Saturday, November 10, 2007

Considering Presentation

In an earlier post I observed that a new magician who’s decided to create a character can be a frightening thing. Another kind of magician who can be equally frightening, or mind numbingly boring, is the one who’s decided he needs to focus on presentation in his magic.

Now, on the surface you’d think concentrating on presentation would be a very good thing. After all, magicians make a lot of ado about presentation. You’re always told, “Work on your presentation, “or “Develop an original presentation,” or “Presentation is the most important aspect of performance.” Those things are all pretty much true. So what’s the problem? Well, it seems that some, even some dispensing the advice, don’t seem really clear on just what presentation is.

I think it’s in Strong Magic that Darwin Ortiz talks about the guy who’s decided to focus on presentation and turns a two minute trick into a thirty minute excursion to hell. And that’s what too often happens. Some have the idea that having a presentation means coming up with some elaborate and involved storyline. It doesn’t. A trick doesn’t need a corresponding story to have a good presentation; actually a good presentation doesn’t necessarily have to be stated – it can simply be implied. Besides, story tricks are best served in small doses – performing magic and telling stories well are disparate skills and not easily married.

Let’s back track a moment and first define what a presentation is in the context of doing magic. At its simplest and most obvious, presentation is how you present a trick. More, I think it’s about why you’re presenting a trick. That’s right, at its core good presentation is all about the often ignored element of motivation.

I’ve probably said it before but it bears repeating: Magic without motivation is nothing more than meaningless and inconsequential tricks. It’s but a pale shade of what magic can and should be. Imagine if someone came up to you and took out a deck of cards and said, “Look what I can do.” Imagine he started to then cut to the four aces in a flashy manner. What would you think, what would you feel? While you might be momentarily impressed by such a display of digital dexterity, that would probably quickly be eclipsed by annoyance. The fact is people don’t like a show off. You might feel confusion – why is this person showing me this? What you wouldn’t feel is that you’d witnessed anything particularly entertaining or worthwhile simply because there was no logical motivation for the display.

Now imagine the same scenario except the person first tells you, “You know my uncle made a killing in Atlantic City…he’s a professional gambler. He showed me how it’s possible to always find the four aces. Would you like to see?” That’s a presentation. Admittedly it’s not the most artful presentation in the world – I just made it up – but it’s serviceable, it gets the job done. Most importantly it’s infinitely better than the first example because it establishes a reason for what the performer is doing. What in the first example was but a pointless display of skill is invested with meaning with just a few words. The dynamic is altered so the performer is not just showing off without justification but sharing something interesting and unique.

As you can see, presentation isn’t just about cooking up a long drawn out story – a presentation can be just a sentence or two and be very effective. A good presentation not only gives a logical reason for your actions but engenders interest in what you’re doing. Someone made a killing in Atlantic City by knowing how to control cards? That’s interesting to most people, it draws them in and they want to know more. Drawing them in, exciting their expectations makes them very susceptible to the magic to come.

Here’s another example. Imagine if someone said to you: “Reality is not static. It’s determined by our perceptions, but our perceptions are anything but infallible. Actually there’s a very simple technique for warping perceptions with a dollar bill. It’s a way to actually bend reality.”

Again, just a few words that provide a motivation for what you’re about to do and spark interest in it. This guy’s going to warp my perceptions with a dollar bill? He’s going to bend reality? This I got to see. Couple this simple presentation with a strong effect featuring a dollar bill – like the Mis-Made bill – and brother you have a potential miracle on your hands.

Now, I said earlier that a good presentation doesn’t even have to be stated – it can be implied. What I really mean when I say that is there are effects in magic where the motivation is self evident. You see a guy shuffling through some slips of paper. He looks at them on both sides. He folds them together, unfolds them and they’ve been transformed into a bunch of twenties. You could do that and say nothing and the effect would still register with most anyone because it’s such a logical action – at least it would be logical if magic was possible. Who wouldn’t want the ability to change blank paper into money? It speaks to our secret desires, our hidden wishes. Actually with effects such as these saying too much can damage the effect by clouding it with a lot of extraneous nonsense. There’s no need to explain why you’re doing what anyone would wish to do.

