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What performing magic over Zoom taught me about the beauty of illusion

When magicians are forced to perform virtually, the nature of their relationship with the audience changes radically—and it’s a wonder it works at all.

What performing magic over Zoom taught me about the beauty of illusion
[Video: courtesy of Noah Levine]
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I’m sitting in front of a computer while holding nine playing cards and looking at a gallery of frozen faces. Moments ago, I was performing an interactive card trick for a hundred people  as part of my virtual magic show. But my internet cut out and now I’m waiting for Zoom to reconnect. I assume everyone watching is holding nine playing cards and waiting for further instructions. It’s a real-life version of a recurring nightmare in which I step offstage to retrieve a missing prop and can’t find my way back.

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This isn’t the worst thing to happen during the almost 250 virtual magic shows I’ve conducted since the pandemic shut down live performances. During a corporate show last April, because of an IT slip up, a participant was made the meeting’s host. Not a huge issue, except the person in question had left his eight-year-old son Max to watch the show alone. As my performance continued, Max muted and unmuted me, then paused my video to share his progress in a computer game. He would switch on my video and let me continue for thirty seconds only to switch it off again. Eventually, one of the organizers called Max’s parents to ask them to rejoin the meeting and resolve the issue.

A MacBook becomes a magic stage. [Photo: courtesy of Noah Levine]
People are drawn to magicians right now because we present a fantasy about controlling the unexpected. This might be why many magicians are privileged to be busier now than at any other point in their careers. Yet, when the internet or sound cuts out, when my video freezes, or people forget to mute themselves, the delicate illusion of shared space crumbles and we remember the chasm of our social distance.

Interruptions and snafus aren’t unique to the digital world. I’ve had live performances come to a halt because of drunk CEOs, people in the front row on their phones, people in the back row on each other’s laps, hundreds of dogs on one dance floor, spilled champagne, late night demolition, barefoot libertarians, and on and on. What is new, however, is how challenging it is to regain momentum. When I’ve been interrupted in a live setting, I could simply perform a new magic trick and get back on track. On the occasions where I made a mistake or some other glitch occurred, I could crack a joke or use sleight-of-hand to patch up the problem before anyone noticed. In the virtual space, the existence of a magic trick—a really good one at least—is too precarious and brittle for such improvisations.

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Ninety-nine percent of the magic I’ve learned over the last twenty-five years doesn’t work in front of a computer. Most magic requires the audience to be present—otherwise it’s just fiction. I learned early that it doesn’t matter whether people correctly guess the method to a trick; if they come up with what seems to be a plausible explanation, the impact is gone. In a virtual show, everything can be attributed to a camera trick, Google, or whatever mysterious forces lay out of frame. It’s not impossible to make people feel a sense of magic through Zoom, but it requires a great deal of planning and thought and creativity.

The biggest question has been “How do you make something happen on their side of the screen?” In a live setting, the best magic happens to people, whether it’s an object appearing in their hand or a thought being plucked from their mind. Simulating this virtually has been nearly impossible—you can’t perform sleight-of-hand when your hands aren’t in the room. Like other magicians, I’ve turned to some extraordinarily strange measures to create moments of magic.

A (virtual) audience being (genuinely) amazed. [Photo: courtesy of Noah Levine]

Old tricks, new uses

There is a whole category of tricks that rely on cleverly cloaked mathematical principles. If you are over 30, you might once have learned a magic trick with 21 cards. If you are under 18, you might know one that involves adding up to 13. Both are good examples of what are called “self-working” card tricks, though most of these tricks aren’t well-known. Emerging from the centuries old realm of “recreational mathematics,” these items are about as dry as a magic trick can get. They are normally only interesting to fellow card magicians—only a magician understands, for example, that thinking of a number from 5-18 and then looking to see what card lays at that position in the deck is much fairer than simply picking a card from a fan, or that dealing a pack of cards into alternating piles is a good way to shuffle it. These magic tricks are the playing card equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat after proving the hat to be empty through echolocation.

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Ironically, the work of pioneers of this kind of magic—people like Bob Hummer, Stewart James, and Martin Gardner—who were once relegated to the highest summit of geekdom, can now be relied on for some of the most culturally relevant magic possible.

Hummer’s “Parity Principle” has been particularly fruitful, making its way into a large percentage of virtual magic shows. The concept allows for effects where audience members magically locate four aces, a royal flush, or a selected card in their own shuffled deck. The principle works reliably even though most magicians (myself included) cannot articulate why.

