“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”-Ludwig Wittgenstein
As a community of mechanically-focused hobbyists, it is not surprising that many of us do not put a great deal of thought into the language of our scripts. But when you take a moment to step back and really consider such popular phrases as, “Pick a card,” “Watch carefully,” and “Please hold onto this,” they seem strikingly dull, even robotic. Fortunately, none of us has to be Shakespeare to bring a bit more life to our language. We merely have to think about it and do it!
Language is an extremely personal thing. In fact, it is one of the easiest ways you can choose to express your uniqueness, and chances are that if you are reading this sentence you have a relatively large vocabulary. However, I am certainly not urging you to adopt overly ornate language, e.g. “Fellow Creature, I beseech thee, please be so gracious as to extend your right hand towards this humble collection of multicolored, die-cut sections of cardboard such that you are able to actually, and in reality, select but one from among the great many.”
Language choices cannot be divorced from the issues of character and venue. For example, you might like the idea of performing as a rather rough, even somewhat rude person. (Frankly, I would love to see more of that in magic. We have spent far too long pretending to be friendly, polite, tidy, emotionally repressed “vanilla performers!”) But the hitch is that a rather brusque, rude persona would be a very hard “sell” in many corporate environments. It also may not suit you.
Mind you, most of us employ a variety of languages depending upon context, so the question remains, “How can I develop a language specifically suited to the performance of magic?”
For starters, effective performance scripts tend to be more emotional than intellectual. Again, performing styles vary, and it would be a grave mistake to try to be someone you are not, but if two equally proficient magicians perform for the same crowd, and one is more intellectual while the other is more emotional, I would wager that most of the time it will be the latter performer whom the audience enjoys more.
While people respond to expressions of joy, excitement, humor and drama, intellectual appeals will often leave an audience feeling a little cold. Ask yourself, would you rather an audience think you are a good magician or feel completely enthralled by your performance? Of course, the energy you put into your character will in no small part determine the tone of your show, but your word choice can also go a long way towards developing a more emotional than intellectual approach.
But here is the catch. Most of us find it considerably easier to talk about what we think, than about what we feel, and unless you are prepared to invest some authentic emotion into your show, there is no point choosing emotional language. It will just come across as phony. What do I mean by “emotional language?” Professional actors are of course able to say pretty much anything and imbue their words with a range of emotions. Still, some sentences seem to lend themselves more readily to an emotional investment.
Here are five very different ways to ask a spectator to do the same thing. “Pick a card.” “Choice is destiny, choose yours.” “Prend une carte. That’s french for pick a card.” “Go ahead. You know what to do.” “Go ahead, pick your nose. I mean, pick a card.” As the emotional component varies, so will the responses.
Consider the difference between, “Pick a card” and “Touch whichever card you feel drawn to.” Yes, “pick a card” is much simpler (and simplicity is a powerful guide towards inspired performances) but the second phrase is far more engaging by making explicit reference to the sensual (“touch”), the spectator (“you”) and even the invisible relationships that are the lifeblood of the idea of magic (“drawn to.”) Vivid language has a way of bringing effects to life.
We have all seen young magicians use lines of patter that were completely inappropriate, though not all errors in judgment are so obvious. In stand-up comedy, I learned the simple rule of thumb that, if you do not talk a certain way offstage, you probably should not talk that way onstage. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but unless you are a trained actor, you would do well to stick to your own everyday language. When performing be sure to make the very most of your language!
For your language choices to be suitable, you must have a strong sense of what is comfortable for you. At the same time, you have to develop a sense of the degree to which you want your language to play a part in your performance. I have seen marvelous performers who speak very little, and more commonly, absolutely dreadful magicians who speak far too much. If you stick with language that suits you, your audience will experience you as natural and authentic, two of the most powerful allies in theatre.
Performance scripts should also be as brief as possible. This does not mean you cannot develop the “bookish, poetic character with the antiquated language and the dung brown wig” you have always dreamed of. Just that, even when you want to deliver a long script about the mating rituals of crickets (while naturally covering four coins with four cards) cut out any unnecessary words.
Powerful language is also specific. As slight as it is, even the difference between “Hold the coin” and “Hold this coin as tightly as you can” can add a lot to your magic. Make explicit reference to whatever is around you, including the people, the performance space, your props and yourself. The more you do that, the more you “ground your magic” in the here and now, and the more powerful it will be as a result.
Though emotional language tends to be more engaging than factual, effective magic scripts are also informative. By this, I simply mean: do not say the obvious. The classic example is referring to your open, obviously empty hand as “my empty hand.” As an amateur cartoonist, I learned the powerful idea that the caption beneath the cartoon should never repeat whatever information is contained in the image above it. Instead, the caption should only add to that information. Thus, the caption and image fit together like a lock and key, perfectly complimenting each other while also being wonderfully efficient.
Think about that kind of fat-free communication as you develop a script to accompany your actions during a routine. If you want to draw attention to the complete lack of anything in your hand, do so in a way that adds something to the performance. One of my favorite ways to do this very thing is to take a second to compare hand sizes with one of the spectators by holding my hand palm-out and asking her to do the same. It is a fine opportunity for comedy, connection and interaction while clearly conveying the information that my hand is undeniably empty.
Many of my scripting preferences reflect my experience as a close-up magician and may well be less applicable to stage magic. This might be especially the case in regards to what I call “loose scripting.” As an intimate entertainer, I welcome interruptions and in fact treat them as valuable additions. Loose scripting works in a variety of ways to bring life to your performance. It sends a subtle message of strength and confidence to your audience while also giving you both room to interact and create a truly intimate space, if only for a few moments. The inherent flexibility of such scripts also allow for improvised dialogue which, as most experienced performs will attest to, can be some of the most memorable moments of a performance.
Finally, strong magic scripts should frame your effects. Your words do not interpret the performance for your audience. Your audience interprets everything for themselves. But your words powerfully guide that interpretation, which is why your words are such a profoundly important part of your performance. Not just for the sake of connection and character, but also for the magic.
A classic example of how your words can influence your audience’s experience of the magic is when a performer has someone peek at a card in the pack and then a few moments later asks, “So you are merely thinking of a card, right?” Thanks to such verbal framing, the selection has moved from the physical plane (peeking at a card) to the immaterial (thinking of a card.) What you say before, during and after a routine should not only support the proceedings, but also subtly frame the events so as to gently coax the audience towards a maximum magic interpretation.
Ultimately, I am not suggesting you use any of the examples given here. I am really just trying to get you thinking a little bit about the wealth of exciting possibilities regarding your own language choices. A little less time working on that nifty flourish and a little more time thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it will yield amazing results.