The Art of Deception: Magic as a Theatrical Art

Is magic a form of theatrical art or a whimsical sideshow performance?Magicians are not regarded as artists in the same way as actors, dancers and musicians are. Magic plays a modest role in the world of show business and is more aligned with sideshows and circus than with theatrical art. Most would deny magic the status of an art form as it has a lowly status in the hierarchy of the dramatic arts.1 Not perturbed by their lowly status, magicians themselves often refer to their performances as an art form.

Are magicians artists and is performing magic an art form in the same way that other forms of ‘serious’ theatre are art? Discussing whether magic is an art or not is almost futile as there are many equally valid interpretations of what constitutes a form of art.

As an art form, magic is an informal form of theatre that resides in the niches of contemporary culture. Most people rarely experience a live magic performance and would struggle to recall the names of magicians. The majority of magic performers does not appear on television or works in regular theatres. They perform in many types of venues not traditionally associated with theatre, children’s birthday parties, restaurants, the street, at conventions and so on. This unique nature of magic implies that it cannot be analysed in the same way as you would a traditional theatrical performance. This essay proposes that magic cannot be examined using the traditional concept of theatre but that it is a form of ‘epic theatre’ as conceptualised by Bertold Brecht.

Theatrical Art

Theatre is traditionally considered to be a ‘closed’ Aristotelian form of art, characterised by the unity of time, place and action.2 The objective of ‘closed theatre’ is that the audience to temporarily forgets that they are watching actors on a stage. The role of the writers, actors, directors and others is to ensure the “suspension of disbelief” by spectators. The audience is enticed to believe in the virtual reality staged in front of their eyes. Nineteenth-century French magician Robert Houdin, the father of modern magic, is famous for saying that a magician is an actor who plays the role of a real magician.3 Houdin’s definition of a stage magician matches the Aristotelian concept of theatre. In his view, the objective of magical theatre is to convince spectators that the person they are watching is a real magician, a person that can contravene the laws of physics. From this perspective, a magic show is an Aristotelean art form, assuming the magician can, at least temporarily, convince spectators that she possesses supernatural powers.

However, the closed concept of theatre cannot be generically applied to contemporary magicians. Any intelligent observer realises that magicians use devious techniques to create the illusion that he evokes magical powers. The audience is astutely aware that a conjurer cannot produce playing cards from thin air or cause balls to penetrate solid metal cups. For magic to be considered theatrical art in the traditional sense, it requires spectators to suspend their disbelief. Modern viewers are, however, not able to fully immerse in the magical world created by the magician to the same extent that they are willing to suspend their disbelief when watching a film or play.

The intellectual challenge inherent in magic theatre engenders a tension between the audience and the magician. “How did she do it” is always on the mind of the spectator. The main difference between magicians and actors is that magic performances are often about the adventures of the props in the hands of the magician, while plays and films are about the adventures of the individuals themselves.4 The lack of human interest in most magic makes it almost impossible for disbelief to be suspended. Perhaps there is another way to interpret magic performances.

Magicians and Bertolt Brecht

A significant difference between traditional closed theatre and magic is that conjuring almost always involves direct communication and interaction between the performer and the spectator. In traditional theatre, there exists a so-called fourth wall, an imaginary division between performers and audiences. The fourth wall is an invisible one-way screen placed on the edge of the stage. The audience can see and hear the actors, but the characters played by the actors, cannot perceive them. In a magic show, especially close-up magic, this wall doesn’t exist as spectators form an active part of the performance. “Pick a card, any card”, are commonly heard words in close-up magic shows and the observer participates in the performance. Traditional theatre occasionally breaks through the fourth wall when a character in a play refers to the fact that they are part of a performance. These considerations imply that the Aristotelian idea of theatre does not apply to magic, in particular, close-up magic.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht developed a view of theatre that contrasts the Aristotelian view. One of the techniques he used was the distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt). This effect happens when an actor, implicitly or explicitly, indicates being part of a performance, deliberately breaking through the fourth wall. In Brecht’s concept of theatre, actors often break through the fourth wall and spectators are not expected to identify emotionally with the characters. In Brechtian theatre, audiences are rationally engaged with the proceedings, which he calls this epic theatre.5

