honne and tatamae respectively. Neither one is inherently more true than the other, they're just two sides of the same coin.

Somewhere along the way, I began to see how these two concepts relate to one another. Some magicians are not in this to become working pros. It's just something they like to do. And that's fine, but there's still an interesting thing happening. Magician You and Regular You are not the same person. I consider myself an actor as magicians go. I portray a character. But I accept that reality. There are people I've seen who say they just want to be themselves, but around a pretty girl or as soon as you put a deck of cards in their hands, they start acting like a completely different person. It's weird. And more often than not, this other persona comes across as a bit uncanny. It doesn't feel like a person. Just the shadow of a person.

What do I think is happening? An unnecessary clash of honne and tatamae. These people are a lot like Lady Gaga who has actually fought to avoid being photographed out of her makeup and costumes. There is the reality that you perceive, your honne, and it is conflicting with the rest of the world's tatamae because you are trying to become more like the tatamae.

This is just a theory of course. I'm not an actual psychologist or sociologist. But ask yourself: Is the way I'm acting now a part of how a perceive myself? Or am I hiding parts of myself behind a different facade to avoid any negative social happenstances?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Post: Brandon Porterfield on Theme Magic

I want to share with you guys a story I heard a few months back of a magician living in Japan who had to do a theme party based on subject matter he at first was only roughly familiar with. I'm going to let Brandon Porterfield tell you the story in his own words and hopefully this will teach you a little something about how to make themes work without getting into all that hackneyed, "This represents this, and that represents this other thing," nonsense.

"I was invited to a children’s birthday party to perform magic for an hour. The age was between 7 and 11 years old. For each gig I accept I ask a series of questions to better prepare myself specifically for that performance. In this case the questions came back with an unexpected answer. There was a theme for this party: Pokemon.

"Each character in Pokemon has their own special ability and traits. Some of those directly translate to effects we try to portray with our magic.
I began the show with some of my normal routines adjusted to suit the short attention span of kids. The children were really enjoying the show thus far so I was on the home stretch. For my final 20 minutes I focused on the theme of the party.

"I began by bringing up one of the 'pokemon fans' to help me. I pretended to know nothing of the funny looking creatures that were posted around the house and on the balloons. I had the boy chose a card, sign it, then I ripped off a corner. He blew on it and thought of his favorite pokemon. He kept blowing on the corner in my hand while I asked the other children who the characters were and what were they capable of? Soon enough, the corner was gone from my hand, and was stuck in the mouth of a fox like animal on the wall. This began a myriad of questions and excitement.

"I followed this by asking if there were any 'pikiman' (on purpose) that were able to move things with their mind? I got a very enthuastic answer of a character named 'Kadabra.' They explained that he is able to bend spoons. So I got a few spoons and held one in my hand. I asked the spectators to yell out his name as loud as they could. They began to chant the name and watch as the spoon slowly bent then broke into two pieces. There was no doubt of what happened, because they’ve seen the character do it before. I simply showed them what they already expected and wanted to see.

"Finally I closed by addressing the name I heard over and over again throughout the night: 'Pikachu.' I asked what he does and why is he so popular. He of course shocks others with electricity. I asked the birthday boy, 'if you had that power, who would YOU shock?' I brought up him, and a few others to help him. I had each person hold hands and concentrate. I placed the birthday boy at the end with his 'target' next to him, each holding up their fingers in preparation to touch.

"I got on the other end of the daisy chain and all together (the whole room) we began to chant 'pika, pika, pika.' Each time we said the word the two boys at the end were to touch their fingers together. After a few moments and a very loud room, the 'target' jumped back and screamed. This in conjunction with the visible and slightly audible shock created a truly wonderful moment.

"The magic was all in their minds. They had all the information necessary to make the show a success. They knew the characters and their abilities. I simply played upon those established ideas and tried to create a memorable experience. "

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: The Haunting (1963)

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when horror films relied on more than copious levels of CGI and buckets upon buckets of fake blood to scare people. Enter director Robert Wise. Wise read Shirley Jackson's book "The Haunting of Hill House" and was so impressed by it that he swiftly acquired the film rights and met with Jackson herself to talk about making the adaptation to screen.

