I graduated from GW with a degree in political communication. When I tell people that instead of going into politics, I am a professional magician, I frequently get asked if it’s possible to do a magic show about politics. It’s a great question, and I’ll tell you the answer at the end of the article.
But first, I want to give you two scenarios:
Example 1: You, the willing participant, are asked to shuffle a deck of cards. Afterwards, you separate the deck into two piles, dealing each card one by one and making each decision randomly. Then, we flip the cards over, revealing that you’ve separated the cards perfectly into red and black. Good stuff? Absolutely. But it lacks any significance beyond a trick that fooled you. There was no struggle, truths revealed, or controversy.
Example 2: This time, before the trick begins, I explain that for 60+ years, psychologists have used Rorschach Cards (pictured below) in the process of diagnosing mental illnesses. But today, I tell you, I’m mostly interested in diagnosing political bias. A participant joins me on stage, and he tells the audience that he is a Democrat.
Then, he sorts Rorschach cards into a good pile and a bad pile. When he flips over the first card he put in the good pile, he sees the other side of the card features a picture of Joe Biden (a Democrat). The next photo is Hillary Clinton, and it goes on and on. After revealing all the cards, the audience realizes that he put Democrats in the good pile, and Republicans in the bad pile (this is not a judgment about either party. The trick could be done with a right-leaning audience member doing the opposite).
. . .
Many of you will realize that these tricks require very similar techniques, but are repackaged in entirely different ways. The first trick, while undoubtedly strong, is vague in meaning and gives the audience nothing to chew on besides “how did he do that?”**
However, the Rorschach trick leaves the audience with deeper questions. They might ask their friends “am I really that biased?” or “would you have put that butterfly-looking card in the good pile too?”
So, how do you choose what kind of trick to perform? This all comes down to your objective as a magician. If it’s exclusively to fool people, then maybe opt for Example 1. But I’ve found fooling people to be one of the least satisfying experiences in all of magic–it feels manipulative and rude. If, instead, your goal is to create something that resonates with people, I suggest Example 2.
It is extremely satisfying to reveal the truth to an audience. When I perform the Rorschach trick, there is a wonderful moment, usually when the third card is revealed to be a politician of the same party, where the audience realizes that this was inevitable, right from when I asked the participant their political affiliation. The audience is brought into the moment rather than excluded from it. And even though they are fooled (it’s still a very strong trick), they enjoy that there’s more to sink their teeth into than just a method.
So, can you do a magic show about politics? Yes, of course. But it’s a trick question because you can do a magic show about anything. Asking if you can do a magic show about politics is like asking if you can write a song about love.
The problem is, most magic performances are cyclical in meaning–the purpose of the trick is to do the trick. Magicians often approach their work with the question “what do I want to do?” rather than the more vulnerable and, frankly, more difficult, “what do I want to say?”
I believe that in the context of a show, you will go exponentially farther by asking yourself the latter.
For those of you who want an example, do yourself a favor and watch In and Of Itself by Derek DelGaudio on Hulu. This completely from-breaking show is a masterclass in magic and storytelling. It is regularly described as “more than a magic show,” because besides offering incredibly fooling tricks, Delgaudio gives us an experience that requires repeat viewing to fully appreciate.
This is the target we must aim for.
** Some tricks are strong enough to hold up to scrutiny where the only question is “how did she do that?”. The problem is, psychologically, tricks that aren’t about anything don’t give the audience anywhere to go. They either figure it out (not good), or decide that they never will and give up (also bad).
Two new shows added!
Saturday, July 9th: I’m performing Everything I Don’t Know in Denver. Unfortunately, while I originally planned to perform “Professional” Magicians with my friend Scotty Wiese, he tore his shoulder and cannot perform. So, this is your only chance to see my full show in Denver, and you can get tickets here:
Sunday, July 10th: Join me in New York City for SCAM, an immersive evening of magic, clues, and puzzles. See some of New York’s best new magicians at a meeting of the world’s most top secret magic organization. Tickets here:
And of course, if you want to see “Professional” Magicians, Scotty will be healed and ready to go for our shows on August 19th and 20th at the Soiled Dove in Denver. Tickets here: