Performing Magic in The SCA
By Sir Kenneth MacQuarrie of Tobermory
The main goal of this class is to introduce you to the idea of magic as a performing art in the SCA. So often, when we think of performing in the SCA, our minds go immediately to just a few options:
• Playing and Instrument
But what if you don’t (or feel you can’t) do any of the above? The truth is that many will simply decide that the performing arts won’t be an option for them.
There is another option (at least one!) that does not require any musical skill, and is quite unique and rare in the SCA. And that is magic.
I will be showing you a period magic trick. But first, we need to talk just a little bit about some history.
Is Magic Period?
Oh yes – though performers weren’t calling themselves magicians. The most common term in England was juggler (yes, even if you didn’t actually juggle things). They practiced “the art of juggling,” which really just means “the performing of tricks.” The terms magician or conjuror were not used in the context of performing arts until well after SCA period.
We know this because an Englishman named Reginald Scot published a book in 1584 called The Discoverie of Witchracft. The main goal of that book was to convince people that there really is no such thing as a witch. He called for more common sense (Imagine that!) by explaining how mysterious things – things people couldn’t understand or explain – were not caused by witchcraft, but were actually just tricks.
Of course, in order to do this, Scot had to expose many of the secrets of jugglers. He actually felt bad about it! He said he was: “sorrie that it falleth out to my lot, to laie open the secrets of this mysterie, to the hinderance of such poore men as live thereby.”
Wouldn’t They Have Thought You Were A Witch If You Performed Magic?
Well, that depends. If you did not claim your tricks were the work of God or the devil, or some other supernatural source, you were fine. We saw from the previous excerpt that people were making a living as jugglers. Scot goes on to say:
– jugglers doings
…are not onlie tolerable, but greatlie commendable, so they abuse not the name of God, nor make the people attribute unto them his power; but always acknowledge wherein the art consisteth, so as thereby the other unlawful and impious arts may be by them the rather detected and bewraied.
So we know that there were people making a living by performing tricks, and that not only were they not arrested for witchcraft (as long as they didn’t say their tricks were supernatural), but were seen as greatly commendable!
So What Are The Tricks?
Hang on. We’ll get there. SheeshJ. In the process of revealing a great many tricks of the trade, Discoverie basically became one of the first “how to” manuals for would-be magicians – ahem, I mean jugglers. Scot didn’t necessarily go into a lot of detail on exactly how to do some of these tricks, but he gave enough information that magicians still perform these same tricks to this day.
Booke XXIII (of XVI)
Discoverie is made up of 16 “books.” Book 13 is the one with all the tricks – from chapter 22 to chapter 34. First, Scot talks about tricks with balls. The next section is “Of The Conveiance of Monie.” And THAT is what we’re going to learn a little bit about today.
But First…About “Exposure” and Why We Should Not Reveal the Secrets
Realistically, magic is no longer a “closed” art. In modern times, all you have to do is really want to know how a trick is done, and for the most part, you can find out pretty easily from books and the internet. But most people still don’t know how things are done. And that’s how we want it! Why? Because the “magic” and the delight of astonishment is lost if everyone knows how a thing was done.
So even though people CAN find out, we should not openly reveal the secrets to them. If they want to know, they should at least go through the effort of finding out on their own. Some people may be upset if you tell them the secret of a trick! It can ruin the magic for them. So it’s best to just keep it to yourself.
Of course things happen. There are no “magic police.” And you will want to tell some people, especially if they are going to help you practice, or take up magic themselves! I’m just asking you to keep it as secret as you can and not go around telling everybody how the trick works.
And Now For The Tricks (Finally!)
We are going to learn to do what Scot mentions in the first section about “Monie,” which is “To conveie monie out of your hand into the other by legierdemaine.”
There are lots of ways to do this. We are going to learn something called…
The French Drop
Here are the steps:
1. Start with a coin (something with some weight to it. Preferably not a plastic or super small, lightweight one) held in the left hand with the tips of your index and middle fingers on the bottom edge of the coin, and your thumb on the top edge. Your hand is palm-up.
