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Bill Guinee

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Please forgive me for a lengthy anthropological lecture, but it will be on the test. I have been thinking about the internal monologue concept that has been touted by some of our greatest theorists as markedly contributing to our performances, and I have been thinking about the concept of having a theme that runs through an act. It seems to me that perhaps the internal dialogue can be deeper than just “I have a coin in my right hand and, oh my gosh, it is gone” etc.

Perhaps, we could do more than just imagine a magical happening in order to get the audience to also imagine such a thing. Maybe it would help if we had a consistent idea of what the imagined magic was and some notion of how it worked.

There were two prominent early anthropological theories about magical beliefs, both professed by Englishmen. Interestingly, both of these men saw magical beliefs as an attempt to relieve stress that came from being unable to understand natural phenomena.

Sir Edward Tylor claimed that the first significant magical belief was the concept of a spirit that could be separated from the body. He thought that such a concept arose primarily out of speculation about the nature of dreams and death. Out of this notion of the separable soul, he believed that what he called “savage” peoples developed the first religion. He called this “animism” and it rested on the notion that lots of things had spirits (after all you could see anything in a dream). The first religious practitioner or magician was the shaman whose primary ability was to be able to enter the spirit world at will and coerce spirits into doing his bidding. He felt that this initial concept eventually evolved into all forms of religious belief.

Robert Marett, on the other hand, felt that the earliest supernatural beliefs were in something he called animatism. He defined animatism as “a belief in a generalized, impersonal power over which people have some measure of control.” So, rather than everything being alive and having a spirit, this was a belief that some things, and perhaps some people had “the force.”  A classic example was in the notions of mana held in Polynesia. Note that mana, as an impersonal force, could often be dangerous when contacted by anyone who could not control it.

My point in dragging you through all of this (and I could easily do a couple of hours lecture on the topic) is that either of these concepts could provide a coherent notion of what the magic is and how it is used by an adept but only if we were to adopt a single one. While it is obvious that spiritist performances are based in a magical conception similar to animism, it is also true that we can often find it in classical ambitious or rising cards, Koorwinder cars, and many other types of magic. The animatism conception frequently haunts magic wands, the demonstrations of mysterious natural forces which were so popular historically, and perhaps is rather unconsciously used by many magicians who wish to claim that they themselves are somehow magical and can just make things happen.

But the problem that I am considering is whether having a specific notion of what the magic is and how it works would be useful. I suspect most of us, including me, bounce around from one conception to another through our performances moving from a floating haunted ball to a demonstration of hypnotic control, to objects with inherent power, and so forth.

Now I am not arguing that we should try to convince our audiences that spirits are helping me find your card (not even that the Jacks are really detectives). But, I think it might be very interesting to have a coherent imaginary world behind the magic. [and, obviously, I am not suggesting that the concept needs to accord with Marett or Tylor] Such a coherent imaginary world might help me get over having the only consistent theme in an act be “look what I can do.”  What do you think?

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John Cowne

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‘My point in dragging you through all of this (and I could easily do a couple of hours lecture on the topic) is that either of these concepts could provide a coherent notion of what the magic is and how it is used by an adept but only if we were to adopt a single one.’

Thanks for a fascinating insight into ‘magical thinking’, Bill. As distinct from the anthroplological perspective, my exposure to the expression is in its use to explain a type of coping or defense mechanism. Of course, both those perspectives have an overlap. One of my thoughts regarding your overview and application, as you’ve outlined, is whether such a concept of ‘what the magic is’ matches what I want to convey to my audiences in the ‘magical experience’ ; I want them to enter a time of ‘let’s suppose....’, which I think is quite different from ‘ your grasp on reality is wrong ... let me change it’’. Not sure if that’s captured your conclusion correctly.
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SamtheNotasBadasIWas

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In a modern context, role playing games and video games usually have some sort of Manna/Magicka system for their imaginary worlds they use to control game playability. It sounds similiar to what your are proposing. However, I don't see how that could be used for ledgerdemain, but let's just say that is because I lack the necessary imagination to concieve it.

One of the obstacles you are facing is that no one has come up with a authoritative definition of magic is, and that will hamper the defining of a system. But, taking up your point that a modern act usually had more than one typ of trick, it seems your best bet would to be to somehow incorporate the old Greek world view of the five elements. Earth, Fire, Water, Air, and Spirit to explain the different types of tricks. This might work for a "Merlin" type of character.

