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Peter Pitchford
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A couple of years ago I attended the Magic Castle for an evening. We watched two of the close up shows, a parlour show (maybe two, my memory fails me), a performer at the bar, and a palace show. I won't disclose names here but it was interesting (and nauseating by the end of the night) that in every venue at least once someone performed the magician in trouble plot. Some guys did it two and three times in the same set. Ok, this can be entertaining or it can just show a lack of creativity. By the end of the night I was hanging my head every time I smelled magician in trouble. I haven't seen this done well very often. It could work. Under the right circumstances ...
The Burnaby Kid
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Tommy Wonder has great theory on this. I'd summarize the stuff that comes to mind but really there's nothing better than getting his thoughts on it directly.
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Rich B.
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Hey Peter...great job at the IBM/SAM competition in Louisville.

Its funny you mentioned this...I really do like the magician in trouble plot. I agree it could be over done. An example would be my own show. I performed a corporate Christmas party and my wife attended. The show turned out to be just OK...not one of my better shows. I had a couple of mishaps that I had to cover up.

My wife said that I did the magician in trouble plot twice in one show...and when adding the 2 mishaps it made the over all show look under rehearsed...which was not the case.

So I'm rethinking the magician in trouble plot and trying to limit it to once per performance.

Good topic.

Rich B.
Whit Haydn
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One of the best magician in trouble presentations is Doc Eason's Sam the Bellhop.

It is his natural acting that "sells" it. Too often, the bit is telegraphed by coarse acting.
Peter Pitchford
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Thanks Rich. I wish you could have been there for MAES. It was much better. You're on to something Whit. Also, I'll take a look at what Mr. Wonder says as soon as I get a chance.
cinemagician
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In my opinion the "magician in trouble" concept works best when the the magician is really in trouble as opposed to a canned, pre-scripted situation which the audience will ultimately see through.

Look back at those times when you have really messed up and somehow recovered- even though the "climax" of the effect may have been weekend-- in my experience these situations garner the best/ strongest reactions from spectators in general.

And they cannot be faked.

The magician in trouble concept is dramatically sound and a fundamental application of conflict/resolution- BUT audiences can sense subconsciously when a real mistake is corrected VS. when a fake unfortunate situation is brought to a satisfying conclusion.

I think that the magician in trouble concept is closely akin to the "kicker" concept as well.

Interesting to note that Rich B's use of the magician in trouble concept more than once in the same program garnered an adverse reaction from his wife.

The same goes for kickers- if they are placed too early in one's program the audience is conditioned to expect every effect to contain a kicker- when they don't get one it's a letdown.

Magician in trouble should be used sparingly and towards the end of one's program - the same goes for effects with "kicker" endings as well.

Nice to see Peter Pitchford and Rich B. (two of the finest magicians from the Philadelphia area) contributing to the FFT section.

-Mark
...The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity...

William Butler Yeats
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The only time I've ever been dissatisfied by the mag in trouble scenario was when the ploy came off like child's play. And that goes to what Whit said, "Too often, the bit is telegraphed by coarse acting."

P.S. I think it would be funny if a magician used the in trouble bit, and took it step further by getting really pi**ed off. Faint annoyance would be easy to get away with. However, I wouldn't even try anger without the help of a strong director. At what point does the audience know that it's a part of the act?
POOF!
tommy
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It might be a bit shop worn but that might be because we see a lot of magic Some remarked: “One guy in a tuxedo producing doves can be magic, ten guys producing doves is a travesty.”
If there is a single truth about Magic, it is that nothing on earth so efficiently evades it.

Tommy
The Burnaby Kid
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There was an article written on Online-Visions.com about acting that I thought was applicable here, but when I went looking for it, I couldn't find it. (I thought it was Tyler Wilson's...?)

Anyway, to paraphrase what I remember, it was talking about Robert De Niro's belief that good acting is essentially hiding emotion, since that's essentially what people do. If we've screwed up legitimately, we'd feel scared and/or embarrassed, and if we feel scared and/or embarrassed, we usually don't want people to know it. As such, laughing as though we're embarrassed is frequently conveying the fact that we aren't really embarrassed, because if we really felt that way, we'd do everything we could to hide it. What's more, if we really had the security of an out of some kind, a way of rescuing the effect, we wouldn't be embarrassed, we'd just head right into it.
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Whit Haydn
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That's a very important concept in acting. It is like the famous dictum about playing drunk--most actors fail because they act drunk. Drunks are trying as hard as possible to act sober.

