Actually, the last time I had been in Tannens at night was for a magic show (Magic After Hours by Noah Levine, who uses the setting of the old magic shop as an integral part of his performance). Credit for the elegant interior design of the shop goes to owner Adam Blumenthal, who is also a professional lighting designer.
So even though this was a lecture, the feel of the room combined with the stature of the speaker made it seem like we were about to witness a performance.
Maven stated at the beginning that the structure of the lecture was to be a performance of a trick, followed by an explanation and questions from the audience about the trick. There were to be three tricks, an intermission, then three more. Some ground rules were established (like not asking questions during the performance part), and a display of items for sale (lecture notes, tricks, books, etc.) was pointed out, to be made available during intermission and after the talk.
Then the show/lecture began!
True to his word, Maven performed an amazingly simple, yet powerful mind-reading trick (followed by stunned applause), then immediately explained the method, before actually teaching the trick to the audience so that they could perform it themselves if they chose to. Questions specific to the trick were then taken.
As this structure was followed for the next trick and the one after, I noticed something interesting. Maven was receiving applause (and “Oohs” and “Ahhs”) not only for his performances but also during the explanations. Owing to how great a performer, historian, and generally interesting person Max Maven is, his comments about subtleties, reasonings, little side facts, and anecdotes, were just as entertaining as the actual performances.
This reaction, of course, is no surprise, given that the audience was comprised surely almost entirely of magicians. Of course, they would be as enthralled by the explanations as to the performances - they’re magicians after all. But I couldn’t help wondering if maybe, just maybe, laymen would also be entertained by the explanations as well. What if a magic show for the public also included the explanations?
I’ll pause here to acknowledge the heresy (in the magic fraternity) of that last statement. It’s the sort of thought that could get one thrown out of magic clubs, derided by professionals and amateurs alike as “exposure,” a magic anathema of the worst sort. The first rule of magic, forever unquestionable, is to never tell the secret. Every magician, heck, every layman knows that! Indeed, the canon of magic literature contains deeply thought out treatises about the myriad ways to ensure, amplify and extend the holy grail of the spectator being thoroughly fooled and remaining so for a long, long time after the trick has ended.
So let me say that first off, I’m not suggesting that every magic performance should be followed by a flat-out reveal of the secret method, ala The Masked Magician. I’m not even suggesting that Maven’s lecture, exactly as I saw it, be presented as a magic show for the public. For one thing, he would not be teaching the magic to the audience, nor would he be selling merchandise related to the learning of the tricks - two staples of a magic lecture. Rather, the “show” might be trimmed to the performance and then the explanation (“This is what I did” instead of “This is what you need to do”).
Many magicians argue that in most cases spectators do not benefit from learning the secret of a trick. They get disappointed when they find out how simple a secret can be, or they are simply confused or just plain bored. To some extent I agree with all of that.
However, magic is an artistic endeavor, and as such there should be no hard and fast rules. I believe there can be cases when an explanation (note: not “exposure” or “reveal”) of a trick is a valid artistic choice, no matter how convoluted that may seem on the surface. Examples can be seen in some of the work of Penn and Teller, performed in their style, of course.
As I reflected upon Max Maven’s lecture, I imagined just a performance instead, typical of basically every magic show - in this case, six tricks performed and that’s it. Of course, it would have been amazing, with the audience left happily scratching their heads in wonderment long after the show, just as Maven intended. What then, if the explanations (just as entertainingly presented) were included? What would the differences really be for the audience? There’s no doubt that the experience would be different - but for better? For worse? Or just different?
Let’s break it down, imagining an audience of laymen. Perhaps the show is billed as (apologies to Max Maven), “An Evening of Wonder and Understanding” or “An Evening of Amazement and Apperception.” The audience experiences a trick - they are stunned. They applause. There is a beat or two and then Maven talks about the method, gently and coying at first, not revealing all the nuances and subtleties just yet. He explains in a way that conveys his respect and thoughtfulness about the method(s) and history and all the details surrounding it. As with the performance of the effect, he builds momentum in the performance of the explanation, where at the end there is a revelation of appreciation, joy, and respect by the audience that mirrors, in a sense, the result of the performance of the trick.
What then? Will the immediate explanation of the effect diminish the experience of wonder from the performance, especially down the road, when recalling the evening one hour or one week later? The answer to this question will differ for different audience members, just as with general reactions from a magic performance - some will be blown away more than others, for whatever reasons. But based on my experience from this lecture informing my conjecture of this hypothetical lecture/performance (and trying to minimize my involvement and love for magic), I can imagine laymen that would recall both the initial wonderment and the subsequent fascination of the explanation with equal enthusiasm. The question then becomes, is that a lesser experience and recollection than just the performance and it’s remembrance?
In other words, can the spectator savor the initial amazement (remembering the feeling/delight of being fooled), and then also love the explanation; the cleverness of the method, the circumstances surrounding development of the routine, the little subtleties the magician employed, the history and personalities of other individuals involved, the stories about previous performances of the effect - all these were included in Max Maven’s entertaining explanations, and most of them, I believe, would be understood and appreciated by laymen.
An analogy that comes to mind is a book reading/lecture. A piece of art, the book, is read by the author (the performance). And then the author discusses the book (the explanation). The audience is at first mesmerized by the reading; They are taken in by the story, swept away in the world the author conjures. That is the magic trick. Then that spell is broken as the author explains his/her motivations, context, history and other interesting information surrounding the writing of the book. But during that explanation, another spell is weaved - one of appreciation, respect, and revelations. Combined, the event is a success. Having heard the explanation the audience still keeps the story within them, maybe loving it even more.
Can the same thing be possible for magic? Since this is a thought experiment, probably never to be undertaken by any reputable magician, we can only surmise. But my takeaway is that the experience of a magic lecture as a public performance (given the right magician, material, and structure) is a legitimate artistic choice, leaving the expected wonder firmly in place, while potentially including a new and exciting avenue of experience for the spectator not yet explored by magicians; one that might actually enhance the value of the amazement and the appreciation of the art.