You have to understand that special effects were not especially sophisticated in the early 60's and when Wise finally got the green light, he had only $1.1 million to work with. Even in today's money, that's a pretty slim budget. Wise compensated by pouring most of his budget into set design, turning Hill House into a character all its own. It was a place of strange angles, labyrinthine rooms, and Gothic extravagance. One could argue that the monster in the movie was not the ghost (or possibly ghosts; it's never clear), but the house itself. And that only adds another layer of depth to one of the most interesting elements of this movie: you never actually see a monster.

The Haunting is rated G, but is actually one of the scariest movies ever made. After watching it for the first time, I had trouble getting to sleep. The only other movies that have ever affected me like that are Rosemary's Baby and Carnival of Souls. Okay, Psycho and the original Halloween did make me skittish about turning corners at night in an unfamiliar house, but I didn't actually lose sleep over them. The point is that Robert Wise's masterpiece of a haunted house flick will scare the bejeezus out of you because Wise knew you're better at scaring yourself when in the proper mood.

As I said, you never actually see the ghost(s). Most of the phenomena is unclear whether it's genuinely supernatural or Eleanor's descent into madness. The gore is nonexistent but the atmosphere is laid on thicker than cement. When the phenomena begins, the camera becomes as mobile as your own eyes might be. The sets are designed in such a way to emphasize the sense of isolation and subtle wrongness. As per the opening lines of the movie: "Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there... walked alone."

The horror is established not through special effects or violence, but through a continual sense that reality is off. The camera lingers on points until your imagination inserts details. We are treated to a flood of reaction shots from the actors so that we can clearly see how scared they are. We only get one special effect toward the end of the 2nd act, but the buildup surrounding it makes it all the more terrifying. And other than some schizoid cinematography, there are no other special effects for the rest of the film, but you're already in such a terrified state that you don't care.

It's worth noting that everything this movie did right, it's 1999 remake did wrong. Everything was spelled out for you. All the subtlety of the ghostly manifestations was traded in for dodgy CGI, usually involving statues moving. And of course, a house with a tragic history wasn't good enough. No, they had to add in a whole gratuitous and poorly conceived back story about child slavery and murder and a lost descendant of the family line. Oh yeah, spoiler warning there. And of course, the remake just had to have a bloody happy ending. Apparently the filmmakers thought that horror movie fans wanted more happy endings in their favorite genre? The remake was crap is what I'm saying. A great cast unable to save bad writing, overblown CGI special effects, no sense of tact or subtlety, and a plot that made about as much sense as lighting your own head on fire. It wasn't scary at all because it left nothing to the imagination and was so ridiculous that it was impossible to take seriously.

If you are going to do bizarre magic and seances in particular, you must see the original version of this film. If you were to ask me to point to an excellent example of how to scare people with subtlety, implication and atmosphere, I would point you this movie first without even thinking about it. While you're at it, you might as well read Shirley Jackson's original novel as well.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Visual Characters of Mystery Men

I recently sat down for a relaxing weekend with friends and some movies. One of the movies was the cult film Mystery Men, a movie about loser superheros. It always baffled me why the film never really took off. It actually seemed a bit ahead of its time. But I'm not here to give you a review, I'm here to tell you to check it out because it provides a great example of characterization through visuals. One thing that often gets neglected be performers is the understanding that appearances do matter. They say something about you.

Mystery Men had a distinctive and unique aesthetic that created a near-future reality where multiple cultures, styles, and period fashions blended seamlessly together. The aerial views of Champion City were reminiscent of Blade Runner while the suburbs were very Tim Burton-esque. There was a strong Gothic influence to the villain's mansion while the insane asylum was like Alcatraz filmed by Stanley Kubrick. As you can imagine, the characters themselves were equally diverse and visually interesting. Through the first and second acts, the protagonists wore cheap, patchwork costumes. In the third act, they went into the final battle sporting new, much more impressive costumes. Let's take a look at the initial three heroes and their scruffy, wannabe costumes.

Mr. Furious
Ben Stiller plays Roy, a.k.a. Mr. Furious. His whole thing is that he screams a lot and claims that his rage gives him super strength and fighting prowess, though it's pretty clear early on he has no idea what he's doing. His outfit is solid black and a rough pastiche of leather biker clothes. He has a few bits of scrap metal most likely from wrecked cars and motorcycle stuck to his armbands and wears a leather trench coat. His sideburns are sculpted to form sharp angles and his eyebrows have been plucked in a way that creates the impression of a permanent sneer. He also has a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow throughout the film. The outfit is dingy and has obviously seen better days. It all creates the effect of a guy who's trying way too hard to be intimidating.

