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.