A magic show cannot be analysed according to the rules of traditional theatre but are best interpreted as a form of epic theatre. In magic, there is usually no need for emotion or storytelling. Magic has an inherent story to tell, embedded within its very nature. Each magical effect contains the powerful message that reality is not what it seems to be.6 Magic performances are thus an inherently philosophical form of theatre. The magician temporarily creates a virtual world where miracles are possible. It is in this Brechtian sense that magic theatre can be considered a theatrical form art. Magic is a form of epic theatre in which the magician presents the ordinary in an unusual way. The magician indicates the horizon of reality and creates an intellectual challenge for the audience. Not a simple puzzle to be resolved, but a deeper truth about how we experience reality.

This concept can be demonstrated using two examples.

Fred Kaps

Fred Kaps (1926–1980) is one of the best magicians of the last century. Kaps, the stage name of Bram Bongers, had an inimitable performance style, characterised by flawless technique and an engaging presentation. Kaps is the ultimate conjuring actor, and his performance of The Homing Card is an example of dramaturgic perfection.

In this performance, Kaps is in constant conflict with himself as he experiences a series of escalating emotions. The first time he notices the wrong card he is surprised but ignores the issue. The second time the trick goes wrong, Kaps is embarrassed and tries to figure out what’s going on. The third time the wrong card appears he is disappointed in himself but proceeds nevertheless. The fourth and last time the wrong card appears, he even shows anger and eventually capitulates.

This performance is and example of an Aristotelian form of theatre, but not following Houdin’s concept of the actor playing a wizard. Kaps does not pretend to be a real magician, but a plays the role of a failed stage magician.

Tommy Wonder — Epic Theatre

Another Dutch magician is Jos Bemelmans, better known as Tommy Wonder. Bemelmans wrote two of the most influential books in contemporary magic, in which he thoroughly analyses the dramaturgy of a magic show.7

The spectators in this show actively participate, demolishing the fourth wall. The routine consists of several stages, with increasingly strong effects. A distinctive aspect of this performance is the appearance of the pompom and the pouch under one of the cups. In traditional versions of this trick the final climax is the appearance of fruit or bigger balls. Tommy Wonder’s performance is a high-quality piece of magic where spectators are continuously astonished. The power of the close-up magic is not the proximity between the performer and the audience, but that the audience actively experiences the magic, instead of passively consuming the performance.8).

This performance can not be analysed following the traditional view of theatre, but is a prime example of epic theatre. There is no fourth wall and the performance is not about a story, but about pure illusions. This performance creates an intellectual challenge for the audience, which is what Brecht sought to achieve in his form of theatre.

Magic as Theatrical Art

Perepectives on Magic: A book about scienctific views of conjuringMagic is a form of epic theatre as explained by Bertolt Brecht. Most magic performances are not traditional theatre, in which disbelief is suspended, but performances where the magician conveys an alternative worldview. Magic is not about storytelling or intellectual challenges but, at least temporarily about taking us back to a natural state of astonishment, the child’s world view.9

Like to know more? Read my book Perspectives on Magic for more scholarly reflections on theatrical magic.

  1. Michael Mangan, Performing Dark Arts. A cultural history of conjuring (Bristol en Chicago 2007). 

  2. Disselkoen, Dick ed., Twaalf Opera’s als Spiegel van hun Tijd (Heerlen en Nijmegen 1993). 

  3. Julian M. Olf, ‘The actor and the magician’, The Drama Review: TDR 18 (1974) 53-58. 

  4. Eugene Burger en Robert E. Neale, Magic and Meaning (Seatlle 1995). 

  5. Disselkoen, Twaalf Opera’s

  6. Burger en Neale, Magic and meaning. 

  7. Tommy Wonder, The Books of Wonder (Seattle 1996). 

  8. Paul Harris, The Art of Astonishment I (California 1996 

  9. Paul Harris, The Art of Astonishment I (California 1996). 

Predicting future behaviour from past events: A magician’s view

In recruitment of new staff an often used golden rule often is that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour really a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?

A magician’s view

The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classical magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars.

Teller showed that magicians can use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates that in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.

Predicting future behaviour in recruitment

it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour

We have to be careful when judging a person through second hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate in accordance with laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made a mistake in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring a person with a high level of maturity and an ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram”—I am not who I once was.

