Becoming the queer lady magician of everyone's dreams
December 17, 2017 3:32 AM   Subscribe

I want to get back into my childhood passion of stage magic - and make it more aligned with the kind of political & highly personal art I already do. Where do I begin?

Magic was my first and biggest passion; for years as a child I would get magic tricks as birthday gifts, visit magic shops in every city I was in, read so many magic books, and teach myself magic. My first big stage show that I can remember was David Copperfield. I was obsessed.

When I was 14 I did a magic show for a school thing...and bombed so hard that I stopped pursuing magic altogether. Looking back at it now I see that my main problem was that I didn't really pick a good selection of tricks and didn't really rehearse, but when you're self-taught and growing up in a culture of "failing once means failing forever", there wasn't really anything supporting me to try again.

I've been thinking of getting back into magic, especially since I got really into performance art in 2009. For a couple of years I got to know this lovely lady in the Bay Area (a friend of my now ex) who was a professional magician, and she tried to teach me a couple of things, though that didn't get very far due to personal stuff related to the ex.

Lately I've been thinking about really making a serious project of it. There's been a fair bit of discussion in my social circles (mostly queer/women/of colour, many very artsy and/or political) about how there aren't really any well-known female magicians, magicians of colour, or queer magicians; whenever I tell them that I was a massive aficionado as a kid and have considered getting back into it, they've responded with a resounding OMG YES PLEASE DO ITTTTTT. So maybe I shall!

I don't really know where to start though. There are all the conventional pathways - close-up card magic, big stage illusions, maybe even mentalism - but they all seem a bit tired to me, especially since they're 99.99% done by straight white guys. Almost all my performance art and other art has been political or social-justicey in some fashion and I really want to bring that into magic. However, I need to build my skills first, and asides from teaching myself I don't really know where to go that (a) teaches adults and (b) isn't so dudebro.

Do I start by picking a form of magic and then working out narratives around that? Do I start with narratives and then pick magic skills that fit? Do I go with magic forms that are popular or risk learning a less popular skills if I can make the narrative work? (For instance, I'm really drawn to mentalism/mind-reading, especially since I have a LOT of gripes about people who claim to be able to 'read' you from looking at you but are really just working off stereotypes.) Are there other minority magicians I could look to for advice and support? Where does one begin with this?
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm afraid I can't give any practical tips here, but you absolutely have to check out the work of Vincent Gambini (the magician persona of performance artist Augusto Corrieri) who makes the kind of postmodern, narrative-led stage magic that I think you might be getting at.
posted by churlishmeg at 4:03 AM on December 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Have a look at the work of Marcus Morgan

PS I love that you asked this question/are doing this.
posted by Chairboy at 4:30 AM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Can you find a political angle? Magic is the art of deceiving people for entertainment. But the techniques — misdirection, exploitation of cognitive limitations and assumptions, outright lying, stooges — are the same ones that are used every day by businesses to deceive their customers and politicians to deceive their electorate. There must be ways to link these — to fool the audience and then show them how they are being fooled for real in similar ways every day.

With regard to mentalism, I'm sure you are familiar with the work of Derren Brown (who I think might count as a queer magician). Brown observed that when watching mentalist tricks, most audiences (at least in the UK, it may be different elsewhere) no longer believe in telepathy, and so it doesn't work any more as misdirection. This led him to develop a presentation of these tricks in which he implies (without ever quite lying explicitly about it) that he is achieving the effects by using psychological suggestion and body language reading. This makes them much more believable than the same tricks presented as "mind-reading", and the misdirection works well, because if you swallow the patter then you are looking out for the point where Brown makes the psychological suggestion, which of course won't help you.
posted by cyanistes at 6:02 AM on December 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

On the technical thread first get Tony Corinda'sv "13 Steps to Mentalism", it's an older book but for mentalism it's really all you'll need, the chapter on cold reading will be illuminating and describes exactly the method of all the "real" mind readers. PM me for an electronic copy. Do find some close up effects that work for you, a few coin passes can be just a lot of fun for every one, palming a coin is not hard mostly some practice and finding the size that works for you.

Ahem, cough cough, youtube, more stuff than you'd expect. There is a cottage industry of dvd lessons, don't know much about those but an effect that looks like fun could be worth it. There are also "pro" magicians that do demos and teach for local magicians groups, some crusty old guys sure but welcoming to anyone serious about the craft, really like other groups once you've "joined the tribe" they do have the best "insider" knowledge. Real magic ya'know ;-)

As for theme, work things out as you go, try to tie the message organically, I've seen some "acts" that do a couple tricks to grab attention and then launch into a tirade about religion or what ever, don't do that. That's one reason to do some technical close up, a lot can be just "hey look at this", do the trick, "wow how did that happen" and just be fun. Mostly have FUN with it.
posted by sammyo at 7:15 AM on December 17, 2017

Next time you are in NYC try to check out Belinda Sinclair’s conjuring room. She’s done a great job weaving a non-tradition magic show that is truly unique and memorable, with lots of historical narrative.
posted by wowenthusiast at 7:32 AM on December 17, 2017

Best answer: Yes, hi, hello!! I am a queer lady magician and I very enthused about this!!