The Blue Rajah
Hank Azaria plays Jeff, The Blue Rajah. He is the "Master of Silverware" who flings forks with great accuracy and speaks in a very thick limey British accent. His costume has a lot of color to it, but no blue. The whole thing seems to be plundered from someone's grandma, which turns out to be mostly true. The cape is green with a floral print. He wears corduroy pants with a white shirt and brown jacket with Converse Chuck Taylors. His turban seems to be made out of curtains. Here is a man who has very little money and has to work with found objects. He's also rather pretentious as even though the name, costume elements, and accent make sense in context, this is not immediately obvious and he instead looks like a jumbled mess of non sequiturs and anachronisms.

The Shoveler
Billy Macy is Eddy, The Shoveler. He uses a shovel for a weapon. That's his power. He's dressed in the clothes one would expect of a highway construction worker but with the addition a child's catcher's vest as body armor. This hints at his home life as a family man with a wife and kids. It also establishes him as the earthy, wise, father figure of the group by playing on the old "homespun wisdom" trope.

These are characters you can look at and immediately know something about them. And the whole movie is like this. The Spleen's anachronistic 60's/70's patchwork outfit makes him look more like a misfit with no cohesive identity. Casanova Frankenstein's look blends 70's fashion with a strong Gothic influence and long, wild hair to create an "evil genius" vibe. Captain Amazing's streamlined outfit covered in corporate logos makes it clear from the start that he's a sellout. Seriously, go watch the movie. Now.

This is a topic I'd like to go into more depth about, so list any movies, performers, video games or whatever you can think of that shows a smart visual aesthetic that also tells us something about the character(s). I'll take the best and feature them in a follow-up article in the near future.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

It's All in the Eyes

Human eyes are interesting things. We constantly say that they're windows to the soul, but if you think about it, they're rather limited in their expressions. They only become expressive when looked at in the context of other facial expressions. There's a certain politician here in the US whom I won't name, but serves as a rather interesting example of what I mean. Specifically, she's almost always smiling, but it seldom touches her eyes, creating a weird uncanny valley effect. This is also a major problem in most CGI movies. The cartoon characters' eyes don't seem to be in on whatever emotion the rest of their face is trying to express and they end up with a creepy thousand-yard stare.

And if bad eye animation can turn a family friendly movie like Yogi Bear into a Lynchian nightmare (you know, aside from the fact that it was a badly written cyst of a movie that no one was asking for in the first place), one can only imagine how bad it is to watch a magician whose eyes aren't keeping up with his mouth. Whether it be lack of eye contact, too much eye contact, looking in the wrong places (perverted and otherwise), or any number of other screw-ups, the eyes can do a lot to undermine your performance.

That in mind, here's a couple tips.

Look Where You Want Them to Look
This one should be so obvious that I feel like I'm insulting the word obvious by calling it that. Humans are social creatures as I keep telling you. We follow a leader. When the magician takes charge of the conversation, we follow his eyes because we perceive what he's looking at to be important. That means not only not looking at your hands to draw attention away from the sleights, but also looking at the things they're supposed to look at in the first place. When you do the reveal, look at the reveal. There are times when it's okay to break eye contact, don't worry.

The Hypnotist Stare
This one is to be used very sparingly because it has great potential to go awry. It can either make people uncomfortable or make you look like a Criss Angel wannabe buffoon. The hypnotist stare is very simple. Rather than looking a person directly in the eye, you fix your gaze at the point between the eyes in the T-zone. The effect is a piercing gaze that conveys a strong sense of authority and control over the conversation. Use this when trying to establish your word as reality, but be subtle about it. Don't go from all smiles to a dramatic underlook within the same breath.

The Soul Gaze
I'm tipping one of my biggest performing techniques here, so pay attention. The Soul Gaze is a very old concept from the Celts. You stare into one person's right eye as they stare into yours. The original belief is that this would let you look into the other person's soul, though modern psychology shows that it simply creates a feeling of personal bond and trust. Even if the soul gaze is purely one-sided, if you use this look on someone when they are talking to you, they will like you more and be much more willing to indulge you in your act, requests, and commands throughout the routine. Just be sure to actually listen to what they're saying or you're going to look like a creepy loser.