Tommy Wonder on Religion

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Dutch Magician Tommy Wonder provides an interesting insight into the nature of religion in Volume I of his  The Books of Wonder (1996).

He gives advice to magicians on what to do when a spectator discovers—or beliefs to discover—the secret to a magic routine:

“I’ve frequently wondered why people sometimes come up with painfully silly solutions and don’t stop to realize it. If they would give the matter more thought they would quickly see that their solution couldn’t possibly work. I believe their reasoning runs something like this: The moment a spectator sees a magical effect that he [sic] doesn’t understand, he is confronted with a problem, a problem that stands square in front of him like a granite boulder … Now if the spectator contrives some solution, in a way he has enabled himself to move the problem. He can roll this boulder out of his way, so that he is no longer confronted by it. The problem seems to be solved … his mind throws a big party. He’s solved the problem!”

This observation from the every day practice of a professional magician shows an interesting psychological mechanism at work. Somebody is presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem, which creates a conflict in the mind. As soon as a solution is presented, no matter how improbable, the conflict seems to disappear. Wonder continues:

“Because his mind is dancing and celebrating its victory, it never stops to realize that it only moved the problem … it still exists in another place.”

The psychological mechanism at work is a process of cognitive dissonance. When a magician makes a ball disappear, there are two observations which seem to have no causal relationship—the ball is there and the ball is gone. It is the job of the magician to hide the actual cause—this causeless event is the magical effect. Humans are inclined to remove any tension between dissonant observations, even if this means inventing miraculous connections.

Cognitive dissonance is often used as an explanation for the emergence of religion in pre-scientific cultures. The idea being that ancient people experienced a cognitive dissonance in their experience of natural occurrences, such as the daily disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. The explanations created to relieve the tension is what we now know as religion. This is, however, only a partial explanation. Although much of religion is provides explanations for the way the world is, for those who follow it religion is also a vehicle to provide meaning to life, something that cannot be provided by science.

Does all cognitive dissonance need to be resolved? Why can we not live with the tension of not knowing—accepting that there are questions for which we do not have an answer, or for which there even might not be an answer? Tommy Wonder touches on this when he argues that magicians should aim to defuse the cognitive dissonance experienced by the spectator, creating suspension of disbelief and giving rise to a feeling that magic really exists—even if it is only for a fleeting moment, as our rational mind quickly takes over, trying to resolve the dissonance.

Theatrical Magic and the Sciences

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

The past three years I have been studying the relationship between magic and science and studied hundreds of articles about the performance of magic tricks from many different fields of science. From this I found that the relationship between magic and the sciences is bidirectional.

Firstly, magicians use the principles of science to create the illusion of magic. They use the principles of psychology, physics, linguistics, engineering and so on to perform their tricks. The second relationship between magic and science is that Scientists study what magicians do. For example, psychologists try to find out how people can be deceived, occupational therapists try to help people improve people’s lives by teaching them magic tricks and scholars in the field of gender studies develop ideas on why so few women are involved in the performance of magic.

For my Perspectives on Magic project I have created an annotated bibliography of scientific research into theatrical magic. The table below provides an overview of the relationship between theatrical magic and the different fields of science. The middle column shows the fields of science used by magicians to create the illusion of magic. The last column shows the fields of science which have studied magic performances.

Theatrical magic and science

Sciences Magic Trick Methods Study magic and magicians
Physical Sciences Chemistry
Life Sciences Health sciences
Physiology Physiology
Social Sciences Anthropology
Business studies
Gender Studies
Film Studies
Library Science
Linguistics Linguistics
Performance Studies Performance Studies
Psychology Psychology
Applied Sciences Engineering Computer programming
Occupational Therapy
Formal Sciences Mathematics
Information Theory

You can read more about the relationship between magic and science in my book Perspectives on Magic.

Magic Library: Scientific Literature about Conjuring

Magic LibraryMany magicians are avid collectors of magic tricks, DVDs, books and anything else related to their passion. Some are quite fanatical and amass thousands of volumes on the art of deception, like the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York shown in this video. Several such libraries exist in the world, including some academic libraries have also created collections on conjuring.

