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.