The hidden is always more interesting than the obvious.
tommy
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“the more secret things are, the more beautiful they are.”

From the oldest text on our magic.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/apr/10/italy.books
If there is a single truth about Magic, it is that nothing on earth so efficiently evades it.

Tommy
Magicmaven
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I agree with the magician in trouble problem.
For many magicians, it simply doesn't fit their character, and yet they insist on including the situation in their act. Then, they over do it. There has to be some level of believability. This is what makes the situation so intriguing. The audience is resting on the edge of thinking "oh this is part of the act" and "um, wait, did he actually mess up?" This feeling of being on edge is at the heart of art and can be very entertaining because it plays so well with our emotions and thought process. The audience knows that just about everything we do in the act is planned--so this plays with their perception, or now, misperception.

Back to the character idea. If Lance Burton uses a magician in trouble presentation, he has to go to great lengths to make it believable because such an elegantly dressed gentlemen headlining in vegas simply doesn't mess up. He has to therefore prove that he has messed up. Go off stage, get very quiet and look around, etc. If he starts chuckling and making goofy faces, it is ruined. No longer is the audience on edge--they know it is part of the act.
On the other side, if a twelve year old kid uses the magician in trouble presentation, he has to do very little to sell it. The audience is, to some degree, expecting a mishap. It is natural. There is no reason for him to sell it at all because it would be overselling it.

More than one magician in trouble plot done the same way is very problematic and detracts from any reality that the plot is suppose to accomplish in the first place.

The audience distinguishes between what is the act, and what is reality. Being on this edge is the fun part, for the audience and the magician.

Great topic.
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The Burnaby Kid
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Magicmaven,

It's funny that you mention the differences between the consummate pro and the 12 year old, and the differences that they'll have to face in selling being actually in trouble. I'm not disagreeing exactly, but I think that it might be a bit more nuanced.

Assuming that the magician is not REALLY in trouble, the problem is like this...

The audience believes that the magician is really in trouble, or the audience believes that the magician is faking it. Tommy Wonder argues that one of the very real risks in doing the magician in trouble plot is that there is a risk of turning off an audience in EITHER case. That was pretty insightful of him. Either they know the magician is faking it and they're annoyed by the pretense, or else they're unaware that he's faking it, they develop awkward feelings of sympathy and anxiety, and they might feel emotionally manipulated by the magician being able to get out of the problem at the end.

I think this is one of the things that allows magicians who are very good at presentation and acting to get away with magician-in-trouble plots, in much the same way that we enjoy any good piece of theatre. Consider Hollywood. We know Tom Cruise isn't killed in an action sequence -- we just saw him do an interview on Oprah and the film finished production months ago. Thus when we get nervous about how Tom Cruise is doing in an action, it's about the character, and not him. That seems almost self-evident, but it's still possible to accept the duality that (a) Tom's character is probably going to make it out of this little jam so that there can be a sequel, and (b) gosh darn if this action sequence still isn't exciting.

(Obviously, the presumes a good Tom Cruise movie.)

In any case, now it's a matter of making the action sequence exciting. Speaking through analogy, this means that the manner in which the magician's character gets out of trouble is the most important thing. That might seem ridiculously self-evident, but it's worth mentioning because if the two are analogous to each other, then we've got to look at the ways in which we can satisfyingly merge dramatic conflict with magic. This is harder than it appears, since good drama relies on a well-constructed metaphor, a reality that is acknowledged as false from the get-go (part of the suspension of disbelief process), whereas good magic relies on a well-constructed intrusion upon a reality we accept as true because we live in it, making it practically unmetaphorical.

What Tommy Wonder was very good at was varying the ways in which the conflicts started, and the ways he gets out of it.

Going from the presentations off the Visions of Wonder series...

