Step away from the magic

In which Chris puts down the card tricks and explores other things in life.

This is the continuing story of my journey to identify and rid myself of magician voice in performing mystery entertainment. It will make the most sense if you look at them in order. See here for the whole series.At this point in my journey I had a lot of things swimming in my head. I was aware of the shallow nature of what I had presented as magic, mostly for laughs. I had a concept of a deeper purpose, that of creating experiences rather than just diversions. I was also suddenly more aware of all the things that I had set aside.

It seems that many who become interested in magic tend to make it a sort of obsession. I know of one young man who seemed completely ignorant of any area of popular culture that was not reflected in a magic book or routine. I wasn’t quite so isolated, but I was pretty immersed. These new revelations started to point out the ways that I was disconnected with the world. I didn’t really view things as a normal person. I viewed it all through mainstream-magician-colored glasses. It was a somewhat cynical, somewhat superficial view of things. This had a lot to do with my magician voice.

I spent a lot of my time thinking about the methods of magic. I looked into its history. I looked at moves. I studied tricks. I looked at other magicians’ performances. I kept up with what was popular on the market. I mixed and remixed things. I was a bit of a storyteller, so many of my effects had a sort of story with them, but I never strayed too far down that path. Magic shows are measured in “tricks per minute.” Everyone knows that you need to keep it moving and keep doing something amazing or you’ll lose them.

As I dealt with this conventional wisdom I began realizing that something was terribly wrong. I knew that I wanted to be more magical. I wanted to tap more into that space where things like Harry Potter had captured the imagination of millions (without any card tricks whatsoever). I knew about themed magic tricks and had ideas about ways to dress up as a character for themed shows, but it felt like I was missing something.

I decided to dig deeper. I did a writing/acting exercise and looked into magical lore, the legends and the myths that lay behind things like the fantasy novels that I found inspiring. Maybe I could find some patterns or something that I could feed back into my magic tricks. That’s when I fell down the rabbit hole.

I was digging into various perspectives on magical thinking, reading books on witchcraft, divination and other things. It reminded me that I used to have a lot of interest in the paranormal. I was that kid who watched In Search Of every Saturday. I read the book Chariot of the Gods when I was in the 5th grade! I played Dungeons and Dragons and always wanted to be a wizard. I was interested in a lot of odd stuff.

When I set my sights on being a commercial magician I laid a lot of that aside. Much of it had slipped away as I worked harder to keep up with the latest magic catalog and magazine rather than the latest fantasy novel. In fact, I noticed that there was a lot that I had set aside. I used to be able to name every Star Trek episode by number. I used to play guitar. I used to be involved in theater productions. I used to do a lot of things. Now it was just being magic boy.

I realized that not only were my performances overtaken with magic voice, but my life was as well. If I was going to get this under control I needed to take a big giant step back. My “professional” magic shows were not in real high demand. I was doing some here and there but had not established a serious following. There were plenty of people who could deliver the sort of superficial entertainment that I was doing. At the same time some of my serious, bill-paying work was demanding more focus. It was easy for me to just bow out for a bit.

So, I did. I quit performing magic. I packed it away and started digging back into the things that I had set aside. I started tinkering with divination and ended up being pretty good with it. I started focusing on entertainment other than magic shows. I dug back into the paranormal and weird stuff that used to fuel me.

In the middle of all of this I had the idea to do a podcast. Originally I thought of trying to make it a sort of psychic chat show but after listening to a few of them I realized that they were mostly pretty wretched and limited! I wanted something more like Coast to Coast AM. I used to love Art Bell and I missed having him on. Maybe I could do something that would just connect to different ideas of the paranormal. I wouldn’t be there as a debunker. I wouldn’t be there as a practitioner. I would be a seeker who was curious and let people just tell their story. The Shadow Hour was born!

Once a week, for nearly three years, I popped up on the Internet to discuss ghosts, psychic phenomena, UFOs, ancient mysteries and all manner of strange things. I had real conversations with people where we sometimes went a little deeper than I typically heard on the more introductory shows. I tried to keep it accessible to anyone who was curious, though. I tried not to get too geeky. It was an amazing experience! Some of my guests were actually on Coast to Coast AM, which was exciting. I also had a chance to talk in some depth with these people during the pre-show interviews and in my follow-up thank-you calls.

