"Beyond the Props"


Lawrence Hass

MAGIC Magazine, November 2007

In the first two months of “magic class,” we have explored some practical concepts

that belong to the manipulative side of our art, concepts I have found to be exceptionally productive as I build my own routines and direct my magic students. This month, I want to focus on an equally inspiring notion from the presentational side: Eugene Burger’s big idea that “magic is about life, not the props.”

Eugene has been teaching about this from the beginning of his distinguished career. He has talked about it with considerable humor as “the adventures of the props in the magician’s hands,” and he has written about it seriously [“Are Card Tricks Card Magic?” in Magic and Meaning]. Either way, Eugene’s teachings on this subject generate hard questions for thoughtful magicians: What are my performances about? Are they about meaningful things or am I just talking about my props?

It is clear that Eugene’s writings on this have inspired countless magicians over the last twenty years. Nonetheless, I urge you to study the presentations that are still offered in magic books and magazines, at conventions, and on DVDs. You will still see a pervasive tendency for magicians — amateurs and professionals alike — to focus their talk on the props. For example: “I am holding six solid steel rings.” “The Kings are here in this pile and Aces are over there.” “The strange thing about these cups is that they pass through one another!” And so on.

Like Eugene, I do not think this kind of presentation is intrinsically bad. I have seen some presentations about the props that are effective in highlighting the magic effect or in giving texture to a show. It is just that such presentations have a tendency to be lightweight, “fluffy as air.” But that is just a small nudge away from trivial... and trivial is not something in which smart, busy, well-educated, well-to-do audiences are really much interested.

To feel the force of the problem here, consider the following: no other art form takes for its thematic focus the materials out of which it is made. That is, there are no notable films about cameras, no novels about paper and binding, no paintings about canvas and brushes. I suppose, conceivably, such artworks could be made, it is just that they wouldn’t be interesting, hardly worth the time. That is because such things obviously would have confused the tools for making the artwork with its theme or larger focus.

I take no joy in these critical observations; I experience them as a painful truth about the current state of our art. But I also accept them as a personal challenge: what can I do in my own work to avoid making the props thematic?

A first step, I think, is to understand where this tendency comes from. For my part, I do not believe that focus on the props is necessary or intrinsic to magic. It is true that magic involves “cool toys.” But other art forms, such as film, painting, music, have great toys too, and their practitioners don’t get lost in the tools.

No, I suspect the deeper cause of presentations about the props has to do with the subculture of magic. For whatever reason, such presentations, whether by performers or “demo-ing” dealers, have become the norm, the default program, pervasive as air. Once that happens, it becomes hard to imagine anything different and we start going with the flow.

But if we want smart, well-to-do people to take magic seriously, if we care about magic as an art form, then we need to resist the tides of current habits. For me, this resistance takes the form of continually asking myself: “What might this new piece be about? Yes, of course, it could be about a ‘romantic queen’ or a ‘talkative joker,’ but what if I don’t use the first thing that comes to mind? What might this piece be about that an intelligent non-magician would find interesting?”

I promise you that when we resist the default and look toward larger life possibilities, good presentational ideas quickly arise. To trigger this creative thinking in my students and clients, I have them develop a list of things that are engaging to smart people. Once my students set aside their “magic mind” — their thinking first about tricks and props — once they start articulating what people seek out in other art forms, it is easy for them to compile a long list. They remember that people are fascinated by such things as relationships, conflicts, adventure, love, games and gambling, the future, compelling stories, sex, death, rebirth, and beauty. Also, audiences are interested in distinctive performers. Indeed, Eugene has taught me that “great magic is also about the magician.”