Secrets of Improvisational Magic by Justin Higham

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2010)


Secrets of Improvisational Magic

The subject of this ambitious booklet is of great interest to me, as not only do I believe in the value of improvisation in magic, but there is precious little literature on the subject. There is a vast difference between deftly adlibbing within the framework of a well-prepared script, and simply trying to make it up as you go along. Improvisation is not the mythological gift of gab; improvisation is a craft that only develops out of thorough preparation.

Although performers who speak on stage have probably always relied on a certain element of improvisation (even more so among comic magicians; the late Bobby Baxter was a master of improv), the subject is a broad and deep one, and there are many elements beyond the verbal having to do with technique, method, and even plot. In the late 1970s, Daryl Martinez (aka Easton) coined the term "jazz magic," but there have been many interpretations, both before and since. Thanks to, among other things, the growing popularity of the memorized deck, and the role of psychological methods in magic and mentalism alike, a wider population of magicians and mentalists have begun to get a glimpse of how skilled and experienced improvisers can cross a threshold of mystery entertainment that borders on miraculous. With models like Juan Tamariz and David Berglas, the les-son has begun to reach a wider audience: that properly managed, calculated risk can produce greater magical rewards.

This is not so much a new idea as an idea that has been generally concealed by the masters who have used it most effectively (think: Chan Canasta). Psychology, risk, and improvisation, far from somehow comprising a special domain of mentalism, have long been part of the most expert conjuring. When John Thompson hands the Malini Egg Bag to the spectator, there is a risk entailed, and the result is a greater impact (in this case, the convincing message that the bag is truly unprepared, of critical importance to the effectiveness of the trick). And it was Dai Vernon who brought improvisation to the foreground of the card worker's skill set, thanks to his fascination with the think-of-a-card plot, and with his contribution of seminal ideas ranging from "The Five Card Mental Force" (published in 1932 as part of The Twenty Dollar Manuscript) to the profound impact of "The Trick That Cannot Be Explained" (relying on principles also subject to early exploration by Stewart James; an interesting history of James's "Face-Up Prediction" and similar methodologies can be found in The Essential Stewart James, edited by Allan Slaight [Magicana, 20071).

Although I have already mentioned the terms psychology, risk, and improvisation, they are not the same things, but they are often related, and while the title of Mr. Higham's booklet invokes improvisation, you will find references to psychology, risk, estimation (albeit minimally), and other related concepts within its pages. In 72 pages of dense type, the author takes an organized and academic approach to the subject, in eight chapters, along with "A Short Bibliography of Improvisational Magic," an abundantly useful tool for any student of the subject.

In the opening chapter, "Interactive Magic," the author begins by addressing the limitations and flaws of "robotic or mechanical performing," by performers who fail to engage the audience in meaningful and interactive ways. Yet the underlying notion that the spectator's actions can impact the outcome of the events is, I would say, one of the hallmarks of close-up magic, a facet that contributes to setting it apart as a performing art form distinct from any other. Mr. Higham is well versed in the literature of 'injuring, and by frequently invoking references from that literary tradition, he implicitly and repeatedly makes the point that spontaneity and improvisation are not new ideas in the realm of magic. He references Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), with an example of "modifying according to circumstances" that may arise in the course of performance. He quotes Edwin Sachs in Sleight of Hand (1885), who observed that "In what may be aptly termed impromptu conjuring , the performer is greatly at the mercy of this audience, who may at any moment, if so disposed, seize upon him and wring from him his secrets." This is an aspect of improvisation that even the least spontaneous among us must of course always risk: the spectator who inserts himself into the action in sometimes challenging and even destructive ways. Considering this as an aspect of improvisation, we recognize that every young close-up magician must learn to address such hazards sooner rather than later; and that even stage performers, who Sachs points out have more control, still have to be able to manage their way not only out of unpredictable spectator interactions, but also out of the usual traps and pitfalls of magic's innate complexity. What can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment; Murphy's Law might as well have been written by a magician.

Chapter 2 addresses "Keys to Improvisation," including the importance of mastering a deep understanding of the basic concepts, principles, and methods of magic. This is how you build a foundation of tools that enable you to address unexpected developments. I have long maintained that there are two major reasons for mastering exotic and advanced technique: one is that it provides the ability to achieve distinctive (often visual) effects that cannot otherwise be accomplished by simpler means; another is for getting out of trouble. Another "key" is creativity, and Mr. Higham correctly stresses the importance of using and stretching one's creativity on a regular basis. While it is difficult for some to believe this—especially those who are not involved in creative fields—the metaphorical fact remains that creativity is a muscle: the more you exercise it the greater it grows.

The author proposes that a "further key to improvisation is simplicity of method, particularly combined with a captivating presentation." He spends some time exploring what he refers to as "pseudo-methods," which can sometimes suggest you are accomplishing an effect one way while actually using another approach. This would seem on the face of it to be an idea particularly suited to either fooling magicians, or demonstrating effects of skill (like false dealing in gambling demos), but can also apply to pretending to use psychological methods to accomplish a mental effect (commonplace today), and basically comprises an approach to misdirection, that is, to masking simple methods in the guise of more complex effects.

Chapter 3 concerns "The Improv Show," and I confess the first thing I did when I received this booklet was to turn to the bibliography and was pleased to see it included the distinctive but largely unknown "What can you do with this?" or Improv Magic by Kirk Charles (1977). This unusual manuscript dealt with the notion of collecting items from the audience with which to spontaneously create a magic performance; an earlier work by U.F. Grant, The Challenge Magic Act, considered related territory. This is fascinating stuff to think about, and even if you never attempt any-thing remotely approaching an entire act based on such ambitious concepts, the study of the approach can deliver useful returns for that moment when you are presented with an unusual prop, or a need to perform when no usual prop is available. Mr. Higham usefully adds to the limited literature considering such exotica.