The Magic Library

Beth Kattelman from the department of theatre at Ohio State University published an article on one of these collections in Theatre Survey, published by the American Society for Theatre Research.1. Some notable academic collections of magic books and paraphernalia in Australia are the Will Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and the Robbins Stage Magic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.2 Some other academic institutions with a magic library:

Parallel to the literature about magic, written by magicians, a sub-genre of scientific writings from many fields of endeavour exists. These books and journal articles are mainly written for the colleagues of the professionals and scientists that created this work. Historians, social scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists, neuroscientists, film researchers and so on have deliberated on the role, workings and practical purpose of conjuring.

Most of this work is, however, locked behind pay walls and publishers charge exorbitant prices for a single ten-page journal article. Over the past three years, I have extensively researched this literature and created an online annotated bibliography on the science of conjuring to help unlock this vast resource.

  1. Kattelman, Beth A.  (2008) The American Museum of Magic/Lund Memorial Library and Other Resources on Magic and Conjuring. Theatre Survey (49) 2: 285-293. DOI: 10.1017/S0040557408000161 

  2. Awcock, F. (2004). Will Alma, mas­ter magi­cian. The La Trobe Journal, 74, 15–24; Gal­lacher, L. (2006). Cast­ing the spell: Magic in books. The La Trobe Journal, 78, 71–87. 

The Evolution of Magic as an Art Form

One of the most interesting developments in modern painting is the movement towards abstract art. Although this form art is often controversial and ridiculed by those who do not know how to appreciate it, its development is a very deliberate movement away from the confounds of naturalist painting. Abstract painting is quest to find the essence of painting, stripped bare of its relationship with reality it expresses ideas and dreams rather than things.

This is no better illustrated than by the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan. He started his career by painting naturalistic and impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen in the top left below. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. Mondriaan later experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.

The evolution of painting and magic

The evolution of panting and magic.

The same type of evolution can also be seen in conjuring. The naturalistic painting style can be compared with the time when conjurers pretended to be real magicians. Dressed in exotic clothes, summoning spirits and uttering occult words to impress their audiences. Magic as we know it today started with Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, more often than not labelled the father of modern magic. He created the iconic figure of the gentlemen magician in evening dress, pretending to be a real magician. This modern form of magic lasted for more than a century. But now the stereotypical idea of the magician has been destroyed by post-modern conjurers such as Penn & Teller and David Blaine. They perform in ordinary clothes, no longer even pretending to be real magicians. The magician is no longer somebody pretending to be somebody else, but has become an independent archetype. Interestingly enough, some magicians went totally against this development and created the Bizarre Magic movement in which they try to relive the early days of magic. The abstraction in conjuring is, however, continuing.

Conjuring is making its next breakthrough to the complete abstraction of the magician, just like Mondriaan’s paintings are complete abstractions of what art once was. This new magic is stripped down to its bare essentials. One magician who is moving down this path is Canadian Jay Sankey. He creates magic with ordinary objects, bolts and nails, straws, key rings and anything he can get his hands on. All but gone are the playing cards, coins and sponge balls and other even stranger props. The future of magic is a simple and direct bending of reality. Just like abstract art can be confused with a child’s painting, abstract magic is deceivingly simple, but is laced with psychological subtleties to create extraordinary experiences.

Wikileaks and the Masked Magician

By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Espen Moe (Julian AssangeUploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The WikiLeaks website has created a media storm around the world. The website facilitates whistle blowers from all over the world to anonymously publish material that otherwise would never see the light of day.

Julian Assange, Editor in chief of Wikileaks, is the Masked Magician of the political world. Albeit not hidden behind behind a mask, he exposes the secrets of the diplomatic, military and political world to all who are interested.

On his motivation, the WikiLeaks website states that:

Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. … the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government”.

WikiLeak’s philosophy is based on Bergson’s concept of the Open Society, later popularised by Karl Popper. In an open society, the government has no secrets and people enjoy freedom. The open society is an Enlightenment ideal where people have to make their own decisions based on the information available to them.

The idea of the open society is contrasted with the closed, authoritarian, society. Knowledge is closely guarded and people’s freedom is limited by what they are allow to know. In closed society, decisions people make is based on the collective ideal rather than individual choices.

Most traditional societies are closed and do not share knowledge as freely as in the Western world. In traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures knowledge was only passed on to those initiated in certain traditions. Aboriginal culture is traditionally secretive and knowledge is passed on along generational and gender lines.

