Monday, September 3, 2012

The Real Fake Thing

How many of you watched Avatar: The Last Airbender?  Not the movie, the show.  Very different aesthetic for a Western cartoon, no?  I'm not what you'd call an expert on Asian history or art, but it seems pretty obvious that the animators deliberately based their creation off of actual Asian cultures.  They didn't just throw some kimonos and almond-eyed character models at the screen and call it a day.  Any of my readers who are experts can correct me on this one, but my best educated guess would be:

Air Benders - Tibet/Nepal
Earth Kingdom - China
Water Tribe - Mongolia
Fire Nation - Japan

This technique has been around longer than you think.  One of the first writers (I'm aware of) to use it is Robert E Howard who based the cultures of his Conan mythos, The Hyborean Age, on real world nations and cultures to create a sense of familiarity among an alien landscape.  Tolkien later did the same with Middle Earth, but with mythology instead of actual history and societies.  In this way, you have a frame of reference to wrap your head around.

Not to say it can't be done creating a mythos from whole cloth.  The catch is that it requires a lot of work and even then you'll probably be drawing on real world sources for inspiration.  A lot of good works have been created that way but you have to ask yourself if you're willing to commit yourself that fully to building a world.

I've written in my book "Exalt of the Weird" that a coherent mythos is important to verisimilitude.  If you're contradicting yourself every other sentence, then you're only going to take your audience out of the experience.  This is especially true for bizarrists and mentalists.

I bring this up because Halloween is approaching.  And wouldn't it be more impressive to your audience if you demonstrated something that actually referenced old superstition or local folklore?  Every place and culture has its stories, mysteries and folk tales.  Their own unique superstitions, blessings and charms.  So what is a ghost?  Do you have an answer for that?  You should.  If you want to get into character and scare people, you need to devote more thought to your mythos and give people the real fake thing.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Price Tags and You

"What is a cynic?  A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
-Oscar Wilde

Look at that quote.  Really think about it for a minute.  In the last few years, the magic market has become saturated with products.  Single tricks, DVDs, books, ebooks, gimmicks.  And they tend to run the gamut from astounding (Ladybug by Paul Harris) to trash (iFloat).  A common complaint I hear is from magicians who despise the one-trick DVD trend, or sometimes even buying individual effects if they're not large-scale illusions.  The logic is always that the price is too high when you could get way more from a copy of Mark Wilson's or Modern Coin Magic.

Those of you who know me are aware how quick I am to recommend fundamental texts before DVDs.  For the beginner, they're a bargain.  Lots of material for little money.  And that brings me to the point.  Before we simply write off a product as too expensive for the quantity of content, try judging how much it's worth to you.

Some people would call me crazy to have spent the money I did on Docc Hilford's System 88.  But the system has been good to me.  I made my money back and then some.  There are people who have bought and performed material that I wouldn't touch, but they make it work whereas it would have just looked awful coming from me.

Value is relative.  It changes from one circumstance to another.  Prices are fixed by the market based on supply, demand, and the cost of manufacturing and distribution.  They are influenced by value, yes, but value is something separate.  Warren Buffet once said that his skill set in business and investment is disproportionately rewarded in the modern US, but if you were plunk him down in Peru, he admits that he wouldn't be doing so hot.  People in the States value what he does, but an agrarian economy... not so much.

The same is true of you and the material you learn.  Whether or not a book or DVD is worth the money depends on you, your act, your character, your style, and the sorts of shows you do.  So before saying, "That's way too expensive for a single trick!" consider instead the content and what you personally would get out of it.  Yeah, there are some really terrible products out there, cobbled together as obvious cash grabs with slipshod methods that could only fool a drunken toddler...  But maybe not as many as you think.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Voice and Scripting Workshop

With this post I'm happy to announce the official launch of my first webinar and scripting workshop on Sunday, May 13th at 6:00 PM EST. During this 3-hour session hosted on tinychat, I will be teaching everyone to strengthen their voices and command a room just through sound. I will be working with everyone to fine tune their scripts and routines as well as come up with new scripts suited to their performing styles. I will also endeavor to recommend each person sources of fiction and non-fiction to help inspire them to write new original material.

However... there's a catch. This webinar is a private affair. Entry into it costs $20 and only 10 spots are available. It is strictly first come, first served. Anyone interested in this must send an email before the end of Saturday, May 12, after which I will no longer be taking in applicants. Send an email with your request to join the list of attendees with the subject line "Script and Voice Webinar" to and you will subsequently receive instructions on how to join the webinar and a PayPal request. If you send me an email and the webinar is already full up, I will put you on a shortlist of people who get first crack at the webinar the next time I host it. You will not be asked to pay anything until the new date has been scheduled. If there is sufficient interest, it may not be long at all before I do this again.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Learning Styles

Whenever the subject of learning styles comes up, there is inevitably some argument about visual learners and books vs. DVDs. This is unfortunately something of a fallacy and both sides usually end up doing more harm to themselves than good. In the interest of trying to clear it up for some of you, my readers, I thought now would be a good time to explain how learning styles actually work.