"However, I need to build my skills first, and asides from teaching myself I don't really know where to go that (a) teaches adults and (b) isn't so dudebro."

To address point (a), I highly recommend the At The Table series, which are $8 each for lectures that are PACKED with routines/ideas/theory. I particularly enjoyed this one, which I've probably gone back to a dozen times, and found a new idea from each time. To acknowledge point (b) -- they're pretty much all dudes. There's one lecture there by Ekaterina, which I can't speak to because cardistry isn't really my thing, so I haven't checked that one out. However, the thing that grosses me out about a lot of the magic on the internet is the LEARN THIS ONE COOL MAGIC TRICK TO MEET GIRLS! nonsense on YouTube, which is definitely not the vibe you'll get from At The Table. They're all professionals, largely speaking to professionals, and it shows.

It you haven't heard about MagicStream, it's worth checking out. It's pretty much Netflix for magic tutorials. There's a good amount of material there, but the quality isn't quite up to the At The Table stuff, and for me it ended up feeling sort of like drinking out of a fire hydrant -- there was just SO much material there that I didn't know what to drill down on.

Lastly, to address the "why are there so few women in magic?" thing -- there are a lot of garbage theories floating around the internet about how it's because our hands are too small (literally, what? this doesn't even make logical sense) or that women just aren't as interested. The fact of the matter is, it's a boys club. That's the obvious part.

The part that I didn't understand until I started getting really into magic is that because it's a boys club, any female magicians are seen as novel. Women in magic are infinitely more bookable for shows than men, because show organizers/producers are desperate to avoid the image that they are part of the "boy's club." So, if you're a dude getting into magic, you probably need 3-5 years of solid practice before anyone is going to offer you any kind of show. But if you're a woman, you'll get offers QUICK. (Like, I showed someone one trick while kind-of-drunk, and they tried to book me for a cruise ship.) So then, you have these women who are just getting into magic getting offered these shows, so they take them, because, heck yeah I want to get paid! And, like anyone does at anything they've been doing for less than a year, they kind of suck. And then the boys club says, "See! Women just aren't very good at magic." And, similarly to you at 14, they get discouraged and they quit.

All of this is to say -- don't let people book you for shows before you feel ready. It is a very shady Boys Club thing that seems like it is encouraging and supporting you, while actually pushing you out the door as quickly as possible.
posted by frizzle at 8:17 AM on December 17, 2017 [25 favorites]

Best answer: Art begins with a story. Write your story first, adapt it into an act second. A good story with a simple trick beats a big stage production badly told.Find some video of standup comedians with your point of view and watch how they make ideas appear, disappear, and change. Then connect the words with objects that appear and disappear.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:38 AM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest you get acquainted with Christian Cagigal, a Bay Area magician who has really worked hard (and succeeded, imo) to integrate magic effects with narrative structure.
posted by jasper411 at 11:46 AM on December 17, 2017

Response by poster: Just a note re location: I live in Melbourne, Australia, which only has kids classes save for this one beginners cards place. Online stuff would be good though!
posted by divabat at 2:10 PM on December 17, 2017

Response by poster: Oh and booking shows: I suspect that any shows I'll ever book would be in the same sort of places my peers and I perform already (queer cabarets that have a mix of drag, burlesque, some spoken word/comedy/music) but yes I do want to make sure I get something solid down first even if it's small!
posted by divabat at 2:12 PM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't have a lot of answers but I'm bookmarking this thread. Wishing best of luck in your magic endeavors. If you ever want a virtual posse of women interested in magic I bet this could be a jumping off point for such a group. I'd certainly be down!

ps .. for whatever this thought may be worth - I once met a guy near San Francisco who orchestrated these elaborate high end magic dinner parties in private homes .. The way he described it was "think the great hall in harry potter" - yikes those were fancy tricks.. But , it got me thinking that even with less fancy-ness, the private party niche was an interesting and fun sounding one.
posted by elgee at 9:03 PM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel like a lot of magic (particularly hobbyists) focus on the method and tricks, and not as much on performance.