2. Reach your right hand in front of your left, with the right thumb behind the coin, and the fingers in front, making as if to grasp the coin with your right hand
3. Allow the coin to tip back onto your left fingers and slide/drop down them, coming to rest against the meaty part of the top of your palm where your fingers attach. The coin should end up resting on the bottom part of your middle and ring fingers. This position is called “Finger Palm” position (see picture below).
4. For the briefest of moments, allow your left hand to stay in the exact same position as it was when holding the coin. This will create an illusion that the coin has gone. It was “there” and now it is not. Then, casually close your left hand partially and it lower down to the table or your lap if sitting, or to your side if standing. You’ll find that it is easy to make your hand look very natural in this position when you have a coin finger-palmed. Your fingers should be curled, and your thumb should be relaxed. The appearance of the left hand being relaxed will send a psychological signal that the hand is empty – “nothing to see here.” The last thing you want to do is try to hide the fact that there is a con in there. Spectators will follow a “guilty” hand. Tension and/or any unnatural action are usually present in the guilty hand. Keep it relaxed.
5. Immediately after you let the coin fall over in your left hand, close your right thumb and fingers together as if you just grabbed the coin. Move your right hand away to the right in a smooth arc while following it (your right hand) with your gaze as it moves away. This smooth curving “arc” motion will make it very difficult for spectators to NOT follow the motion. And fixing your own eyes on it as it moves will make it even MORE likely for spectators to follow that right hand, which is what you want.
6. Finally, you slowly open the fingers of your right hand to show that it is empty. It appears to the audience that it has vanished!
What makes the magic work?
We’re going talk about the specifics each of the two tricks. But for both of them, we rely on the human brain and its fabulous ability to quickly process information for decision-making. We are going to take advantage of that 😊.
As with much of magic, it is what happens in the mind of the spectator that makes it work. There are multiple elements at play here for the coin trick.
First, there is a simple illusion that a coin has vanished. We provide that by leaving the left fingers in the same position it was in when we were holding it (if only for a brief second). That visual is the first element of the magic.
Our brains then quickly move to a logical explanation after that though. When something is “there” one second and gone the next, we automatically assume the simplest thing – it went somewhere (was taken, was dropped, etc). We seek logical explanations. We don’t immediately jump to a magical explanation – it vanished.
We help to confirm that idea by providing an easy explanation, making it seem obvious where the coin went – the right hand took it. That’s sure what it looks like. So far, in the spectator’s mind, everything makes sense. All is well in the world – buwahahahaaaa!
Secondly, we strongly increase the likelihood that the spectator’s eyes will follow the right hand moving away by doing 2 things:
- This first is a fascinating visual-neurological phenomenon called “smooth pursuit.” Moving the right hand away in smooth curved motion activates this. “Curved motion, as employed by the magician in a classic sleight of hand trick, generates stronger misdirection than rectilinear (straight) motion.” (from the article “Stronger Misdirection in Curved than in Straight Motion,” in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience – Jorge Otero-Millan, Stephen L. Macknik, Apollo Robbins, and Susana Martinez-Conde https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3221472/).
People are significantly more likely to follow a smooth curving motion with their eyes (“smooth pursuit”) than a straight motion. And they are less likely to look back, breaking eye contact, when the motion is smooth and curved.
- People tend to look where we look. So by fixing your own gaze on the moving right hand, we engage that tendency. The two things together make it almost impossible for most people to NOT follow the right hand.
Finally, convinced that the coin is in the closed right hand, the spectator is surprised when the hand is opened and revealed to be empty. THAT is the magic.
How to kick it up a notch using even more psychology
Magic literature is filled with information about how people pay attention. Science is only recently beginning to catch up to what magicians have known for hundreds of years. Here is an example of a pattern that you can pretty much always rely on. In a magic trick like the French Drop, the attention of a spectator goes something like this:
- See the coin
- Watch the hand that apparently takes the coin from its original position
- Keep watching the hand they think holds the coin
- When it is revealed the coin is not there, immediately look back at the other hand
It’s universal and automatic. The brain works very quickly to try to explain what is happening. Once the coin is revealed to NOT be in the hand they thought, there is surprise. And you CAN end the trick there. But then there is that pesky #4 above that can lessen the effect of the magic – they look back at your left hand (or whichever hand the coin was in).