The reason for secrecy is because knowledge is considered dangerous to those not prepared to wield it. Australian Kevin Solway has compiled a great collection of wisdom from traditional sources called Venom Crystals. The words contained therein are beautiful crystals, but they can also be a venom to the spirit to those not ready for it.


How does Val Valentino, the Masked Magician compare to Wikileaks?

Val Valentino, the Masked Magician.

The material published by WikiLeaks can, however, in no way be called wisdom. The information preciously guarded by governments and organisations around the world is banal and barely goes beyond what can be deduced from public sources anyway. WikiLeaks does not publish venom crystals of information that need to be guarded from feeble minds. WikiLeaks defends the open society in a way that is only possible since the advent of the Internet.

Just like magicians around the world are vexed by the Masked Magician, politicians, business leaders, church officials and military are vexed by WikiLeaks. But just like the Masked Magician has not damaged magic as a performance art, the revelations of WikiLeaks will not bring down our society.

The secrets of politics, religion, war, business and magic are banal. It is only when they are exposed that we can take their keepers seriously and are able to fully appreciate what they do. The words of magician Jim Steinmeyer can be applied to magic and politics:

”… to appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician” (Hiding the Elephant)

Deception in the Arts

Canadian magician Jay Sankey recently asked himself why there is such an obsession with the method of magic tricks. This obsession comes from both sides of the stage curtain. Magicians spend most of their time perfecting new ways to achieve the same old effects. Spectators are obsessed with the method because they are presented with a mystery that the magician is unwilling to explain.

Sankey is correct that almost every art form uses a kind of deception. Realistic art aims to make us believe we see something that is not there. Actors pretend to be somebody they are not, dancers hide the enormous physical strain they are under and magicians hide the real cause of the effects they create. I think that it is this focus on the method that is preventing magic from becoming an important form of performance art.

There are two reasons for this obsession: firstly, secrecy is inherent to magic because we present occurrences where the actual causal relationships are obfuscated from the spectator. This secrecy is not the case in any other form of arts where deception is used to support a story. In practical terms, the magician deceives to make something happen without physical cause while a dancer or actor deceives to tell a story or communicate an emotion.

A good example is the movie Avatar — a feast of visual deception. But because there was a story (albeit a one-dimension one), attention was moved away from the method. And the most interesting part is that movie makers even expose their methods on the obligatory “making of …” DVD so that everybody who is interested can find out how they were deceived in believing in a three-dimensional world.

Jim Steinmeyer writes in Hiding the Elephant that one can only truly understand the art of magic if you understand the magician’s secrets:

To appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician.

This idea has recently been confirmed through scientific enquiry. A group of people were subjected to an fMRI brain scan while watching a video of a magic trick. The research showed that looking at a trick triggers specific parts of the brain- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — that are associated with the detection of conflict and cognitive control. This finding means that people watching magic tricks are placed in a position where they will focus on method because as their brain seeks cognitive control.

Deception study: fMRI of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

fMRI study of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

The cognitive control prevents spectators from truly experiencing magic as a form of art — suspension of disbelief is made impossible. Most people are well educated and do not believe in real magic, leaving little room for actual suspension of disbelief. There is also a social contract between conjurers and their spectators that although an admission of deception is made, the method will not be revealed.

Deception in the Arts

One form of magic where this is still possible is mentalism. The main reason for this is that the science of the brain is not as advanced as the science of physical objects and thus, following Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction, there is still a lot of room for people to believe in magic. Clarke’s law states that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Because technology about how or mind works is still in its infancy, many people are prepared to believe that Uri Geller can bend metal with his mind and John Edward can communicate with deceased people. Some people believe so firmly in paranormal powers that some proclaim that English mentalist Derren Brown possesses supernatural powers, even though he clearly admits being a magician. These people believe that Brown wishes to keep his special powers a secret!

This week the controversial television show Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed is aired on Australian television. Too many magicians, this seems like the end of the world. Their cherished secrets are being squandered for the sake of ratings. I agree with them that these shows are not of high quality, but not because of their content.