Chapter 4, "Jazz Magic," addresses ways of adapting to and taking advantage of circumstances, conditions, available props, audience interests, and more. The author points out the advantages of arriving at events early in order perhaps to plant items or take advantage of other special conditions. He points out that "Like Improv, jazz magic may be considered paradoxical in that it involves 'deliberate spontaneity'." This is as good a description as any of jazzing with a memorized deck; Michael Close wrote a seminal essay about this, entitled "Jazzin," in Workers 5 (1996). Many magicians who possess only a rudimentary grasp of the subject are amazed by, or give credit to, the role that "luck" plays in such work, but in fact, the expert, while he welcomes a bit of good fortune now and then, cares little if fortune smiles on him or not. It has been said that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and truer words were never spoken, be it for the memorized deck, or a career in show business.

Jazz magic, in this sense, is probably more relevant to the work of many magicians than are the conventions of improv comedy, for example, and there is a range of approach in which this kind of spontaneity can contribute to method, effect, presentation, and performance. In my teens I once stood in Tannen's Magic and watched as Jack London rifled with a deck of cards for a small group of lay-men. It would probably be a decade before I understood that he was mixing and matching classic forces and top changes and palms and controls into a fluid broth that heated his performance to the boiling point. All I knew then was that someday I wanted to do that, and I recall some 20 years later when, as a magic bartender, I suddenly flashed on that experience and realized that it had become my job.

Chapter 5 concerns "Miracle Effects," which is essentially about taking advantage of "happy accidents" and framing them as miracles. This might be deemed the magician's version of "advantage play," in the strict sense of the term, as it differs from outright planned cheating. The author provides many practical examples of how such opportunities present themselves when a deck of cards is in play. The fact is that learning to recognize and then frame such events is appropriate fodder for magicians, mentalists, as well as con men and phony psychics (think: Uri Geller).

Chapter 6 is dubbed "Mishaps: Strategies and Outs," and offers pertinent examples and strategies. A classic text in this vein is Hopkins' Outs, Precautions, and Challenges, which Mr. Higham rightly includes in his bibliography, and should be a part of every conjuror's training, considering the universal enforcement of the aforementioned Murphy's Law.

Chapter 7 addresses "Challenges: Prevention and Cure," which is yet another aspect of the realities of close-up magic in particular. There is certainly no greater trainer with regards to meeting and preventing both challenges and mishaps than experience--indeed there is simply no substitute—but these chapters are worthy introductions.

Chapter 8 concerns Dai Vernon's iconic "The Trick That Cannot Be Explained." Mr. Higham presents a number of equivocal strategies for use with this plot, and equivoque provides a subtext for the chapter, as of course the techniques of equivoque are naturally related to the Vernon trick, and Mr. Higham might well have chosen to contribute an entire chapter devoted to equivoque alone. This chapter, however, represents some of my admittedly small concerns about Mr. Higham's booklet, which perhaps have something to do with the limits of his perspective. The author is clearly a conjuror a magician and while it is natural in a work such as this to bump up against mental-ism, most obviously in the work of Canasta and Berglas, for example (which the author mentions but does not explore at length), one gets the clear sense that the author possesses little insight into the differences between magic and mentalism. By resorting to sleight of hand for Vernon's "Trick That Cannot Be Explained," for example, the issue is not one of violating some imaginary sense of purism (as the author implies), but rather it is critically important to recognize how method affects effect. Part of the miracle quality of Vernon's plot is the hands-off sensibility, which seriously disarms spectators, undermines their sense of what traditionally comprises magic, and lends a stronger mental or psychic impact to the outcome than that of a more traditional conjuring effect. It's not a question of "cheating," it's a question of what effect and impact you intend to achieve. See too, for example, how Tamariz often emphasizes the cleanliness and apparent hands-off nature of his work, even when in fact he is anything but hands off. But if you are going to touch the deck in this context, you need to consider the implications carefully.

Similarly, Vernon's "Five Card Mental Force" is often perceived by magicians to work (or perhaps, not work) thanks to a simple psychological formula that in fact misses many of the psychological elements in Vernon's original conception. Although Mr. Higham touches briefly on some of these facets, others are overlooked entirely, including the important fact (as Vernon emphasized on the Revelations videos) that the plot is a gambling trick. By adding the pressure of a wager of sorts, the spectator is far more compelled to think more carefully about his choice, and thereby become more strongly influenced by the operative psychological principles behind the use of particular cards.

Finally, the author is in thrall to all manner of pop psychology and outright superstition, including references to neuro-linguistic programming; left/right-brain psychology (which is actually pop psychology that is generally discredited in the contemporary literature of psychology); and finally, offers a full page of mystic anecdotes, beginning with one about how a lot of witnesses "rooting for" a roulette player and "focusing a lot of positive energy on the target number" seems to him to have resulted in that number coming up again and producing a big win for the player. But all this has nothing to do with improvisation; rather it is strong if unintentional testimony to the myth of personal validation, the fact that human beings are naturally programmed to be magical thinkers, and the need to invent the double-blind test if you're going to create the scientific method, and figure out the difference between personal anecdote and replicable results.

These terribly human foibles aside, I found Secrets of Improvisational Magic to be an enjoyable treatise on its subject, and while it is far from the last word for advanced practitioners, it's an excellent introduction for all students, particularly of close-up card magic, to a vast and important subject.

Secrets of Improvisational Magic • Justin Higham • 5%" x 8V4"saddle-stitched • 72 pages • not illustrated

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