Another way in which a presentation can be implied is by introducing a problem and using magic to rectify it. You see someone taking his last cigarette from the pack and in the process breaking it. He brings the pieces together and fuses them back into a whole. The magic makes sense in and of itself. Something that is broken becomes useless – we all understand that. If one were capable of exercising special powers it would be logical to use said powers to fix something and give it worth again. Similarly imagine someone looking longingly at something he can’t have – be it an item of food or a beautiful woman. He communicates his desire through action and expression alone, and it’s clear that he lacks whatever’s needed to possess that which is desired. We all understand wanting something but lacking whatever’s necessary to have it. If the individual uses magic to get what he wants, to fulfill his desires, it’s very powerful indeed. He plucks coins from the air to buy a meal, or transforms a penny into a gold ring which he uses to win the heart of the beautiful woman. Words aren’t needed – the motivation is understood.

Now I’ve gone on a bit about having a logical motivation, but I want to make it clear that a good presentation doesn’t necessarily have to adhere to the logic of objective reality – it needs to be logical in the context of the effect. For instance, Paul Cummins has a very nice effect called Invisible Hand. His presentation is very simple: He asks the spectator, “Have you ever seen an invisible hand? It’s called an invisible hand not because it’s invisible but because it makes objects placed in it invisible.” He goes on to very convincingly demonstrate this by placing a coin into the hand and making it seemingly invisible. Of course the presentation makes no sense in the nuts and bolts world we live in. However in the context of the effect, in the action of seemingly placing a coin into his hand and making it invisible, it works perfectly. It does what a good presentation should – provides a sound motivation for what’s about to happen and creates interest in the coming magic.

Developing an original presentation is really no more than coming up with a good reason for what you’re going to do. That process begins with asking why. Why would I place a coin in a bottle? Maybe to demonstrate that the physical universe isn’t quite as solid as it appears. Sub atomic particles are really composed of nothing more than alternating waves of energy – the universe itself is nothing more than energy. What if there was a way to circumvent natural laws and for a moment render two solids as nothing but the energy they really are? Putting a coin in a bottle would prove that those natural laws had really been bypassed.

Of course presentations aren’t always one size fits all – that’s why it’s preferable to develop your own or at least add your own accents to a preexisting one. When I ask the why question my thoughts usually turn to the nature of reality and the very real absurdity of labeling something impossible when we find ourselves existing in an infinite universe. I want to stress this through my magic – the mystery of life and the plastic quality of consensus reality. But that’s me, those are the kinds of things that excite my imagination. You might have a completely different mind set, but that doesn’t matter. The process is the same – asking why and discovering a reason that makes sense of what you’re going to do.

I hope I’ve managed to demystify the subject of presentation in magic and demonstrate that far from being some abstract and hard to understand concept it’s really something quite simple and readily obtained. Like many aspects of magic, common sense is the key. To reiterate, a good presentation addresses the question of why – providing a sound motivation for your actions – and engenders the interest of those watching, making them receptive to what you’re doing. It really is that simple, and there’s no good reason to annoy people with pointless tricks when a trick coupled with a good presentation can create the illusion of real magic. See you next time.


Intensely Magic said...


I think this is the most important thing you've ever written. There's so much crap perpetrated under the "be entertaining" mantra that it scares me.

A dumb premise or a stupid story make for dumb and stupid magic. While it may be true that it is not quite as dumb or quite as stupid in the hands of a capable performer, at the end of the day it is bad, bad magic.

Some magicians, such as Eugene Burger, can stretch the credibility limits more than others without looking like a total dork, be even there, I find him less than entertaining with many of his routines.

Thanks again for a thought provoking and intelligent essay.

Take care.....

Jim Coles said...

Hey, thank you for the kind words. It's a mystery to me why so many either present their magic with no presentation -- Hey, watch this -- or slap together a lot of tripe that makes little sense and think that constitutes a presentation. I truly believe that because the magic community is so focused on methods the subject of presentation has acquired an undeserved reputation as something mysterious and complex when it's anything but.

I can dig what you're saying about Eugene Burger. He has the presence and dramatic chops to pull off a story laden presentation but definitely misses the mark at times -- or at least loses me. Then again much of his magic is fitted with much more basic presentations.

I spent a lot of time early on writing fiction. Anyone who tries to write a story will tell you that writing one and telling one are completely different things. Telling a story -- not a joke or an anecdote, but a story -- and making it interesting and captivating is a difficult proposition. Successfully combining real storytelling with magic takes special skill -- which is why you see it done well so rarely. There's simply no reason to kill yourself trying to come up with and artfully tell a complete story when it's just not needed.