You would be surprised at how often the request ‘please choose a number from one to five’ results in the answer ‘six.’

Over the last twenty years, the magician and author Jim Steinmeyer has published several manuscripts containing “impuzzibilities” – puzzle-like magic tricks accomplished with math and verbal trickery rather than trap doors and mirrors. He is better known in the magic community for designing large, visually stunning stage tricks for performers such as David Copperfield and for such Broadway shows as Aladdin. Until last March, these booklets were something of a wacky side project compared with Steinmeyer’s stage-filling creations. Now they are largely sold out. Aside from their ability to be performed remotely, these kinds of effects are exciting because they scale—everyone watching the show gets to have a first-person experience. All of this is incredibly relevant to the needs of a virtual magician.

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None of this is new. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Joseph Dunninger built his reputation performing apparent feats of mentalism and hypnosis on the radio. In the 1980’s and 90’s David Copperfield presented psychological mind tricks on television. Max Maven’s interactive “mind games” were a distinctly cerebral standout on NBC’s World’s Greatest Magic specials in the 1990’s. Spain’s Juan Tamariz wrote an entire book of the “verbal magic” he created for a year’s worth of radio performances. However, these bits of telecommunicated magic have normally been used to supplement and advertise more traditional shows rather than replace them. Having these items as the main event has been much trickier.

Until a month ago, my show featured a very unusual magic trick meant to convince participants that an object had traveled from their right side to their left. The problem was that about 50% of people were so not amazed by this that they didn’t even understand the intended effect. The other 50% were so amazed that they have been bothering me about it ever since.

There is a card trick in my current show—the one where everyone is asked to supply nine cards—that has invited anomalies I had never considered. Playing cards can stick together. People unknowingly use a pinochle deck or Pokémon cards. You would be surprised at how often the request “please choose a number from one to five” results in the answer “six.” I’ve also learned to be cautious about asking people to tilt their camera down to show their desk, because they might well be in their underwear.

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On the other hand, I’ve managed to dust off a lovely principle from the brilliant amateur magician Paul Curry and it is now the kernel of my closing effect. In essence, his idea allows a magician to accurately predict the order of a shuffled pack of cards. I’m not ashamed to admit that Curry’s idea, which he first described in the 1970s, is so clever that I often forget I’m tricking people. As with much of this kind of magic, the magician and audience are on the same plane of knowledge–the magic seems to just happen.

All of this experimentation has been fascinating and instructive, but it’s still a compromise. To the extent that “magic” refers to things that have no natural explanation, these interactive tricks are not magic. I’m not sure any of the counting of cards or adding of figures deceives the audience enough to make them forget, for even a second, what life feels like right now.

But I’ve often wondered, “If you took away the element of deception, just assumed the audience could intuit how everything worked, what would remain?” This is the condition of virtual magic. In normal times, the magician does 95% of the work and the audience’s collective imagination does the last 5%. In the virtual space it’s more like 60/40. Nothing quite feels like magic, and yet people stay. We are all so hungry to be the performer and audience of a show that we imagine one where none exists. I wish I could carry more of the weight, but in some ways I feel more connected to my audiences.

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I’m excited to return to live performances—which I plan to do in the fall—knowing a transaction is taking place outside the narrow halls of “How did he do that?” Were the coins to tumble loudly from my sleeves to the floor, there would still be a reason for us to be in the room together. Having spent almost a year presenting magic with a time delay, I can’t wait to make a coin disappear and see everyone react at the same moment. And I can’t wait for the volume of response. I’m guessing that even the lightest applause will feel deafening. I’ll be grateful for any form of engagement, even the smarmiest of hecklers. Maybe the split has always been 60/40, or it should be.

I’m also looking forward to the nostalgia I’ll have for the era of virtual magic. Already, I look at my home set up with its three light stands with white paper lanterns, two tripods, laptop, camera, ethernet cable, and all my little props, and I have affection for it. I’m going to miss doing shows in sneakers. To be clear, I can’t wait to pack this show up forever, but it fills me with gratitude. The gratitude you feel for a bad movie on a long flight. These sentimental moments remind me that just as there were before times, there is an afterward. If we’ve managed to find a form of magic during this nightmarish waiting in the wings, imagine what we’ll find when we make it back to the stage.


Noah Levine is a New York-based magician. His live show Magic After Hours will reopen in the fall.