Go out there and have some fun with that. You may notice some improvement in your performances.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Poetic Performance

I'm aware that for most people, the word poetry conjures up images of pretentiousness, poseurs, unwarranted self-importance, and berets. The stereotype of the incomprehensible hipster poet has to come from somewhere, but dismissing poetry on general principle is not wise.

I'm the first to admit that I'm crap at poetry, but I keep trying my hand at it anyway. I've harped before on how important I think it is for magicians to learn writing, so I have to walk my talk. Poetry is compressed prose and requires a real gift for language. It's a separate challenge from writing prose however as it requires a very different use of your language skills.

Now, I'm not asking you all to compose Shakespearean sonnets about David Blaine. However, knowing a bit about poetry is good for you when writing scripts for your effects. Let me give you an example.

Let's take two words and compare them. Conclude and terminate. They both mean to stop doing something, but they have slight differences in meaning and we have different associations with them. Conclude has a certain positive note to it. That a task has finally reached its point of completion. There's a sense of closure we feel when we use the word. But terminate has a sound of severity to it. Finality, even negativity seems conjured up. We even associate it with mortality.

This is a major element of poetry. The color and tone of your words is more important than the inherent meaning. In a performance, you can rarely get away with using anachronistic language. You'll rarely find an opportunity to use the word vespertine. And it's unlikely you'll come across a time where noisome is a better word to use than foul, noxious, unhealthy, or offensive. But you might think of a time where unsafe is a better, less severe word than dangerous. Or, when it comes to phrases, a time when you think, "Enjoy yourself," has better subtext than, "Lighten up."

In literature, there is actually a phrase to describe writing that abuses the thesaurus, inappropriately uses anachronistic language, and goes overboard on descriptions: purple prose. The phrase comes from the Roman poet Horace who made reference to "flashy purple patches" as an inappropriate addition to a poem. This comes from ancient clothing traditions. Dying one's clothes naturally cost money. And purple dye was the most expensive of all, typically worn only by the wealthy elite and the ruling class. Those with pretentions toward class however would take the purple scraps of fabric the tailors cast off and sew them to their own garments in an attempt to affect a look of affluence beyond their station. Purple prose then is lurid, overblown language that tries to make the passage more evocative and sensual, but instead breaks flow and ends up calling attention to itself. Now imagine that kind of writing being spoken out loud.

Since you don't want to just manhandle your thesaurus, you can also pepper your sentences with various grammatical and rhetorical constructs. Allude to ideas, imply them rather than tell. A well-placed alliterative can stick out in the mind, and was a technique FDR was fond of in his rhetoric. Rhymes are harder to use outside of poetry, but if you're up for a challenge why not try assonance instead? A little goes a long way, so use this stuff sparingly and with purpose.

The main thing you need to remember is that poetry has to sensually convey a message within its limitations. You have to evoke through language. As performers, we have the added benefit but also the challenge of nonverbal communication. Your body language and vocal tone will combine with the words to make or break the associations and subtext you're trying to create. I'll discuss this in more detail in a future post about how to build up a lexicon for your performances.

Monday, April 25, 2011

NLP: Just the Facts

Much has been made the last couple of years of NLP and its hypothetical use and influence in magic and mentalism. The problem is that NLP is something people have heard a lot about, but don't actually understand. Let's start with a little background.

NLP, neuro-linguistic programming, was first developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder who asserted that there was a connection between the neurological processes, language and learned behavior. They worked out a series of linguistic tools as a sort of therapeutic technology to help people overcome psychological maladies such as phobias. One of the early adopters was Tony Robbins, the self-help legend. It has yet to find any mainstream acceptance in academic psychology however.

The problem arises in that there is very little empirical data to support the hypotheses put forth by Bandler and Grinder. Though the self-help industry and countless people in management and sales swear by it, there has never been any formal proof to validate the claims. I personally have met people who claim to be using NLP to influence others and noticed no remarkable success on their part.

During the 1990's is where the claims of NLP got really crazy. Perhaps the craziest of them all is PUA guru Ross Jeffries, who enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the first gurus in the scene, and also the one who is possibly the most disliked as a person. Jeffries' claims about what NLP was capable of got more and more outrageous as time went on to the point where he began claiming he could reach out and touch people with his "psychic tendrils."

