Having something to discover

Richard Feynman, who has remained a hero of mine since I was in high school, wrote a book about, and indeed based is life around The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Lawrence Krauss pointed out in Quantum Man that one of the things that made Feynman Feynman was his insistence on working everything out for himself. By trying work at things from first principles instead of doing research to see if the answer had already been figured out. In hindsight Krauss said this was an advantage and disadvantage because while the independent figuring out often gave him a deeper understanding, his ignorance of what was already out there pre-published prevented him from making even more significant contributions to physics than he already did.

The kernel here is that audiences are not a homogeneous mass. People differ widely in how they approach the unknown and uncertainty. Some like puzzles, some like mystery novels, some like math problems, some enjoy non-linear plot sequences (think Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda). And those people will want to figure it out for themselves - they enjoy the process. But others just want the solution, they want to increase their stockpile of knowledge by the most efficient means necessary.

Then there are those that reject the unknown entirely. When I tutored math students, I noticed they all shared one thing in common: they shut down when faced with a problem whose solution was not immediately apparent. I would try and nudge them by asking, "How do you want to start?" Then they make their best guess, but always speak tentatively, speaking in the form of a question, "Is it cosine law?"

Of course all math teachers are pure evil (scientifically proven fact) so I just tossed the question back to them, "I don't know, is it cosine law?" Perhaps if you sound uncertain, you don't sound as stupid if you should turn out to be wrong.

My preference, time permitting, is to get them to try the cosine law (even if it's not the right answer) to try and demonstrate that there's nothing wrong with trying something and figuring out that it doesn't work. But there seems to be an aversion to trying anything that's not a sure thing. It's like intellectual risk aversion; not even risking money, just a bit of pencil lead and they're too scared to take the risk. Granted this is a biased sample - kids who are not good at math - and who knows how teachers and classmates have made them feel for not being good at math.

Translate this to magic. The literature has a tendency to treat audiences the same. Or perhaps we make some coarse divisions:

  1. Kids
  2. Drunks
  3. Hecklers
  4. Polite People

But there are a mixture of people. Just like there are people who "get" painting and don't "get" painting. We should expect to find people who do and don't get magic. When presented with an inexplicable thing, we can expect a variety of reactions from different people.

Magic should be designed with a nuanced approach to managing the audience. Particularly on stage where you will have a heterogeneous bunch, I try to insert small bits to appeal to as many different parts of that audience as possible. I may include a certain literary reference for one group, that they will find delightful but will go unnoticed by others.

The other approach I find extremely important is to minimize the emphasis I place on convincers [1]. I want my magic to be as deceptive as possible but I don't want to shove that deceptiveness down people's throats. Here is the simplest example for illustrative purposes:

I want to perform with my sleeves pulled back so that no one can accuse me of hiding things up my sleeve (certain members of the public have a nasty habit of saying "must be up your sleeve" thinking that they've figured something out, without realizing that even if they were right, they would have no understanding of how that object got into or out of the sleeve without them noticing) but I don't want to go so far as to say "and I have nothing up my sleeve". So I roll up my sleeves but say nothing. Now only those people, those wonderful curious people, who are truly paying attention will notice the sleeves are rolled up, and because they are intelligent and observant, they won't be able to say "it must be up your sleeve," and they will have a much better experience of mystery than the spectator whose brain is half turned off and is perfectly happy to conclude, against evidence, that it must be up my sleeve.

The less observant person is actually less fooled. And that doesn't bother me. I don't need to spend energy forcing mystery on anyone that isn't going to be delighted by it.

As Eugene Burger once said to me:

If they aren't smart enough to notice, they don't deserve to know.

[1]Convincers are subtle additions to a trick which point things out or provide reminders without drawing attention to themselves. For example, if you want to show a hat empty, you could hold it dead on to the audience and show it from side to side - this is an obvious attempt to make sure the audience notices the hat is empty. The alternative would be to hold the hat in your hand and turn to the inside towards the audience while you take something out of your pocket with the other hand. Since the fact that the hat was seen empty was not intentional, merely an accidental byproduct of reaching into your pocket. That sneakiness in showing something without drawing attention downgrades (elevates?) a display to being a convincer.