The Magic of Harry Potter

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Postby Michael Edwards » 11/17/01 06:46 AM

There have been a number of articles and television news items this week making connections between the immense popularity of the Harry Potter books/movie and the business/performance of magic. USA Today ran a piece on where to buy a good magic wand; another paper detailed how local magicians were taking advantage of the interest in Harry Potter to increase bookings and revitalize old effects. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that the interest in Harry Potter and his wizardry has not really inspired as many youngsters to become involved in magic as one might have thought. There appears to be no influx of preteenagers into magic shops, magic clubs, etc. My understanding is that Mattel is not even going to be marketing a Harry Potter magic set. Richard (oh father-to-be) has suggested that young people see a vast difference between magic tricks and Harry et al's real wizardry. That may be true. But what does that say for the performance of contempory magic? So I ask you: what has been the impact of Harry Potter's magic on conjuring, why is this so, and what -- if anything -- does this mean to us as practicioners (and the keepers) of the craft?

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Postby Steve Bryant » 11/17/01 10:28 AM

I love the Harry Potter books and especially the magic trappings, but Harry's real appeal is that of a hero, both in life-death struggles and on the Quidditch field. You can't buy those qualities in a magic shop.
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 11/17/01 12:32 PM

A Potter Index? Michael's short meditation should open some least a crack. He has asked the kinds of questions that elicit hundreds of long and short responses, mostly verbal ones. At first blush, however, there is an oceanic difference between a mundane, plasticized, pocket trick, lasting only 30-70 seconds and accompanied by banal narration, and a long, imaginative, identifiable narrative with incredible special effects. The latter will obviously outclass and over-shadow anything ever done in the glitzy stages of Las Vegas or in the other precincts of magicdom.

The wondrous flights of fancy taken by kids and child-like adults who read BOOKS (about Harry Potter's advantures) will likely surpass the spectacular special effects seen by viewers of the MOVIE. Nevertheless, all hype and hoopla aside, the film will momentarily rule long enough for the sequels to keep the "sizzle" sizzling. Furthermore, most of our quick tricks are irrelevant episodes, like jokes told in elevators. We are the primary "character" in charge, if any. In the Potter books and film, there are many characters for spectators to identify with... The secret of course (which should be obvious to one and all)is to arouse the vast Inner Space of Human Consciousness where ANYTHING is truly possible.

I'm now reminded of something my compter-savvy son once said at age 14. Back then he ( in "Ry Cooder") wasalready inhabiting various virtual worlds. While visiting MOMA in NYC, I pointed out some of the great paintings. His initial comment, spoken with utter innocence, was:

"What does it DO?"

More recently, I showed a neighbor kid an old magic kit--the kind that once set my heart aflutter. He momentarily gazed at the strange trinkets and gew-gaws and then asked,

"Can this stuff do REAL magic?"

"Like what?" I asked.

"You know...making yourself invisible or flying..."

As soon as I said no, he shrugged and walked away.

In short, brothers and sisters, the principles of magic will endure. Only the forms by which it's expressed will change...and are now changing at a pace faster than we can understand it. Unfortunately, since the aging, conservative community of practitioners (and club members) supposedly in charge of research and development are more nostalgic than innovative.

I still love Mysto Magic sets, but my focus (as an aging observer) has changed. I think that all of us should be investigating the forms that will embody what all of us are most passionate about...

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Postby Michael Edwards » 11/17/01 02:53 PM

Ah, tricks vs. magic. There is a wonderful story that comes to mind (and which you can find in the August 1997 Genii). It was the early 1980's and Doug Henning was performing at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. A young man walked into Hollywood Magic and (having seen Henning perform the Vernon Linking Ring routine) asked if they sold "The Mystery of the Silver Rings." A few moments later he left the store, a set of eight-inch linking rings in hand. Less than a half hour later he had returned. Rather upset, he demanded his money back. "This is not what I asked for," he complained. "What I wanted was The Mystery of the Silver Rings, where solid rings of metal magically melt through each other. What you sold me is not that at all. One of these rings isn't solid -- it has a big gap. And some of the others are permanently welded together. It's not what I asked for." He got his refund. After all, he was right.

And so it goes. Perhaps Richard is correct. What young people see in Harry Potter is magic; what they see in magic is tricks.

But the enormity of the Potter phenomenon must touch our craft, those who practice it, and those who witness it, mustn't it? Certainly it sets certain ideas, perpectives, and expectations into the minds of young audiences. Undoubtedly it helps them define what magic should at least look like and what they hope to experience. And yet we -- and they -- clearly separate it from "our kind" of magic. How can it be that Harry Potter has made the cover of virtually every national newsmagazine, yet not Genii nor Magic.


