ON: WORD 1 – What’s Your Story? by Jon Racherbaumer

WHAT’S YOUR STORY?

 

________

 

Jon Racherbaumer

 

“Every story I create creates me. I write to create myself.”

-Octavia E. Butler

 

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is – full of surprises.”

-Isaac Bashevis Singer

 

“Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood.”

-A. S. Byatt

 

“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”

-J. K. Rowling

 

Stories.

Story-Telling.

Narratives.

Narrativity.

 

The first time it happened I was 11. And when it happened I was psychically transported to another place (via magic).

The staging area was in a high-school auditorium in Elmhurst, Illinois and the “transporter” onstage at first was not impressive. He shuffled onstage looking like a Zen priest wearing a tuxedo. What he said and how he spoke, however, made me piggyback every moment as it passed. For the most part he told stories—lots of them—using interesting props. At one point I remember he uttered a homespun declaration: “In the beginning,” he said, “the Lord created the world!” This was nothing new. I heard this kind of remark many times in church, but when this slightly stooped man said it, a red ball suddenly appeared out of thin air! Whoa! This guy was simultaneous telling and showing. Then he related an entirely different “take” on the story of Adam and Eve, using colored balls, which, as he spoke, magically appeared, disappeared, and multiplied. He pretended that a ball could be an apple, which he apparently ate. He said that Adam and Eve had a daughter named Clementine. He talked about attics and cellars. He played hide-and-seek with the balls and, finally and quite absurdly, he had Adam put out a cat for the night. I was transported; I was rapt to his rap. I was willing to believe every weird word he said. Most of all, I was astonished by the antics of the red balls. In short, I was surprised and amazed by the “story” he told.

So it began.

Flash forward to 1969. After a 14-year hiatus from the world of magic I joined the local S.A.M. and I.B.M. clubs and resumed reading the latest magic books and magazines. At the time the subculture did not appear much different from when I was a junior member of the Mazda Mystic Ring, circa 1953-55. Granted: there were many new and different props and tricks, but the basic way magic was presented seemed unchanged. But when Doug Henning burst on the scene it felt convulsive to me. Packet tricks would soon begin to catch on and a landmark book appeared in 1969 that spun me around. Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers was a flashpoint. Although it appeared to be aimed at students of drama, I assumed that trick-driven magicians would gloss over it. After all, the last book along these lines was Dariel Fitzkee’s Showmanship For Magicians, a book few of my cohorts studied or talked about. Nevertheless, I dug into Henning Nelm’s somewhat academic treatise. Besides, Dai Vernon recommended it, saying that it should be  “required reading” for all magicians. Nelms, a teacher and a stage director, was also an accomplished magic enthusiast. Therefore, his book combined what he knew about conjuring with his extensive knowledge of theater. Page after page he forcefully explained stagecraft, acting, costuming, posture, body language and storytelling as they related to the performance of magic. He also emphasized that a magician’s underlying goal is to make audiences suspend their disbeliefs long enough to believe that they are experiencing magic, not trickery. As I studied the book, I was impressed with how Nelms dissected stories, entertainment, and the suspension of disbelief. (In many ways, his book was a forerunner of approaches now taught in the Mystery School and by theorists such as Robert Neale, Eugene Burger, Barrie Richardson, Tommy Wonder, David Parr, Juan Tamariz, Arturo Ascanio, Rene Levand, Larry Haas, Terry LaGerold, Ariel Frailich and Jeff McBride. Meanwhile I have read and reviewed dozens of books exhorting us to realize and exploit the power and glory of “stories” and how they can inspire, influence, and persuade the collaborators we quaintly call “spectators.”

The most recent book to entrance me along these lines is Annette Simmons’ 254-paged The Story Factor. When I opened this book, the first thing I eyed was a quote by Isaak Dinesen:

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”

I immediately asked, “Are magicians persons with tricks to show or are they persons with stories to tell? Are their tricks merely supplemental or can they be illustrative? Do the words, gestures, tone used and stories magicians tell, as author Simmons writes, captivate skeptical, resistant, nay-sayers?”

Having asked these questions, I was pleased to discover that The Story Factor could answer them.

The book began by explaining that there are six types of stories that permit one to tell authentically persuasive stories:

  1. “Who I Am” Stories
  2. “Why I Am Here” Stories
  3. “The Vision” Story
  4. “Teaching” Stories
  5. “Values-in Action” Stories
  6. “I Know What You Are Thinking” Stories

The author then drills down and unpacks her theses by relating over 100 stories drawn from the worlds of business and government, including ones derived from myths, fables, and parables from around the world.

