If someone said that a magic book was "controversial," most people might suspect that it's because the author neglected to give credit for an effect or sleight, or printed an effect or sleight without permission, or some other ethically questionable conveyance. But perhaps one of the most controversial magic books in recent memory did not fall into one of these categories. Instead it was a book on the performance
of magic that caused all the ruckus, and it wasn't just one particular issue or point made by the author that instigated the debate. In the case of Darwin Ortiz's Strong Magic: Creative Showmanship for the Close-up Magician
(Kaufman and Greenberg, 1994), controversy surrounds the book in many facets. Perhaps the only thing that everyone can agree upon is the fact that the book sold extremely
well, having sold through four English printings (there is also a Spanish edition, La Buena Magia
, translated by Rafael Benatar). It remains highly sought after, occasionally fetching unrealistically high prices in the secondary and auction markets.
Some say that only naive amateurs and hobbyists appreciated the book while working professionals--almost as a whole--lambasted it. This, of course, is only partially true: amateurs did embrace the work in great numbers (hence the book's impressive sales), but the professional ranks seemed to be split somewhere around the middle.
The reviews in the major magic magazines were all but unanimous in their displeasure, although I would categorize the Jamy Ian Swiss review in Genii
(July 1994) as a split decision and not
the complete "panning" as that review is often viewed. He did, after all, recommend the book. Chuck Fayne, on the other hand, clearly hated the book and all but said so in his rather curt review in the July 1994 issue of MAGIC.
("Utter nonsense! Mr. Ortiz, in his attempt to define showmanship, proves it can't be done."
Why? What is it about Strong Magic
that some well known and respected strong
performers openly berated the book while so many amateurs clearly loved it? Jim Sisti, in his review in the September/October 1994 issue of The Magic Menu
openly wondered as well, noting that he "couldn't help but wonder if we all were reading different books."
To answer the question, we must start from the beginning: In his introduction, Ortiz comments that the book is not
a book on theory, but a book of techniques
for effective showmanship. This comment alone starts the controversy, as there are those who would have you believe that showmanship is not something that can be taught from one individual to another, but only
learned by an individual over time and experience: that showmanship has theories and elements, but not teachable and learnable "techniques."
In his review, also in the July 1994 MAGIC
, Stephen Hobbs states, "Ortiz clearly believes…that the theatrical and psychological elements of showmanship can be treated and examined in the same manner as the manual elements of sleight of hand. I disagree."
Can conceptual talents like showmanship and creativity have technique
? Well, I personally learned the techniques of creativity from one of the best and most creative photographers on the planet. Yes, I said techniques, and so did he when he was teaching them. Strong Magic
presents numerous techniques for showmanship and they are not at all abstract. Of course, that also doesn't mean that they are always correct,
at least for me or for you. Herein lies another
controversy about this book: Darwin Ortiz's apparent confidence that what he says is always 100% correct.
Another point raised by more than one critic is the notion that, because of Mr. Ortiz's less than dynamic performing style, he is somehow unqualified to write a book on showmanship. It is only for the sake of completeness that I bring up this absurd sentiment. Several fine performers--past and present--come to mind whose styles could be described as subdued and this makes them no less entertaining to their audiences. Style
is a matter of taste and of what character works best for an individual performer. Good showmanship does not differentiate between subdued or "wild & crazy" personas; one is not better than the other. What is important is that the persona works for and entertains the audience and
is original. As I once heard Chuck Fayne say in a lecture, "If you promise not to be me, I'll promise not to be you."
There are times in the book where Ortiz cautions the reader of the pitfalls of copying personas. The message is the same, and though they are delivered differently, its importance is not diminished.
Before continuing, I must confess that I had not read any of the reviews of this book until a short time after I was cajoled into tackling it as a subject for the Book of the Month. At the time of its publication I subscribed to neither Genii
. I originally purchased the book based on two things: It was a subject I wanted to learn more about and it was a subject I needed
to learn how to apply to my magic. Because I had some theater background and, also having read Fitzkee, Nelms and Maskelyne & Devant, I was not completely devoid of theoretical knowledge. I was (and in many ways still am), however, lacking in its practical application. I believed--hoped--that this book would be of help to me; I found that it was and it wasn't.
