The Secret Art of Magic
Strategy For Magicians
Sun Tzu & Street Performing
by Eric Evans
"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."-Sun Tzu [L.G.]
Magic and War
I've been fortunate to have had, not only one, but two great teachers in my life. One taught me close-up magic, and years later, the other taught me street magic.
I met Ernest Earick in 1980 through the local magic club in Albuquerque, NM. For approximately 5 years we met just about every week for a few hours at a neighborhood coffeehouse, studying close-up magic. One couldn't hope to find a finer example of creativity and excellence. Then in 1991 (after I had been performing magic in bars, restaurants, and the street for a number of years) I met Jim Cellini. From Jim I learned the finer points of street magic.
Over the years, I've come to admire Jim's fierce determination and grit. Jim likens street performance to a boxing match. He has always been an ardent fan of prizefighters—revering their individual determination to meet one another and square off "toe-to-toe." That same spirit of determination is something that Jim has created in his own work—when he's performing, there is a fire burning in his eye that demands that the audience acquiesce and surrender their logic. He gently and entertainingly pummels his audiences into senseless wonder.
On the other hand, I am not much of a fighter. I prefer to think of street performance, or for that matter any performance of magic, as a tactical war. A war only won by identifying and executing sound principles. As the magician, I become the general, and to some degree, the sovereign; the tricks are my weapons; and the audience is, at different times, the land to be conquered, my opponent, and my allies. Thus, tactics and strategies are my primary concern for a successful campaign.
Our primary source of strategy will be Sun Tzu's The Art of War, written about 400 BCE, which documents the strategies of a successful campaign. Those same strategies have become the basis for all modern warfare, and are universally recognized as some of the finest ever to be written on the matter. In this competitive world, even corporations use his concepts to form the basis of their business operations.
(Note on the text: I've quoted four translations of Sun Tzu's work: Dr. Lionel Giles' [L.G.] published in 1910; Samuel B. Griffith's [S.G.] originally published in 1963; Roger Ames' [R.A.] published in 1993; and the Denma Translation Group published [D.G.] in 2002. Sun Tzu's remarks will be presented exclusively in bold italic. Whichever translator's edition I use in the text, their initials will follow Sun Tzu's name to indicate the source.)
This may seem an unlikely premise for a book about street magic and the performance thereof. However, even a cursory view of The Art of War reveals remarkable parallels between magic and warfare.
In the first chapter of The Art of War, Sun Tzu [L.G.] states: "All warfare is based on deception." Since all theatrical magic is based on deception, this is a major intersection right off the bat. But there is much more common ground, including the fact that the areas where magic and warring conflicts take place are both referred to as "theaters."
Talking about "Weaknesses and Strengths," Sun Tzu [S.G.] writes: "The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle. For if he does not know where I intend to give battle he must prepare in a great many places." Or, magically we would say, "Never tell them what you're going to do, nor perform the same trick twice." Only with surprise on our side can we accomplish the wonders of mystery that are our stock in trade.
Speaking of what we know as misdirection, he [D.G.] says: "If I do not wish to do battle, I mark a line on the earth to defend it, and the enemy cannot do battle with me. I misdirect him." Or in another verse [S.G.]: "To be certain to take what you attack is to attack a place the enemy does not protect. To be certain to hold what you defend is to defend a place the enemy does not attack."
Al Baker once said something along the lines of, "Don't run if you're not being chased"—a tried and true statement. Sun Tzu [S.G.] put it this way: "Do not thwart an enemy returning homewards." If the battle is won, don't push it or it may just backfire.
Addressing the Too-Perfect Theory originated by Rick Johnsson (The principle that states that when you negate all other possible explanations for a trick's modus operandi, the inquiring mind will fight with the passion of one cornered.), Sun Tzu [S.G.] wrote: "To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape."
The old dodge of "leading them down the garden path" becomes in Sun Tzu's [L.G.] words: "Thus one skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something, that the enemy may snatch at it. By holding out baits, he keeps him on the march; then with a body of picked men he lies in wait for him."
All right, I think I've provided the beginnings of a case for myself in the above quotes. My hope is that you're starting to see the similarities between these two very interesting and thought provoking fields.
It's a Jungle Out There
"War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied." - Sun [S.G.]
The "war" in our context is one waged in the minds of the performer and public—an unrelenting offensive on logic and reason. Think about it—who actively seeks entertainment outside on a street corner? Very few are those who know of and seek out street performers. Then, when did someone last render their services for you and then ask you to pay whatever you thought was right? These are not everyday occurrences; nor would they be considered logical or reasonable to most people.
There is so much that a street performer must overcome if they are to make a living at this most difficult occupation. James Randi, in his book Conjuring, says this about street magic:
"Street working is the ultimate crucible, the sternest test and the greatest challenge for the magician. Great respect is due the artist who chooses to pit his skill against an audience that can move about freely, defeat his attempt to control their viewpoint, arrive or leave at any point, and insolently insult and challenge his earnest efforts. Winning over that sort of audience is difficult at best and sometimes thankless. Often, the hat is empty and so is the stomach of the conjuror, and frequently that is not his fault at all. These are brave guys indeed."
Competition amongst performers is as keen as it's ever been. If you're out there to make a way for yourself, it is self-evident that no other person will do it for you. You need every edge you can get. I believe studying war strategy combined with my knowledge of street magic will give you that edge in this most difficult venue. But whereas I've written the book, so to speak, I don't have all the answers. You have my assurance, however, that I've traveled a good deal of this world, and the lessons that this book contains represent the body of knowledge that I've gained through those travels—knowledge gained from over a decade of working the street.
First, don't let the negative aspects and connotations of warfare prejudice you against my desire to use warring tactics to illustrate strategies for performing on the street. I know that many writers and practitioners of magic have made careers of talking and writing about what might appear as just the opposite—a non-combative approach to magic.
First, I would simply respond that most have probably never worked outside in the harsh light of day. Theirs is a world, in some respects, tailored specifically for them—patrons obediently sitting in their seats awaiting the "nice magician" who will entertain. I know that this isn't always the case, but in general, people are better behaved when patronizing an establishment that employs you as the magician. Outside, there are few rules that would inhibit their behavior. Outside, people tend to drop all pretenses of manners and etiquette. Outside, strategies are needed to quell situations that would never arise inside.
Second, I don't believe war strategy is antithetical to being a "nice" performer. War strategy does not dictate an adversarial conflict with the spectators; in fact, it necessitates just the opposite. Sun Tzu stresses the importance of treating the citizenry of the invaded land well, so they will welcome the army's presence. Li Ch'uan, commenting on The Art of War," says: "When an army penetrates far into the enemy's country, care must be taken not to alienate the people by unjust treatment."
The trick is to maintain power and control in the unpredictable world of the street, while appearing kind and gentle. We employ war strategies to nip conflicts in the bud, or better yet, eliminate the circumstances where they could germinate to begin with.
"Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle." - Sun Tzu [S.G.]
Before I began to read The Art of War, I thought warfare amounted to body bags, bloodshed, and other numerous atrocities. I didn't realize that the ideal war was one that was swift and well thought out. Or better yet, never even fought.
In classic warfare an advantage is sought out, cultivated, and then enacted to conquer the opponent—but to what aim? More often than not, the sole motivation has been the acquisition of property. The public at large is our land to be conquered, and the "hat" (the tips from the audience) is the property fought for.
In every war there is an enemy. So who's the enemy in this case? To whom do we apply these maneuvers? Anyone and anything that gets in the way of the donation of funds to our noble cause is the enemy—from cops asking us to move along, to other performers, to hecklers; even a spectator's own stinginess or dislike of magic. All of these, and more, have to be subdued in order to get a good hat. Anyone or anything that distracts or detracts from our audience is considered an adversary.
Just as my enemies come from the land to be conquered, so do my allies. I have to actively solicit their membership and bring them over to my side. Securing their loyalty and service is my foremost concern.
I've entertained tens of thousands of people in my career, and I know that people have enjoyed watching the mysteries that I provide. On the other hand, people who have never seen me before might presume that I don't have much to offer them. It then becomes my responsibility to overcome that—to battle their prejudice through tactical maneuvering before they realize that there was ever a question of my ability to entertain them in the first place.
All magicians are fighting for the spectators' interest, time, and money. Most have won these battles before they ever "hit the stage." The street magician must fight for and win them while performing. And protect his audience, his props, and himself from the unexpected happenings of the street. This can only be accomplished with not only mastery of his magic, but of himself.
The overriding lesson contained in this book is one of cultivating self-control, since it is the essential element usually neglected in most magic books. Sun Tzu and I both consider it to be individually the most important attribute that one must incorporate to conduct a campaign of any kind. By retaining our "center," we are not easily provoked. By retaining control over ourselves, it becomes much easier to control the awareness of others—the primary function of a magician and tactician.
Before we go and examine what pearls of wisdom Sun Tzu offers about controlling ourselves and others, and how they apply to the performance of street magic in particular, I will leave you with this thought: In both magic and war, when we do well, we "kill." When we do poorly, we "die."