Though I never have, Ive always wanted to ask its publisher, Richard Kaufman and/or its author, Michael Weber, why Life Savers (Kaufman and Greenberg, 1991) was published in such an unusual configuration. Both men actually (jokingly) attribute the narrow format to the books continuing sales: the spines of the books to either side of this narrow volume eventually close in and hide from view the spine of Life Savers. The owner, unable to locate the book, decides its lost or was borrowed and not returned, and thus purchases another copy. Of course, the real reason for its continued sales is because those who are badly fooled by someone else doing an effect from the book discover its origin and purchase the book. But that doesnt answer the question, why is this material offered in this unusual format? Is it because the material is not at all usual?
Most books on magic are quite easy to pigeonhole into a descriptive genre: cards, coins, close-up, theory, stage, history and, of course, impromptu magic, are categories that come immediately to mind. While most would (and do) place Life Savers into the impromptu class, I am not convinced that this is completely accurate--or fair for that matter. I believe Life Savers is in a genre all its own. In fact, Im not 100% convinced the author chose the correct word, improvised, when defining the work in his introduction (and, of course, the alliterate subtitle of the book, A Handbook of Improvised Impossibilities) though, without question, that word is far more applicable than is impromptu.
In my mind, most of the magic found in Life Savers is opportunistic. That wonderful Maliniesque form of conjuring whose impact is tenfold greater to the observer because, besides a strong magical effect, the circumstances surrounding its performance are unassuming and natural: they dont appear to lend themselves to a magical performance. Its one thing to be able to make a salt shaker pass through the dinner table, but its quite another to cause the salt in that shaker--the very shaker used by the observer during his or her meal--to transpose with the pepper and finally be filled half with salt and half with pepper. Its one thing for a magician to tear and restore his business card while standing on line at the DMV and quite another to tear off and restore the belt loop on the trousers of a friend (or a friendly stranger, should you have the nerve) in that same line.
As the author points out in his introduction, there is no such thing as truly impromptu magic. It may appear off the cuff, but all good magic needs to be well practiced and rehearsed. The same unrehearsed appearance holds true for improvised and opportunistic magic, hence the confusion with impromptu magic. However, as opposed to impromptu magic as we know it (which is magic that simply requires very little or no preparation), most improvised magic follows different rules and has an additional skill-set. Preparation can be complicated and extensive and often needs to be done on the fly. One also needs the ability to recognize the circumstances that is conducive to improvisational magic and all of this needs to be done with absolutely no inkling to the observers that any previous thought was put into it. The apparent absence of preparation for the moment is as important to these illusions as the absence of preparation of the objects used.
Taking advantage of the moment, or the opportunity, is the central theme in this book. Given circumstances is a phrase more associated with acting than magic, but Weber stresses the given circumstances of each of these effects because he is trying to impress upon the reader that these underlying details are as much a part of the overall impact on the audience as is the magical effect. Some readers might be tempted to make some of these items regular show pieces. Though a few of these effects will lend themselves to such development, to do so would take away from their impact because the circumstances of a show are far different from the situations for which these items have been created.
Life Savers is segregated into six sections: The Expert at the Dinner Table; Object Lessons; Little or Nothing; By Ones Own Devices; On Location; and Special Effects. These sections are designed to place the effects into appropriate segments, but there is indeed room for overlap. The reader is limited only by those circumstances he more commonly finds himself and his ability to analyze the effects and fit them into those situations. In all there are 43 items in this book. The author recommends finding one or perhaps two that best fit the readers usual surroundings and circumstances. And Weber also admonishes the reader to never perform more than one of these items at any given time. These warnings are noteworthy because its the authors way of impressing upon the reader that too much of a good thing is bad for the overall effect. Create some kind of routine from these effects and thats what they will turn into: an obvious setup; a well rehearsed act. That is the last thing the performance of these items should elicit in the minds of the viewers. (Though it must be made crystal clear to you, dear reader, that, as with all good magic, these items need to be very well rehearsed, including the preparation. As Weber notes in his introduction, Rehearsing the set-up [sic] is as important as rehearsing the effect. Setting up for an effect while at home is quite different from trying to surreptitiously gaff a matchbook in a public restroom. Such disciplined rehearsal is also paramount for these effects so that the acting necessary to create the illusion of spontaneity is successfully executed.)
The listing of each item will not occur here, and my chosen item(s) will perhaps be the subject of subsequent posts and further discussion. In the mean time, I hope the contents of this book, as well as the subject of improvisation and opportunity generates some discussion and thought. Share your thoughts on this book (whatever they may be) as well as your ideas, no matter how far out or impractical they may seem. Perhaps our other members will help brainstorm that idea into something practical. Do not allow being unusual intimidate or inhibit you. For everything about Life Savers is unusual: From its format, its offbeat material and its seemingly pedestrian material that, due to circumstance, reaches miracle class, to the disciplines it teaches from the shadows: Life Savers is in a class all its own. That too is unusual for a magic book.