When I read the Jamy Ian Swiss review I was quite tempted to simply find out if I could just reprint it here. This was because I found myself agreeing so often with him that I was having a terrible time finding my own words for this piece: I kept hearing his words coming into my thoughts. Interestingly, this is an issue that Mr. Ortiz addresses in the book. I found that I had to consciously work harder
at making sure that you were reading me, and not Jamy Ian Swiss. I had to apply the same type of technique
suggested by Mr. Ortiz in a section of the book. (That having been said, I do want you to read his review, and with the kind permission of Richard Kaufman--and the suggestion of Mr. Swiss--you can read the complete review by clicking the link at the end of this piece; but me first.)Strong Magic
is comprised of four major sections (The Effect, The Character, The Act
and The Audience
) with 22 chapters, each with numerous subsections, in 371 pages. Oh yes, there are also two appendices totaling an additional eight pages, for a grand total of 379 pages (including the title page, contents, foreword, introduction, prologue, etc.). It is within Prologue: A Little Theory
that Ortiz sets a tone for the book that has garnered most of the negative criticism: that no one is beyond the reach of his
analysis and his
conclusions are always correct. For example, in "The Challenge Attitude," Ortiz questions the challenge style of Slydini and, to a lesser degree, John Ramsay. His opinion on this lone aspect
of two giants of the art comes off as arrogant and disrespectful; an all-knowing "I'm right and if you disagree, you are wrong" attitude that permeates the book. While I am not convinced that this was his intention, it does
set this tone and there are many moments throughout the book when the reader can say to himself, "there he goes again" if he allows himself to.
For it is here that the reader must
realize that he is reading a book of conclusions reached by one man through his personal analysis and experience. Therefore, the techniques
that stem from these conclusions should be as open to the reader's analysis and conclusions as the author's. Mr. Ortiz fails to point this out early on
in the book: Whether this was by design (as his critics seem to think) or because he assumed the reader would come to this conclusion himself is unknown to me. Nevertheless, if, at this time in the book, the reader fails to reach this conclusion himself, its absence unquestionably adds considerably to the overbearing character of Strong Magic
Also beginning within the pages of the prologue, and continuing throughout much of the book, is the use of dozens of examples from dozens of well-known magicians in his analysis; most, perhaps, flattering to the subject, but some most certainly not. Of course, as should be expected, he also uses many examples from his own work. Of all these numerous examples, Stephen Hobbs said that, "while interesting, [they] only serve to reinforce Ortiz's own personal conclusions and beliefs."
I can't help but wonder whose conclusions and beliefs Mr. Hobbs would expect Mr. Ortiz to support. The point being that whether or not you agree with them, Mr. Ortiz makes his arguments, supports them with his analysis and recommends technique for applying them. This is light years ahead of such theoretical bombshells such as "just be yourself."
Some of what the author offers is common sense to many. However, he is not averse to going in-depth on these subjects for the sake of completeness (which, of course, lends some credence to the belief that leaving out the admonition that the reader need not agree with everything in the book was by design). Concepts such as the fact that magic is a narrative art may be obvious to many, but he further states, and I believe correctly so, that the principles of all other narrative arts--film, theater, fiction, apply to magic and, "it has received little attention in magic literature.
" The prologue alone gives the reader much to consider, and it's less than eleven pages in length. And, for me, it is this aspect that defines this book: performance magic is a craft that requires thought to reach the level of art.
I am able to dismiss the attitude
of the writing because the questions
posed by the answers provided are far more important to me.Part One: The Effect
makes up over 50% of the book (200 pages). Here Ortiz covers sections on Clarity, Conviction, Suggestion, Substantive Meaning, Situational Meaning,
and Dramatic Structure
and how they relate to the effect of magic
. "Magic" and Ortiz's belief that magic alone can be entertaining is the primary focus of this section. Apparently some of Mr. Ortiz's critics do not appreciate his belief that the effect of magic
should be the ultimate focus of the magician: That elements such as drama and humor are tools that should be used to enhance magic and not the other way around. This, of course, is another example of Mr. Ortiz apparently adding fuel to the conflagration of controversy since he seems to serve it up as "fact" as opposed to "opinion."