One possible problem is that in New Age Paganism, which promotes actual belief in the hocus pocus kind of magic, they actually promote this old Greek idea as part of their belief system, and that may turn off some people, i.e. Christians, who do not to be a part of paganism. 

In the West, we are all children of the Greeks. We love to classify and compartmentalize things and we inherited that from the Greek philosophical systems. And to be honest, it has served us well in scientific endeavors and so enjoys a preeminent place in our way of thinking. In the East, their languages are usually more poetic while western languages, especially English, are more technical in nature. In the East, they have more wholistic view of the world since they were not influenced by the Greeks, at least not traditionally. I think a less technical and more wholistic view of magic would be more practical than our more technical way of thinking. I do not claim to have read any of Juan Tamariz's work or be an expert in his way of thinking, but I have heard enough discussions about the Spanish School to think that he has done something like this. Perhaps those who are familiar with him and his writings could chime in and discuss your ideas.



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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #4 
Interesting topic Bill.  What comes to mind is the story of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.

In 1856, Emperor Louis Napoleon called on Robert-Houdin and asked him to use his skills to calm a tribal rebellion in Algeria. The idea was that he should combat the tribal leaders’ use of traditional magic by demonstrating that French magic was more powerful.

He accomplished this by means of a stage show incorporating electricity: a tribesman who received a shock from a rigged box was astonished. 

[quote-a-magician-is-an-actor-playing-the-part-of-a-magician-jean-eugene-robert-houdin-70-0-050]

So if we believe what Robert-Houdin stated, how good is our acting?  Are we going through the motions?  Do we really even bother?  Or are we firmly entrenched in a "magical powers" mindset like a method actor that devours their role, up to the point of losing their own personality in the process?  Much more to say but let's give others a chance.

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Robin Dawes

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Reply with quote  #5 
This is a very valuable discussion.  Authors of speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.) - if they are any good - carefully craft their alternative worlds.  They develop rules for how magic/physics/ghosts/etc work and they stick to them, producing stories that are internally consistent.  Many of the best of them spend years on this aspect of their story-telling, and it shows.  (This actually applies outside of traditional speculative fiction genres too: I just finished reading John le Carre's latest spy novel.  His decades-long exploration of an entirely imaginary heirarchy and bureaucracy in British Intelligence is utterly convincing.)  So Gandalf doesn't suddenly have a magic flying carpet, Dr. Who can't read minds, and so on.  And - to Bill's point - a lot of this foundational thinking is not made explicit in the published novels.  Much like the skeleton of an animal, it supports and defines the shape while remaining unseen.

We as performing magicians are functioning as playwrights - we invite our audiences into an imaginary world where different rules apply.  It absolutely behooves us to think about what the rules are in the imaginary world we offer.   The alternatives that Bill mentions:  "I can appeal to unseen spirits to do things for me"  and "I can draw on forces that allow me to violate laws of nature" are reasonable starting points for defining the way the imagined world works.  Here's another: "The universe confounds my expectations" - this is closely related to "perverse magic".

Some performers in the field of mystery entertainment deliberately deny any magical aspect to their work.  Derek Dingle is the first that comes to mind.  He used to say "I'm not a magician, I am a sleight-of-hand artist."  Which he was.  But I always wondered about this approach.  Surely nobody in his audience would have imagined that he had "real" magic powers.   Other performers present an imaginary world in which they are supremely talented gamblers who can stack cards at will with a single shuffle.

Whatever imaginary world you choose to operate within, it can only help make your performance more consistent if you think about how the effects you present fit within that framework.
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Bill Guinee

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Reply with quote  #6 
Quote:
Originally Posted by John Cowne


Thanks for a fascinating insight into ‘magical thinking’, Bill. As distinct from the anthroplological perspective, my exposure to the expression is in its use to explain a type of coping or defense mechanism. Of course, both those perspectives have an overlap. One of my thoughts regarding your overview and application, as you’ve outlined, is whether such a concept of ‘what the magic is’ matches what I want to convey to my audiences in the ‘magical experience’ ; I want them to enter a time of ‘let’s suppose....’, which I think is quite different from ‘ your grasp on reality is wrong ... let me change it’’. Not sure if that’s captured your conclusion correctly.