For such a long time I had only looked at the “magician’s guide” to these topics…the skeptical “this is bullshit but how do we wrap it around a magic trick and fool ‘em” sort of perspective. When I had real conversations with people about this stuff I discovered a lot of depth and ideas that had never occurred to me. It turned out that I could be interesting without any special effects whatsoever, just exploring fascinating stories and concepts.

Along with the podcast I was also involving myself in some theater projects, on and behind the stage. I was spending more time reading novels, watching movies, connecting with music and other things that I had set aside on my quest for the killer effect.

As I stepped away from the magic I noticed that I started having really more meaningful conversations with people. Folks I didn’t know would start opening up to me about personal ghost stories and their interest in strange things. Sometimes I didn’t mention my own involvement; they just started to talk about it. Was I giving off a different vibe? It was pretty weird.

Part of my goal for doing the podcast was to see if I could separate myself from magician voice. I wanted to see if I could just be an interesting and entertaining person without all that. As it turned out, I could. I thoroughly enjoyed doing The Shadow Hour and would love to do it again. It just became more work than I could handle on my own at the time.

I also enjoyed the sort of person I seemed to be becoming. I could be with people and not do any magic tricks at all. I was able to be in front. I was able to engage and hold interest just based on mutual curiosity.

Somewhere around this time I started to reconnect with magic again, but it was a different path now. The world was a different place for me. It was richer. It had more kinds of experiences and emotions and possibilities. But, it also presented some intense challenges.

You see, because of my journey, I’m not like the other hobbits anymore. I’m changed forever. Next time I’ll talk more specifically about what stuck with me after stepping away from the magic and what you might discover for yourself.

For now, consider what you may have set aside that used to be fulfilling and whether you might not want to add those flavors back into your life.

The Dream

Dreams can change us. Chris relates how a dream transformed his path.

This is the continuing story of my journey to identify and rid myself of magician voice in performing mystery entertainment. It will make the most sense if you look at them in order. See here for the whole series.

At this point in my “becoming” I was really struggling for a perspective. I was exploring a lot more esoteric material about the paranormal, things that I had largely set aside as I tried to be a more serious adult. I was also immersing myself more and more in various fantasy books that dealt with magic and the supernatural. I could feel the reek of magician voice every time I performed magic and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. So, I stopped performing magic.

I realized that the only way to get away from some of this was to step away from it. At the same time I was drawn to the paranormal sides of things. I started doing a podcast called The Shadow Hour, which was popular enough that I really should be doing it again. I’ll write more about that later because it affects what and who I am today.

It was during this 3-year break that something pretty extraordinary happened to me. I had a dream. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was for me. You see, I routinely didn’t remember my dreams so well. For a while I was convinced that I didn’t dream—something that changed, literally overnight after a conversation with a medium (I’m not joking or exaggerating). As I began reconnecting with my dream life I had a very special dream, one that I think was there to teach me. I dreamed I could use the force.

I woke up and found myself alone in my bedroom. Late morning light was streaming in and my glasses were sitting on the other side of the room. I reached out toward them and felt a strange little click in the center of my palm, almost a magnetic connection. I pulled with my hand and the glasses sprang across the room and into my grasp.

Excited, I went out into the dining room where my wife and a good friend David were working a puzzle together for no apparent reason. I came in and said “Look what I can do!”

“They watched, bemused, as I demonstrated with another object and then asked “How did you do that?”

“I don’t know!” I replied. They scoffed, but somehow I convinced them that this was a real thing. Then, David invited me out into the yard. Our hard had transformed into a sort of apartment parking lot where we went into a sort of a montage. He had me use my force to pull various objects of varyig size and difficulty through the air toward me. I remember having to duck out of the way of a flying cinder block at one point.

Then, after a thoughtful moment he asked “Can you push things?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. I thought about the little magnetic click I felt when I connected with an object and how if I spread my fingers out and thrust my palm forward rather than using a grasping motion that it might do the trick. “I think so.”