Cups and Balls: The magician is in the end upstaged by the bag, which seems to have a life of its own.
Deja Reverse: The magician is defeated by one of the two cards he is supposed to find.
Cough Drop: The cough drop is eluding the magician, and the tin seems to be throwing up obstacles at him.
Tamed Card: The magician wants to change a chosen card to match his set (because the spectator chose the wrong card), but instead finds that he must change the set to match his card.
Everywhere and Nowhere: The magician is unable to find the chosen card three times, but when he learns what their card is, suddenly it's everywhere in the deck, before it disappears again, apparently never having been in the deck.
Coins Across: He can't make the Owl Coin jump across, but all the other coins do.

(These don't even include every routine that has "conflict" built into it.)

There's a lot of variety there, and in each of the cases, the effects that follow the magician being in trouble are actually appreciably stronger than the effects promised (with the possible exception of Cough Drop, in which no effect is explicitly promised). This is a key point to consider... if you're going to put yourself in trouble, the payoff doesn't just need to be you coming through on your claim, but instead, the payoff could be something BETTER than the original claim. Otherwise, you risk the "Oh look, I'm in trouble. Ha, gotcha, I never was." which is unsatisfying.

For another example, consider the way Ricky Jay presents the signed card to sealed card box. At first, the card is going to found by a series of free choices made by the spectator -- improbable, but not impossible. Next, a bunch of toys are going to find the card from the ribbon spread. None of them do, although comedy comes of it anyway. Finally, the card is found in a manner that is apparently physically impossible.

(Incidentally, I believe that comedy is an essential portion of the effect, as it provides bona fide entertainment despite the fact that the magician has apparently screwed up. People are less concerned about whether or not the toy is actually going to find it, and more interested in what toy is going to come next.)

Another route to take is to add jeopardy to the routine -- something appreciable is at stake in the event that you fail. This is why even though you know David Copperfield isn't going to die in front of his audience when he's suspended above those spikes, he adds every little detail he can to make his situation become more and more precarious. Most decent escapes will also usually do whatever is necessary to show what would have happened if the performer hadn't escaped in time -- either the car he was chained to is run over, or the building is destroyed, or the platform crashes into the spikes, etc.

It doesn't have to be exactly physical danger, either. For instance, the magician can place a bet that he can do something despite appreciable odds. Perhaps it's a bet that the spectator can do something despite appreciable odds -- suddenly, the more deceptive the magic, the less the magician appears to have to do with the proceedings, the deeper the mystery.

These things (and others) I think are a huge part of what needs to be explored when it comes to the magician in trouble plot. They're often less related to the magic than they are to conventional drama. Any thinking individual is going to assume that the performer isn't really in trouble, that it's just part of the show. As such, it is the manner in which the conflict is resolved that needs to be developed, and it might even be possible to have it so that the audience senses that the performer isn't really in trouble, but they're still interested in seeing how it turns out.

Some principles, then...?

Consider making the final effect that occurs stronger than the effect you promised to conjure up.
Consider making sure there is comedy in the way you try to resolve the trouble he's gotten himself into.
Consider adding jeopardy in the event of your failure, and add authentic details to make the jeopardy feel real.

Finally, one last thing to look at is making the source of the conflict more developed than "Oops, I screwed up." Again, if we look at Tommy Wonder's Tamed Cards, he's even willing to shift blame (albeit gently) onto a spectator if it'll change the dynamic. Similarly, if we look at Ricky Jay's apparent mess-up, it sort of makes sense given that the spectator has complete control over which card is going to appear, as it would have been ridiculously improbable that they'd find it in that manner (which would have made it a pretty good trick -- thankfully, the card to sealed box trumps it on the impossibility scale).

