Close Up: The Real Secrets of Magic by David Stone
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2008)
David Stone is a talented and successful professional close-up worker from France, whose out sized personality and quirky performance style is matched by strong sleight-of hand skills; the complete package won him 3rd place in Close-up Magic at the 2006 FISM competition. Close Up: The Real Secrets of Magic was first released in Mr. Stone's native France in 2005. The work has now been carefully translated into English by Graham Jones for better and worse, in all its idiomatic, jokey, sophomoric glory.
Mr. Stone's book is a book of craft. Magicians have a tendency to label any non-trick book as a work of "theory," but there is a distinct difference between theory and craft (or stagecraft), and such books often reflect a mix be it healthy or merely ill-defined or both. There is very little here that could be labeled theory, and other than a brief four pages about "The Notion of the Magic Artist," the subject of magic as art is essentially absent a point I make by way of clarity, not criticism.
While theory invariably reflects a given individual's personal and artistic point of view, textbooks about craft tend to assume a tone of presenting practical tools that are seen as universally and readily applicable. The reality is often far from the case. To Mr. Stone's credit, in a lengthy section on how to garner tips, he wisely and strongly cautions the reader that his advice and techniques should be considered personal to him and used only with caution, depending on the reader's tastes. But the reader would be wise to approach much more of this volume with similar prudence, because many matters which Mr. Stone seems to accept as purely pragmatic issues of craft and business might in fact also be considered by some at least by this writer to be very much issues of art.
As one example, in discussing how to approach a table, the author writes, "There are some situations where showing up with a flaming wallet would make me look like a huge cornball. In other situations, it's just the thing to capture the public's attention." This comment, while perhaps true as far as it goes, may not go far enough because to me it implies that making such choices is entirely about what works, and nothing about the performer's artistic desire and intent.
If you wish to present yourself as a worker of wonders, a performer of mysteries, it will be damnably difficult to convince anyone of that once you've started out with a mechanical comedy prop. Yes, you will get the response but as Eugene Burger has pointed out, not all laughs are good laughs. This is why Mr. Burger has wrestled, over the years, with the issue of whether or not to use sponge balls despite the strong reaction they invariably produce and why, in fact, I essentially retired mine many years ago. Everything you do, every choice you make, communicates something to your audience whether or not you choose to remain in command of those messages.
Reading this book, I often thought of exceptions that would test Mr. Stone's proposed rules indeed, there are exceptions that will effectively test many of them, and perhaps even render a few null and void. For those willing to remain wary of such relentlessly pragmatic counsel, however, Mr. Stone's book has much of value to offer. The author makes a specialty of "table-hopping" in restaurants, and this type of work, along with performing at tables at banquet events, as well as walk-around magic, comprises the primary concerns of his book. If you are new to these fields, Mr. Stone can help you prepare for the challenging conditions you will often be faced with in these settings. As Steve Beam writes in his contributed essay, "The Last Word," paraphrasing Robert-Houdin, these days "[i]n many of today's performing venues, a magician is a masochist playing the part of a magician." Chapter 1 of the book consists of about 15 pages of a brief overview of the history of magic perhaps pseudo-history is more like it, since while it is occasionally accurate it is not only far from complete (I failed to find mention of Doug Henning, as one of countless examples), but is also chock full of Mr. Stone's incessant litany of jokes, puns, sexual innuendo, and other distractions. This section is not very useful as history but will certainly prepare the reader for what is to come, as the book is littered with these asides in a manner that I find merely distracting and only occasionally amusing.
In discussing opening tricks, for example, Mr. Stone describes the technique of approaching people by asking if they lost something a strategy first described in the 1970s by Ron Wilson with regard to the Color Changing Knives, to wit: "Has anybody lost a white pocket knife? No? Well, has anybody lost a red knife?" In explaining how this approach can be applied to many other props (in the early 1980s I used it with a Purse Frame and coin production), Mr. Stone jokes that it's as if one might say, "Hey, Miss! That's your tampon on the floor?" Now, neither I nor Mr. Stone intend to imply that anyone, himself included, would actually say such a thing in public. But be forewarned: this is an example of the author's humor that one will find scattered throughout the book's pages.
Nevertheless, there is much sound and solid information here about a broad range of subjects, including: etiquette, cleanliness, and costume. Stage fright and what to do about it. Props, prop cases, and pocket management. Travel and transportation. Insightful analysis of the psychology of approaching audiences including how the "table is like a bubble" and where to best "breach" that bubble. Dealing with clients, staff, waiters, other entertainers, and event planners. Formulating a plan for working an event. How to keep track of those you've already entertained. How to deal with celebrities. Opening strategies. Anticipating interruptions and how to deal with them. Managing different kinds of spectators and responding to various audience types and reactions. What to do when your approach is outright rejected (with a great tip courtesy of Gaetan Bloom). How to obtain and manage applause. How to introduce yourself, how to leave your audience, and how to leave the gig.
That's a lot of craft, and much of it is dealt with beyond the merely superficial. A great deal of this information has been developed independently by countless performers; much of it has been published or at least mentioned in various sources; and a great deal of it is just plain common sense (i.e., don't play with the customer's food). In his foreword to the book, Jean-Luc Bertrand writes that the author "has summarized, explained, and organized, in page after precious page, all the things that experienced magicians have been doing every day, without thinking, for years." This is a wise acknowledgment to make and I would merely add that a few of us have actually done some of that learning while actually thinking about it. But craft books, as well as theory books, are often about identifying and gathering information, and while I could have done with a little less goofiness and a little more literary rigor, there is no arguing the range and practicality of this manual.
Mr. Stone often performs in high-end restaurants and bars where, he makes clear, tips are his sole source of income. This is an interesting situation in which to work, and I would certainly not dismiss it out of hand, as I know some workers who have made this a profitable specialty providing, as it can, access to a wealthy clientele. And if one chooses to work in such settings, one might I say, might wish to use some of the anything-but-subtle techniques he describes in a lengthy chapter about how to get your spectator's money from their pockets into yours. I must confess that I would be loathe to use such heavy handed devices. Mr. Stone, in his defense, offers that there are some magicians who are willing to accept a drink, but not a tip, and suggests that he fails to see the difference. I would say this: I drink with my friends and colleagues. I don't hustle them for tips.
Mr. Stone quotes the 18th-century philosopher, Diderot, as having said that "As soon as the artist thinks of money, the sense of beauty departs him." The author then states that by making his tip-gathering techniques run on automatic programming, he is thus not "thinking" about money while performing. I wonder if that's what Diderot really meant? Diderot also wrote that the intent of Enlightenment thinking and writing was "to change the common way of thinking" still, and forever, a worthy goal indeed.