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[ November 17, 2001: Message edited by: Michael Edwards ]
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Postby Guest » 11/18/01 06:04 AM

Just for the sake of trivia it is interesting to note that in George Jenness' 1967 book, Maskelyne and Cooke, there is a photograph of the Egyptian Hall with a poster clearly promising "The Romance of The Philosopher's Stone"!
Although the film is on release in the US as 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' the UK version retains the original book title..."Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone". :cool:

Postby Michael Edwards » 11/18/01 07:34 AM

"The Philosopher's Stone" was one of Maskelyne's most popular sketches. In taking this title for the playlet (which opened at Egyptian Hall during the Christmas season of 1902), Maskeleyne drew on a concept well known to his audiences and which already had a long association with magical presentations. In fact, the term "philosopher's stone" traces its heritage back to the earliest works on European alchemy by Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, both of whom believed in the possibility of transmuting inferior metals into gold. Not surprisingly the idea appealed to the imaginations -- and greed -- of many during the Middle Ages. Gold, after all, was thought to be the perfect metal. The quest was to find a substance -- a "philosopher's stone" -- so much more perfect than gold that it could be used to transform baser metals to the perfection of gold.

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Postby Guest » 11/18/01 08:32 PM

Discussions like these point out to me the difficulty of comparing two disparate art forms. Harry Potter is literature (filmed literature, yes) and Magic (conjuring) is performance. Which is better, painting or singing? Why can't opera be more like sculpture? All the arts can draw inspiration from and influence one another. That is the job of the artist, to create things from old ingredients in new ways. A magic trick will never be a poem, but we can make it as poetic as our hearts and minds will allow, and our audiences will appreciate it and be moved by it!

Postby Guest » 11/19/01 10:36 AM

Taking this discussion in a different way, the question originally raised was: What effect does Harry Potter have on Magic? In this reply, Magic and Magick - modern, new age witchcraft, which seems to be the type Harry practices - will be used as one and the same.
Magic, by nature, is a secret craft, or art form, if you will. It should only be available to the select few who desire to perform it, to study it, to live it. However, the current state does not reflect that. It seems that Magic has lost some of this secret, some of this selectiveness. So much so, that anyone could get almost any secret they desire. It is quite scary if one thinks about it.
So, now the original question comes to mind. Does Harry Potter have any effect on Magic, in this current state? This is a difficult question to answer, since it requires looking at it in various lights. Yes, kids will be pumped up after seeing Harry, and would wish to copy him. But, after seeing Magic performed well, by a good performer, wouldn't that have a similar effect? One must wonder about this, since a definite answer is not available. A safe assumption is that, after reading Harry Potter, the kids would want to copy him. They may go so far as to attend a Magic class. Once there, however, they will see that the type of Magic we practice is different than the type Harry practices. They may even disdain our Magic, and write it off as just tricks. This has an effect on us since now those kids know a secret, a secret that was once known only to a select few. Would they still be able to experience any kind of Magic once they know how it is done? Not only that, but doesn't this say something about us as Magicians? We have been entrusted with a secret (for lack of a better term), but this secret is available to any who seek to find it, quite easily. So, what does this say about us practitioners of Magic?

Postby Lisa Cousins » 11/19/01 07:10 PM

Michael, I was amazed that you mentioned the Renaissance alchemists. I had just been wondering why these figures (and I would add Dr. Dee) don't appear in the History of Magic texts. It seems that the alchemists are considered embryonic scientists, while magicians look to the itinerant entertainers and street performers (and even con artists)as their progenitors. Is it that the alchemists were sincere inquirers, working at the cutting edge of available knowledge, while the performers studied only to deceive and misrepresent?

In this sense, then, I would say that Harry Potter is a descendent of Dr. Dee rather than Isaac Fawkes. He's studying to master skills that have real impact in his world, in his own life. None of the magic he studies is ultimately intended for purposes of entertainment, to amuse or to fool others. His goal in magic is the same as the alchemists: understanding the powers inherent in the universe, and learning to maneuver successfully using those powers.

My kids and the neighbor kids get a kick out of the magic I do, but I don't believe they associate it with the Harry Potter variety at all. If anything, I would say that their wish to fly and apparate like Harry makes my magic seem pointless by comparison. The blue silk is now green? Is that flying? Is that being invisible? I do all of my performing with a "wink" because - well, performance magic is pretty preposterous compared to what these kids really want to see and do.