We continued to experiment, pushing and pulling objects until I had a good degree of control over things. My wife wandered out onto the back porch of our housepartment, which made sense in a way only dreams can provide. Excitedly we demonstrated the scope of my skills as they were currently developed. She watched, clearly impressed. Then she asked “Now what do we do?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Then I woke up. I found myself in my bedroom with the mid-morning light streaming in through the window shades. Gone were all of the misty suggestions of things that happen in a dream and everything was clearly the real world. My glasses were across the room…and I had to try it. I reached up, felt around for the little magnetic click that I had so clearly felt in my dream. When I could not find it I muttered a curse and dragged myself across the room to them, ready to face another day of utter normality


However, that memory lingered with me. You see, my brain had actually experienced this. I know exactly what it all felt like. If my hand passed through the air and felt that little click I would know exactly what to do about it. I had done it, just not in this reality, yet.

I thought quite a bit about what I had experienced. It made me think about how blurry the lines are between what we experience factually and what we experience fantastically. Our brain cannot tell the difference unless we force it to. Perhaps the role of a magician is less about fooling and more about creating experience, using deception as one of the tools rather than the be-all-to-end-all. The tools of the magician were merely part of a larger whole.

Movies deceive us, and I don’t just mean the special effects department at Weta. The very idea of a motion picture is an illusion: many still images projected before our eyes, letting the brain fill in the blanks and perceive it as a moving picture. Yet, we can escape into a film’s story to a depth that it actually changes our lives. There are some people who have taken on Jedi as their spiritual path, and some of them are driven by a deep sense of discipline, honor, and physical training. We think of the stories of Greek and Roman gods as fantasy, yet don’t we call up things like Pandora’s Box when we are trying to understand the idea of carrying curiosity to dangerous lengths?

Bob Fitch says that acting is about doing real things in imaginary circumstances. The way he describes it is that when an actor is displaying grief that his character has over the death of another, that emotion must be real. He has to find some way to connect with it, whether it is drawing up the memory of a dead loved one, or a lost pet, or anything else that connects with the emotion. Then, this trigger is used, on command, to fit into the story. The audience doesn’t know the inner workings They only know that in that moment of performance, they see real grief, and they assume that it happened because the character died. In turn, this may trigger grief for them at the loss of this imaginary person. It may even speak to grief that they have experienced in their own life, and perhaps even bring them some level of peace or understanding that they need.

That’s powerful stuff! It’s the powers of stories and the ways that humans interact with stories.

So, my ultimate decision was that I wanted to make a space where this stuff could be real. I needed to learn more about how it might be real. That led me to embrace the interest I’d had in the paranormal all my life, not as a skeptic, not as a designer, not as a fake, but to actually try to connect with it all in some way. It meant that I actually got involved in some things that some would scoff. (Maybe we get into some of that at some point if there’s genuine interest.)

The result of this is that as I approached these things in my art they had a different foundation than they had before. My goals were different. I was less concerned about controlling the situation than maintaining the context. It also created a situation where I could do things that did not have any special effects, where I could let things be real for people who were that open to the experience.

I did this with a Ouija board demonstration. There was no rig, or stooges, or anything. I used a combination of techniques used by 19th century spiritualists in their home parlors with recommendations by Aleister Crowly on how to control what you contact. My original plan was to present more of a show, but then it was clear that this situation demanded that we do it “for real.”

Being able to be real in imaginary circumstances was not something that I had tried hard to do before. As a result, everything that I did had a sort of cartoonishness to it that stood between my audience and their experience. Oh, sometimes it was more like Johnny Quest than Bugs Bunny, but there was always a piece of thick glass between my world and the audience. There was always a bar lowered across them to separate them from what I was creating.

Recently I read a book called Conversations with God (actually I listened tot he audio book on Audible). It’s probably not for everyone, but I love to expose myself to different approaches to thought. One idea this book presents is that humans are here to experience, that we choose how to encounter the universe and that it accommodates our choices. In other words, what you decide about yourself and your reality just might create that reality and that changing your thoughts will change events.