Thanks, John. I was only describing the ideas of a couple of early anthropologists in an attempt to think about the worldview that describes the magic. There are other anthropological theorists who may be closer to your psychological perspective. Malinowski, for example, noted that Trobriand Island fishermen use a lot more magic when they do dangerous and unreliable deep sea fishing than when they do safe and reliable lagoon fishing. He posited that magic was a psychological mechanism to allay anxiety and uncertainty (the foxhole prayer). 
I'm afraid I don't understand your description of my position as "your grasp on reality is wrong...let me change it." I certainly never intended to be arguing anything of the kind. If you are inviting your audience into a "time of let's suppose," I am just asking what specifically you are asking them to suppose. How does the supposed (or imagined) world cohere?
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Bill Guinee

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Reply with quote  #7 
Sam,

You have raised a number of possible constructions. I find it interesting that you mentioned Tamariz. One way that I am thinking about all of this concerns one of his famous 7 veils of mystery. While these veils are not things that are explicitly stated to the audience, Tamariz feels they nonetheless are felt by the audience and have a powerful effect. One of them is the veil of your internal world. I am discussing the possibility of consistency in that internal world.

Bill
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Bill Guinee

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Reply with quote  #8 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Robin Dawes


Whatever imaginary world you choose to operate within, it can only help make your performance more consistent if you think about how the effects you present fit within that framework.


Exactly - thank you, Robin. I particularly appreciate your references to literature and how the background worlds operate. Naturally, there are lots of options for the imaginary world. You mention the idea of significant sleight of hand skill, and others have argued that they have a phenomenal memory, are human calculators, etc. Currently, I am working on putting together a set entirely based on the idea that everything is alive and has a personality --> perhaps this is animism but with a strong anthropomorphic bent.
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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #9 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Guinee


Thanks, John. I was only describing the ideas of a couple of early anthropologists in an attempt to think about the worldview that describes the magic. There are other anthropological theorists who may be closer to your psychological perspective. Malinowski, for example, noted that Trobriand Island fishermen use a lot more magic when they do dangerous and unreliable deep sea fishing than when they do safe and reliable lagoon fishing. He posited that magic was a psychological mechanism to allay anxiety and uncertainty (the foxhole prayer). 
I'm afraid I don't understand your description of my position as "your grasp on reality is wrong...let me change it." I certainly never intended to be arguing anything of the kind. If you are inviting your audience into a "time of let's suppose," I am just asking what specifically you are asking them to suppose. How does the supposed (or imagined) world cohere?


John, in my opinion wasn't meaning you at all.  He was referring to the audience and the magician offering to show them that what they believe about reality is wrong.  They believe that when you pour liquid from a pitcher into a paper cone, it is wet and if you crush the cone the liquid will go all over.  That is their reality.  What you do is magically turn the liquid into confetti, bending reality, reshaping it into something else.
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Bill Guinee

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Quote:
Originally Posted by RayJ
So if we believe what Robert-Houdin stated, how good is our acting?  Are we going through the motions?  

The famous Houdin quote, that we are actors playing the part of a magician, has an important implication. If I am playing the part of a magician, then fundamentally I am playing the part of someone who knows what magic is and how it works. That, it seems to me, must be the fundamental characteristic of a "real" magician. So, to play this part really well, it seems to me, we should have some coherent conception of what that magician knows.
     Now, perhaps one could argue that a good actor could play the part of Einstein without having even the vaguest ideas about physics. I am not sure about that. The best actors that I've known have all tried to get into the heads of their subjects, not just to imitate the physical actions and words they thought those subjects would perform.
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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #11 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Guinee

The famous Houdin quote, that we are actors playing the part of a magician, has an important implication. If I am playing the part of a magician, then fundamentally I am playing the part of someone who knows what magic is and how it works. That, it seems to me, must be the fundamental characteristic of a "real" magician. So, to play this part really well, it seems to me, we should have some coherent conception of what that magician knows.
     Now, perhaps one could argue that a good actor could play the part of Einstein without having even the vaguest ideas about physics. I am not sure about that. The best actors that I've known have all tried to get into the heads of their subjects, not just to imitate the physical actions and words they thought those subjects would perform.


