Heya. Given the length of this post- that’s very, very long- I’ve split it into two parts for your reading pleasure. Part Two goes live tomorrow morning- stay tuned. Same jellybean time, same jellybean channel.
Once upon a time, even before the Purple Before, I was a magician.
Performing for a small, live crowd, a lot of them children… it’s a funny thing. It’s heady and narcissistic and produces a high unmatched by any substance I know. It’s exhausting, the up and down, the push of adrenalin versus fatigue as you rush from gig to gig in a car that may only just hold together long enough to make it.
It requires a certain stamina that evolves from a lust for applause, for that heady high of the aftermath- replaying snippets in your mind of what worked, what went well. Perfecting a routine, a patter, a fail-safe. In front of a crowd, large or small, was where I learnt about human nature; about how to read people, the tiniest twitch of their face or turn of their shoulder indicating your audience was either warming to you or turning coldly away- struck by something they didn’t like, that didn’t sit well with them. The audience might not even be able to tell you what it was, but you know- a pause at the wrong time, dropping a magic ‘dead’ hand a fraction of a second too early. You learn to read people, your movements become fluid. The best close up magicians I know have a subtle habit of mimicking the movements and speech of their intended target, just enough for them to be comfortable, but never enough to notice… a subconscious validation of trust and kinship.
Some people are born performers who come alive in front of an audience. Gift them with an arsenal of skill and magic paraphernalia and they bloom as their audience watches on.
Other people are not.
I worked in the office of an entertainment company and helped hire and fire new staff as well as book parties and events. Our fresh meat, unknowing applicants for new openings as entry level party clowns, split itself into three distinct groups. Rarely, we encountered seasoned and experienced performers, who generally split as quick as the boss could say ‘minimum wage and no travel allowance’. Mostly, we met with young, enthusiastic university students who loved the idea of performing. We could then ‘skill them up’ and send them out, and generally they did quite well.
The third category baffled me for years. It became a phenomenon that was almost unremarkable except for the fact that it happened so often. Men- boys?- between the ages of fifteen and twenty five who could make playing cards appear and disappear, flame and jump, stick to the roof and materialise in people’s shoes. Their dexterity was amazing- cards flashed and fluttered between fingers that simply seemed too masculine to be capable of the delicate moves you knew they were performing behind their palms, tiny shifts with little fingers that kept them in control of the game.
These guys, who came into our little sphere of the private entertainment carnival occasionally and sporadically, were incredible to watch. Breathtaking. But their patter, the words that magicians utter almost unconsciously as they manipulate their equipment to smooth their movements, to distract attention at the right time… it was always awful.
Mostly it was nervousness and acute shyness, often with adolescent gawkiness thrown in for good mix. Card tricks seem to attract males with analytical, laterally thinking minds… the type who study four unit maths and graduate with honours as engineers. The simple, clean cut skill of card magic is something they find appealing to work at, when getting it wrong or right is black and white.
Unfortunately, coupled with this is-a sweeping generalisation that is true none the less- an acute social anxiety, an inability to project confidence, perhaps an inability to feel confidence within themselves. Someone who can do brilliant things with cards does not make a magician. That takes a liberal sprinkling of charisma and charm, more than an ounce of confidence and the ability to fake the gift of the gab if you’re not already blessed with it.
And that’s just the rules of performing magic. Add performing magic for children and.. well. Children can smell fear. If you show weakness, they will eat you.
A few years into my working career, the agency I was with happened to hire one such very magician. We’ll call him Groucho, for lack of a better pseudonym, and that suits him well enough. He was lovely- polite and well dressed, a master card manipulator. But a magician, in the performing sense, he was not.
Groucho knew what he should be doing, He had his games, balloons, magic show… all of it ready to go and rehearsed enough so that he could not fail- he had his safety net, his get out jail free card. He was stocked with supplies and talented, and we all assumed that he would just get his groove on, find hid mojo and his voice, the way most of those master card manipulators did.
We were wrong.
The phone calls and complaints started coming not long after we first sent Groucho out on his own as an individual performer instead of partnered as someone’s apprentice. Monday morning, sitting in a cold box of an office, and the phone would ring. Occasionally it was congratulations, a call to say thank you. For a short run, the Monday morning calls were all about Groucho.
His magic show was terrible, none of the kids could hear him speak. He wasn’t sure how to run games for small children. And- one of those cardinal sins in working with kids- he let himself get cornered.
“Standing in a corner making balloon animals does not constitute a party!“, raged one understandably irate parent down the phone. Apologetic as I was, I felt only sympathy as I hung up the phone and relayed the complaint to two other professional magicians who happened to be in the office that Monday. I watched them cringe as I had. We knew exactly what had happened, we had all been there ourselves at one point. As one of my fellow performers put it, with little grace but a definite air of truth- “He took it up the arse.”
You learn soon in enough, in those first painful few weeks of professional clowning, that you are not only the entertainment, but also an highly overpaid babysitter who keeps the children out of sight and out of mind while the adults drink wine and munch on potato chips. That means that you must, at all times, keep a certain element of discipline, of personal space. You have to learn ways to make your little charges co-operate and have an awesome time, and keep smiling all the while. You invent, or steal, methods that make it fun for kids to line up, sit on their bottoms, or keep a meter wide space around while you’re making balloons. It’s part of the job. It’s what you do, what you get paid for, what you will eventually-with any luck- be quite good at. And if you don’t have those safeguards in place? Well then. You, like Groucho, will end up quite literally backed into a corner, twisting balloon animals at a furious rate that still does not compete with the raging latex need of the knee high crowd below you. You have children screaming orders at you, pawing through your bag and stealing your stuff, and you end up making fifty balloons for a crowd of twenty, and then running an hour overtime to complete games and a magic show- which was what you promised the client for their money.
It’s unpleasant for the performer, looks unprofessional, and is irritating for the people paying the bill. I imagine it’s happened to most professionals at one stage or another. The problem with Groucho was, it just kept happening.
On his very last graces working for the agency I was employed by,
Groucho was almost lucky when November rolled around. November and December are, in the industry, Santa season. Agency owners love it- they often the make the equivalent of an entire years profit in two months, the demand for extra performers is so great. And, of course, everyone wants to hire a Santa. Our Santas may not have been the most authentic in Sydney, but we were cheap.
The agency I worked for was, for lack of a better word- cheap. Their Santa suits had been doing hard duty for 10 seasons by the time Groucho’s year came to pass, and the beards were moth eaten and tangled. While agency owners loved the Santa season, male performers- especially those with any kind of girth, remarkable or not, dreaded it. Santa suits are hot and uncomfortable, and a cycle of small children on laps is, as a rule, more physical contact than most performers are used to or comfortable with, considering we normally work so hard to retain a sense of physical space from little people. But the choices for blokes who refused to don the shabby beard, oversized boots and stained red coats weren’t appealing- if you don’t want to be Santa, don’t work. At all. Grouho was given the same option as the others- sink, or ho ho ho.
To be continued….