Just some thoughts. Anybody feel free to add to them.
JACK, the Jolly Almanac of Card Knavery, a free card magic resource for beginners.
The Burnaby Kid
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Just to clarify something from the above, it's worth mentioning that one can have drama outside of the theatrical context -- say, for instance, if you're watching live coverage of a hostage crisis. That said, the feelings that are generated in those events are drastically different than the feelings we get from a film or play, since we're a lot more protected from it in a film or play than we'd be if it were tangible. Some of the things that would elicit sympathy or tension in a movie might make us feel embarrassed or disturbed if it were occurring right in front of us. I think the success of a well-done magician-in-trouble plot lies in being able to avoid those awkward feelings, since it'd be almost impossible to find a payoff that would make it worth it for an audience to have felt those things.
JACK, the Jolly Almanac of Card Knavery, a free card magic resource for beginners.
Magicmaven
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I agree with you on all of the Tommy Wonder stuff, but I wasn't really talking about conflict. Adding conflict is simply part of the presentation, part of the story. The magician in trouble is a type of conflict, but I don't think all conflict falls under the category of magician in trouble.
What I was trying to say in part of my last post was that too often the magician in trouble doesn't handle the trouble the way his character would handle the trouble. This makes the situation obviously fake and kills the whole premise. The longer the audience doesn't know whether or not to think the magician is actually in trouble, the more fun (unless the magician starts crying, I guess that wouldn't be fun for the audience...).

I understood magician in trouble as "uh oh, I messed up the trick" type of conflict. He handles it very well in his Everywhere and Nowhere effect and goes down a very realistic path proceeding directly from the miss called card.
I totally agree with Wonder that you can alienate an audience while using the magician in trouble theme. It is not an easy ploy, but highly effective when done correctly. Also, if the magicain acknowledges the audience understanding that the magician isn't actually in trouble (this doesn't have to be a vocal understanding, but a wink or chuckly or specific line will do), the audience will jump along side him even though they realized the brief "mistake" was planned.
I agree with you on most of your counterpoints, except for your distaste for putting the audience on edge. I find this incident in theatre to be highly entertaining and fun. It can get annoying if overdone, of course.
I disagree with the connection to hollywood films. Or any films for that matter (unless you are talking about highly postmodern films, then that's a different story--vivre sa vie by goddard would work perfectly here). In hollywood films, we know everything that happens isn't reality. It doesn't mean we can't feel sympathy for a character, or even the actor playing the character. But in highly interactive magic, much of what happens is planned, and much isn't (for example certain exchanges of banter might not be expected, and the audience loves to see how the magician handles it). So the magician in trouble realizes this dynamic. There are two parts to the a show--the planned occurances and the unplanned. The magician in trouble plot throws these two parts together and forces the audience to distinguish between the two. For me, I really like this feeling and the intense emotion it brings out of the audience.
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The Burnaby Kid
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Fair enough. I'm not going to fault anybody who wants to take chances with theater. I think the key thing is to just be aware of the problems that can occur when reality intrudes upon the fiction. Even something as little as an actor dying in real life just before his last film can have a weird, eerie impact upon that film. To wit: Il Postino, The Crow and even The Dark Knight.

Again, I think the important thing to realize is that the presence of reality in a magic show (by virtue of the frequent absence of metaphor) can lead people to feel a different set of emotions that they'd normally be unprepared to feel during regular theater (when it comes to the protagonist being in jeopardy), and as such the payoff that the magician must provide needs to make that experience worthwhile and bring about resolution. Otherwise it's a case of "Oh, he made me cringe and feel embarrassed for him, but then he wasn't in trouble after all. Yay? Good for him?"

If you've got examples of magic presentations that can meet that goal, I'd genuinely love to hear them.

One thing to address...

Quote:
On 2008-10-16 11:50, Magicmaven wrote:
I agree with you on all of the Tommy Wonder stuff, but I wasn't really talking about conflict. Adding conflict is simply part of the presentation, part of the story. The magician in trouble is a type of conflict, but I don't think all conflict falls under the category of magician in trouble.


I did my best to leave out everything that includes just conflict (eg: Elizabeth IV, Ring Wallet Watch, etc.). In each of the list, the magician is basically in the traditional magician-in-trouble scenario (ie: the magician is unable to do what he sets out to do).

Going from the presentations off the Visions of Wonder series...

Cups and Balls, Cough Drop -- Plagued By Magic theme. The props are taking on a life of their own.
Deja Reverse -- Basic failure to meet the claim. The wrong card keeps turning up.
Tamed Card -- The spectator took the wrong card. He must use magic to get out of it.
Everywhere and Nowhere -- He's lost the card and is unable to find it.
Coins Across -- The owl won't jump across, but the other coins are.

