There are many stages to a magic trick, more than people realise. Most get fixated on The Secret, the hidden method that leads to the effect, the bit that you’re not supposed to tell anyone. Honestly, though, those secrets just aren’t that interesting. Magic isn’t just about secrets for the same reason fine art isn’t just about stained canvas.
The real secret, such as it is, is the journey, the story, the reason for creating the effect in the first place. Take a simple beginner’s card trick, the sort of thing that you might find printed on the back of a cereal box:
The magician gives the spectator a deck of cards. They are asked to randomly deal out the cards face down into four piles, one at a time, until they are left with four even piles of face down cards dealt at random. With a flourish, the magician asks the spectator to turn over each top card, revealing the four aces. All the other cards are then spread out to show it was a regular deck all along.
If you worked out The Secret, good for you, have a biscuit. If not, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter either way to the point I’m making. Maybe I’ll tell you The Secret at the end of our time together. But here’s how to approach the real secret as I see it:
This trick has the beginnings of a magical experience, but it is nowhere near complete. In its favour is that it is entirely in the hands of the spectator with no physical intervention from the magician, so this should be emphasised from the outset. Make a big deal out of the role reversal, act like they are the ones doing the trick and you are the spectator watching them. Build gags around this. Play the obnoxious heckler. Insist on inspecting and shuffling the deck beforehand to stop them from cheating. Tap your fingers impatiently while they deal out the cards, as if you’ve no more idea what will happen than they do. Then, when the effect is complete, give them all the applause. Act amazed, tell them you had no idea they could do magic like you just witnessed. Leave them feeling like the star.
Don’t be afraid to lay it on thick. Of course they know full well that it was you making the trick work. They might feel embarrassed and patronised by your over the top platitudes, but that is part of the fun, part of the tease. You have offered them the chance, which they can take or leave, to play along, to accept the suggestion that the magic was all on them after all and that they might be capable of other amazing deeds they’re not yet aware of, if only they’d allow themselves to believe in little moments of wonder. And that is one of the most beautiful gifts you can give to anyone.
Now let’s talk about what they just did, exactly: they caused four particular cards, out of a possible field of fifty-two, to appear on the top of piles. Big deal. On its own, this is a bland coincidence of no particular consequence, for it to become magical those cards need to be significant in some way. So, take a moment to explain why finding the four aces is a feat worth accomplishing. You could make it a gambling plot about building an unbeatable poker hand, but other, more imaginative plots might serve you better, depending on your character and the tastes of your audience. You could spin a tall yarn about the cards representing mythical beings waiting to be united into a greater whole. Maybe a pathos-riddled personal story about the first time the cards offered up the aces for you, marking the start of your life as a magician. Be as goofy and cheesy as you like with these stories. It’s not about being convincing at this point, it’s about inviting the spectator to drop their defences and enjoy a little fantasy.
You could work all this patter in while the spectator is dealing out the cards, breaking up what might otherwise be a tedious chore. To the same end, you could stop them halfway through and add some extra interactive element – let them switch some of the cards to other piles, start over, whatever. Nothing they do at this point will affect the final outcome in any way, but make them think that it will.
Better still, like a boxer throwing a jab to set up the knockout punch, throw in a sub-reveal. The four cards currently on top will be genuinely random, but seize on any connections you can as proof that the spectator is getting closer to their goal of conjuring the aces. If there really is no conceivable link between the cards turned over, treat it as an appeal to faith and perseverance. Have them try once more before getting to the end of the deck, then treat the final reveal as their third, successful attempt. Use it to sell the difficulty of what they have accomplished.
If during your sub-reveals you happen to find four of a kind, a straight, flush or any other distinctive combination, treat it as a planned outcome and milk the moment for all it’s worth. Happy accidents like this happen from time to time, so always be ready to take advantage. That whole storyline you’re feeding, about strange coincidences leading to moments of destiny? It’s as real as you allow it to be. For magician and spectator alike.
I am Darryl De’vante, a professional magician working out of Professor Norax’s Wonder Emporium, a magic shop and theatre on a back street of a regular city in a post-mortal plane of existence. In our little corner of the afterlife we present wonder and illusion to passing spirits, and help others come to terms with passing. Some stick around, others move on to destinations known only to them and their concept of God. But this is my idea of heaven right here. I am who I want to be, doing what I love in a perfect location.
From the moment of my death and arrival on this plane, it took me about a year to hit total recall. I’d come to like we all did with only vague ideas of who I was; I remembered all of my magic skills, found my props and performance suits in the wardrobe, did a bit of practice, put some table hopping routines together and went out to find some gigs in town, with a little street busking in between. Soon I even managed to get some corporate shows. I was happy, confident and working, with no idea of my deceased status.
