Big Friday sale

The Secret Art of Magic by Eric Evans and Nowlin Craver

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2004)


Magic theory is alive and well as we enter the third millennium, and that is heartening news for the thinking magician. With the dawn of the Age of Information—or can we speculate that perhaps we have reached noontime?—the flood of magic tricks and methods and techniques and performances and lectures and video ad infinitum often leaves us floundering amid a tangle of unfocussed and disorganized data. But a sound theoretical underpinning can help us find a clear path free of the tangled briars and underbrush of too much information and not enough solid ground beneath it. Robust theoretical ideas can lead to better magic—and just as importantly, help us understand and steer clear of bad magic and bad magical ideas. A little theory can go a long way toward making better magicians, and next time you're tempted to buy another trick, or perhaps even a book of tricks, I recommend investing sometime in the study of important works on theory. There are precious few—but The Secret Art of Magic is certainly one of them.

Actually, The Secret Art of Magic is two books. The first is subtitled "Street Magic and the Art of War," and is writ-ten by Eric Evans, a veteran street performer who hails from Texas but has traveled extensively in his work as a street magician. Just to make things perfectly clear, we are not using the term "street magic" here to describe those who happen to find themselves doing magic in the great urban outdoors, with or without the accompaniment of a camera crew, a form of television entertainment created by David Blaine and since featured in any number of allegedly instructional but pointless videos. What we are discussing here is the more traditional and accurate use of the term, meaning performers who perform outside by gathering a crowd, providing a professional caliber show specially adapted to such conditions, and then in some way "passing the hat" in order to collect remuneration for their work, thereby making a living. Although the origins of this kind of street magic of course go back centuries, the modern era dates from the ground-breaking work of Jeff Sheridan in New York City in the early 1970s. That golden age of street magic was unfortunately dead by the end of that decade, although the form has certainly survived since, notably in a handful of major American cities, and also in much of Europe. While street magic in that brief golden age might be seen in any number of spots in a city like New York, today it is far more restricted to specific areas, like Manhattan's Washington Square and South Street Seaport, and the story is much the same in cities like Boston and elsewhere; Renaissance Fairs also keep the form alive in the U.S.

So much for the definition of terms. Eric Evans is an acolyte of famed street magician Jim Cellini (who con-tributes a Foreword to this work), and you probably could-n't name a more prestigious mentor in this narrow but challenging field. Cellini hit the streets back in that golden age, working in Boulder, Colorado alongside other then-street performers like Bob Sheets. Boulder is still one of what the author identifies as the "Big 10" of American cities for street magic, but Cellini eventually went forth to conquer the world and, after touring numerous U.S. cities (including New York), went on to spend many years living and working throughout Europe. Mr. Evans has done his mentor a deserving service in respectfully recording some of his ideas in this book, because Mr. Cellini’s own book, The Royal Touch (reviewed in the August 1997 Genii) was a flawed enterprise that failed to do justice to Cellini's substantial achievements and deserved reputation. But while Mr. Evans has clearly been influenced by Cellini, this book is very much the product of its author's own experience and considered thought on the subject. The result is simply the best book we have to date on the subject of street magic.

At only 106 pages, the book is succinct and tightly focused. While the information contained is practical and highly instructive, it is also organized within a remarkable theoretical framework. Mr. Evans has in fact structured this entire book around the famous Chinese text, The Art of War, written more than 2000 years ago by the Chinese general, Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu's teachings have long been revered, first by generations of Chinese military leaders, and today by authors of countless books who have applied strategies drawn from Sun Tzu's teachings to modern business management, sales, marketing, small business, big business, investing, customer service, career planning, human resources, money management, information technology, marriage, parenting, the general notion of success, the television series The Sopranos, and now: conjuring.

