s h i f t e r d o t o r g

purveyors of fine-quality bunkum

24 September 2013
by Mike
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In Good Company

A few weeks ago I had a bright idea – I’d form a company to focus on production of magic shows, and to advise on theatrical productions that use magic techniques. What better way to be involved with something I thoroughly enjoy without forcing people to pick cards in social settings? Simple, I thought.

The next stop was equally simple – come up with a name. I’ve always been a fan of the word ‘mountebank’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘a person who deceives others’ (amongst other slightly less flattering things). Its origin in Italian as ‘montambanco’, or ‘one who climbs on a table’ is one I find charming.

Mountebank

Courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

The word found peak popularity in about 1650, so the likelihood of others using the term in this context (or any context) seemed fairly low.

I wanted to formalise things and reserve the name with The Companies Office. What I didn’t know, though, was that because the proposed name contained the word ‘bank’, it was off limits.

This word,‘ the letter read, ‘is protected by s64 of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act 1989.‘ Well then.

New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian (Newspaper). Fellow settlers! the mountebank statesmen who so much amused you… their new constitution for New Zealand. [Poster]. February 3, 1851.. Ref: Eph-D-POLITICS-Wellington-1851-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

After studying the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act 1989, I entered into a discussion with the Reserve Bank, explaining the origin of the word and why I wanted to use it. Luckily, I was speaking with someone who enjoyed the heritage of the word. He did express an issue with the less flattering portions of the aforementioned OED definition, particularly the portion that read ‘in order to trick them out of their money’.

After some more back-and-forth, and promising that in no way would I enter into the banking industry, and altering the name enough to clarify things, the Reserve Bank approved the request. Back to the Companies Office I went.

Courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

So after all that, I’ve a name and nothing more. I still need to pull together the other aspects of things – like incorporation and projects, for instance. But there’s a name, and that’s a start.

Mountebank Entertainments Limited.

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08 September 2013
by Mike
0 comments

The Dynamo Effect

At a recent meeting of the Wellington Magic Club, as we discussed the merits of some things over others, the conversation turned to Steven Frayne. Frayne – possibly better known by his nom de magie, Dynamo – has been turning up on New Zealand television in his show Magician Impossible over the past few months. What struck me was how much of a reaction he caused among the group.

Whether it was because of his performance style, or his choice of effects, or his constant recounting of his hard-scrabble upbringing in Bradford, the common theme seemed to be a negative one. After querying this a bit, it turned out that some in the room had a similar story. When people found out they were magicians (either professional or hobbyists) the next question was ‘Can you do that thing that Dynamo does?’

Someone brought up that even if those in the room didn’t like Dynamo – for whatever reason – the important factor was that others did enjoy his performances, enough to watch and want to see more. I agreed with him. Isn’t that what’s important in magic – how performers make participants feel?

This led to more discussion about performance style, and how Dynamo is merely continuing what David Blaine had started. Using relatively straightforward effects and focussing the camera not as much on the performer and more on the reaction. Indeed, this has become the norm in televised magic, and the format works well for the young man from Bradford. I think he takes it a step beyond, though, with the travelogue aspects of his show. He uses travel to show the world through his eyes, and he uses his magic to bridge across cultures, which is a pretty neat trick.

The conversation went on more from there, talking about other famous magicians and what could be learned from them. It brought to mind a quote that’s attributed to Banksy:

Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it.

Ultimately, I don’t know if anyone was convinced about Mr Frayne. Some may still take it personally when they’re asked to put a mobile phone into a bottle. Others, however, may see it as an opportunity.

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17 June 2012
by Mike
0 comments

A Tension

Magic, as either hobby or profession, falls in a very strange grey area. I think it’s a common story amongst magicians, an interest in magic coming from childhood or adolescent shyness. A pursuit that involves free time spent alone (well, with a mirror) focusing on the smallest detail, only subject to self-judgement. Those predisposed to introversion might find a practice built from secrecy quite alluring.

Contrast that with an important factor of magic – that if it’s not performed for real people, can it be considered magic? Without a receptor, how can wonder be realised?

The characteristics of secrecy and performance are in a constant battle for magicians. But that need to share the experience with others should be the centre-point. Otherwise, why sit by yourself working on your angle-proofing?

Once out in the real world, performing for real people, the level of engagement needs to ramp up. We no longer live in a world where entertainments are ring-fenced to a particular time or place, as when people deliberately visited theatres to watch a magician perform. There’s also the pressure from special effects, where trick photography or CGI is assumed. And distractions – a television, a mobile phone, a passing car – fight the performer for the engagement of the participants.

Matt Holtzclaw portrayed the professional magician’s life in some detail. One aspect of this applies to professional and tyro alike:

To be asked to perform is delightful. To fight for an audience’s attention is murder.

The desire – if not the ability – to capture attention is heightened. The reserved practising magician becomes a rabid attention-seeking performing magician. The attention becomes a craving, and some magicians cut through the pleasantries and go right for the throat. Thrusting a deck into someone’s face and demanding they pick a card is one way to get attention. It’s not, however, a good one.

Perhaps this attention-seeking with magic is best summed up by John Guastaferro on Twitter:

Just as important as hearing, "They loved your magic!" is hearing, "They loved YOU!" As magicians, these are inseparable goals.
@johngmagic
John Guastaferro

There was a recent discussion on Aaron Fisher’s email list, discussing the deeper aspects of performance – scripting, blocking, and presentation. The thread had its fair share of twists and turns, but one response stands out in my mind. Andrew Hillcoat wrote:

I’ve come to realise as long as you’re not made of stone or a complete dick your magic should connect with the audience.

Seems pretty straightforward, but think about it. You’ve probably seen magicians who go against both of these rules. You may have even done it yourself.

The solution may lie with simply removing magic from the equation. If you’re the type of person who people can like sans props and gaffs, chances are they’ll still like you when you launch into your Ambitious Card routine.

Of course, I can’t guarantee what they’ll think of you if you do twelve phases of it.

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