Learning styles are commonly perceived as what media gets us the most effective gains. People who say they're visual learners claim to learn better from DVDs, but then the question becomes, what kind of person learns better from books? What other senses besides vision are books perceived through? By this definition, learning from everything except CDs is visual learning.

In reality, there are three learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. These are not simply a matter of dominant senses in a physical manner, but rather which sense we use as a lens to contextualize the information we take in. It's how we filter and describe our experiences. Sound complicated? It's really not. Let me give you an example. If you were given a choice of movies to go see, there are three ways you might describe your choice. A visual person would pick the one that they say looks really good. An auditory person would pick the one that sounds the best. And a kinesthetic person would pick the one that they have a really good feeling about. If that sounds arbitrary or superficial, keep in mind that this is all about how your brain contextualizes information.

A visual learner is someone who creates visuals in order to organize the information in their brains. They create elaborate maps and webs of interconnected ideas and info in their heads. They associate images with one another in order to create a tapestry of knowledge and understanding. This is why they will say things like, "That looks good," when describing something.

An auditory learner classifies everything by structure. I ask you, what is more structured than music? Meter, tempo, key, chord progression, cadence, etc. Music is the ultimate expression of order. Auditory learners are drawn toward list-based information or that which is presented in a clear and simple structure or hierarchy. Rather than create a map of information, their brain keeps an inventory. They are the ones who will say they, "like the sound of that."

A kinesthetic learner is unique in that they filter everything through a lens of action and feeling. It doesn't matter if you present it in a list-based format or something else entirely. The information won't stick until they've actually done it. The kinesthetic learner endeavors more than the other styles to commit actions to muscle memory. While the visual learner says the situation doesn't look good and the auditory learner says it sounds like trouble, the kinesthetic learner will tell you that they "have a bad feeling about it."

It is not uncommon for people to have a dominant and secondary learning style. For example, I'm primarily a visual learner but also inclined toward kinesthetic. This simply adds an extra dimension to how you contextualize information. I create a map of information in my head, but that map won't be clear until I've acted on that information.

I tell you all this so that you can understand not to thumb your nose at a specific medium for learning materials. The medium is not important. What is important is that you know how your brain is going to take in and catalog this information. Once you understand that, the source becomes irrelevant. Book or DVD is unimportant compared to what you do with the content.

So which of the three are you?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Putting the Cart in Front of the Horse

This is a little different from my usual posts, but it's an issue that comes up now and again and I want to address it for future reference.

Magic has been around for a very long time, and there are lots of teaching materials and references to choose from if you want to learn. Not all of them are good for beginners however. Show of hands, how many of you have seen a guy say he wants to learn more about mentalism and someone tells him to get Psychological Subtleties? One of the reasons I created my beginner's guide to mentalism is because this happens too often.

Please, do help people. But don't recommend material that you don't already have and don't recommend material that was clearly intended for more intermediate or advanced performers.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Do Something with This

Escher Wrist Band

What it says on the tin. That's too cool not to do something with it. While you guys are doing that, I'm going to go get some aspirin because staring at that thing is making my head hurt.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Psychic Sciences

People have been asking me about cold reading a lot lately, so I thought it was time to finally address this. To be a reader, it's best to know at least one psychic science, preferably more. I know to a skeptic the term sounds like an oxymoron. Really, we're just referring to systems that enable a reading.

Palmistry is one of the most common varieties as it's very easy to learn and study and can be done literally anywhere with no prior setup. There's a certain level of depth to it, but getting the fundamentals under your belt is typically all you need to start doing short readings.

Astrology is another popular choice because it still retains a certain ubiquity in our pop culture. Newspapers still print astrological horoscopes that are about as deep and accurate as a fortune cookie, but millions of Americans still swear by them.

Tarot cards remain popular even with all of the media out there showing them to be just fancy decks of cards with no supernatural qualities whatsoever. It's not uncommon to give readings using the only the major arcana, but using the full deck is also recommended.

Numerology is a little less common, but still very frequently seen among readers. Reason being that the use of numbers makes it look more like math or science and that leads many people to think that makes it more credible. It's really no more credible than the other psychic sciences, but that's largely irrelevant to the point, isn't it?

From here, we get into the psychic sciences that are popular within the New Age movement but don't have as large an audience outside that. The first would be tea leaves. By now most of us have seen the tea leaf reading scene in book 3 of the Harry Potter series and that's more or less what it's like if a bit less dramatic.