I confess that my initial reaction to relying upon the concept of war as a model for the performance of magic was to recoil; after all, we don't like to think that we are in an adversarial relationship with our audience. The author addresses this issue promptly, however, making two points. Taken in reverse order, his second and I think most important comment is that the goal of the performer is to eliminate conflict by "maintaining) power and control ... while appearing kind and gentle." The goals of warfare are not simply about doing violence to the enemy; they are often about how to avoid the battle and still end up the victor. And his first point is a pragmatic but pointed one, namely that working the street is different from other venues. The audience is uninhibited and many strategies are necessary in order for the performer to be able to maintain command. The streets are a rough place to do magic.

Mr. Evans then continues to model a metaphorical concept of what comprises your adversaries, pointing out that it is not so much that the audience is your enemy, but rather that "(anyone or anything that distracts or detracts from our audience is considered an adversary." Once these ideas are put in place—along with the general comment that "(the overriding lesson in this book is one of cultivating self control"—then most objections fall away and the author proceeds to apply Sun Tzu's teachings in 10 chapters (plus an appendix) on the art and practice of street magic.

I loved this first book. It is relentlessly practical and every page speaks of real-world experience. This is not a book written by a self-serving dilettante who worked the streets while attending college and spared his voice with a loud-speaker. (I don't think the word "microphone" appears in this book.) This is a manual written by a real-world street artist who committed himself to the form and mastered it, paying the bills day by day in numerous American and European cities. And lest you think that if you have no intentions of working the streets you therefore do not require this book—think again. Street magic has a great deal in common with trade show magic, for example. They are both forms that echo the techniques of the sideshow "talker" who works the crowd from the "bally" stage; namely the ability to draw a crowd, lock them in place, and then take command of their movements (and their money) at the conclusion. The same way the sideshow talker "builds the tip, freezes the tip, and turns the tip" is the same way the trade show worker builds and holds and manages a crowd (often moving them out of the show and into or through the booth to swipe badges and receive a free giveaway), and the same way the street worker creates an audience, a performance, and gets a "good hat" when it's over. The chapter here on "Energy" provides superb guidance in these most difficult aspects of street and trade show work alike. The next chapter also provides instruction in how to fill the hat with money.

Another chapter addresses the subject of hecklers, always a major hazard on the street, and here again I believe that many other kinds of performers will benefit from the author's advice. While Mr. Evans eschews the use of tired and risky "heckler stoppers" and other aggressive behavior, he also rightly points out that the passive and genteel approaches that will typically work in a sophisticated restaurant or cocktail party may not be effective in other settings. Mr. Evans provides a kind of middle ground of strategies, but more importantly, he presents an excellent analysis of four kinds of hecklers and their motivations, along with a catalogue of five "fatal flaws" you must examine within your-self and avoid if you are to escape damage in heckler conflicts. There are very smart ideas here, and many a veteran performer no matter his venue will recognize many of them, while appreciating the author's organized analysis on the subject. As a former Magic Bartender, I daresay I recognized all of it, and wished I'd had some of this excel-lent advice when I was behind the bar 20 years ago.

Although I have not made extensive reference to the author's modeling of his work on Sun Tzu's Art of War, I find the effort generally effective. At times there may be the sense of an over-extended metaphor, in general, chapter headings like "Laying Plans," "Terrain," "Offensive Strategy," "Espionage," and "Key Ground" seem reason-ably easy to digest and perhaps even useful ways of thinking about the information being offered. Armed with this battlefield manual, perhaps along with the 31 pages of practical advice in Cellini's Royal Touch, anyone would be well prepared to go forth and do battle in the streets.

The second and larger segment of this volume is subtitled "The Secret Art of Dispersion" and, following a prologue by Eric Evans, is written by Nowlin Craver, an award-winning magician who also hails from Texas. These 165 pages are the author's attempt to apply another Chinese text, The Secret Art of War, written in approximately 500 AD, to principles of audience management, psychology, command, and misdirection. Unlike The Art of War, which is attributed to a single author, The Secret Art of War is a compendium of sorts, consisting of 36 strategies which were amassed over time and passed on through multiple generations of Chinese warriors and battle history.