When Phil Goldstein braids his hair, darkens it, adds the makeup and changes his voice he becomes Max Maven.  They truly are two different people.  When you meet Phil, he is somewhat shy, certainly reserved and you wouldn't think him capable of anything magical.  Not truly magical.  Max, on the other hand, has an air about him, the aura of the supernatural.  Phil becomes Max.  He could play Max, but in many ways I believe he becomes Max.  So goes method versus character acting.  
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John Cowne

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Reply with quote  #12 
“I'm afraid I don't understand your description of my position as "your grasp on reality is wrong...let me change it." I certainly never intended to be arguing anything of the kind. If you are inviting your audience into a "time of let's suppose," I am just asking what specifically you are asking them to suppose. How does the supposed (or imagined) world cohere?”

Thanks for pointing that out to me, Bill - I’m afraid I didn’t get my point across very well. I did understand you were not giving the “your grasp on reality is wrong...’ as your view. I wanted to use it as an expression of a purely shamanistic of ‘magic’, in contrast to my stated view, which I think, belongs far to the other end of the spectrum of why people do ‘magic’. As I’ve observed with the other posts so far, reducing the issue to a one-line - ‘where am I on this line’ approach - is far too simplistic to describe world-views on magic and it’s relevance for us. So, sorry for the confusion.

I particularly liked your question: “If you are inviting your audience into a "time of let's suppose," I am just asking what specifically you are asking them to suppose. How does the supposed (or imagined) world cohere?”. Coherence, in logic, and particularly the ‘logic of magic’ is absolutely essential in framing a world-view for myself and my audience. So I’m back to the drawing board, thinking about how I answer (and apply) your question. I’ll need more time for that. Thanks for helping me become a better magician.


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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #13 
In addition to the magician's abilities, skill, persona, presentation, etc.  we cannot discount the audience.  And specifically the makeup of the audience.  For example, we know that some believe magic to be demonic.  That image wasn't helped by the magicians posters showing devils with pitchforks.  In fact, it can sometimes lead to injury as this following article from a Los Angeles CBS Station proves...

“It seemed he was purposely attacked for doing magic,” said magician Jon Armstrong, adding that he and Houchin perform at The Magic Castle in Hollywood. “The reaction from the magic community about Wayne’s… attack — and it sort of was — is absolute sympathy from all of us, especially those in Los Angeles, and all over the world.”

The TV host reportedly threw “agua florida” or “Florida water” on Houchin. The liquid has been used since the early 1800’s in many Latin American countries as a way to purify and ward off evil spirits.

“In some parts of the world, a magician, a conjurer as someone who is causing evil and is putting evil spirits in you,” said magician and cultural anthropologist Paul Draper.

Draper said that, in many cultures, performance magic is seen as supernatural, and that might have been what provoked the attack on Houchin.

Talk about needing to know your audience!  I'm not attempting to make light of Wayne's attack, quite the opposite.  It could have been his life.


Another thing that occurs to this day is "psychic surgery" which is practiced by charlatans in the Phillipines, Latin America and elsewhere.  People have surgeries with bare hands, with bloody tumors removed for all to see.  Of course the "doctor" or "practitioner" or whatever they call themselves is nothing more than a fake, using conjuror's techniques.  But the truth is that some people believe.  They want to believe.  Sadly, many that are really sick go on to die because they refuse real treatment.

So no matter what you believe, your audience may or may not be receptive.  And sometimes they might be more willing to believe than you ever counted on.


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Anthony Vinson

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Reply with quote  #14 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Robin Dawes
This is a very valuable discussion.  Authors of speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.) - if they are any good - carefully craft their alternative worlds.  They develop rules for how magic/physics/ghosts/etc work and they stick to them, producing stories that are internally consistent.  Many of the best of them spend years on this aspect of their story-telling, and it shows.  (This actually applies outside of traditional speculative fiction genres too: I just finished reading John le Carre's latest spy novel.  His decades-long exploration of an entirely imaginary heirarchy and bureaucracy in British Intelligence is utterly convincing.)  So Gandalf doesn't suddenly have a magic flying carpet, Dr. Who can't read minds, and so on.  And - to Bill's point - a lot of this foundational thinking is not made explicit in the published novels.  Much like the skeleton of an animal, it supports and defines the shape while remaining unseen.

We as performing magicians are functioning as playwrights - we invite our audiences into an imaginary world where different rules apply.  It absolutely behooves us to think about what the rules are in the imaginary world we offer.   The alternatives that Bill mentions:  "I can appeal to unseen spirits to do things for me"  and "I can draw on forces that allow me to violate laws of nature" are reasonable starting points for defining the way the imagined world works.  Here's another: "The universe confounds my expectations" - this is closely related to "perverse magic".