Gem stone readings are not uncommon in some regions, though they tend to have less appeal outside of the New Age movement. If you plan on doing a lot of readings in Sedona, Arizona you can probably find an audience for this easily. Otherwise, do you research on the local markets first.

Crystal gazing still has an avid following, though you have to be careful not to let this slip into the realm of camp. Considering how frequently crystal gazing has been lampooned in pop culture, that's pretty easy to do. Approach with caution and make sure you've got the acting chops to pull it off.

Rune readings are a bit niche, though if your city has a large Goth community such as LA or New York, it's worth looking into. The PUA community went through a fad of rune readings for a while, but I haven't seen that as much lately. Probably because, as I said, it's pretty niche.

There are others, though their popularity is even more niche than runes. Candles, free writing, doodles, dice, auras, etc. They can be a good way to provide people with something different and interesting or they can just be a total bear to have to explain to everyone. It really pays to know one of the more popular systems described above before you dabble in any of these.

Now why go through this? Because most of the people buying readings already believe in one or more of these systems. That's just where the market is. Ian Rowland in Full Facts of Cold Reading has said that you don't actually need to learn any psychic sciences to do a reading and can just fake it. He's half right. You don't need a psychic science to do a reading. But if you think you can do an astrology reading and just make crap up on the spot and no one is going to catch you, you're dreaming.

Again, this is where the market is. It's obvious that Mr. Rowland has never performed a paid reading for the shut eye market in his life. There's no other way he could make a statement that profoundly arrogant and ignorant. The shut eye market who are the most likely to buy readings are already familiar with these things. They know what the various star signs mean. They know what the major arcana mean. They know this stuff. And if you make up meanings for star signs or whatever, they will know you're taking them for a ride.

"Ah, The Hierophant! That means there's travel in your future!" Yeah, and if you pull my other leg it plays Judas Priest.

Mind, you can get creative with it. Docc Hilford describes a young man who does readings in a nightclub using Docc's System 88 program in which he gives readings to young ladies based on a kiss test. They give him a kiss, and he makes his reading from there. No kidding. Of course, unless you've got the charisma I don't recommend trying that yourself.

The point is that if you're going to be doing readings, you should have one of these systems ready to go. It's part and parcel with the job. If you find these psychic sciences so offensive to your sensibilities that you refuse to learn them or use them to facilitate readings, then you're probably not cut out to do readings at all.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I Have a Fetish

Now if that isn't the most provocative title I've ever used... Something that most people forget is that the word fetish has uses outside of the bedroom. The original definition referred to an object assumed to have supernatural power, typically of the protective variety.

I've spent some time studying real world superstitions and see the recurring trend of the use of fetishes and charms. Naturally, Westerners are most familiar with the ones that originated among the Slavic tribes or out of Christendom. And even some of the latter were co-opted from beliefs amongst the Greeks, Romans, Slavs and Germanic tribes. Once you really dig in you find a lot of interesting information.

If you're a bizarrist or otherwise like to perform with a more realistic supernatural persona, it's worth it to do some research on this yourself. The concept of a charm, fetish, amulet, or other mystical gizmo is deeply ingrained into the collective unconscious, some of the symbols even transcending national and cultural borders. For example, almost every culture believes that salt has power to either purify or ward off evil. Sumo wrestlers throw salt into the ring to purify it, even if they're not Shintoist themselves but still adhere to tradition. Among Westerners, a ring of salt is allegedly able to block evil spirits or even trap them.

As animists, the Native Americans built a large portion of their spirituality around fetishes. The Sioux for example would adorn their headdresses with strips of weasel skin at the temples because they believed it would make them swifter and react faster. Flint featured heavily into their myths, though those stories varied greatly, and was typically attributed mystical power.

Harlan Tarbell briefly described this phenomenon in Lesson 4 of the Tarbell Course, which makes it surprising to me that so few magicians still take advantage of it. Perhaps in our more cynical post-modern world we've stopped believing that such things could mean anything to anyone. But think about it for a second. Not many people wear medicine pouches anymore. And unless you live in certain parts of Louisiana or the Caribbean, you probably don't know what a gris-gris is. But how many sports fans do you know who have a lucky jersey? I'll bet most of you know at least one.

Charms haven't gone away, they've simply altered their form to match the aesthetics and sensibilities of the modern world. The function remains the same. The world is full of variables and forces that are beyond our control and it gives a lot of people a sense of comfort to believe that a talisman of some sort can alter fate in their favor, if only to a small degree. It should come as no surprise then that if you have a charm or fetish in your show, people will pick up on the meaning of it quickly enough.