So what do you do? There are a few options here.
- Ditch the coin secretly. While they are focused on the right hand and it has moved away, ditch the coin that is in the left hand. If you have a pocket, that can work well. The risk there is that there is motion with the left hand, which can draw attention back to it. And that movement, if unexplained, can be suspicious.
- Ditch the coin openly. A movement is only suspicious if it is unexplained – if there is no apparent reason for it. But if you provide a reason, all is well. For example, after you reveal the coin has apparently vanished from the right hand, people will immediately look back at your left hand. If you say you are going to get something out of your pocket/pouch with the left hand, like a magic wand or “pixie dust” or something, that will arouse less (or no) suspicion.
- Do something with the left hand that makes it seem unlikely there’s anything in it. THIS is actually the main purpose of a magic wand! If you grab a stick, the idea that you can hold and manipulate a stick AND have a coin hidden in there goes away. It’s not rational. Of course it’s possible for someone to do 2 things at once. But the unconscious mind buys the offered reason and stops thinking about the possibility of a coin being in there. So if, just before you show the coin has vanished, you reach for a wand on the table with your left hand and wave it over your closed right fist, people will NOT look back at that left hand when the right hand is revealed to be empty! Amazing, right.
- Do #3 and #4. If you reach into your pocket to “get” your wand, you can ditch the coin as you grab the stick. Then use the wand to make the coin vanish from the right hand. This doubles up on the psychology if you reach into your pocket BEFORE showing the right hand empty. They won’t have had reason to suspiciously sook at the left hand before you’ve ditched the coin, and going in to get the wand forestalls any thought that a coin could be in the left hand. Thus you end clean. There is no coin in sight. It truly DOES feel like it’s vanished.
And for our next trick….
I promised to teach two tricks. Also from The Discoverie of Witchcraft – “to cut a lace asunder in the middest, and to make it whole againe.”
The Cut & Restored Rope
Here is another trick still being performed today.
1. Start by holding up a rope with one end visible over the left hand (the back of the hand toward the audience)
2. Move your right hand up to grasp the middle of the rope as in the below pic:
3. As you apparently move to put the middle section of the rope into your left hand, you ACTUALLY do the secret move. As you raise your right hand, bring you thumb in and under the rope, which will allow you to grab the section of rope just under your left hand between your right thumb and index finger. See picture.
4. Pull the section of rope that you have between your right thumb and index finger up while letting the loop that is over your right hand slip off the ends of your fingers. You then pull that loop up above your hand. To the audience, it appears as though you have simply pulled a section of the middle of the rope and looped it in your hand. Let go with right hand, holding all with your left. Now reach for scissors (or a knife, etc.) See picture.
5. Now cut the loop. You’ll have 3 ends of the rope sticking up from behind your hand. After you cut, let the long end drop so you are apparently holding the two ends of 2 pieces of rope. See picture.
6. What you actually have here is a very short piece of rope sticking out of the top of your hand with the long piece dangling from underneath your hand. All you need to do now is say you’re going to restore the rope, and simply tie the two ends sticking out over your hand together. This ties the little rope into a knot around the middle (approximately) of the long piece. When you let go, it looks like you’ve tied two ends of two pieces of rope together to form one lone piece, albeit with a knot in the middle.
7. Since the knot is really just the little piece tied on, it will easily slide along the long rope! This lets you do the magic part. Take the rope by one end (the knot dangling down somewhere below your hand) and star wrapping the rope around your left hand with your right. When your right hand comes to the knot, you conceal it behind your palm and keep wrapping. The knot will slide along the rope as you wrap until eventually, it comes off the end, still hidden in your right hand.
8. Put your right hand into your pocket/pouch to get some “magic dust” (or a wand). As we discussed after the coin trick, your real purpose is to ditch the knot in your pocket. Bring the empty hand out, supposedly holding onto magic dust, and “sprinkle” it over the wrapped up rope on your hand.