That might all sound a bit ridiculous to you, but the claims that the magic community has been making in the last 10 years aren't much better. The interest in NLP among magicians and mentalists can be largely attributed to the works of Luke Jermay, Kenton Knepper, Docc Hilford and Derren Brown. In their work, they sometimes make references to suggestion and subconsciously influencing people. Derren has claimed in the past that he's using NLP, though this simply proved to be a smokescreen in the same way that Robert-Houdin claimed to be able to make his son levitate through a large dosage of ether. Truthfully, these men were actually applying principles of basic stage hypnosis to magic.

There is evidence that suggests merit to some of Bandler and Grinder's hypotheses. Kenton Knepper for example wrote about the concept of the subjective experience and its use in magic and mentalism. Luke Jermay, Caleb Strange and Andrew Mayne also developed effects based on this principle to varying degrees, though admittedly most of it was simply taking old principles a step further. If you want an example of what I'm talking about, refer to Punx's effect Great Minds Think Alike in 13 Steps to Mentalism.

Personally speaking, I do believe that some of NLP's concepts have merit and are worth investigating, but strictly in a therapeutic context. I believe it is not a new psychological technology, but simply a creative application of principles already developed in talk therapy and hypnosis. Study it if you wish, but be wary of 3rd party titles, especially ones that make more outrageous claims. If you actually want to learn more about suggestion and the like, start with learning stage hypnosis. If there is enough interest, I may write a full post here in the near future on the subject.

In summary, here are the facts and just the facts:

-NLP is an approach to therapy utilizing psychological and linguistic principles.
-Though some of the ideas have merit, there is little empirical evidence to support its associated hypotheses.
-Popular in business management, sales, and self-help.
-Originally developed by Bandler and Grinder, since taken in different directions by a number of outside individuals making a wide variety of claims.
-When magicians/mentalists talk of using suggestion, the majority are using principles of hypnosis, not NLP.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Russian Roulette (Is Still for Suckers)

An effect I see coming up time and again is the old Russian roulette plot. For those unfamiliar, this is also sometimes called Smash and Stab. A sharp spike is placed under a cup and mixed up with several others, usually making a row of 5. The magician smashes them one by one with his hand, sometimes a spectator's until only the one with the spike under it is left and revealed.

Before I open both barrels, let me get a couple lesser concerns out of the way. I've seen this effect performed as a closer most often. The idea is that the danger element ramps up the drama. But it's still only a 1-in-5 chance, then a 1-in-4, 1-in-3, and finally a 50/50 shot. Statistically, it's not all that impressive. It's better as an opener or somewhere in the middle.

That said, it also requires a certain amount of showmanship because again, it's just not that statistically impressive. It's entirely possible to luck out on it. You need a proper theme and hook to get people to buy into it as mental magic or mentalism, which is not easy to do. Trying to motivate this effect can be pretty difficult even for veteran performers.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's turn to the elephant in the room. It's just not very good taste. The whole danger element is cheap when you get right down to it. Seriously, why on earth would you do this to yourself? Only a handful of methods are completely failure proof. If you go to YouTube, you'll find videos of this effect going wrong. Unless you have a strong stomach, can't say I recommend it.

And if you use another person's hand, I have to ask: What the hell is wrong with you?! Even if you use a fool-proof method, it's still in bad taste. At no point should you ever put a member of your audience at risk for physical harm. Even if you leave aside the ethical problems, you're still making yourself liable. So in case you're callous enough to go through with endangering their hands over your own, know that their lawyer will want to have a little chat with you if things go wrong.

The plot of the effect isn't the problem. I've seen versions that use an egg instead of a spike, one that replaces the cups and spike with cans of silly string, and Rick Maue's Terasabos is a very effective variation on the theme. The problem is that most people don't know how to use it. They mistake the possibility of self-mutilation for well-constructed drama. If you're going to use this plot, exercise some discretion and a modicum of taste.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

1 Exercise, 5 Benefits

Some of you have heard me speak at a live chat via webcam last December and may remember that I have a distinctive baritone voice. While this is in part genetic (most of the men on my father's side of the family have deep, resonant voices), it's also training. In high school, my voice started changing from a nasally child's voice and within the course of a year practically dropped into my stomach. I spent time cultivating this quality and have made it something of a personal quest to make my voice one of my... trademarks you might say.

Here's the good part: anyone can learn to develop a powerful speaking voice. In this entry I will show you one simple breathing exercise that if done for 5 minutes every day will dramatically improve the quality of your speech. There are many benefits to this. In fact, let's list them now.