In the prologue to "The Secret Art of Dispersion," Mr. Evans introduces the reader to the Chinese concepts of opposing forces that are direct and indirect, respectively labeled Cheng and Ch'i. These opposites can also be considered as normal/abnormal, ordinary/extraordinary, regular/irregular, common/uncommon, and straightforward/surprise, however the direct and indirect model seem to come into use in the ensuing work with particular applicability. Even more often, however, we might also think of Cheng as effect, and Ch'i as method. In Mr. Craver's Introduction which follows, he familiarizes us with the origins of the 36 strategies, and then presents the large, guiding idea of his premise, namely the notion of "dispersion." Much as Tommy Wonder and others have proposed that misdirection is better conceived of as direction, Mr. Craver is also proposing a new vocabulary. The author suggests that "every one of the 36 strategies from The Art of War was about dispersion. In war, of course, we are speaking of dispersing the concentration of the enemy's troops; but in magic where we are waging a war on the minds of our spectators, we are speaking of dispersing mental concentration. Dispersion of concentration from Ch'i and onto Cheng [T]he purpose of the 36 strategies, in terms of magic, was to foster real-time conviction by dispersing concentration onto the Cheng that strengthen the conviction, and away from the Ch'i that might detract from it." And there you have his premise in a nutshell.

Although much of this text addresses what magicians have traditionally viewed under the rubric of "misdirection," the subject matter is more far-reaching. Mr. Evans concludes his initial preface to both books by declaring that the most important contribution of Mr. Craver's work amounts to "a complete and applicable approach to how we manipulate human awareness." A tall order, to be sure, but clearly one that steps beyond the traditional limits of misdirection. Mr. Craver believes that conviction is "the most important part of creating undetectable mystery." And of course, conviction has been considered an integral element of misdirection and deceptive conjuring for a very long time. In Workers Number 5, Michael Close discusses the importance of using the spectator's assumptions in deception, and observes that "whether or not ... assumptions become convictions depends on our skill in concealing the truth of the situation."

Experienced conjurors, especially students of conjuring theory and the literature of misdirection, will recognize many of the ideas that Mr. Craver presents in these pages, both from personal experience and from great theoretical works like Fitzkee's Magic by Misdirection. That, of course, is far from being a bad thing—in fact it's a rather a good thing in that it indicates that the author is no mere ivory-tower theorizer but instead brings a body of actual working experience to his theoretical approach.

That said, I confess that I find this work a mixed bag. It is audaciously ambitious, and thus refreshingly thoughtful and provocative. Mr. Craver is a serious thinker and he clearly did not slap this material together hastily. He has given his ideas great thought and is intimately familiar with the complex approach he provides. I admire and genuinely respect his devotion to the premise.

I also found much to agree with in these pages. I was particularly pleased with, among other chapters, the one addressing Strategy number 22, "Throw Open the City Gates." On the one hand, the chapter heading is a perfect example of the over-extended metaphor; in this case the author finds himself compelled to explain why we can't always take the original strategy too literally, because while the Chinese example proposes that fear was the chief motivator for making an enemy withdraw, instead a kind of comfort is the chief strategy the author proposes in applying the original anecdote to conjuring. But, all right, no matter, on with the show: the chapter is actually about naturalness, and here the author discusses what he refers to as the difference between what is normal versus what is natural, and that in striving to achieve naturalness in sleight of hand what we are more often attempting to not an absolute mimicry of normalcy but rather "the essence" of normalcy. This is much in keeping with my own theory of "supra-naturalness" as explored in my book, Shattering Illusions, and in a recent discussion thread on The Genii Forum.

But there is also much I disagree with, in ideas both small and large. Let's start small: the author criticizes Heba Haba Al's neo-classic magic bar effect, the "Card Under Glass," as little more than a "catch me if you can" contest with the audience. In fact, the beauty of an accomplished performance of "Card Under Glass" is that a repeated mis-directive effect is qualitatively different from other kinds of effects because the audience thinks that they understand the method, and yet despite that, they continue to find themselves deceived. When done skillfully, the audience is not simply failing to catch the performer, rather they are mystified as to why and how they continue to be success-fully fooled.

