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Magic Actors Versus Magic Artists


“A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician”

Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin


This is a quote that if you have spent any amount of time studying magic you will have read. It is important to note that this is taken heavily out of context. The original quote reads:

“A conjurer is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician; an artist whose fingers have more need to move with deftness than with speed. I may even add that where sleight-of-hand is involved, the quieter the movement of the performer, the more readily will the spectators be deceived”

Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin

The first quote is often used to explain away magicians’ use of ridiculous characters, but instead the full quote is in regard to how our craft is not down to just pure technical skill[1]. It requires a performance. This I cannot, and would not, disagree with. The misappropriation of the original quote has led to many issues in regards to the performances of our community.

I have a heavy interest in art. I’ve realised over the last year or so that my real interest in performing is not just to fulfil my narcissistic hole of needing to be centre of attention, but I truly want to make my performance mean something. Magic is a tool to further a narrative for me. If anything, it is inconsequential the trick I perform, as long as the patter has an effect on my audience.  The material I have written over the last 8 months has been dramatically different, often with simpler methods, much more powerful pattering. This has reflected in the reactions. My aim is not to have participants necessarily be amazed[2], but for them to go away thinking about what they heard and what they saw.

That’s the difference between the magician as an actor and magician as an artist. If magic were to be real the demonstrations would be far from artistic. They would be representations of the feats capable, nothing more than a boring physics class demonstration. Magicians often perform their magic in this style, simply making it a demonstration maybe with the occasional “joke”.

True magic isn’t real. We are performers, our deception should be a tool to further the overall presentation, not the end goal. All art is deception. A painting is a 2D representation of a three-dimensional image utilising perspective techniques and a series of brush strokes to deceive the brain into seeing a real image. This is the trick, but the art comes in what the piece makes the audience feel and what it represents. These are often individual to the viewer, and whilst all experiences will be different, they are no less important than any other. Here we find the reason for why technically gifted artists can often be less successful than other artists that have meaning behind their works.

True artists bring what they have experienced to their work. Their personal lives are reflected in their work. Their struggles, loves, and heart breaks. This has leads us to an excellent quote in regards to poets that can be used to describe all art:

“The poet stands naked before the world”

Alan Ginsberg

This represents how when a poet stands on stage, or publishes their written work, they are exposed to the world. Their hearts are on display for all to see. This is true of all great art pieces. But does magic have the same reflection of the performer? Often not. An ambitious card routine is not a reflection of the performer, they do not expose their heart for all they see. And therefore, magic is often viewed as a puzzle rather than an art. We are acting as magicians giving a demonstration instead of what we really are; performers and potential artists.

When was the last time you performed a piece that truly represents you as a performer? Merely than just being a whimsical little demonstration? There is so much more power in this. It should say something and have a meaning behind it.

For example, my which-hand routine is one of my favourite things I have ever developed. In the beginning I talk about how as a performer people develop parasocial relationships[3], but what they see is a carefully cultivated image on a conscious and subconscious level. One that we all develop daily, and people never know us truly. These images are based on two factors; lies and truths. I proceed to perform Tequila Hustler. Whilst this is powerful, I found the true artistic demonstration in the ending. I proceed to explain there is a further method that we cultivate these images we play; secrets. We all have deep secrets that change how we process the world, act with others, and react to stimuli. Some of these we can share with others, some we never utter even to our loved ones. I don’t expect a participant to share with the crowd a deep secret, instead I share one with them. I hand them a envelope with a secret inside and ask them to read it to themselves. I take the envelope back and burn it in front of everyone. In that moment the secret is part of them now too. It is on their honour to keep that secret as there is no evidence of its existence anymore.

In performing this I have made the audience consider their relationships with others, the image they portray, and their view of me as the performer. It is far more powerful than showing them the best ambitious card routine that has no meaning. I have done nothing special in doing this, I have merely explored an idea based on my personal life brought forward via my reading and introspective nature. We are all capable of writing things that mean something. That affect the audience.

How is this different to the magician as an actor? This is not to disparage actors. They often draw from personal experience to bare their soul on stage for their audience. It’s the misappropriation that the magic community has performed to make it seem like magicians should act as if anything is true to perform a trick, including preposterous characters. Instead they need to self-reflect and become the magician as an artist. An artist that uses lies to show a bigger truth. In that we can move our audience and change their emotional state.

That’s how we become artists. That’s where the real magic is.

[1] As a juggler I take umbrage with the suggestion that juggling is purely technical. All you need do is look at the beauty of Michael Moschen’s work to see how far this could be from true.

[2] Though I don’t discourage it.

[3] A one-sided relationship where one side extends emotion, interest, and time, and the other side is completely unaware of the person’s existence. This is often the case with celebrities where people think they know them on a personal level. As performers we also have these relationships develop.


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