I abhor stereotypes, and in my personal life I try to keep an open mind and judge each person or event in my life by its own merits. However, in my show business life it seems like people I perform magic for sometimes fall into two categories. First is the one that’s really great: they are genuinely amazed and enjoy the feeling of wonder and entertainment you have created. (Ah, if only everybody was like this!) The other group takes a performance of a magic trick as a personal challenge – “No sir, you’re not going to fool me!” They immediately start sharing theories out loud of how they think the trick works – sometimes before I’m even finished performing said trick! They insist that I do it again, or demand to examine my pockets or sleeves, or sometimes just loudly proclaim, “I know how that trick is done,” folding their arms and sitting back with a knowledgeable half-smile on their face. Etiquette aside, when you’ve seen this as many times as I have (and I’m talking thousands of times, both with myself and other conjurors), one starts to wonder – is there something else going on here?
The Psychology of Amazement
The irony of all this is I would probably say 98% of the time they are wrong (and I’m not just pulling that number out of the air). But of course you can’t stop the routine and explain that; magic is like music, and a great trick has a rhythm, much like a great song does. But years ago I learned to not be irritated by these interruptions, and I have some standard lines I use to guide the audience member out of a confrontational situation (humor is very handy here). But I got to wondering why certain people do this. Of course, there’s some obvious answers: they want to put the spotlight on themselves, or they have a history as a frustrated magician, or something like that. But I think it goes deeper, because I have seen different expressions of this worldwide.
Please – Reach Into My Pockets!
When I was working at an amusement park in Hong Kong, a lot of my close-up magic was non-verbal because of the language barrier. After I would do something like make a coin disappear, sometimes a man standing next to me – without any verbal cue or encouragement – would just reach into my pockets and start looking for the coin! This actually happened quite a few times in Asia, and I came to realize that it seems the attitude towards magic was like a “challenge” issued to a viewer. It was not just to be watched – they had to actively try to figure out how that trick is done (by the way, after the 100th time I finally learned how to say, “Do not reach into my pockets “ in Chinese!). So they were just acting on that impulse… the impulse to solve a puzzle.
So I think that’s where a solution lies. Even though someone making a bold proclamation during a trick is not pleasant initially, I try to see it now as their way of embracing the mystery; they don’t want to bathe in the wonder, they want to know how that trick is done. So I try to bring them into the process, ask them to “help” me on this journey of doing something impossible for the rest of the audience. Making a bridge like this brings them back into the group experience, and things run smoothly again. All is well.
But I just had a thought: I’m angling for a gig in Paris in the fall. Just in case, should I figure out how to say, “Do not reach into my pockets” in French?