ON THE WATERS FRONT a column of information and opinion by T. A. Waters
THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS COLUMN ARE THOSE OF THE WRITER, AND MAY NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE STEVENS MAGIC EMPORIUM OR GEMINI.
Column Four: HOBBY WHORES
HOBBY is usually defined as “…a pursuit or interest engaged in for relaxation.” More generally it is considered “…an avocation, often pursued in company with others of similar interests.” And WHORES? Most often they are defined as…”prostitutes; those who sell sexual favors for monetary reward.” More generally — and this is the sense in which I’ll be using the term in what follows — they are defined as “…those who willingly compromise their art or craft for financial or other gain.” Please understand that this column is NOT, specifically, about professionals or amateurs. Not long ago there was a tempest-in-a-talking-teakettle about professionals vs. amateurs. To my mind it rather missed the point, because to a great degree that’s a useless distinction, one for the most part not made in other arts. Many noted writers make their livings in other ways, yet reviewers do not refer to them as “amateur writers” — it simply isn’t relevant. PROFESSIONAL — to give one more definition — denotes a person who is “…engaged in an activity as a means of livelihood or for gain.” Please note that it does NOT indicate that anyone who ever gets paid for their work is a professional, nor does it make any judgments as to the quality of that work. Yet — there are some serious considerations relating to magic as a hobby, and some problems that should at least be recognized if not solved. Often these aspects of magic are considered as part of the pro-vs.-amateur battle, and that is entirely wrong. The real battle has simply to do with good magic vs. bad magic, and that is an altogether different thing. As I have indicated in previous columns, I am not particularly impressed with the competency of many full-time professional magicians; I have, conversely, seen amateurs with superb performance skills. (I have a vivid memory of visiting the NY Magic Symposium in San Francisco a decade ago, and seeing the marvelous Bob Read, and being more than a little surprised to find that he was not then a professional; timing and audience rapport at that level are not skills that come easily — when they do at all.)
Being involved in magic as a hobby or avocation can be very rewarding; it can be fun, it can be interesting and intriguing, it can in some of its aspects be very fulfilling — but let us be very clear as to what the HOBBY of magic IS: It is, for example, joining a magical organization, and attending meetings. It is going to magic conventions and lectures. It is reading the literature of magic and learning new effects. It is collecting magic memorabilia, books, posters, apparatus. While professionals may, and often do, engage in many of these things, they are largely the province of the hobbyist — and that’s fine. Really, though — as absorbing and interesting as these aspects of magic may be, they are the tail wagging the magical dog; magic is, after all, a performance art, and is only truly magic when it is performed for a lay audience. There is the dividing line. There is the point where magic ceases to be a hobby. PERFORMING MAGIC FOR A LAY AUDIENCE IS NOT A HOBBY. I don’t care if you’re not getting paid; I don’t care if you’re doing a charity show out of the goodness of your heart. When you stand in front of an audience — any lay audience, in any circumstances — you’ve left the hobby-aspect of magic behind. The people looking at you are NOT PART OF YOUR HOBBY; they don’t share your interest in the eighty-one ways of making Aces assemble; they don’t care that your apparatus once belonged to Blotto the Bewildering. They’re sitting there, and the more optimistic among them are hoping to see some magic. HOBBY does not enter into it; it isn’t an explanation or an excuse for a bad performance. To belabor the obvious, this is not to say that as a performer you don’t have the right to be bad. There are only two kinds of performers — those who admit theyÃve never done a bad show, and liars. Doing a bad show is one thing (or, for some of us, more than one thing!) — but excusing it on the grounds that you’re not a pro is quite another, and not acceptable. All of which brings me to the joke for this column; it’s an old one, but I trust you will see my purpose in including it. It has to do with two old friends — let’s call them Mike and Joe — who haven’t seen each other in a while; Mike comes to visit and asks what Joe’s been doing. “Actually,” says Joe, “I’ve started keeping bees. I’ve got about 10,000 now.” Mike didn’t notice any hives in the yard, and asks where Joe keeps them. “In the closet,” says Joe. He takes Mike to the closet and opens the door; the only things inside are a coat on a hook and a closed shoe box. Mike looks around. “Where are the bees?,” he finally asks. “In the shoebox.” “YOU KEEP 10,000 BEES IN A SHOEBOX?” Joe is offended. “Hey,” he says, “it’s only a hobby…” You will appreciate that I have shortened this joke to the bare minimum, and have also refrained from using the funnier but raunchier tag line. Even so, it isn’t without its little Moral Lesson for us all.
