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.
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.
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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.