(And let me close parenthetically by saying that I really loved meeting you and speaking with you at the History Conference.)

Magically yours,

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Postby Michael Edwards » 11/20/01 07:18 AM

Thank you, Lisa. I find it fascinating that even relatively young children seem to be able to separate the magic they find in the Harry Potter books from the performance of magic they witness on television, see on movie screens, experience in live performances, or can purchase in a magic shop. It's not just the distinction between tricks, special effects and "real" magic nor is it simply the idea that someone with truly magical powers wouldn't be harnessing such remarkable gifts to find a playing card or multiply little sponge bunnies. Certainly we can use the craft of conjuring to simulate the very kinds of phenomena a true wizard would create. It's that they have a far deeper understanding of (and value for) what is real and what is pretend than one would think. Perhaps that has always been true. Previous generations never really thought they gained super powers by donning a superman cape nor became a frontiersman by wearing a Davey Crockett coonskin cap. Today's youth experience far more make believe than we could have ever imagined...the extent of television, incredible movie special effects, the virtual reality of the cyberworld. It may well be in a world so filled with fantasy, they are actually more attuned to what separates it from their real lives...and increases the thirst to find something truly magical to enjoy and in which to believe.

So where does this leave us as magicians? Should we simply accept this division and let our audiences think of us as remarkable sleight of hand artists? Some of the greatest practitioners of our art have taken this approach. For instance, Herrmann, Downs, and Talma all publicized the fact that they could palm a vast number of coins. Or do we strive to meld our effects into the kind of magic a true sorcerer would perform, hoping the blur the line that now separates our conjuring tricks from "real magic?" Or do we seek -- and take comfort in -- the creation of an experience that for a few minutes lifts our audience out of its day-to-day world and takes it to special place of enjoyment and wonder?

Michael Edwards

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[ November 20, 2001: Message edited by: Michael Edwards ]
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 11/20/01 10:41 PM

Went to see the Harry Potter film today. With very mixed reviews (mostly negative, or so it appears), I was not expecting much.
It was, however, thrilling and lovely. I well recall reading magic catalogues as a kid and dreaming of congregating with other magicians and doing cool stuff. Don't we still all have the strong desire to see magic that fools us, looks real to us, as real as the wizardry in Harry Potter looks? My own magic is now limited to rather mundane card tricks, but the Potter movie gave me the feeling of a laymen. I want to go out and do some mundane card tricks for people and really sell the hell out of them--so the laymen think they are real. It can be done.
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 11/21/01 12:07 AM

Richard, I'm sure you could persuade me otherwise, but so far I have only experienced one card trick that seemed genuinely magical, to a Harry Potter degree. It was the Stewart James trick where the magician tells me a particular card to focus on, I deal the deck of cards face-up to the table without looking at them, I flip one card face down when it "feels right" (and still without looking); the card I flipped is revealed to be the very card I was focusing upon.

Why was this trick so magical? First, it confirmed my suspicions of my uncanny psychic ability. I appreciated that. It's a friendly deception, like a parent playing a board game who "cheats to lose." (And Richard, you'll discover to your frustration how difficult cheating to lose is when it comes to games of sheer chance such as Candyland. Wait - what am I saying?! You're a card guy! You'll be able to double-lift your way to successful Candyland loss in a way I've never mastered!)

But more, this trick makes the spectator a participant in the magic - in fact, the seeming source of the magic. This is a very different tone than the usual "Is this your card?" climax, which is intended to leave the spectator with a sense of the magician's superior abilities.

On a practical note, this trick also has the advantage of assuring that the spectator remembers the card, because of the business of repeating the card's name while "focusing upon it." Four of clubs, four of clubs, four of clubs. I'm loathe to admit it, but I myself have "spaced" the card I chose. From the spectator's point of view, it's rather a relief not to have to "hold that thought" while the magician goes through his mumbo-jumbo.

To correlate this to the Harry Potter theme, I would suggest that the Harry Potter phenomenon has without question fueled a yearning for an experience of real magic. Perhaps magicians can help satisfy this yearning by taking care to include their audience in a shared experience of magic. If the business of a magician is to deceive, why not make it a generous deception?
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Postby sleightly » 11/21/01 01:40 AM

Very interesting to see how this thread has evolved into the nature of magic as a performance art.

I was surprised and pleased to see Lisa Cousins use the term "shared experience" to describe the yearning audiences have to participate in the deception.

