If you want to see something truly scary, watch a new magician who’s decided he needs to create a character. Suddenly you have a fourteen year old with a world weary expression talking about his recent excursion to the sacred temple of Kali, or a middle age guy who’s losing his hair and sporting a beer gut wearing lots of gold chains and throwing gang signs. Those might sound like gross exaggerations, but trust me, they’re not. In the hands of a magician a little character can be a frightening thing.
Why does this kind of thing happen, and happen with enough consistency that it’s become something of a cliché in the magic world? Why does the magician who’s discovered he needs to create a performing persona go to such ridiculous extremes?
Misinformation is probably the primary culprit. As has been observed in previous posts, the magic world is so focused on the mechanics of deception that learning valuable performance strategies is a catch as catch can sort of proposition. More, the very word character conjures up thoughts of foreign accents and eccentric affectations (ascot and monocle anyone?) and assuming a whole radical new identity. As we all fantasize about being something we’re not, the idea of a new identity can be very attractive indeed.
As with most things in magic, less is more. When setting out to define a performing persona, we must first take an honest look at just who we are. If you’re sort of pudgy and funny looking should you really be trying to play the debonair and charming gadabout? If you normally say things like “cool” and “freakin’ ballin’” can you hope to successfully portray a stuffy intellectual?
When actors play roles for which they’re not suited, it’s called playing against type. You don’t see Joe Pesci playing the handsome leading man roles Brad Pitt plays because it wouldn’t work. It’s not that Joe Pesci isn’t a good actor, only that he doesn’t have the attributes necessary to give such roles credence. If he were to try and play such a role anyway the result would be ludicrous. The entire fantasy of the movie would collapse.
When a magician plays against type, the result is the same. The fantasy of magic being done, of the impossible happening, cannot be sustained because the magician himself simply isn’t realistic.
To create a successful performing persona, build from what you have. Ricky Jay is intelligent and articulate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of bizarre performers, and the character he portrays is very much a reflection of those attributes. Criss Angel, on the other hand, is in great shape, good looking, and possesses a sort of street mentality that flavors his presentations. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if Ricky Jay tried to do magic like Criss Angel or Criss Angel tried to do magic like Ricky Jay. There are magicians out there right now who are portraying themselves in just such ridiculous ways.
Your performing persona needs to be an ideal version of you. A you who’s charming, funny, pleasant to be around. There will be things about you that are uniquely your own, and those are the things you need to concentrate upon highlighting in a favorable way. Don’t be a clone of someone else. Be the very best you that you can be. See you next time.