Every person who performs in front of an audience is going to do a bad show from time to time; even the best among us — unless they are phenomenally talented or phenomenally lucky — will, for any of a number of reasons, give a performance that simply does not work. That’s in the nature of live performance, and when it happens you get up, dust yourself off, and try to figure out how to keep it from happening again. What you don’t do — what you don’t ever do — is say, “Hey, it’s only a hobby…” Recently (May 1995) a letter to GENII re the pro-vs.- amateur question prompted the Editor to reprint some cogent comments of her grandfather, William W. Larsen Sr., one of magic’s most brilliant writers. With most of what he says I am in full accord, and it is both impressive and depressing that many of the faults he mentions are still true. However, toward the end he says: “In magic’s case the bad won’t hurt the good. Joe Doaks won’t harm Jack Gwynne…” Keeping in mind the fact that this comment was made in 1937, before the advent of modern media — and while I have the greatest admiration for Larsens *pere et fils*, and am second to none in my special regard for the current Editor of GENII, I must respectfully disagree: it might have been true then — although I doubt it — but it certainly is not true now. Any performance art has its incompetents and bunglers, both professional and amateur — but it seems that magic is regarded in an essentially different way, perhaps because it is so far outside the normal experience of most people. Many people can sing, dance, act or write after a fashion, and so they can recognize what’s involved in doing it well. Magic, however, gives them no yardstick by which to judge. The curious result is that, more often than not, when they see a bad magician they don’t think THAT MAGICIAN is bad — they think that MAGIC is bad.
Thus we come to the Hobby Whore — the person who inflicts bad magic on laypersons, not for money, but for cheap ego- gratification, without any regard to what harm he may be doing to magic. (I’ll use the male personal pronouns here as a matter of convenience — though in my experience those few women who are hobbyists in magic are far less likely to be guilty of this. Well, maybe I’m prejudiced.) And it IS cheap ego-gratification: anyone can waltz into a magic shop and come out with a plastic or pasteboard wonder — in some cases, these days, a very good effect — and demonstrate it to their friends. This usually reduces what could be magic to a mechanical puzzle, the responses being “How does that work?” or “Where can I get one of those?” rather than “That’s amazing!” — or even more optimistically, “You’re amazing.” Knowing how to operate a piece of magic apparatus does not make anyone a magician, any more than buying a guitar and learning three chords makes someone a musician. This is such an obvious statement that I am almost ashamed to say it; almost, but not quite. There’s so much evidence around to indicate that a lot of people in magic think otherwise. From the ridiculous — owning every trick Tenyo has ever put out — to the sublimely ridiculous — spending tens of thousands of dollars with John Gaughan and Bill Smith — there are many who seem to think (as I mentioned in column #3) that they’ve engaged in a transaction that has somehow made them into magicians. (To avoid misinterpretation I suppose I should state that many Tenyo effects are wonderful — and that Gaughan and Smith are highly talented professionals who care about their art; but sometimes their customers aren’t.) Again, this is not pro vs. amateur; I’ve seen far too many professionals who can only be defined as magical performers by their possession of a few boxes, and their location — standing on the stage rather than sitting in the audience. Even more to the point, I’ve known many amateurs who have a strong commitment to magic as a performance art, and who strive to do their best — and I have a vivid memory of one internationally known professional who told me, “Hey, if I could make more money selling shoes, I’d sell shoes.” It wasn’t the most ringing expression of artistic commitment I’d ever heard.
Commitment to an art takes many forms — and for some who love magic it turns out to be a decision NOT TO PERFORM. These are the insightful people who know just how much work, how much time and effort goes into a good performance — and they realize it’s more than they want to give. They can still perform at the magic club meetings, and at conventions; they can do any of the many other things involved in the hobby of magic — and they can do it in the knowledge that they’re enjoying magic without harming its public image. Actually, the amateur performer has even LESS excuse for doing a bad show than the pro. Certainly as a novice he or she won’t be all that good — but, then, neither will the person intending to enter magic as a profession. Later on, the amateur can work endlessly on details to make his or her act as perfect as possible, because there is no monetary pressure to perform. The conscientious amateur will also realize that he or she may well be the only live magician an audience will see — and that knowledge carries with it a serious responsibility. Realistically, at some point you have to walk the walk, out onto the stage in front of a lay audience. Their reaction will tell you something that you won’t learn from any amount of dry rehearsal or magic-club performing. Audience reaction won’t tell you everything, of course; sometimes it’s just a bit of tweaking that turns an effect, or an act, from dead to killer. (And dare I say it? Sometimes audiences are wrong — not consistently, but sometimes; and sometimes they’re just plain bad. Anyone who gives you that old line about there being “no bad audiences” is kidding you — or has led a very sheltered performing life.) Eventually — and it may be after three shows, or three hundred — you have to consider your experiences and realistically decide if you have what it takes to be a good magical performer. If you don’t, there are many other ways of enjoying the hobby of magic; if you do, you can give the audience a wonderful experience of magic. Either way, you’ll be a credit to your art.
Copyright (c) 1995 by T. A. Waters. All rights reserved.