Although her book is primarily aimed at the business community, I filtered out things germane to the performance of magic. In the process, her book (like others cited earlier) confirms and supports the abiding notion that stories are carriers of meaning that can redirect and re-frame perspective of whomever experiences them. It also does other things that good books do. While answering questions they specifically pose, they arouse one to pose and perhaps answer the questions he or she might ask as they read. For example, when I read that stories can redirect the perspective of whoever experiences them, I asked myself, “What exactly are we magicians redirecting spectators to?”

When a magician performs a trick, the basic actions being shown are ordinary until the contrary occurs…which usually comes at the end when something unexpected, extraordinary, or fantastic happens. One’s perspective then abruptly changes. What happens at the end defies natural law. It is illogical and absurd. As a result, spectators either surrender to the wonderment of what has happened or becomes reflexively skeptical. Worse, they meet the challenge to rationally figure out what has happened. Meanwhile, magicians do everything in their power to emphasize the supposed pleasures that might be derived from not knowing. They try to deflect the spectator’s impulse to reconstruct and solve the mystery.

Stories and storytelling lie at the core of intelligence and neurologists believe that 70% of what we learn comes to us via stories.

Stories embody meaning.

Stories engender rapport.

Stories linger and trigger.

In this regard, author Simmons points out that stories work under the radar. They circumvent the rational, critical mind so that the “story” itself infiltrates the mind’s netherworld (unconscious). The storyteller’s task is to induce a “trance state whereby the critical conscious mind becomes actively involved in the narrative, permitting its central meaning to sink, unchallenged, into the spectator’s unconscious mind.” Hence, whatever sense they make regarding the trick and the story will be derived from a perspective personally and deeply embedded in their minds.

Thinking about “perspective” also reminded me of how one of my presentations evolved. Back in 1990, Phil Goldstein devised a packet trick that caught the fancy of almost everyone who saw or read about it in the dealer ads. In case you may have forgotten this trick, here is the basic effect: A four-card packet lies face down on the table and the performer asks anyone to imagine that they are the four Queens. That person then decides on any Queen. Next, using only one finger, the magician spreads the tabled cards to reveal that the chosen Queen is the only card face up! When it is turned over—it has a red back. The other three cards are blue-backed. As final proof that the magician positively knew which Queen would be chosen, he shows that the three blue-backed cards are blank! [1]

Although it’s a “one off,” its shocking climax took it to a higher level. For me, it was not story-driven or story-generating. I wanted a contextual presentation that, despite the fact that playing cards are used, would put the focus on something more personal. I did not want it to appear like a card trick. I wanted to change the spectator’s perspective regarding the actions taking place.

My initial goal was to lengthen the duration of the presentation. Also, since only four cards are used, the odds of guessing which card will be chosen is merely 4-to-1. The feat begs to be repeated. This shortcoming led me to incorporating Ed Marlo’s versions of “Technicolor Thought” from Ibidem #19 (September-1959) and Ibidem#25 (May-1962). These two methods supplied two additional phases; hence, the routine could be performed three times. I dubbed this combination “Fried Thrice.” [2]

The next step was to convert the subject of the presentation from a trick where a magician makes accurate predictions to an “experiment in intuition” where a female spectator is the star. She is the one apparently using intuition to prove that she “has the power to predict outcomes.” The focus is on the spectator and her ability, not on the magician’s powers nor are the cards somehow intrinsically magical. Although playing cards are used, they are merely supplemental props used to conduct the experiment. Also, three four-card packets are used—Jacks, Queens, and Kings.

The experiment is then repeated three times, each time the outcomes are progressively stronger and the third time ends with Goldstein’s powerful “B’ Wave.” Again, the female participant is the primary subject; the secondary, related subject is “human intuition.” More importantly, the presentation unfolding in real time is a story that is being simultaneously created—a story that can later be retold by spectators who were present at the time it was created. The audience’s perspective in this case is significantly different from a straightforward enactment of “B’Wave” or any other “Think Ace” routine, and it convincingly demonstrates the power of storymaking.

It would be remissive not to mention three other books tangentially related to storytelling. Pete McCabe’s Scripting Magic, Bruce Jackson’s The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories (2007), and Larry Haas’ Transformations.

McCabe’s book contains many audience-tested scripts which are models to emulate. It teaches by example, written by a practicing magician.