In several of the books I have designed I have included small nuggets of information, signatures in print if you will. One was a birth announcement, but several of them have dealt with performance theory. On the last page of John Booth's Extending Magic Beyond Credibility in 4-point type I talk about how strong the shared experience can be when applied in magic. For those of you who do not have access to the book I reproduce the complete statement here:

"Magic is a shared experience. A sense of immediacy is essential, and requires from the performer not only character and context, but direct and subtle adjustments for each audience. Strive for a unique 'happening' that will never be experienced again. For some audiences, this very well may be true."

While I offer just a kernel of an idea there, and one that is perhaps a bit too vague, I am working on a book, an extended study that explores the theatrical concept of shared experience applied to the performance of magic, and have been surprised at how many people seem to be coming up with this term lately to describe strong magic. I expect that, like myself, several performers are becoming dissatisfied with performing "tricks" and are looking for some way to perform in a way that is more meaningful for their audiences.

Both the comments of Lisa Cousins and those of Michael Edwards are very perceptive of how audiences distinguish (and experience) the two types of performance in vastly different ways. It has occurred to me that one reason for the differing responses is that in a performance of magic, an explanation for every action is either given outright or implied, whereas a broader theatrical piece relies on the audience to engage their imaginations to participate in the fantasy rather than sit back as a passive spectator.

It appears that more performers are beginning to look beyond the physical trappings of magic both for a philosophical approach to the performance of magic that avoids the inherent pitfalls in performing "magic tricks" and takes advantage of how people experience fantasy and a more scholarly approach that defines the varied ways people experience magic and how to adjust performance material in minute ways to enhance response. Too much time and energy has been used up creating material without truly understanding the psychological aspects of why a piece is or is not experienced as magic. As the technology of magic has increased, too little focus has been given to the human element and how not only the little details of presentation but also the manner in which the spectator is engaged impacts the overall experience of magic.

Which of course brings us to the question: "what is magic, anyway?" That, I confess I haven't an answer to, but I am on the journey.

I looking forward to corresponding with any and all performers interested in exploring this branch of study within the field of conjuring.

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Postby Guest » 11/21/01 08:58 PM

David Blaine seems to bewitch his audience. Afterall, he floats, reads minds, predicts the future, defies mortal harm.

If we're looking for the supernatural, Mr. Blaine has beat us to it.

I think I'll throw up now

Postby Richard Kaufman » 11/22/01 10:02 PM

Chris, can you expand upon the P.S. in your posting? Does David Blaine want to make you throw up, or do the other posts in this thread make you want to throw up?
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Postby Brad A._dup1 » 11/23/01 01:39 AM

I, too, just saw the film. I had known nothing of the series before, and have only been involved because of the recent hype.

I was impressed with the story. It was a fun tale. The filming was good, and excellent direction.

I've just finished looking through this post and I've questioned some of the magic we have today too. As Richard said above that magic can be performed as "real" magic.

Do performers today try to perform magic as "real." I seem to have forgotten what the feeling of this true kind of magic is. I'm mystified every day by things: "Why does the Earth rotate at 23.5 degrees?" or "How do animals change" or "How do flowers grow." I know there are answers, but sometimes I don't want to know.

I think that the idea being presented in the Potter film(s) is a good one. A semi-secret society of wizards and witches, who all are able to do things that defy one's view of the world.

Magic is like this... a little. When I step into the Magic Castle, I feel as if I am entering a semi-private magi only place.

But what about "real" magic again? Yes, a performer can create this feeling.

I haven't seen many performers, though, who perform in this style. (Now, my range of performers may be limited to some of yours) I think most audience members may think that the magician simply is gifted in ways to fool them.

This approach sometimes work...depending on the performer and his attitude. In most cases, I've seen magicians perform this way. They sometimes avoid the idea of "real" magic...or even dismiss it.

The Harry Potter film did make me rethink the way I perform. During the film, I became enlightened! Right now <speaking only two hours after seeing the film!> I think it might be a good thing for magic to become even MORE mysterious, and even MORE magical.

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Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/23/01 03:53 AM

Since I was awake late this Thanksgiving night waiting for the Maalox to kick in, I took the opportunity to read all of the posts in this thread. It's fascinating how this thread developed from a simple question on the effect the Harry Potter film will have on our "magic" to one on the performance of magic.

Within a few moments of completing the thread, I had two distinct reactions. The first was a desire to scream, "It's just a movie!!!" The other was to kneel at my Eugene Burger shrine and meditate.

The bottom line here is that what creates the difference between "tricks" and "magic" in the layman's mind is the character and presentational style of the performer.

