There is an old adage: “You can teach a dog tricks but you cannot teach it magic.” It begs the question: ‘magic’ versus ‘tricks’ – is there a difference?

No two magicians will feel the same way about this topic and I don’t consider myself an expert, but it’s important to develop one’s own thoughts on this subject. Paying attention to audience reactions, and doing a post-mortem of our shows, can reveal a great deal about whether our performance was magic or magical and there is a difference. It is equivalent to something being ‘real‘ or ‘unreal‘.

Witnessing a car accident on our way home from work is different from a car accident in a movie scene. The one is real and the other is unreal. As such, our emotional feeling will be different. Audiences can also be polite: that often makes it difficult to ascertain if they were truly convinced and absorbed in our performance. I once read how a certain magician would rush off to the bathroom after his show, lock himself in the toilet to eavesdrop on what people had to say about his show. This would provide a more objective and honest opinion about the performance!

Magic is a theatrical art and it’s a combination of science, psychology, drama, misdirection, specific principles and digital dexterity. By misdirecting the senses, the magician gives the mental impression of a supernatural agency at work – creating the illusion of impossibility in an entertaining way.

On the other hand, a trick is merely a piece of digital dexterity minus a proper set-up and entertainment value.

A trick sets up an intellectual challenge of an audience by conveying how good and clever we are.

Magic, on the other hand, takes the same trick and weaves it around mystery, storytelling, allegory, and metaphors to create an enchanting piece of theatre. Thus the audience will be suspended in disbelief and ‘forget’ about the intellectual challenge.

André Hermanus focuses on 'magic' rather than 'tricks' to entertain his audiences.

André Hermanus focuses on ‘magic’ rather than ‘tricks’ to entertain his audiences.

When we watch a brilliant movie we become involved in the storyline and we don’t sit wondering about technical details such as how the movie was made, where the director was sitting, how the lighting technician was able to control the light etc. A second rate movie, on the other hand, interferes with our suspension of disbelief: poor acting, conflicting genres, inconsistencies, lack of continuity, muddled plots, etc. only serve to annoy as oppose to entertain an audience. It interferes with our suspension of disbelief.

If a musician misses a beat or a chord he carries on and the audience can still enjoy the music, whereas if you flash a palmed coin, the illusion is destroyed and the trick pretty much comes to an abrupt end.

In a magic performance the lack of timing, rhythm, plot, theme, scripting, or unrehearsed or confusing magic, can all distract and render a magic performance to ‘clever tricks’. By properly engaging an audience we can diffuse the intellectual challenge and create magic.

To reframe the word “magic” let’s call it “astonishment”.

Astonishment is built into our psyche very much like fear. When someone scares us we are moved on an emotional level and something within our psyche is enabled. Similarly, when we are astonished we are moved on an emotional level and something within our psyche is enabled – even though deep down inside we know that what we are witnessing cannot be possible. Suspension of disbelief!

Tricks, however, are ‘puzzles’ as they do not suspend our disbelief. When we watch a scary movie we know that the actors are merely acting out a role and if they do this correctly we become emotionally hooked.

To conclude; magic engages an audience so that they can suspend their disbelief and forget [or no longer care – Ed] about the effect is done.

A trick is simply a ‘tool’ to unleash our ‘cleverness’…