Jackson, who is not a magician, is a distinguished professor and documentary filmmaker. His book, like so many others, explores the ways we use the stories that become a central part of our public and private lives. He examines how these stories bring meaning to our lives by describing and explaining how stories are made and used. The perspectives he shares come from the tellers, writers, filmmakers, listeners, and watchers who create and consume stories. One reviewer wrote: “To use a cliché not often applied to academic prose, The Story Is True is a page-turner. The deeper you pursue Jackson’s mosaic, the more the individual fragments start to cohere…it is written for everyday readers — people who grew up pretending to be the Lone Ranger, people who got sucked into the O.J. Simpson trial, people who face life in a world haunted by 9/11 and the war that followed. It’s a book for anyone who wants to know why we tell ourselves stories in order to live. (A Joan Didion quote.)

I had this to say about Haas’ Transformations:

“Most magicians are regrettably dilettantish hobbyists largely and exclusively interested in fun and games. Because they primarily desire tricks, gimmicks, and apparatus, they lose sight of the bigger picture. Instead of concentrating on converting these tricks into ‘real magic,’ they become addicts of novelty, impressed by methodological cleverness, and are wooed by whatever fools them. Consequently they buy lots and lots of what feeds this desire and, ultimately, there is not much leftover desire (or time) for them to think about theatrical considerations, meaningful presentations, and (to use an old term) pure showmanship. This situation, however, may soon change. Lay audiences, who are our spectators, live in the larger, influential, and dominant matrix of Pop Culture, which dictates and services how entertainment is produced and consumed. When it comes to the consumption of ‘magic,’ consumers of entertainment will eventually demand a different and more relevant magical experience. Seeing somebody perform ‘tricks’ will no longer be sufficient. Lay people will then stop watching and caring. When this happens, amateur magicians will be forced to transform who they are and what they do. They will be forced to realize that the experience of ‘magic’ happens in human consciousness. As producers and perpetrators of this kind of experience, our goal should be to produce experiences that are enjoyable, mysterious, memorable, and theatrical. They should tell a story.”

Notice the word “puzzling” is not mentioned?

There are reasons for this.

Shouldn’t we make a distinction between “mystery” and “puzzlement”?

Mysteries cannot be solved. Puzzles can.

Mysteries are deeper and more majestic than puzzles. Puzzles taunt to our intellect. Even though we may seek to unravel mysteries, part of us wants to surrender to their insoluble nature.

Because mysteries are impossible to understand or solve, we, in turn, may be more willing to marvel at things beyond our ken. We can permit mysteries to energize us. We can enjoy, not the quandary, but the wondrous and enduring experience of Not Knowing.

Mysteries can also be an endless source of stories—stories we can make up, tell, and write about. Sometimes magicians tell true (though somewhat embellished) stories about magicians and the feats they have performed.

Just as there are a ”million stories in the naked city,” there are hundreds of stories in the magic world that have been told and retold. They are part of a rich and beguiling oral tradition that has been sustained by tale-spinners with elephantine memories and fortunate friendships. It was always a treat to listen to Jay Marshall, Karrell Fox, and Billy McComb recount bygone days regarding the colorful magicians they knew and the events they witnessed. Along with surviving correspondence, notebooks, and diaries, stories told by other magicians constitute magic’s occult history—a hidden history sometimes more fascinating and enlightening than the formal histories that are written.

For example, here are two such stories from the past:

Henry Christ told me that on a memorable Saturday afternoon at Gen Grant’s old magic shop on 42nd Street, he met the usual suspects—Gen Grant, Dai Vernon, John Scarne, Francis Carlyle, and Mickey MacDougall. Also in attendance was an elderly gentleman named John Rakinakis. Vernon and Scarne eventually asked Rakinakis to demonstrate a poker deal. Vernon handed him a deck, which he then shuffled and presented for a cut. After the cut was made, he dealt out five poker hands. He turned his hand face up to reveal four Aces!  Everything seen was seemingly in accordance with strict card table procedure.

Rakinakis gathered the cards and MacDougall suddenly snatched the deck from him, performed a shuffle and cut, and then slapped the deck in front of Rakinakis.

“Now!” he said, “let’s see you do something with those cards!”

Unperturbed, Rakinakis picked up the face-down deck and said to MacDougall, “The game is two-handed Casino, four cards for you and four for me!”