Small too perhaps!—are my disagreements with the author's objections to the Bruno Hennig Card in Container method (widely associated with Fred Kaps and used by many contemporary conjurors, including Tommy Wonder, and about which I have myself published extensively), because the container cannot be shown empty following the climax. This is a purely academic objection which actual practice obviates entirely. Indeed, the author's suggestion that it is a good idea to utilize a gaff which enables one to show the box empty after the effect is a disastrous approach. Vernon often counseled "Don't make the unimportant important," a rather large idea which space prohibits me from exploring at length here. But one excellent example would be troubling to show an empty box after a selected card or other object has been clearly and convincingly taken from it. The empty box (whether actually empty or not) is utterly unimportant, and to point up its emptiness is spectacularly illogical. To further prove it empty with a gimmick that then cannot be examined is the height of folly; an ingenious solution for a non-existent problem. That there are other methods such as the author's recommendation of Allan Hayden's excellent "Mighty Silver Bulldog"—for achieving the object or card in impossible location is a fine prospect to consider, because every method possesses its strengths and weak-nesses and that is why we must make intelligent choices as to what elements of method and effect we choose to emphasize. But make sure that your cure is not worse than the disease.

An idea of less small proportions with which I also disagree is the author's rather arbitrary judgment that "it seems unproductive to obsess over creating the pass that is invisible when concentrated on and still, if it is possible through the use of a Classic Pass and dispersion to create the conviction that nothing happened." This is a dangerous idea that comes perilously close to suggesting that with sufficiently strong misdirection, no sleight need be perfectly deceptive. After all, why not just hope to do it when they're not looking, or settle for "getting away with it," the eternal duffer's defense. My own attitude toward misdirection, and one shared by many notable sleight-of-hand artists (I think it fair to say that John Carney would be a fine example of this philosophy) is that we should attempt to achieve the most perfectly deceptive sleights, and then always use them with correctly applied misdirection, to provide a thorough and complete deception.

Elsewhere, when the author disputes the power of a false recap, whether he realizes it or not, he is arguing against a technique that is a fundamental tool of Juan Tamariz, one of our greatest living masters of misdirection and theoretical analysis. That the author can cite poor examples of the technique does not disprove the theory; it only suggests that he has either witnessed poor applications of it, or that he is mistaking his own thinking for that of the layman. In his examples here he does in fact only describe why he was unconvinced by a false recap; an observation that effectively means nothing when it comes to discerning a layman's turn of mind. One should never confuse the one for the other.

Then them are the author's own contradictory ideas. In his introduction he states: "It seems to me that some magicians give lay people an inordinate ability to think back rationally about assumptions they have made during a trick. For example, I've often heard magicians say that when a coin vanishes from a hand after a false transfer, the audience has to know that it's still in the other hand ...." However, 61 pages later he offers that, "in a false transfer of a ball from one hand to another, they will believe the ball is in the hand based on the false assumption that you put it in the other hand. However, if you immediately show the ball not there, they may then think, 'Did he really put the ball in the hand to begin with'?" I will let the contra-diction speak for itself. Count me on the side of magicians who believe that lay people can think. To underestimate them is one of the most dangerous and commonplace mistakes a magician can make.

And then, finally, there is the Too Perfect Theory. Perhaps I should simply say that I absolutely disagree with the statements of both authors about this theory. But I will expand briefly on the source of my strong disagreement. To begin with, while the author glibly and repeatedly insists that most of the theory's supporters misunderstand and misinterpret the theory, he then utterly misstates the theory himself, thereby effectively and totally undermining every last word he has to offer on the subject. After accurately restating several elements from Rick Johnsson's now famous essay in Heirophant, Mr. Craver then caps this summary with this statement: "So we should give (man) a false method to believe in one that credits us with skill."

I have no idea if the author has completely misunderstood the Too Perfect Theory, or has deliberately misrepresented it in order to prove his points, but in either case, he is entirely wrong.