I've known incredible magician inventors that have wizardlike manipulation skills that you would't understand after they explain their method - and their boring as hell to watch because they aren't good performers. I've also known magicians that aren't that good with their techniques, doing magic tricks that I fully understand, that are extremely entertaining - even though I know how it works.

So when you are at a point where you think you have skills that are adequate, remember to use the metric - "am I entertaining the audience" rather than "am I fooling the audience."

You may be interested in checking out some of Penn & Teller's tricks to see how you can create an entertaining narrative that serves your political ends while still performing an entertaining magic trick (even though you may not agree with their politics, they do a good job of engaging with their politics while performing magic: Here is an example). Obviously your magic isn't going to change someones ideology, but if you are preaching to the choir you can have some fun. A thing to keep in mind; why 'conservative comedians' aren't (generally) funny - they are trying to preach conservative politics using comedy, while 'liberal comedians' are (generally) trying to make people laugh and their ideology is part of who they are.

Part of the performing is dealing with problematic audience members (kind of hecklers, but worse) that may try to expose what you are doing or have enough skepticism to ruin any fun. Identifying these folks and not choosing them to do tricks for is a useful skill as well.

But the techniques — misdirection, exploitation of cognitive limitations and assumptions, outright lying, stooges — are the same ones that are used every day by businesses to deceive their customers and politicians to deceive their electorate. There must be ways to link these — to fool the audience and then show them how they are being fooled for real in similar ways every day.

I think that's a great starting point! I'd certainly use that.

Something else to consider; you might not need a full 'act' to start performing. Get a small 5 minute routine down, master it, then perform that. Repeat this a few times and you'll have an entire act eventually (try to ensure you can string them together in a meaningful way so that they'll connect).

But above all, you want to be a performer, a performer that is using magic to entertain - so many would-be magicians never realize this and aren't entertaining. (Harry Anderson & Steve Martin are great examples of folks that fully understood this).
posted by el io at 10:04 PM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just to add, not exactly magic, but the astrology work of Chani Nicholas weaves in social justice in ways that I love, maybe as an example that you could check out for ideas. She's great.

Edited to add: this is super rad and I love it so much.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:27 PM on December 17, 2017

Best answer: Well, if I saw an advert listing about a queer lady magician with a progressive slant performing at a cabaret, I would pay money to see you just based on the description. You have an audience waiting for you, and I wouldn't even care if you were a terrible magician, if you made an effort to be charming.

"Framing" is vital in any art, it requires intuition, experimentation, and a willingness to try, fail, learn, and re-work. Your work in performance art lends to understanding the concepts of atmosphere and context.

(My favourite stage mentalist/magician is The Amazing Kreskin. Other magicians hate him, even Penn Gillette called him out as a hack (which is hilarious!) Kreskin is amazing because he figured out an interesting framing presentation as the persona of a kinda hip pseudo-psychologist. Not that you should do exactly this kinda thing, but just to think about framing in general.)

Follow your intuition. My one advice is that if you are feeling stuck, collaborate. Get your stand-up comic friends to contribute some shtick. If you feel that you need some stage charisma, then get a partner. It worked for Sigmund and Roy.
posted by ovvl at 4:39 PM on December 18, 2017

Response by poster: Kind of a half-update, but this quest led me on a journey to find other diverse magicians (so anything beyond Cis/Het/White/Adult/Able-Bodied/Dude) and I found 111 different magicians (and performers who wouldn't necessarily define themselves solely as magicians but incorporate it into their work, such as burlesque performers). Here's a Twitter thread and YouTube playlist if you're keen.

(There's more to find, and I also for the time being omitted anyone who didn't have a YouTube video up somewhere just for consistency between the two lists, which meant losing a handful of people.)
posted by divabat at 1:48 AM on January 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: so Queer Lady Magician is an actual thing now!
posted by divabat at 6:27 PM on June 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Late to the party here, but here's a few other folks for your diverse magic list.

I mentioned Kayla Drescher on your projects page, but I just realized that she wasn't on your youtube list.

Julie Eng is a second generation magician. She is in Toronto and part of Magicana and David Ben's stuff.

Janette Andrews is here in Chicago. She does some visual and intellectual type stuff that is not like the HEY HEY HEY! sort of magic that one may often see.

Jan Rose is also from Chicago. She's 1/2 of a mentalism duo (with her husband Danny Orleans) and also a fun magician when she is performing solo.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 12:28 PM on July 30, 2018

Response by poster: Update: WE DID IT!!!

We have a pretty good run at Melbourne Fringe and will return (with some improvements thanks to a mentor) early 2019. I've also performed chunks of the show at different events and festivals around town.

Here's an excerpt! (This is from a house-part--style performance event at Newcastle)
posted by divabat at 5:08 PM on October 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

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