With that idea in mind, I really have the power to be a wizard, by opening people to the possibility that there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. (Thank you Mr. Shakespeare.) It really has changed everything. It’s made the connections with people much more powerful than I’ve ever experienced before. It’s also made the disconnections much more devastating, leading me to be more focused on the kinds of audiences I need…which is probably a good thing.

Wizards and Magicians

This is the continuing story of my journey to identify and rid myself of magician voice in performing mystery entertainment. It will make the most sense if you look at them in order. See here for the whole series.

In July of 2013 Mark Wilson and I put together an evening for the Austin chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. The topic was “Magic in the Movies.” As we talked about different approaches we realized that there was not really time to go and edit clips out of movies about magic. We decided that it might be interesting to use trailers for movies—the industry’s shorthand to tell an audience about a film. We further decided that we did not want to limit ourselves to showing people doing magic tricks, but to be open to films that depicted magical people and situations. (The final vibrations of the Harry Potter franchise were still faintly thrumming and the Hobbit films were keeping Middle Earth alive for everyone.)

The results of our searching were about 78 trailers. Some have been removed from YouTube over that time and a few have been added as they were discovered. See them all here:

It’s interesting to see this again after all this time on my path. My memory of these trailers is that stage magicians were generally portrayed as self-deluded, comic figures or villainous con men. As I see these again I have a more balanced view, I suppose, because I see a broader spectrum. However, it’s incredibly valuable to see magic and magicians from a view outside our industry. This is how magic is perceived by the lay audience, or Hollywood, at least. And those are the people who tell the stories that shape our world.

The films depict two categories of character: wizards, who deal with real power, and stage magicians, who are entertainers. In other words, they explore world of real magic and worlds of deception.

In the films where magic is real the power seems to be respected. There are moments of mischief and some wizards are foolish but the forces they command are usually substantial. These perspectives taught me much about how people imagine real magical powers. There is a lot of context there to explore. It is often very different from the context in which magic tricks are presented.

The films that portrayed stage magicians was also interesting. In theatre, characters often have focused and exaggerated versions of traits. Ego was certainly a common focal point. Sometimes the magician was deeply skilled and daring. Sometimes he was self-deluded. In pretty much every case they aspired to be “great.”

The common thread through all these characters, of course, was the secrecy. They were all in possession of knowledge that was not available to the average person. They also tended to stand apart from society. They didn’t fit in. In some stories this inspired awe. In others in inspired ridicule. It rarely garnered trust.

I’m not going to analyze these any deeper here, particularly because my view of them today is different from my memory of them. They spoke to me then and they speak to me today. I’ll let them speak to you.

The lesson I take from this is that there is a difference between the way that I viewed magic and the ways that others viewed it.  I would see something that I thought was misrepresented and had to remind myself that it was right from the perspective of the people who produced this art. It was shaped by their own beliefs, their own experiences. It was their own truth. When it was uncomfortable that meant something too.

See what truths stick to you. Which one thrill you? Which ones disgust you? Note those. They say something about your own relationship with magic. The most powerful ones will make you say “I wish…” Those were the things that pushed me down the rabbit hole.

The mystery-killer

In which Chris discovers magician voice and the diverse ways in which it may come about to ruin an otherwise good experience. (READ THIS FIRST)

Many years ago as I was rethinking my relationship with performance I had a very powerful experience that changed my view of everything. It completely upset my path and took me from a road of trivializing what I do to trying to create real experiences for people. The discovery is something that I call magician voice, and learning to avoid it has taught me a lot about connecting with audiences to do things that matter. Have I mastered it? Not by a long shot, but it’s given me some new ideals and I continue to grow. Here’s where it all began.

The Incident

My family visited a museum of oddities that had shrunken heads, mummies, Bigfoot artifacts and other strange and wonderful things. It was small but dense and I was enjoying sharing what I knew about the artifacts with my parents, wife, daughter, niece and nephew. There were a couple of other ladies who happened to be in the museum as well, so we were a substantial crowd in the little space.

When we got to the back of the exhibits, a man crept out of the shadows, wearing a vest. He announced that he would be doing a special performance for us and gave us three choices. He was a magician after the fashion of Harry Houdini and he could show us a card trick. He could tell us a story. He could read someone’s fortune. My daughter, who was maybe five at the time, immediately spoke up for the story. The ladies were interested in their fortunes. No one asked for the card trick. He was visibly deflated.