It is also here that the author's apparent disregard for the hobbyist magician appears for the first time. Comments such as, "The average 'magician' is just a layman with a bunny rabbit on his business card"
appear regularly throughout the book and Ortiz is chastised for these derogatory jabs at those who are indeed the target audience of the book. But yet his audience still loves him for it; so why is that? I suspect that there are a few who are too ignorant to realize that some of these truisms are aimed directly at them. However, I also feel that most realize that it occasionally takes a good thump to the ego to come to the conclusion that you have been going about something all wrong. Many years ago Max Maven told me that my writing was "sophomoric." He was correct, and I'm not sure if I ever thanked him for that piece of "tough love." (Of course, I'm still working on it, and suspect I always will be.) Ortiz's blatant honesty regarding those of us in the rank & file can be interpreted as tough love as well. After all, one less flashing bunny lapel pin is indeed a step forward for the art of magic. This is not to say that Mr. Ortiz never goes too far--and not just in his amateur bashing. There are a handful of comments in the book that actually have little or no redeeming value other than to be inflammatory, and in my opinion, these could have been left out. But again, if we as readers can sidestep these landmines, we can concentrate on the important questions and indeed many of the answers provided in this, the largest, section of Strong Magic.
In Part Two: The Character
, Mr. Ortiz loses me a little--but just a little. Much of what he offers the reader in The Functions Of Character, Creating The Character, Conveying The Character
is sound advice based on standard theater craft. He stresses the importance of character or the persona and how that relates to every
aspect of the performance, including those covered in the first section (The Effect
) in the book.
Where he loses me, however, is in the comment "…the single most important tool you have in conveying your character to the audience is the kinds of effects you choose to perform."
[Emphasis mine.] This leaves little room for anything else. I would ask if Teller's stage persona is conveyed to the audience primarily through the incredibly diverse effects he chooses to perform? I don't believe so. How is Penn's character, who actually performs little magic but is stilled perceived as a magician by the audience, conveyed? How does "Cards Across," "The Cut & Restored Rope" and "Sword Through Neck" convey Tom Ogden's persona? I believe the comment should read, "the single most important tool you have in conveying your character to the audience is how you choose to present
the effects you perform."
Obviously material selection is a function of character; Martin A. Nash would look silly if he suddenly whipped out some sponge bunnies after performing a demonstration of second dealing. As Mr. Ortiz says, "No one trick is important enough to justify undermining everything you're trying to accomplish in your performance."
But even the "Charming Cheat" does a few pick-a-card tricks, and it works with Martin's character because of the presentations he applies to them.
Within the chapter on Style
, Ortiz tackles the sticky issue of naturalness, of which Mr. Ortiz says, "Some magicians seem to think the question should be settled by a vote."
While brief, it is one of my favorite subjects in the book. Ortiz defines--and I believe correctly so--the difference between a "naturalistic style" and "naturalness." A perfect example would be a comparison of the aforementioned Messrs. Nash and Ogden. It would not be natural
for Martin A. Nash to handle a deck of cards with Tom Ogden's naturalistic
style of card handling, just as the reverse would be true: It would not be natural for Tom Ogden, after having performed several effects in his naturalistic style, to suddenly change to the overtly sophisticated style of Mr. Nash. Both styles are completely "natural" for each performer's persona and work exceptionally well, but one is "naturalistic" while the other is clearly a skilled "card sharp" who handles the deck accordingly. The same can be said for those who choose the even more flashy and flourish-heavy styles popular today. As Mr. Ortiz points out, just as a naturalistic style is a choice, so is a flashy style. Being true to that chosen style--remaining in character--is what "naturalness" is all about. Being aware of what is natural for your persona is an important element for good showmanship.
As Part Three: The Act
begins, the reader is over 70% through the book. A very short section (a mere 17 pages), it covers specific aspects of the act itself within chapters titled Structure, Unity, Variety
and The Informal Performance.
