August 30th, 2016 by Nick Wallace
To disclaim or not to disclaim. For any magician/mentalist who is serious about their craft, the idea that we may be messing with the belief system of an audience is a topic that will eventually come up. My opinion on this matter is constantly in flux, but can presently be summed up as follows: In the moment, I want my performance to feel as real as possible. In the moment, I want it to be believable, just like a film or a good piece of theatre – but if I feel I am misleading an audience’s understanding on how the world works outside of the performance, then (I think) I am crossing an ethical line.
At the beginning of the Coen Brother’s film Fargo, there is a title card that reads: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” The filmmakers later came forward and admitted that they made the whole story up. (If you watch all the way through the end credits, there is a disclaimer explaining that the film is a work of fiction).
When the Blair Witch Project came out there were a lot of people who initially thought it was an actual documentary, but if you watch the film through to the credits it is clearly not. I don’t think anyone would accuse the filmmakers of crossing an ethical line, because we are watching a movie. We are so familiar with the medium of film, that (most people) understand once we are watching things unfold on screen, no matter how real it seems, it is not real life.
Why do we feel this is a problem when putting on a magic show? This is theatre, which is not real life, and an audience should understand that, right? If we want people to invest in what we are doing on stage, it seems dramatically flawed to constantly remind them “this is not real”.
I think the problem is when we are onstage performing, we are usually not a character. We might be an exaggerated version of ourselves, but we are still ourselves, talking directly to an audience while displaying an apparent skill. If we are performing mentalism, we have to remember that there are other people out there – psychics and mediums, who stand in front of an audience doing something very similar, and expect and audience to believe it is the real thing. An audience understands that an illusionist doesn’t expect us to believe that they can actually make a motorcycle disappear. We all know that spirits are not responsible for a signed card appearing in someone’s shoe. There is still a gray area when it comes to mentalism.
So how does one give a disclaimer without it sounding like a public service announcement interrupting your act? I don’t think there is one answer, and it comes down to the individual performer. I have been working on an extravagant memory stunt which apparently involves memorizing several thousand digits. It seems pretty legit. I can assure you it is not. I realized that many people would just accept that I could actually do this (because there are people out there that can. I am not one of them.) If someone came up to me after my show and asked if I could really memorize something like that, I didn’t want to have to lie. And to say, “no I can’t” seemed to deflate everything I did in the act, especially if the only point of the act is to convince them that I can. I decided that through my scripting I would be upfront and tell them that this is not real. That it is an illusion, just like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or cutting someone in half – it’s just a very convincing one. This also forced me to make the illusion that much more deceptive, and to have a thematic reason for doing it. It forced me to have a point; a message behind the magic, rather then just demonstrating that I (apparently) can do it. Not only that, it puts the audience in a very weird place. The easy solution would be that I actually memorized this random string of numbers – but taking that away pulls the rug out from them and leaves them with nothing. I have a theatrical Seance that I have performed for the last few years. I hope that it feels very real – but I tell the audience upfront that I am an illusionist and a skeptic, and that I don’t believe in ghosts. Without giving anything away, at the climax of the show something completely impossible happens. Something that you would only see in an illusion show. Something that I assumed would let everyone know that this was unquestionably just a show.
But still, I had several people come to me afterwards and say “So even after all of this, you are still a skeptic?” And I wanted to say “What are you talking about!? After seeing all of this how are you not a skeptic!?” But I didn’t. Audiences fall into a bell curve. No matter how many times you say it, there will always be people on the fringe who will believe these things are real, and there is nothing you can really do to change them.
I can help insure the majority of people get it by really paying attention to what I am saying (the script), what I am doing (the material), and why I am doing it (the message). If someone comes up to me after a show and asks “Can you really do (insert completely impossible thing here)?”, I feel I have to be able to answer with “No, of corse not.” without it taking away from anything within the show. It is a tricky thing to do. I’m sure there are lot of people who disagree, and my option may change down the road.
One day, I hope that “buying a ticket to a show” will be all the disclaimer we will need, but I don’t think we are quite there yet.