I can’t remember all those rules anymore. Most of them started with “Don’t”. Over the years, though, I have been breaking them to suit my needs.
Two of the rules I most often break are the following:
1. Do not perform the same trick twice to the same audience. I break this rule on a regular basis. I repeat the same trick to the same audience, when I think I can kick people harder in their medulla oblongata. I’m a violent person when it comes to performing magic. I take no prisoners and seldom show mercy.
I’ve written about this topic in the past, so before I repeat myself, elaborate my ideas, or amplify what I have written, see first Don’t Be Guilty: You Can Do the Trick Again.
A magic performance has as many characteristics as a joke. Once told, a joke does not seem as funny as its first telling. Similarly, the same trick, performed twice, will no longer be so amazing, let alone so entertaining, the second time around as the first time.
How many times have you received requests from the audience for you to repeat a trick? After vanishing a coin and making it reappear behind someone’s ear, a spectator probably would demand, “Do it again!” A magician in the Philippines who haven’t received such request ever may have to look seriously at the way he performs magic. He is probably fooling himself but not the audience.
Well, magicians in the past might have good reasons why they came up with the “Don’t Repeat a Magic Trick” rule. I was not the magician who thought up of those reasons, so I can’t tell you their rationale. I will just surmise its whys and wherefores.
Apart from the need to keep up the entertainment level of a magic performance, the strongest reason for proscribing the repetition of a trick is to protect its secret. Magicians in the past (and even many hold-outs in the present) believe that people are apt to catch the method of a trick when they get a second chance to watch it.
The concern is valid in the past. It is valid also today. The second performance of a trick loses the advantage of surprise. Thus spectators who get to watch the trick again will be observing the magician’s actions more closely. They are more difficult to misdirect the second time around. Remember Abe Lincoln‘s famous quote? He once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
However, as Richard Osterlind points out in his article on the subject of repeating a trick, a performer can overcome the difficulty by employing a better, if not different technique, than the one he used in the first performance.
In fact many magic tricks are repeatable. Most sponge-ball and cups-and-ball routines gather strength by repetition. The truth is, my occasional issues with cups-and-ball magic is that some magicians in the Philippines repeat the trick far more times than necessary. As a result, the performance loses its impact. The balls that go to the pocket keeps coming back under the cups. And they do it ad infinitum and ad nauseam (which I think is Latin for making people nauseous until they throw up from too much repetition).
Yes, a magician in the Philippines may repeat a trick provided he uses a different method and uses another presentation that is as entertaining as the first performance. But he must also be sensitive to the saturation point of his audience, so he knows when to stop.
2. Do not tell the audience in advance what you are about to do. Here is another rule I break all the time without feeling guilty. I break it every time I feel it helps to build up expectation and to increase interest in the performance.
When I declare, “I’m going to turn this dove into a duck,” people usually crane their necks, watch the performance closely. Once I get their undivided attention, I do the trick. Methinks the impact of the trick becomes stronger, owing to the audience watching it closely.
When I claim, “I’m going to escape from this strait jacket by dislocating my shoulders,” I easily bring the audience on the edge of their seats. So easily it seems like cheating. Which makes me feel awful, because I don’t cheat. I just tell a lie.
In breaking this rule, I got my inspiration from a magician in the Philippines who was the precursor of the modern-day street magician. He was a snake-oil salesman who sold his wares on the street in Cebu City when I was still in college. He used magic to gather people around in a busy street corner. Once he had a large throng, he began pitching his medicines to them.
I once stumbled upon this street magician in college, while I was on my way to catch my classes.
You guessed it. He used a chick pan to accomplish the trick.
It was not a difficult feat of magic. Many magicians in the Philippines enamored by their sleight-of-hand skills would sneer at the method. But for laymen, what the street magician cum medicine man did was a miracle. For me, who was already a student of magic for many years at that time, the performance was a laboratory example of how magic should be performed—amazing, interesting and entertaining.
As far as I could remember, this is how the performance transpired: the street magician gathered the people on the street by breaking an egg into a tiny pan and announcing he was going to turn it into a chick. Yes, he told his audience in advance what was going to happen—and he told them repeatedly throughout the performance. He gave them a running reminder that in a little while he was going to open the cover of the pan and by then the egg would have become a chick.
Everybody stayed and held their places where they stood. I was among the curious onlookers. There were about a hundred of us. We were all passersby on the way to our respective destinations. But this street magician stopped us for over an hour with a trick with a chick pan.
Once he had gathered enough people, the magician then launched into his sales pitch. He talked glowingly of his medicine. He claimed it cured all kinds of sickness and warded off black magic, voodoo and even accidents. Every now and then he would peek under the cover of the chick pan to check how the egg was doing. People by the dozens bought his medicine—I think partly to encourage him to get over his sales pitch and be done with it. Everyone wanted to see if he could really turn the egg into a chick.
For one hour and a half, we stood on that street, waiting for the street magician to resolve the trick. How did I know it took him that long to end the trick? Well, I was late for one-and-half of my classes that day.
Finally, after making a bundle, the street magician uncovered the pan. A chick appeared for everyone to behold. Immediately, the unbelieving spectators rippled with laughter.
The images of that performance stay in my mind to this day. To me, what the street magician did was a study in minimalism. Yet, he thoroughly engaged his audience with one trick for one-and-a-half hours.
I don’t know of any magician, not even David Copperfield or other demigods of magic, who can hold the attention of an audience for one-a-half hours with just one trick. Not to mention with a self-working trick.
That street magician was a master showman, who broke a rule in performing magic, namely, the one that proscribes telling the audience in advance what is about to happen.