Exposure in magic is a double edge sword. It would, of course, be self-defeating to explain tricks while performing magic, just as it would be very annoying to have the special effects in a movie explained to yo while watching the story. In the early days of filmmaking, exposure of the secret techniques to create special effects was very controversial. This knowledge is nowadays freely available, and people still watch movies!

In some way, exposure can be good for magic. The only people I ever here speaking of magic as a form of art are magicians themselves. They do so because magicians know what it takes to do good magic. Magicians do not focus on the secret but on presentation. They can switch off their cognitive control as they know the methods. This knowledge gives yo a freedom to enjoy magic at a whole different level. And lastly, the fact that magicians can quite easily be deceived supports this view.

Are you sure? Cognitive dissonance in magic tricks

Performing magic touches at the core of how we see the world. The fact that magic is possible, the fact that our brains can be deceived so easily proves that reality is not necessarily what we perceive it to be. Alvo Stockman expressed this fundamental fact on his video blog recently:

Being sure is at the core of being human and it is at the heart of what magic relies on … People need to mentally commit to something before it is destroyed.

Here he eloquently surmises the essence of magic. The magician creates a situation of which the spectator is sure that it is true. Although the fact that the observer knows that he or she is watching a magician will create some suspicion; but, because they don’t know what will happen next it is almost impossible not to believe what they see, as there is no hint available to what is going on. The technique, but more importantly the presentation, of the magician make the spectator’s mind “mentally commit” to the state of affair as presented by the magician.

In this video, you can see me performing the Ninja Rings in the local suq (street bazaar) in Luxor, Egypt. Although the routine keeps repeating the same effect, the technique is so deceptive that there is no way the spectator can think anything else but to assent to the state of affairs as presented by me, i.e., the rings penetrate each other.

The spectators will search for solutions in their mind, and when handing the rings out for inspection, they find out that their perceptions were wrong. One particular spectator in this video gets a bit too enthusiastic, nearly destroying the actual weld that holds the rings together. He is very committed to obtaining certainty rather than believing what I cause him to see. Alvo continues in more general terms:

Every day our brain makes decisions about what we see in probabilistic terms. The more information we have, the more certain we are about the world.

Cognitive Dissonance

In magic, we create the opposite situation. The magician presents a reality that does not conform with reality as the spectator is used to see. This difference creates cognitive dissonance in the spectator’s mind—a gap between the state of mind of the spectator and what they see. In good magic, an experience is created in which the spectator becomes more and more or less confident about what they see until a point has been reached where no rational explanation is immediately available and a state of astonishment.

Magic Blueprinting: Using MML for scripting routines

The history of magic and the history of language go hand in hand. Language started with verbal communication, supported by dance, painting and rituals. Ancient shamans passed their craft on to the next generation in this very same way, initiating their apprentices step by step through one-on-one instruction via words, dance, painting and ritual.

Writing as we know it first developed about 6,000 years ago in present day Iraq. From then on, people wrote about every aspect of their lives, including magic. But, no writing about how to perform magic has ever been found in ancient documents. It seems that the pact of secrecy between magicians prevented them from committing their knowledge in permanent form. It is interesting to note in this respect that magicians have always been at the forefront of technology when it comes to creating the illusion of magic. When it comes to explaining secrets, however, magicians are a lot more conservative. The first magic book was published more than five millennia after the invention of writing! Since then, writing has been used prolifically by magicians to teach each other about their secrets and  initiate new magicians.

The twentieth century brought new technologies and with new means of communication came new ways of teaching magic. In a span of only a few decades, magicians moved from books to video and now to DVD and on-line technologies to share their secret knowledge. This proliferation of technology in magic teaching has made it much easier to pass on knowledge, but also raises problems for the craft, as there is a fine line between teaching magic and blatant exposure of magic secrets.

Magic Blueprinting

The evolution of language is still ongoing and as our world becomes more complicated, people seek new ways to present knowledge beyond verbal communication and text. One of the most popular tools to communicate a series of actions over a period of time is ‘flowcharting’, a technique that was first used in 1921. This time, however, it took magicians only 87 years to adopt this new form of knowledge presentation, when Alvo Stockman developed the Magic Modelling Language, magic blueprinting.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Presenting a series of activities in a graphical way is used in many different disciplines and is known under many names. Some call it a flowchart, others an activity map or a process map, while marketers prefer the term service blueprinting. I use these maps in my non-magical professional work to outline processes and illustrate where improvements can be made. Some of the questions that can be asked when looking at a process map are: Are there too many steps? Are all steps necessary to reach the end goal? Is the right person taking this step? Where can this process go wrong? These are also relevant questions for a performer when developing a magical routine.

