De-Puzzling Social Magic

I’m taking a break from the Expert Coin Magic Project today to work out some ideas on performing magic socially. I’m not a professional magician and really have no desire to perform magic professionally, but I enjoy performing for friends and family. When I get the opportunity to perform magic in a formal situation I find that following the advice you can get in most magic books and from professional magicians is great. Performing magic in social situations, however, is a completely different dynamic and a lot of that advice falls flat for me.

About the only resource I’ve discovered that specifically addresses the social magician is from The Jerx blog and the anonymous author’s booklet, The Amateur at the Kitchen Table. I really love his ideas of treating performing magic socially in a completely different performance style than we’re used to seeing performed in a formal/professional situation.

“Andy Jerx” has four blog posts that cover his ideas here. In part one he discusses the usual way we present magic and why that tends to fall flat socially. The problem, he argues, is that magic is presented as a puzzle to fool the audience. While we of course want our magic to be deceptive, we don’t really want our spectators to get wrapped up in the puzzle of it.

For my own example, let’s use the One In the Hand, Two In the Pocket (AKA Gaddabout Coins) trick.

This is a three-phase trick. In the first phase you put two coins in your hand and a third coin goes in your pocket. The next phase is a repeat of the first. The final phase sets up like you’re repeating the first two, but all the coins disappear.

The video presentation above is a very bare bones version of it, but it’s a good demonstration how you might set up this trick as a challenge to your spectators. If that’s the way you want to go, that’s fine, and sometimes I enjoy performing this trick in this way. But there are some things I think you can consider that will help make this trick play better. Consider three different ways of asking the same question:

  1. How many coins did you watch go into my hand?
  2. How many coins did you see go into my hand?
  3. How many coins do you think are in my hand?

The first question is my preferred way for the first two phases. If I ask, “How many coins did you *see* go into my hand?” I feel that I’m suggesting they didn’t see everything going on and they begin to puzzle it out. On the other hand, “How many coins did you *watch* go into my hand?” seems less of a puzzle. For the final phase, where all the coins disappear, I think you can go with the challenging question, “How many coins do you think are in my hand?” That question invites your spectators to second guess you and at this stage in the routine you’re ready for them to do so.

All that said, this sort of presentation is still creating a puzzle for your audience and if you’re performing magic socially you might not want to go with this style – particularly if it’s a trick where your props can’t be examined or if your audience is the sort who will whip out their phones and start Googling methods on you.

The Jerx author suggests three different presentational styles that are useful for avoiding this situation. The easiest is what he calls the “peek backstage.” It’s easy because you don’t really need to change anything in your patter or presentation. You’re simply asking your audience if they can help you with something you’ve been working on. Before you even start performing the spectators are on your side because they are helping you instead of being engaged in a competition against you. You can change the presentation to make this fit your situation, but you don’t have to.

Take the Gaddabout Coins trick as an example. You might ask your friend to take a look at something you’ve just learned and go into this routine. “Hang on, let me try to remember how this goes. I put these two coins in my hand and the third one goes into my pocket. No, that’s not right.” (show three coins in the hand). “I put these two coins in the hand and this coin goes in the pocket. No, that’s still not right.” (show three coins in the hand). “Oh, I remember now. These two coins go in this hand and this coin goes into my pocket. I give up, I can’t remember how this goes after all.” (all the coins have disappeared)

That presentation takes the puzzle aspect out of the trick and eliminates all of the spectators guessing how many coins you have in your hand. In some ways it also blends elements from the Jerx second presentation, the distracted artist.

It takes more effort to present a trick using distracted artist presentation style and it might even go completely unnoticed, depending on how you set it up. Using the Gaddabout Coins trick you might be at a restaurant with friends and realize you need to feed the parking meeter. You pull out three quarters and say to yourself, I think 50 cents should do it, put one quarter in your pocket and then dump out three quarters. “Huh, that’s strange. I though I only had 50 cents.” After phase two, “Sheesh, I guess I’ve been practicing so much coin magic that this sort of thing just happens now.” Phase three happens, “I guess I’d better just pay my check and leave, I really don’t have any change to feed the meter anyway.”

I’m not particularly happy with that presentation, but in terms of brainstorming an the idea of the distracted artist it at least provides an example. The point is that you’re not presenting the trick as a puzzle that you challenge your spectators to figure out, it’s something that’s happening to you.

The third suggestion recommended on the Jerx is the romantic adventure approach. This performance style generally would take the most time and effort to plan and perform because you will need to come up with both an immersive plot and do all the preparation in order to sell it. Something to keep in mind:

Let me be clear about the Romantic Adventure style of immersive effects. These aren’t meant to be practical jokes. You’re not trying to convince anybody of anything. But you should still play it straight to allow your spectators to emotionally connect to the situation. To get wrapped up in the story. You don’t have to think something is real to be affected by it. (This is pretty well understood in every other art form in existence.)

It’s difficult for me to come up with a completely fleshed out plot that fits the romantic adventure presentation for Gaddabout Coins, but the germ of an idea involves pretending you ordered some “rare” coins on eBay and mail them to yourself. You open the package with your audience around and remark how long it’s taken you to find “left handed coins” or whatever plot device you come up with. You point out to them that you only wanted one, but for some reason they are only ever found in sets of three. Putting one in your pocket for luck you go to put the other two away only to find that the one has jumped back. At any rate, you get the idea.

So give The Jerx blog a read and see what you think. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it at least gives us social magicians other ideas that can help us (and our audiences) enjoy the magic more.


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