A classroom check list from magician Tilman Andris
Magic tricks and didactic mysteries place spectators/students in a similar situation when it comes to their reasoning processes. Starting from a number of assumptions, the conclusion is reached (or within reach) that something is impossible or unlikely in the given circumstances. Subsequently, exactly what has been deemed impossible or unlikely is observed. This leads to cognitive dissonance, motivating the quest for an explanation. Another similarity between the presentation of mysteries in class and that of magic tricks lies in the fact that both are theatre without the ‘fourth wall’ and, more specifically, theatre in which the audience has an active part. It is the task of the performer or teacher to ensure that the audience members or students not only remain interested, but also embrace the roles reserved for them. Magicians have developed presentational techniques for this kind of situation and it does not seem unlikely teachers could glean something from the magician’s practice.
Because both teachers and magicians deal with and need to control reasoning processes of their audiences (with respect to tricks or didactic mysteries), part of their efforts will need to be directed towards establishing the conditions under which a trick or mystery takes place with clarity. Clearly establishing conditions in itself is neither engaging nor interesting. Interest and engagement will need to be ensured through a link with subject matters meaningful and significant to the audience and through the creation of a theatrical structure which leads from an intriguing beginning through a suspense-laden middle towards a surprising climax which triggers the audience’s curiosity.
Below you find a theatrical checklist and a reading list developed by Tilman Andris, a magician with a background in philosophy who has been performing magic for about 20 years. Tilman participated to a number of teachers training sessions organised by TEMI partners and has helped the consortium to develop the TEMI innovation related to showmanship.
• Have I eliminated all inessentials (text, actions, objects)?
• Have I guaranteed the visibility of all actions and objects?
• Are props/objects only in sight when they are meant to be observed?
• Have I achieved a clear arrangement of objects in space?
• Does everything I say have a function?
• Have I established conceptual links that help reduce cognitive burden?
• Are the instructions I give clear and concise?
• Have I prevented distracting interruptions?
• In short: have I spared my audience all undesirable intellectual work?
• Is the subject matter of my presentation meaningful and significant to my audience?
• Does the subject matter of my presentation relate to universally shared experience?
• Can I use the shared experience of my audience as a stepping stone to my presentation?
• How can I motivate the transition from shared experience to the subject matter proper?
• Are there means of convincing my audience that the topic to be dealt with is even more significant than the one serving as stepping stone?
• If I decide not to relate to the experience and prior interests of my audience, what means of generating attention and interest can I employ?
• Do I really know how to begin? Not just what to begin with, but also:
• How do I mark the beginning (silence, eye contact, intriguing first action, statement or question)?
• Where do I stand?
• What is my first action? What would be the most intriguing first action to take?
• What is my first sentence? What would be the most intriguing first sentence to say?
• Do I remember remarks from my audience on prior occasions that can inspire an intriguing opening sentence?
• What role do I have in mind for my audience? Can I come up with other, more exciting roles than those my audience will assume by default (roles other than the critic, the heckler, the bored, etc.)?
• What action do I take to make my audience assume that role/those roles?
• Why would my audience want to assume that role/those roles? Have I made it sufficiently attractive?
• Every trick and mystery creates suspense through curiosity, directed at the its explanation. In magic, that curiosity is never fulfilled. Curiosity-driven suspense – in tricks as well as mysteries – often occurs late in the procedure. This leads to the question:
• Can I employ other forms of suspense (driven by conflict or anticipation of an expected outcome)? In particular:
• Can I stage a conflict?
• Between members of the audience?
• Between myself and the audience?
• Between myself and the audience on one side and nature or machine on the other?
• Between myself and/or the audience on one side and a character I tell the audience about (for example a scientist who advocated a theory that is now considered false)?
• What sort of conflict fits the mystery at hand best (a difference of opinion, a competition, a bet, etc.)?
• How do I guarantee that those losing a conflict will still like the experience?
• Can I create suspense by having the audience anticipate an outcome while making it seem impossible that the expected result could actually occur?
• Can I heighten the suspense by raising the stakes or risk?
• The magician’s task ends when his/her tricks have reached their surprising climax. Therefore, I have little to say about this phase of the dramatic structure. For the teacher, I suppose, the following considerations would apply:
• How should I design the transition from the surprising result of a mystery to the Explore Phase?
• What is the focus of my audience’s curiosity at that point and how can I best make use of that curiosity?
• How do I get my audience to assume the analytical attitude required in the Explore Phase, coming from the (more or less) playful mystery.
Note: This checklist owes a lot to Darwin Ortiz’ treatment of showmanship techniques in ‘Strong Magic’. (See reading list for further details on the book and my recommendation of it.)
Dariel Fitzkee: Showmanship for Magicians (Lee Jacob Productions, 1988 [1st edition: 1943]).
For more than fifty years, this book was being seen as the most important work about the theatre aspects of magic. It contains very useful chapters on pacing, attention and interest.
K. Johnstone: Impro for Storytellers (Routledge, 1999).
If you perform and involve your audience in the performance, there will always be an element of improvisation. Keith Johnstone is a pioneer of improvisational theatre and explains his methods in this book and his earlier Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979). Personally, I have learned a lot about interacting with my audience in courses on Theatresports and improvisation.
Jacques Lecoq: Le corps poétique. Un enseignement de la création théâtrale (Actes Sud, 1997).
One of the important pedagogues of physical theatre describes his method. An important personal inspiration for my magic performances due to the emphasis on silence, the mastery of a neutral physical point of departure and the economy of movement and gesture (without ‘noise’ and tics).
If you associate acting with the need to tap personal memories and emotions, Lecoq provides a counterpoint. In his method, the actor’s visible movements are the basis for his performance. Whoever wants to free himself from tics or personal mannerisms has much to learn from this approach.
Darwin Ortiz: Designing Miracles. Creating the Illusion of Impossibility (A-1 MagicalMedia, 2006).
Never before did a book on the theory of ‘magic performance’ consider the importance of the reasoning processes of the audience in such detail. Ortiz maps out the necessary conditions for achieving an ‘illusion of impossibility’.
Darwin Ortiz: Strong Magic. Creative Showmanship For The Close-Up Magician (Kaufman and Greenberg, 1994).
This book is currently regarded as the standard work on showmanship techniques for magicians and merits close reading. Comparisons with other narrative genres (especially film and short story) abound and render the book somewhat readable for non-magicians. This book was one of my most important sources in preparing my contribution.
Ben A. Parris, Gustav Kuhn et al.: Imagining the impossible: An fMRI study of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks (NeuroImage 45, 2009, pp. 1033-1039).
Study on the brain structures that are involved in processing observations which contradict assumed cause-effect relationships. The authors regard magic tricks as a useful experimental paradigm for investigating this kind of learning situation in general.
Should you really consider reading books on presentational techniques for magicians, I would recommend starting with Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz, a very systematic approach to the subject. However, you will learn much more through a more hands-on approach. You may want to obtain feedback on your presentation of a mystery from a magician or learn more broadly about showmanship and theatre by attending acting lessons or joining a theatre company.