At some point I found the Wonder Emporium. It surprised me to see the name Professor Norax on it, who I knew from magic history as the author of some fairly obscure booklets from the 1920s. He wasn’t especially famous, so I assumed the establishment had been named as a tribute by some ancestor of his. Inside I met a bohemian looking couple named Ted, a dapper looking gentleman in a dark vintage suit with greased black hair and a riverboat moustache, and Lillian, a tattooed brunette in a silky red dress. When I asked about the Norax connection they looked at each other for a moment, then back at me, then told me they were carrying on his legacy. I asked about getting booked in the theatre, they gave me a quick audition and asked me to come by that evening to do some table hopping.
Now, I didn’t know that much about Professor Norax’s original act, but their’s didn’t look like a tribute show. Nor was there much in the way of memorabilia around to tell people about their supposed hero. When I asked them about this afterwards, Ted asked me to sit down for a chat.
“Darryl, how far back can you remember?” he asked. “About your life, I mean? You obviously know a lot about magic history.”
I admitted that it wasn’t that long as far as life events were concerned, now that he mentioned it. I just remembered waking up at home as a guy that knew how to perform magic professionally. I didn’t remember where I’d learnt, what my childhood was like or anything. It was unnerving, but I put the thought aside and just got on with my work.
“Hmm,” he replied. “Best not to worry for now, then. Your memory’ll come back before long, let me know when it does. For now, just think of us as your friends and this place your home.”
Ted and Lillian didn’t press the point any further, but invited me to keep coming back to work with them at the shop and theatre. I was delighted to have a regular job and base to work from and set about helping them run and build the business in every way I could. Then one day, a couple came into the shop with a young girl who lingered at the counter as they went to leave. She stood staring at me for a little while, I was about to start a conversation and show her some magic when her father called her away.
He called out something that sounded like ‘Dianne’. I gave a start as I heard the name, as if it was reminding me of something important. Then, after that initial trigger, the memories came flooding back and I understood everything.
Well, nearly everything.
The reason why the name Dianne had triggered me is because it was my given name, my deadname.
I had been born a girl to conservative Christian parents who packed me off to Sunday school every week in a pretty dress, decorated my bedroom in horrible pinks and dissuaded me from ever doing anything remotely boyish. It never felt right, but I went along with it up to the age of about nine – it’s not like I had a choice. Increasingly, though, I would look at myself in the mirror and just not see myself.
These are not my clothes.
This is not my room.
This is not my body.
I began dressing and acting more masculine in whatever small ways I could, in spite of resistance from my parents. I saved up and bought a boy’s school uniform to wear, which felt much more comfortable than the girls’ one my parents got me. I tied my hair back in a ponytail until I could get away with cutting it short and my casual friends were boys I could rely on to treat me like one of the lads. By this point my parents had given up forbidding me from dressing like a boy and decided it was just a phase I needed to work through, but it actually caused me severe anxiety not to. I’d come back from church desperate to get out of the skirts and dresses I had to wear, feminine clothes just felt wrong. When puberty hit and my breasts began to enlarge I wanted them to just go, this was not what my body was supposed to do. And when I had my first period it devastated me. Of course puberty is tough for everyone, but I went through it in a body that didn’t even feel like mine.
I was thirteen when everything started to change. I’d gone to a joke shop with my mate Gary to get some stuff for his birthday party, it turned out it was also a magic shop and the owner showed us a few tricks. I was fascinated, not so much with the tricks themselves, but with the way he controlled the narrative and invited us to willingly follow him into a world where anything is possible and we can be whoever we wish to be. Gary took the piss, but I bought a beginner’s book to learn about the art. Recognising my interest, the owner beckoned me over.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” he said quietly. “You come back here and show me a routine from that book properly rehearsed and I’ll teach you some more stuff. Make sure you practice properly though, and remember I said ‘routine’, not ‘trick’.”
I nodded and told him I would. I knew exactly what he meant, he must have seen it in the way I watched him.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked,
My heart skipped a beat. He’d taken me for a boy! But now I had to think of a boy’s name for myself, and fast. I couldn’t give my real name, not now.
“It’s Darryl,” I said. It was the first thing that came to mind.
The man smirked a little. I wondered if I’d played this right.
“OK, Darryl,” he said. “You’ll need a decent deck of cards, these are Bicycles, the standard magicians work with. Please don’t take offence, but I’m giving you bridge size to start with – we’ll move you up to poker size when you’ve got the basics down. My name’s Pete, by the way. I hope to see you again soon.”
I thanked him and left the shop. I wondered why he thought I’d take offence at being given bridge size cards, until I started practicing with them and realised he was talking about my little hands. I resolved to get poker sized cards as soon as I could.
“What was all that about?” asked Gary. I showed him what I’d bought and told him I was going to become a magician. Gary laughed.
“If you do, I’ll be your glamorous assistant,” he said.
“Is that a promise?”
He looked at me and realised I was serious.
“OK. Sure, why not? If you stick at this and it makes you happy, I’ll be the girl you saw in half, or whatever it is you want me to do.”
We shook on it. Gary was a good friend, but even if he was joking I decided there and then that I’d make him go through with this.