Much of what is discussed here, the importance of a properly structured act--even in informal situations--falls under the "common knowledge" label, but is another area often overlooked by amateurs. More importantly, however, the underlying threadwork of the entire book remains intact as Ortiz ties these aspects of the act to the other elements covered in the book.Part Four: The Audience
closes the book with some of its most interesting reading. It is also here that Ortiz puts the entire
book into perspective. Before getting to that, however (as I unabashedly use a technique
taught within the pages of Strong Magic
), it's worth looking at the chapters within this section. Those chapters, Audience Testing, The Time Element, Immediacy, Attention Control, Audiences, Assistants, Hecklers
and The Unexpected,
cover not just the makeup, attitudes and needs of the audience, but also a detailed and diverse discussion of the relationship between the performer, his character, his material, his style--virtually all of the previously discussed elements that composes a magician--and his audience. Ortiz covers cohesive subjects such as "Timing" and "Pacing" to the more abstract, such as "Commercial Sense" and "Misdirection." Reading through subjects such as "Planned Spontaneity" made me think of the advice/techniques offered and my own observations of other performers who I know use these techniques. I once saw Tom Ogden stop in the middle of his performance to write down a funny line spoken by an audience member. Ortiz recommends doing this after
the performance, but you must know Tom: he made it a part of the act. It was funny and seen as a joke
by the audience when he stopped and said, "I have to write that down" and searched for something appropriate to write it on. But Ogden was also quite serious since he really did write down the line because it was
funny and he had every intention of working the line into his show. Interestingly, another master of the principles of "planned spontaneity" and someone who has few equals in his ability to size up an audience is a man who despised Strong Magic
: Chuck Fayne.
In this final section of Strong Magic,
Darwin Ortiz does a fine job of wrapping the entire work into a complete package. The common thread of the interrelationships of all of these elements remain in place throughout the book--each section building upon the last, the book itself an example of several of the techniques offered for the reader's approval. And it is here that Ortiz qualifies the work as opinion.
The admonition is short; short enough to go unnoticed--as I suspect some of his critics may have done. Ortiz admonishes the reader: "The moral is: when it comes to showmanship, don't listen to magicians; listen to your audiences. Don't even listen to this book--at least, not uncritically. Test the concepts discussed in it before lay audiences and evaluate the results."
How anyone could disagree with this
recommendation is beyond my comprehension. Using the same tone used throughout the book, Ortiz takes everything discussed in his book and puts it in its place. It's up to the reader
to do what he will with the techniques offered, and that can include ignoring them altogether. But my advice is to at least study this book; listen to the questions.
You don't have to listen to the answers, but even those that you may find disagreeable are worthy of study if only because they come from a man who makes his living performing for lay audiences.
Throughout the book, Ortiz references theater and acting technique. While he cites his sources (which implies that the reader would do well to search them out), I cannot recall ever reading a recommendation that the student magician actually take acting or stagecraft lessons. I see this as a flaw especially since the book relies so heavily on the principles and techniques of theater. (If I am wrong, I hope the passage can be pointed out to me.) I am of the school that feels book study of these techniques is not enough. Since Ortiz clearly expects the reader to take his recommended techniques out for a test drive, firsthand experience with the roots of some of those techniques would be as beneficial.
At the end of Strong Magic
are two appendices; the last being a glossary of terms used by Ortiz throughout the book. Appendix One: Darwin's Laws
is a distillation of the points Mr. Ortiz determines as the most important from the book. Reading these 36 points, I find it difficult--and in some cases impossible--to argue with most of them. While it may be possible to disagree with the route
taken by Ortiz to reach them, the majority of these conclusions themselves are quite sound. By adding "why is," "why does" and "why are" (etc.) to the beginning of them (and, of course, a question mark to the end) they form many of the questions a magician who wants to perform for real people needs to be asking himself. These truism/questions really are the essence of Strong Magic
At one point Mr. Ortiz cites the fine book Dress For Success
by John T. Molloy (Peter Wyden, 1975) and of it says, "I'm not suggesting you automatically adopt every suggestion he makes, but rather that you study his thinking."
I would apply this comment to Strong Magic
Dustin Stinett <Read the Jamy Ian Swiss review of Strong Magic as it originally appeared in the July 1994 issue of Genii by clicking here.>