1. Increased Oxygen Flow to the Brain
In the course of this exercise, your breathing will return to the state it was in as an infant. You will make better use of every breath and increase the flow of oxygen to your brain which will allow you to remain more alert, quick-witted, and energized.

2. Greater Speech Control
This exercise will help you to make the most of your lung capacity. You will be able to better control the rate of exhalation and sustain it much longer. This means that you can pace your speech more effectively and will no longer find yourself pausing in the middle of a sentence to take a breath.

3. Develop Better Posture
Keeping the skeletal and muscular systems aligned is very important in reducing stress. This exercise will help you to keep your torso and neck in proper, natural alignment, reducing fatigue and stress on your muscles as well as projecting a more confident demeanor.

4. Project Confidence
See above. The greater control over the pace of your speech along with the improved posture will improve your image to other people. You will look and feel more confident. And since our emotions check in with our bodies to make sure everything is consistent, you will actually begin to feel more confident as your brain tries to make sure it's in sync with your body. Weird how that works, no?

5. Fill the Room
Though not the entire secret to building resonance in your voice, proper breathing technique strengthens your sound, making it more authoritative. When you can remove unnecessary softness and airiness from your voice, people are more likely to take you seriously and listen to what you have to say. They subconsciously believe that you believe in what you are saying.

Sound good? Let's actually do the exercise. To start with, you're going to need to break a really bad habit you've picked up. Take a deep breath in right now. As deep as you can, then exhale. I'll wait...

Did your shoulders lift when you breathed in? You need to stop doing that. By lifting the shoulders, you're creating tension in the neck and chest that greatly restricts your lung capacity while creating unnecessary air pressure on your throat when you breathe out.

Lie down on your couch on bed and put a book on the point where the abdomen meets the sternum. In this position you'll be unable to move your shoulders. Breathe in deeply through your nose and visualize pulling the air down into your gut. You'll see you're doing it right when the book rises and falls evenly.

What's happening is that your diaphragm is activating. The lungs don't actually suck the air in the way we conventionally think of it. The diaphragm is dropping down, causing the lungs to pull air in and inflate to take up the newly available space. To do this, it pushes your guts down and out so that the abdomen expands slightly in all directions.

Now as you breathe in, imagine this expansion starting in the abdomen and slowly going up the body into the ribs. Your ribcage isn't expanding in the way that the abdomen is, but your floating ribs (the cartilaginous ones at the bottom) are. Also, the lungs are fully expanding slightly, creating a sensation that the chest is lifting independent of the shoulders.

You may feel light-headed the first few times you try this, but you'll eventually get used to it. What's happening is that you're getting more oxygen into the bloodstream than you're accustomed to. In our day-to-day lives, we actually don't need to exercise our maximum lung capacity very often. However, you want to keep exercising it for the same reason you work out your muscles. Most people don't have jobs that require them to deadlift several hundred pounds at one time several times a day. But if you don't exercise, doing basic tasks takes more out of you than it would if you had made a habit of going to the gym.

Once you get used to this, do the exercise standing. Breathe in deeply, pause for a beat, then exhale evenly. If you've met your full lung capacity, then you actually won't feel the need to breathe back in again for another second or two. Practice this for about 5 minutes a day and you'll see a noticeable difference before long in the strength of your voice and your ability to sustain sentences and passages without taking a breath.

I should make a final note. The reason you inhale through the nose is because all that air is going directly into the lungs. When you breathe in through the mouth, you run the chance of accidentally swallowing some air. That will cause your stomach to become bloated and be very uncomfortable before long. Singers undergo training to minimize and prevent this, but in everyday conversation, you're better off just breathing through your nose and keeping your mouth shut. Unless of course you want to wander around all day looking like you're stoned or doing an impersonation of Kristen Stewart.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


My apologies for the silence as of late. Without getting into it, I just have had way too much on my plate following the holidays, most of it relating to the fact that everything that can break and require repairs has. With that in mind, I will be putting the blog on hiatus until at least April, more likely until after my appearance at Pittsburgh Comicon that month.

My mentalism book, tentatively titled Playthings of the Mind, is taking me longer than I anticipated to put together. I want a strong, intelligent beginners' guide that has not only effects, but performance theory and history. Naturally, this means the research alone is chewing up a lot of time. The thing is, I want to deliver you all a quality product that I've sunk as much effort as I can muster into. I'm not about to half-ass this in the name of just turning out a book.