On reflection, I think there might be another reason that magicians don't use these things anymore. Beyond the fact that the trappings have fallen out of vogue as of late, there's a prevailing attitude I've noticed even professionals parroting that goes, "I don't want the [prop] taking credit for what I did." That never sat right with me because most of the time people are not going to attribute supernatural or even mundane but secret powers to an inanimate object. In some cases however you want them to. There are times when you don't want to make it about you and what you can do. Drawing their attention to a mystical trinket can in reality be one of the most effective forms of misdirection.

Think about how much the atmosphere of a seance for example would change if next to his candle the magician also placed a bulb of garlic, or if he hung a wreath of hawthorn over all the doorways and windows explaining that it was a precautionary measure for the safety of the sitters. I know a magician who has a routine to turn himself into a vampire before the audience's eyes. Imagine a magician doing something similar after handing a spectator a holy talisman or pendant that he had been previously wearing through the whole show, as if it was the only barrier between him and the transformation. Imagine the same, but with a more totemistic sort of charm and the transformation being into some variety of lycanthrope. Imagine a Q&A act about romance utilizing an antique wedding band on a chain for a pendulum. Perhaps a performer is doing a routine based on myths of ancient China and wears a pendant of obviously Chinese design showing five bats, which is considered an extremely lucky symbol in Chinese folklore. The possibilities are limitless.

If you've got the character for it, consider utilizing this. It can spice up your act with a touch of realist mysticism. And yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron. Just roll with it, okay? We have literally millennia worth of rites, traditions, superstitions and mystic trappings from hundreds if not thousands of cultures. There has to be something in there that you would find useful.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hold Your Horses

In an earlier article, I talked about escalation and why it's a losing battle. In case you need a refresher, escalation is when artists pile on spectacle in lieu of actual creative inventiveness or innovation. The Star Wars extended universe is a prime example of this. And those of you who lived through the 90's probably remember Dragon Ball Z, which was about 10% animation and 90% insanity.

That in mind, I wanted to touch briefly on restraint. Restraint is a valuable skill to learn, especially when you start writing your own material. The less you say, the more valuable your words become. The less you explain, the more sublime the effects appear. This is especially true when you get into bizarre magic and mentalism. It's a trap I see a lot of new guys falling into, so I want to repeat this and for you to write it down and put it somewhere visible in whatever place you practice and rehearse in: Melodrama is NOT better drama.

Unless you're auditioning for a soap opera, there's no reason to apply the emotions, pathos and atmosphere with a trowel. Michael Cain once said for very tense dramatic scenes with a close-up on his face, he actually dials back his reaction, allowing the audience to impose more subtext over it. That degree of restraint carried him to the Oscars.

This is further evidenced by an experiment made by early Russian filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov. The Kuleshov Effect, named for him, shows that context is key. In the experiment, Kuleshov recorded a film clip of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin. Mozzhukhin was a star of the early silent films and very well-known to the audience. The footage of him shows him with an utterly expressionless face. He is not acting at all. Yet when that footage was juxtaposed with stock footage of a bowl of soup, a pretty girl, and a child's coffin, each clip used to make a different short film, audiences raved about the sheer depth of emotion in his face. But each time the emotion they perceived was radically different based on what the editing lead them to believe he was observing. Their brains were filling in the gaps and making sense of the context. He was looking at that bowl of soup with "hunger" because that's what you think when you look at soup.

I want you to practice some of your facial expressions and gestures in a mirror. Obviously if you're working on stage or busking, a certain amount of scale is necessary so the people further back can see you. But if you're doing close-up, show a little more restraint. Subdue your own reactions to events around you. Don't be afraid of a delayed reaction if it means you're giving thought to what just happened. You don't need a shark's grin to tell people you're happy. A regular one will do. Don't fidget constantly to show that you're afraid. Keeping a little tension in your body language does the same thing much better. And please don't try to toss off a snarky one-liner when an "implied facepalm" sort of expression (Google it) will do just as well.

Bigger is not always better. Less is more. Learn to dial things back a bit and you'll find that you're wasting a lot of energy doing things you don't have to.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Breathing and Ribs

There's a very simple secret to getting great low tones and a commanding voice. Stand up straight, and take a deep breath in through your nose. Do NOT lift your shoulders. Visualize directing your breath into your back and side. Feel the floating ribs (the ones at the bottom of the rib cage) push outward. Put your hands on your sides so you can feel it. Now try to keep your ribs expanded as you speak, letting the voice resonate in your chest.

That's it. By expanding the chest cavity, you create a better resonance chamber for the sound. A strong low end allows your voice to carry more effectively and has more authority to it. Practice that for a while and let me know how it works out.