Indeed, I defy him to find that statement in Mr. Johnsson's essay. He will not, because it is not there. To even claim it is suggested is a fanciful misinterpretation of Mr. Johnsson's work. Thus he begins with a straw man, which he then proceeds to knock down, without ever disproving a breath of the actual theory.

What Mr. Johnsson (who did not originate the theory, but who effectively articulated it for sake of discussion) in fact proposed was that we provide the spectator with a series of deliberately designed false pathways to pursue in the course of any attempts directed toward reconstructing the method, all of which are intended to fail him in the end, leaving him with no satisfactory explanation. And that to fail to do this in certain cases leaves open the decided risk that the spectator may well find his way to the actual explanation, particularly if it is the only possible pathway left behind in the wake of the effect.

Mr. Craver proposes to know what Mr. Johnsson really meant, which he alleges to be that no spectator will accept not knowing the explanation to a trick. I encourage the author to carefully reread Mr. Johnsson's original essay, and make every effort to free himself from his own long-standing biases and consider the original essay with new eyes for Mr. Johnsson makes no such claim, and neither do his supporters—myself included. In Shattering Illusions, while addressing "canceling" the spectator's potential ideas about method and Tamariz's "Theory of False Solutions," I wrote that "... Tamariz creates false solutions not to guide the spectator to a comfortable if mistaken resolution, but to lead the audience deliberately away from actual methods, eventually rendering them all unacceptable, and the audience has no way out but to be absolutely mystified. The idea is not to provide a satisfying explanation, but rather to prevent the spectator from settling on any solution as adequate to explain what has occurred."

So much for disagreements both minor and major. Nevertheless, there is also much more in the text that I agree with, especially with many of the ideas about misdirection that have also been addressed elsewhere in the literature, notably in Fitzkee's aforementioned Magic by Misdirection. By far the best of the three volumes of what the great publisher and critic, Paul Fleming, dubbed the "Fitzkee Trilogy," Magic by Misdirection discusses many of these concepts in a straightforward manner that numerous students, myself included, have found not only insightful but eminently serviceable. Another fine example one of the shining lights of the theoretical literature is Juan Tamariz' The Magic Way, which explores Tamariz' "Theory of False Solutions" with eminent clarity. This calls to mind the question: Has the author, thanks to his new vocabulary and theoretical structure the notions of dispersion, of Cheng vs. Ch'i, and especially of the 36 strategies drawn from The Secret Art of War provided an effective new tool, or a lesson in poetry and metaphor? Or has he done both?

For me, he has not entirely achieved the goal of providing a totally useful tool, but I did enjoy his efforts in the poetic sense. I confess I am not likely to ever get a fluid and intuitive grasp on the idea that to control the audience's focus is to "capture the leader to catch the bandits." Nor am I likely to say to myself, "The performer uses his own Cheng with Ch'i while appearing to be using the spectator's Cheng," which basically means that you can increase conviction if you perform magic with a borrowed object. But while these observations might reflect limitations of the author's work, they might just as well reflect my own limitations. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and sometimes even harder to teach him some new theory.

But there are so many new elements of the author's framework and yet not necessarily of the content it frames—that I'm not sure how many will find themselves readily embracing and adopting this new language and metaphorical catalogue. In Fitzkee's The Trick Brain, the author famously offers a list of 19 fundamental effects in magic. However, Sam Sharpe, in Neo-Magic, posited only six—and to this day, it is that six that have served me as an oft-used practical thinking tool, while Fitzkee's overworked theorizing lays dead in the pages on my bookshelf. Only time will tell what will become of "The Secret Art of Dispersion," but I strongly encourage every thinking student of conjuring to read this book and decide for them-selves. No matter how much use any reader gains, be it great or small, it is absolutely certain that every reader will gain something valuable. It will take more than one reading to make the best of that value, and I'm looking forward to reading it again myself.

The Secret Art of Magic Eric Evans and Nowlin Craver 284 pages; 9" x 5-1/2" hardcover, 2003, not illustrated (except for three small diagrams) • Publisher: Music to Laugh