Shrunken heads and cheesecake
By Eric Richardson - Wednesday, October 9, 2019
"I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description..."
With these words James Michener begins his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific. Published in 1946, the book was an instant sensation. He went on to have a brilliant literary career and authored over 50 books. His impact on American culture was significant. The Chicago Tribune concluded, "Michener has become an institution in America, ranking somewhere between Disneyland and the Library of Congress." Embarrassingly, I had not ever heard of James Michener before I stumbled upon a yellowed and tattered copy of the book at a used bookstore in Paris. The title had jumped out at me from among the giant pile of unorganized and unloved books. The opening lines spoke to me on that dark, cold and rainy winter day and I bought the book without hesitation. The blue Pacific and beautiful islands could not have been more appealing as I contemplated my return home on a freezing, crowded metro. I was longing for an escape from the unrelenting cacophony of the city, the winter chill in my bones and the dark clouds of depression I could feel gathering dangerously at the edges of my psyche (it had been a long and difficult five years in France, but that's another story).
With the dreamy vision of a warm Pacific paradise in my mind, the winter rain felt even colder as I stepped back into the street. A warm place to relax and a sweet desert seemed like a close second to an island paradise and so I ducked into the nearest cafe. With my treasure tucked under my arm and a lovely slice of cheesecake secured, I sat down. Hopeful and curious, I opened the book and continued; "...but whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like, and first thing you know I'm telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars!" Every time, people intervene..."Whether it was The old savage who wanted more than anything else in the world to jump from an airplane and float down to earth in a parachute..." or some other character, they always intervene and dominate the thoughts and conversations of Michener's main character.
Halfway through my cheesecake and the second chapter, I realized that there had been a shift in my desires. I had been swept away to the south seas, but surprisingly, I didn't find myself longing for sun kissed beaches anymore. Instead, I wanted to visit that old Tonkinese woman and maybe even buy a shrunken head. I wanted to hear stories of old soldiers, shipwrecked sailors and mysterious women. Just as Michener knew would happen, the people had intervened and held me captive. I marveled at how it had happened so easily. Fiction writers know that people are infinitely more interesting, more mysterious and intriguing than any geographical location no matter how beautiful and wondrous it may be. In fiction, people must intervene or there is no story. I had succumbed, easily, to a basic truth of humanity - we are obsessed with our relationships with other humans (even fictional ones).
As I was contemplating these things and savoring my last bite of cheesecake, I realized I had learned a similar lesson about close-up magic during over two decades of performing in restaurants and other venues before moving to France. The parallels were intriguing. I remembered how, early on, an important shift had taken place in my approach to my performances. I put down the book since I was now thoroughly swept away with thoughts about magic. I pushed my empty plate to the side, took out my ever-present notebook and wrote down the following reflections:
I remember, in the beginning, I'd come home after a few hours of performing and regale my long suffering wife with tales of my clever magical exploits. I would relive how I had hidden the signed card under the spectator's phone on the table or how I had overheard something at another table and been able to use it in my performance at that table later. These stories, and many more like them, were always about me and my cleverness or the audience's amazed reactions to a new effect I was working on. I confess, I was a magical narcissist and I was oblivious to it.
Gradually, things began to change. At some point, I began coming home and telling my wife about the people I had performed for instead of my magical exploits. I would tell her about the Tattoo artist and the crazy things that had happened at his tattoo parlor. Or about the little girl with cancer. Or the poor wife who's husband (in front of her and their kids) had asked me to change her into a Playboy Bunny. There was no mystery as to why her face was full pain and embarrassment. Which card trick should I follow that heartbreaking moment with?
Then there were the newly weds so madly in love. Then there was the woman who had almost died in a fire several nights earlier. These and so many other stories were what I shared when I returned home. It seemed like every time I'd begin to talk about my magic, people intervened. This phenomena wasn't just something my wife experienced. My friends, family members, and even other audiences heard the stories when they asked me about magic too.
The people and their stories also began to creep into my presentations, which became the better for it. The people intervened in my dialogue with new audiences as I'd relate interesting stories from previous performances. People were often fascinated by these interactions and would often comment on how jealous they were that I got to meet so many fascinating people.
Satisfied, I ended my notebook entry and went back to reading the book, but let me add more to that notebook entry. Something had just felt hollow and mechanical when I was just performing at people (and for my own self-gratification). I'm not sure it really mattered to me if the audience was there or not and I think, at least on a subconscious level, many people I performed for sensed this too. I have no doubt that it hurt my performances and blunted their enjoyment of the magic. But then I began letting people intervene. By that I mean that I asked them questions, really listened and took interest in them and their responses. In the few moments I had with them I tried to really connect. To learn something unique about them. As a result, they meant something to me and they lived on in my thoughts even after the performances were long over. I had discovered for myself the very thing that makes close-up magic so special and I was finally allowing it to blossom.
I tried hard to embrace this discovery and my performances were the better for it. As I learned to connect with people and really enjoy them (most of the time) my performances were not hindered, they were enhanced. The management of the establishments for which I worked noticed the change as well. Patrons began seeking them out to say positive things about me and my magic. I noticed that there was a direct correlation between the connection I had made with them and the positive comments they gave to those who hired me (I mention this only to share my experience - not to brag).
Of course, you wont be able to walk away from every performance with a story from an audience member or always make a deeper personal connection. There are many legitimate reasons for this, however, to the extent you are able to really connect you will reap real rewards. It is important to realize that you are largely the one in control of what you and your audience take away from your experiences together. If you seek out ways to really be present with your audience, ways to draw them out and share their lives with you, even briefly, it will make your performances full of life and make you memorable to them. It will also keep your focus on your audience - where it belongs, provide you with ideas for scripts (and sometimes even new effects) and give you lots of interesting things to talk about in all kinds of settings. It will enrich your performances and your life.
Have you had similar experiences? How do you connect with your audiences? Share below!
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