As Richard said, it can be done (yes Lisa, even with card tricks - I've seen it many times). If you want people to believe (even for only a few moments) that you can perform "magic," then your persona and style had better exude that belief or no one is going to buy it.

Like it or not, David Blaine is an excellent example: there are members of his audience who believe.

Come on Maalox.

Andrew J. Pinard said, "Too much time and energy has been used up creating material without truly understanding the psychological aspects of why a piece is or is not experienced as magic." I would expand on that and say that too few magicians understand character development (and acting in general) and its important relationship to material and presentational selections.

Most pick material because they liked the effect when they saw someone else perform it on their latest videotape. So, they perform it the way they saw it performed, along with the other effects they've learned from other videos and now we have one guy with six or seven different styles - which equates to one guy with no style at all doing "tricks."

Of course, this holds true even if the performer does not necessarily need his audience to believe in "magic" and wants them to understand that he is a sleight of hand artist. (However, our friend above doesn't comprehend the difference, mixes up the two, and magic as an art form is, once again, screwed.)

Jon Racherbaumer touched on this fact in his post when he said that magicians are the "primary 'character' in charge, if any." (My emphasis.) However, he was apparently pointing out what he may perceive as a deficit that a magician has vs. the Harry Potter books and film: "there are many characters for spectators to identify with..."

I would submit that a good performer, with a solid understanding of his character, material and the presentation he attaches to that material, can touch multiple emotions, thus allowing him to identify with different members of his audience. Those that David Copperfield doesn't "get" with his romantic side, he gets with his goofy side. Though multi-faceted, Copperfield is clearly a singular character. There is never confusion between the many sides of his persona. Of course, when you are able to overlap those emotional "hits," mores the better.

Robert-Houdin was correct: a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician. But sometimes he's an actor playing the part of a card cheat (Martin A. Nash) or a tipsy gentleman, interrupted and slightly annoyed by the strange things happening to him (Cardini). The key is for us to find out what we are and be that.


PS To Richard (if you made it this far): All that being said, I seem to recall you mentioning quite some time ago that you were planning a series on magic and "method acting" (based on your experiences at the Stella Adler Studio). Am I correct? If so, what is the status of that?
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Postby Guest » 11/23/01 07:22 AM

Just jumping on the "hate David Blaine" band wagon. Frankly, can't even say I hate him as he's done much for us close-up guys! But if one more person asks me if I could float!!

Watched "Lawrence of Arabia" yesterday. There's a scene where Peter O' Toole (Lawrence) holds a burning match between his fingers until it extinguishes. Now, while this little display was mesmerizing, what really caught my attention was watching a great actor turn a
mere stunt in to something profound.

The way he held the match, the way he struck it, how he posed while it burned.


[ November 23, 2001: Message edited by: ChrisDavid ]

Postby Guest » 11/26/01 02:20 AM

Let me examine the ongoing questions here from a slightly different angle. What effect is Harry Potter having on conjuring? Well, let's first look at what effect it can reasonably be expected to have.

The Potter stories have created a greater awareness of magic, and an interest in magic. That does not, however, necessarily translate into a great interest in conjuring. Potter fans may want to see magic, but they want to see magic that looks magical, while most of our tricks tend to look comical.

As has already been pointed out, Potter magic is not about entertainment. It's about people -- and specifically one boy who has gone 11 years with zero control over his life -- taking control of the world around them. Potent potent stuff. And not the sort of thing we can easily plug into with anything that starts out "pick a card." (Note: the key word there is "easily")

Also, if the Potter stories create in kids an appetite for the experience of magic, then the last thing I would expect those kids to do is start hanging out in a magic store. Learning to do magic and experiencing magic are very different things. In many ways, they are opposite. We do not get to experience much magic, if any, when practicing a vanish. Instead, we deal time after time after time with the non-magical reality of what-the-coin-really-does as our sleight so-very-slowly progresses from gawdawful to acceptable to convincing. Reality doesn't get much starker than the continually-busted illusion.

If Harry Potter is having an effect, it will be in creating a more willing audience for apparent miracles. But I think that audience, although as willing and eager to laugh as any group of kids, will not consider your basic hippity-hop rabbits routine the Hogwarts-like magic they thirst for. To slake that thirst, we'll need to touch something deeper in the psyche, and give the audience not just some moments of surprise and giggles, but moments of awe and their own apparent miraculous control over their environment.

Otherwise, we continue on, business as usual, little real change to note.

My tuppence.


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