That in mind, I'm withdrawing my predicted release date of this Spring. I won't be announcing a new date until I have a clearer idea of when I can realistically expect to get this done. I will be working on a couple of smaller projects in the mean time. I will make announcements here when any of them are released.

I will see you all again this Spring. Take care.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Echo Bazaar: A Great Use of Mystery

If you want to entertain people with mysteries, then you need to check out Echo Bazaar. It's a free browser game with incredible depth despite its stark simplicity of mechanics. Even non-gamers can play this, that's how accessible it is. So why should you?

Because as magicians and mentalists we are mystery entertainers. While the primary mystery is almost always the how of the things we do, there is the frequently overlooked why. A truly great performer will enthrall an audience not with another Miser's Dream effect, but depth as a character and person. There needs to be a mythos to create verisimilitude and the desire to explore more deeply the reality that the mystery entertainer lives in.

Echo Bazaar is a paragon of the use of mystery in an interactive piece of entertainment. As of writing, I began playing on Thursday and have become addicted. Seriously, if it weren't for the limited number of actions you can take at one time, I wouldn't have gotten any work done these last couple of days. The game's abyssal depth just sucked me right in. There were new mysteries to explore at every turn and pursuing one lead just opened up new ones. I'm never short for something to do, and now that I've chosen an ambition for my character it's only getting more intense as I go. Everything happens for a reason, but I can't figure out what. Yet.

Click the link above and give it a shot. It's free and despite being so addictive doesn't require anything more of you than 10 minutes of your time a day, if even that. If you want to create mysteries, you have to see how other people are doing it. It's the same as a musician listening to multiple genres of music to find his sound.

Oh and while I'm thinking of it, there's a social element to. Facebook friends and Twitter followers/followees who are in the game can interact with you. I'm on Twitter as DrAVornoff. Just in case... you know, you were curious.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Alex's New Book!

Since my beginner's guide to mentalism turned out such a positive response, I've decided to flesh it out into a complete guide in ebook format. I'll be covering not only bibliography, but also how to develop a performing character, scripting, presentation, specializations, using New Media, and more. I'll even be including some effects and routines from my own working repertoire.

If there is a topic you'd like me to include in the book, let me know. I want to make sure I deliver a comprehensive start-up guide for mentalism initiates.

Monday, January 3, 2011


I play guitar. Badly, but I still play it. Yeah I know, a shaggy white guy who plays guitar. Big surprise! I used to hang out with other guitarists online and off. A situation that repeatedly came up was a guy would ask what songs he could play at a party to get the attention of girls. First of all, I have no problem using music as a way to break the ice and make people come to you. What I did have a problem with was the suggestions. One that came up without fail was Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. If you don't know, Clapton wrote that song as a catharsis after his baby son fell from the window of a high rise apartment and died. All these guitarists would recommend playing the song for a girl and then telling her the story behind it. I always had one question for them: "Have you ever known the touch of a woman?"

There's something distinctly crass about exploiting tragedy for personal satisfaction. And yet, as we pursue magic as an art this sort of situation is inevitable. Time and time again, you'll see hacks who imagine that to be deep, they need to dial the personal tragedy up to 11. Why? My best guess is that sentimentality is much easier to articulate than actual sentiment.

What the difference? Sentiment is how we feel about the things that happen to us. It's sublime and complex, but usually understated when expressed in words. We have a massive variety of words to describe our emotions, the nature of them and the intensity with which we feel them. Some languages even have words to express feelings that others don't. An example would be the Russian word "toska," which refers to a longing for something that isn't there and which can give way to a general malaise or even full-blown depression depending on the strength of the longing.

Sentimentality on the other hand is the exaggeration of emotion. It's melodramatic, overblown and extravagant. Cheesy in other words. I little cheese is good for you now and again, but too much of it leaves you fat, sick and blocked up like... it's better if I end this metaphor now.

Sentimentality is easier to write because it doesn't require as much subtlety. A few touches of lurid language here and there, some outrageous metaphors and analogies, and there you go. So easy a monkey could do it. Which is a phrase that I always considered to be an excellent example of damning with faint praise.

Schlocky sentimentality may get you some nods here and there. There's a reason schmaltzy greeting cards sell so well. But if you want to actually make a strong impression on people, you're going to have to try a lot harder than that.