After reading Alvo’s pamphlet I immediately developed flowcharts for some of my favourite magic routines, such as A Card in Hand by Theodore Annemann (Annemann’s Card Magic, 1977). The magic blueprint for this routine does not strictly follow the specifications of MML 1.0. Firstly, the flow of the action is illustrated with lines between boxes, rather than the grid like appearance of MML, making it easier to follow the flow of action. Secondly, to distinguish between the actions of the performer and the spectator, so called ‘swimlines’ are used. These are the vertical lines across the diagram. Thirdly, the actions of the performer are separated in frontstage and backstage. Frontstage is that which the spectator is supposed to see, while backstage refers to any action, the ‘moves’ spectators are not supposed to see. Last, but not least, a fourth swimline is used for the monologue, forming a comprehensive blueprint of a magic routine.

The map shows that there are six steps in this routine from the frontstage magician point of view, while there are five steps where the spectator gets involved. The routine has one climax, which happens in the spectator’s hand. Last but not least, there are three backstage moments that require attention management.

The front-stage actions of the performer are what the spectator is supposed to see. In this particular routine, the performer needs six steps, including an introduction, to reach the end. A Climax Quotient of 1/6 seems very low, but the scripting and high involvement of the spectator help to increase tension towards the end. Other routines, such as the Chinese Linking Rings, have a very high Climax Quotient, as many magical effects happen in quick succession, but it is very hard in these type of routines to build up tension and they thus rely on rhythm, rather than scripting.

The spectator swim-line shows that he or she is heavily involved in the routine with an Interactivity factor of five. This routine is almost in perfect balance in that out of a total of eleven front stage actions, the spectator undertakes five, giving an Interactivity Ratio of 11/5 (45%).

The script has been added to the actual process map to show the relationship between words and actions. The words are like the audio track to the actions and serve a threefold purpose. The words are explanatory and support the actions. The words also aid in managing the spectator’s attention away from the backstage actions. Most importantly, the words build tension towards the unveiling of the card. I have borrowed this technique from Fred Kaps’ rendition of Homing Card, where with every failure the inner conflict of the performer becomes more intense, moving from surprise to confusion to embarrassment.

This routine has three backstage moments, which need to be kept outside the attention of the spectator. Using a magic blueprint helps to construct a routine to appropriately direct the spectator’s attention away from the backstage. In this example, the scripting is constructed in order to manage the spectator’s attention away from the backstage action.

Not every little movement is captured in this map. For example, as I say the words: “… use the top card”, I gesture with the top card to direct the spectator’s attention. This action does, however not show on the blueprint because it is a detail the spectator is not aware of. Small backstage actions are indicated in the script between straight brackets. This raised the question what the appropriate level of granularity in magic blueprints is.

As Dai Vernon once said, a routine needs to be simple and a spectator has to be able to remember the steps. Following this advice, looking at A Card in Hand from the spectator’s perspective, can be summarised as such:

I selected a card, it was mixed back in the deck, the magician gave me another card and it turned into the one I chose.

This sentence describes five of the eleven steps indicated on the blueprint. The granularity of the map, i.e. the size of the steps, needs to match the spectator’s experience of the routine. There might be more steps, but people usually forget the details of what happened in a magic routine. There is no need to have a box for each change of finger position, because the spectator will not be aware of such detail. When developing a magic blueprint, always keep the spectator’s perspective in mind.

I use process maps almost daily in my non magical professional work because they are a great way to display and analyse a process. For some reason, however, it never occurred to me to use this technique for scripting magic routines, until I stumbled across Alvo’s pamphlet on the Magic Modelling Language.

Magic blueprinting, as I prefer to call it, is a useful technique to work out the details of a routine. The maps help to visualise the logistics of the routine and can assist in designing the appropriate theatrical devices required to keep the backstage hidden from the spectators. Magic blueprints also help to see a routine from the spectator’s perspective, which really is the only perspective that matters.