He then told MacDougall that his cards were the Two of Clubs, Three of Hearts, Five of Spades, and Seven of Diamonds! MacDougall turned his cards face up and those were the cards in his hand.  At this point MacDougall shouted at Rakinakis, “I’ll give you one hundred dollars for the secret!”

Rakinakis calmly replied, “I won’t take your money.”

MacDougal withered.

Rakinakis, still grinning, added: “You know what I did, but don’t recognize it.”

It was a pin-dropping moment.

Something similar occurred in Chicago in the 1980s. During one of the Saturday sessions of the Chicago Sodality (Ed Marlo, Dave Solomon, Simon Aronson, Bill Malone, and Steve Draun), Marlo borrowed Draun’s deck and performed several effects. For his final effect, he asked Draun to shuffle his deck.

Marlo tabled the deck and then one at a time he quickly cut to the four Aces, with intermittent shuffles and cuts.

Like when MacDougal grabbed the deck from Rakinakis, Draun grabbed the deck from Marlo and began fastidiously scrutinizing it.

He did not detect any “work.” When he got home, he again meticulously examined the cards, looking for marks or “work,” finding nothing. He cased the deck and forgot about it.

Two weeks passed.

During a subsequent Saturday session, Draun removed the same deck from its case and offered to perform a trick. As soon as Marlo saw the cards, he said:

“I see you’re using the same deck you had two weeks ago?”

Draun nodded.

Marlo asked him to shuffle and tabled it. Marlo then quickly and effortlessly cut to the four Aces!

Needless to say, Draun was stunned…and still is!

****

As mentioned earlier, when I reentered the world of magic in the 1960s, the magic culture did not seem much different from the 1950s. Since then, however, there have been discernible changes—“sea changes,” if you will. Consider these names: Doug Henning. David Copperfield. David Blaine. Darren Brown. Penn & Teller.  Consider things such as Xerography. Television. The Internet. Smart Phones. YouTube. Social Media.

So far these things have affected what we now see and say. It affects how we share information and what we produce and consume. Meanwhile, books, believe it or not, are still viable commodities. (In the mainstream marketplace, new books hit the market at the rate of 2000 titles weekly. Supply exceeds demand.) Books (particularly the ones mentioned in this review) deserve our attention. Authors such as Annette Simmons, Bruce Jackson, Larry Haas, Pete McCabe, Robert Neale, Eugene Burger, Barrie Richardson, Tommy Wonder, David Parr, Juan Tamariz, Arturo Ascanio, Rene Levand, Jeff McBride, Terry LaGerold, Ariel Frailich provide stories, along with fascinating ways and means. Books such as The Story Factor should be integrated into your skill-sets as a magician. Embrace the authors and theorists just cited. They are agents of change. It is up to you to find stories you can create and tell—stories that will supply context, relevance, and meaning to what you do. It is up to you to create stories that will transport others to places they have never experienced and will unlikely forget.

As Isaak Dinesen exhorted: “Be a person having stories to tell.”

CODA

I do not have a business card.

I never owned a business nor have I been a working, professional magician.

Nevertheless, people kept asking me for a calling card. You may ask, “Why not call yourself a writer?”

I resist this label. In the past when I tell people that “play with words,” they ask, “Are you a novelist or journalist?

If I mention the word, “magician,” people tend to ask, “Where do you perform?” or “ Do you do birthday parties?”

At one point I decided to put an arcane word under my name that would likely induce people to ask, “What does that word mean?”

This allowed me to provide any definition I wanted.

The word I heedlessly chose to put under my name was FABULIST.

This proved to be problematic.

Many people assumed that I misspelled FABULOUS, which suggested that I was a shameless egotist, ignoramus, and a pompous ass.

Clarifying matters didn’t help.

“The word fabulist,” I would sheepishly explain, “refers to storytelling and fantastic tales, wonderful fables, and magical people and places.”

“Oh,” they would say.

“Sort of like Fabio?”

[1]Max Maven’s “B’Wave,” devised and developed in 1990, was privately marketed in 1991-92. It caused a stir within the cognoscenti and quickly spread throughout the magic community. I performed my combinatorial routine in 1976, using Nick Trost’s “The Deuce You Say” as its climactic Third Phase.

[2]I explained and demonstrated Marlo’s three-phase Think Ace routine in 1975 when I lectured for the Hard-Core Group in Chicago, Illinois. Later, I substituted Goldstein’s “B’Wave” as its third-phase and used it extensively during a European lecture tour. I later published the routine in Psiclones (1993) under the title, “Pumping B’Wave.”

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