9. Now all you have to do is unwind the rope and behold! It is whole once again. If the rope is long enough (4 or 5 feet should do it), nobody will notice that the rope is a couple of inches shorter than it started.
What makes the magic work?
Many of the same things are at play here as in the coin trick. When you bring the loop up from the middle, the spectators have no reason to believe the loop they see sticking out the top of your hand is not the middle of the rope.
But there is one more interesting neurological principle you’re taking advantage of. It’s called “amodal completion.” A partially occluded (blocked) object appears whole to us because our brains fill in the missing area with what SHOULD be there. So when someone sees what appears to be 2 ropes – 2 ends above the and the (apparently) other ends of each hanging down below the hand, the brain fills in the fact that these are 2 long ropes. It’s like magic! Oh wait…😊.
Then of course, when the rope is all wound around the hand, they have no reason to be at all suspicious because nothing odd has happened. They don’t have any reason to look back at the right “dirty” hand holding the knot. By the time anything odd happens – the rope is shown to be whole, your long since ditched the evidence into your pocket.
How do you know this neurological stuff?
Check out a fascinating book called Sleights of Mind: Understanding the Brain Science Behind Magic, by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik. They re a pair of neurologists who actually became magicians while writing the book, studying with some of the most famous magicians around to learn why magic works.
Congratulations on learning two period magic tricks! Now you can start performing.
As easy as these tricks are, they requires practice! And in magic, the simplicity of trick does not mean it isn’t awesome! In fact, it is FAR better to do a simple trick REALLY well than to do a more complex one poorly.
So much of magic performance is in the presentation, the context, and the personality of the performer. Of course this is true of just about any type of performance. And let’s not forget. The purpose of this course is to introduce you to the idea of using magic as an SCA performance art. Hopefully this has at least piqued your interest.
So how and where can you perform magic in the SCA?
You probably won’t be doing a huge magic show on a stage, at least not at first. There are two main venues that work really well in the SCA.
- Busking at wars. You may have seen this already. Dr. Henry Best has a class he gives at Pennsic and Gulf Wars where he breaks down how to perform street shows. You’ve seen musicians busking in the merchant areas? Magicians can do the same thing.
- One of the most common venues for mundane magicians is restaurants – going table-to-table. I think this works even better in the SCA at feasts. The kind of magic you do while table hopping will be close-up tricks like coins and cards and even the odd rope trick.
Making it entertaining
The reason why we perform anything, hopefully, is to entertain. Just doing a magic trick is not necessarily entertaining. Here are a few things you can do:
- Make it about the audience, not about you. Your goal when performing magic is to please the crowd. Pay attention to them, talk to them, involve them in your tricks when you can. In his excellent book, Maximum Entertainment: Director’s Notes for Magicians and Mentalists, Ken Weber offers these tips for connecting with your audience:
- Tell ‘em a story
- Acknowledge your surroundings
- React and Respond
- Reveal your humanity with emotion
- Maintain eye contact
- Make them laugh. Not every trick you do needs to funny. But making your audience laugh is not only more fun for them, but it is good for magic in a sneaky way. The same neuroscientists who wrote Sleights of Mind: Understanding the Brain Science Behind Magic discovered that someone who is laughing is less able to focus attention. So laughter acts as its own sort of misdirection.
- Weber says everything you do when performing magic should be with the goal of eliciting one of three reactions:
- Rapt attention
So whatever you do while performing magic, always ask yourself which of the three reactions you are going for. If something you’re doing is not aimed at one of those big three, don’t do it. It will detract from the entertainment value at that point.
Go forth and perform magic!
Now that you have learned your first two magic tricks, understood WHAT makes them magical, and have some tips on where/when to perform, AND how to make it entertaining, you should be well on your way to becoming a magician…ahem, I mean “juggler” in the SCA. We don’t have many of those. So if nothing else, you’ll bring a uniqueness to the performing arts community.
If you would like to find out more, email me at:
If you’d like to delve deeper into magic, visit my site: Becoming a Magician at http://www.becomingamagician.com/ I provide a free ebook on how to start training, along with several recommendations for books, videos and other resources to get you on your way.