He carelessly set his deck of cards on the cage which was home to a live tarantula, but was now being used as his table. From a pocket he withdrew a bag and removed a small monkey’s paw. He told a brief version of the tale written by W. W. Jacobs as he stroked the paw in his hand. Then he used a Mental Pictoria deck to do a shallow, one-card reading for each of the ladies.

Referencing his tip jar he then receded into the shadows and we went on our way.

Outside on the street my wife was visibly upset. “I can’t believe he ruined the story like that!” she exclaimed, when I asked her what was wrong.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He told it like a magician,” she said.

Wow! At the time I was pretty immersed in mainstream magic, trying to progress my own art— such as it was. That was a pretty damning statement which I really needed to understand. What followed was a long, thoughtful conversation that changed everything for me. I coined the term “Magician Voice” to encapsulate it all and it is something that I continue to fight, though I think I’m doing much, much better now.

What is Magician Voice?

My wife’s key complaint was at the climax of the story. If you have not read the story you really should. It’s not long and it’s an excellent tale. You’re probably already familiar with the plot of a monkey’s paw that grants wishes. While that sounds like a good thing, it creates unimaginable grief and horror for the family that comes to possess it.

Seriously…read it… Spoilers lie ahead.

* * * * *

What upset my wife came at the point that the banging is happening at the door. In Jacobs’ narrative the scene is described in actions. The mother is overjoyed. The father is terrified. The mother is rushing to embrace her returned son. The father is desperately trying to stop it all together. The worst of it all happens in our imaginations as it occurs to us what is wrong with her wish and why we must not open that door.

In the magician’s rendition he talked about the banging on the door and said “…but you see, her son was still mangled from his accident…” with a mildly graphic description.

My wife said that he essentially spoiled that by leaving nothing to the imagination. She remembered being terrified by that story in college and he ruined it. She saw that as a core component of a magic performance, ineptly dragging the audience to the magician’s conclusions and force-feeding them what they needed to think about it.

There was a lot more to the conversation, but it boiled down to a few key points that define Magician Voice.

  • Underlying insincerity The general tone of the performance is one of mild pretending, like parents trying to get their kids to take their picture with the Easter Bunny (a figure who does ot carry anywhere close to the mythological gravitas of Santa Claus). Essentially, it’s as though the performer says “I don’t really believe in this stuff, and I don’t expect you to either, but let’s all be polite for a while and we’ll get through this crap together. Let’s have some fun!”
  • No faith in the audience The audience is dim, like children watching an Afterschool Special. Things need to be spelled out and dumbed down with the key points and messages explicitly expressed in the strongest possible terms. This is all a planned execution and the audience is there to perform specific functions that will be precisely guided by the performer. They are not there to contribute anything except laughing at the right jokes and doing what they are told.
  • It’s about the performer winning ─ “We all know who the cleverest guy in the room is, and you’re all looking at him.” The magician is there to trick you. You can’t beat him and if you try it’s not going to go well for you. Just submit.
  • It’s a fixed ride ─ Just like when you strap into the car at Disney’s Haunted Mansion (though, this is probably more like the little dark rides from the traveling carnival) you are going on this ride from beginning to end. There will be no detours. Your only option is to see it through or abort.
  • Human sacrifice ─ There is an inherent victimization to a magic performance. In order for the show to happen, some must be sacrificed. If you are lucky it will not be you. With luck, you can deflect this off to someone else who can better deal with this indignity. If not, do your best not to upset the magician while you are in his den.
  • None of this matters ─ Nothing that happens in a magic show actually has anything to do with life. It’s just some people doing some stuff. Some of it may be loosely tied to meanings with a sort of “moral of the story” kind of thing, but this is really all just distraction and diversion. It’s funny and amusing to take the mind off of stressful things for a while…like watching a video of a puppy playing.

To be continued…

My original plan was to make this a single article, but I quickly realized that it would leave out too many important aspects of the journey. I’ve therefore decided to break it up into more pieces so that I don’t have to condense ideas too much.

Track the series from here.