That said, I think the main appeal of the magician-in-trouble plot is that it allows for an immediate feeling of conflict. Another of Tommy Wonder's really bright insights is that it's the conflict that's the real appeal more than anything. As such, by figuring out ways to keep the conflict but lose the magician-in-trouble aspect, he's improved the theatrical content overall.
JACK, the Jolly Almanac of Card Knavery, a free card magic resource for beginners.
mtpascoe
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I do agree that only one typical “magician in trouble” plot should be included in your act. These are of course taking the sucker tricks and taking the sucker part out of it. These play better, but does appear fake when done too often. Everyone likes to see a show that is just for them. They want you to be polished, but they also want to see if you are going to be spontaneous. It’s a double edge sword with audiences. Allen and Rossi were good at that.

I know for a fact that their supposed ad libs were faked because my wife used to work for Steve Rossi. He is a better actor than he would appear. He does his set up lines as if they were mechanical. Almost as if he has said it a thousand times. Then Marty Allen would throw a bit that was not rehearsed. Then Steve would laugh trying to stay in character. The more he tries this, the more he loses control. The audience feels they have seen something special. This is the brilliance of this pair. It was all planned and done every night. They knew how to work this well.

Foreshadowing helps. If you set up very early in your act what the consequence are, you can then set a trap for yourself. Don’t get out of this trap too soon. Remember George M. Cohan’s analogy about drama, “Get them up a tree, throw rocks at them, then get them down again.”

I do this with a character piece where the person in the story messes up, but not necessarily me.

So if an act is structured right, you can do the “magician in trouble” in a different way. Make conflict through plot, but throw in one trick where you totally mess up. Pause is very important. Let them see the wheels turn as you try to get out of it. Don’t let them off the hook too easy. Then use your brilliance as you “ad lib” out of it.

I wouldn’t close with this though. Close with your strongest effect. You must be in control here.
Magicmaven
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"Again, I think the important thing to realize is that the presence of reality in a magic show (by virtue of the frequent absence of metaphor) can lead people to feel a different set of emotions that they'd normally be unprepared to feel during regular theater (when it comes to the protagonist being in jeopardy), and as such the payoff that the magician must provide needs to make that experience worthwhile and bring about resolution. Otherwise it's a case of "Oh, he made me cringe and feel embarrassed for him, but then he wasn't in trouble after all. Yay? Good for him?""

By this, can't it be considered that Tommy Wonder goes to great lengths to trick people into thinking that he is in trouble? If you think he succeeds and people merely believe he was great on his feet and really good at figuring out some way of getting out of the mishap, then I disagree completely. At some point the audience realizes the effect was desired. Only with certain performances is the magician good enough to make it unknown whether or not the mishap was planned.

With your example with movies. It sounds as if your were to connect the magician to a protagonist in an action film, the audience would become angry with the protagonist because he fooled them and didn't actually die in the blown up car or what have you. This isn't the case with moviegoers.

With Tommy Wonder's Everywhere an Nowhere, the situation after he has called the wrong card and tries to redeam himself really makes the audience question what is going on. He further makes this distinction between act and reality blurrier by the way he tries to reveal the correct card.

I understand what you are saying with the movies and actors dieing and all and I agree. I think this actually furthers my point. This occurance brings more emotion into the situation. It is in the hands of the magician to either make this emotion negative or positive. The way he deals with the situation is obviously key.

As for brinking on reality in theatre? This is a very modern approach to theatre and has been shown to be very effective in elliciting (sp?) great emotion. Brecht was highly effect as were many post modernists who were influenced by him. One can distance the audience and at the same time force them into the situation. They can be on the outside looking into the occurances on stage, or they can be part of them (and I don't mean audience interaction...). This makes the audience emotionally involved.


I guess you can say we disagree on some of the fundamentals.
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The Burnaby Kid
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Heh, you know it's funny, but I get the feeling we actually don't disagree on much. I'm certain it probably just seems that way because these are pretty difficult concepts to flesh out.
JACK, the Jolly Almanac of Card Knavery, a free card magic resource for beginners.
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You are probably right. And I am not very good at articulating my statements.
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