 


This.

In storytelling we refer to it as world building. I compete in tall tales contests, sometimes called liar's competitions. Tall tales are usually told in the first-person, and recount terribly fantastical adventures that stretch the audience's concept of normal to the breaking point.

Contest rules usually only provide for 5-7 minutes per contestant, and it is important to remain below those times since you start losing points the moment you go over. That provides little time to build a world, tell a story, and entertain the audience. Oh, and impress the judges. Not easy. It takes lots of trial and error, and lots of experience before you rack up your first win.

The key is to open with a brief description of the world you'll be operating in. For instance, one of my winning stories, called The Big Chill, starts like this

Have you ever been cold? We can talk about brass monkeys, Hispanic hole-borer's buttocks, and female necromancer's mammari encased in metal-alloy foundation garments, but none of those compare to the cold I experienced that winter in the Bavarian Alps.

It took me quite a while to script that opening. May not seem like much, but it quickly establish a couple of important points that establish some parameters in the world I will be describing: One, it's going to be abnormally cold, and two, I will be manipulating language and using wordplay. With those two "rules" in place, I can tell my story and the audience is prepared to go along with me, providing I don't violate the rules.

I apply the same rules of world building to scripting magic. Establish your world in as few words as possible, and stick to the rules you set.

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Robin Dawes

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All in unison ... "How cold was it?"
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Rudy Tinoco

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Reply with quote  #16 
I just read through this very thought-provoking thread. I’m amazed at the level of intelligent, constructive conversation that is taking place here.

I actually have to re-read this again to grasp everything shared. Wow!


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RayJ

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Copied from Bill Guinee's original post..."Such a coherent imaginary world might help me get over having the only consistent theme in an act be “look what I can do.”  What do you think?"

I like that Bill is thinking about how he presents his magic.  I think we all have gone through phases where we wonder how the audience perceives us.  We want to please.  Some want to be different, from the effects they choose to how they present them.  Some go so far as to leave "traditional" conjuring and enter the world of mentalism.  Some well-known professionals made that jump.  Perhaps they weren't making an impact on the "magic" side of the spectrum.  Or perhaps it lost its appeal.

So in the quote above, Bill describes one presentation method, "look what I can do".  The implication is perhaps he is not satisfied with that approach.  We've discussed styles here.  The "look what I can do" style would seem to be that of the "trickster".  We've also discussed whether that style is good or bad (my opinion is that the style is neither, but solely relies on the performer to be entertaining) and it is a reasonable question.  

So how do you incorporate a theme and what does it look like?  And does the theme necessarily revolve around the props you use?  Or is it more in how you use them?  Can you take a theme too far, to the point that it becomes "hokey" or contrived?

Does developing a theme require abandoning effects you already have mastered, or can they be massaged in order to conform to your theme?



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SamtheNotasBadasIWas

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Reply with quote  #18 
Quote:
Originally Posted by RayJ
Copied from Bill Guinee's original post..."Such a coherent imaginary world might help me get over having the only consistent theme in an act be “look what I can do.”  What do you think?"

I like that Bill is thinking about how he presents his magic.  I think we all have gone through phases where we wonder how the audience perceives us.  We want to please.  Some want to be different, from the effects they choose to how they present them.  Some go so far as to leave "traditional" conjuring and enter the world of mentalism.  Some well-known professionals made that jump.  Perhaps they weren't making an impact on the "magic" side of the spectrum.  Or perhaps it lost its appeal.

So in the quote above, Bill describes one presentation method, "look what I can do".  The implication is perhaps he is not satisfied with that approach.  We've discussed styles here.  The "look what I can do" style would seem to be that of the "trickster".  We've also discussed whether that style is good or bad (my opinion is that the style is neither, but solely relies on the performer to be entertaining) and it is a reasonable question.  

So how do you incorporate a theme and what does it look like?  And does the theme necessarily revolve around the props you use?  Or is it more in how you use them?  Can you take a theme too far, to the point that it becomes "hokey" or contrived?

Does developing a theme require abandoning effects you already have mastered, or can they be massaged in order to conform to your theme?





Sort of thinking out loud here, but I think this question can be broken down into three components. Who, What, and Why. These three question determine if a coherent, even if fictional, magic system is needed.

Who is performing the magic? In other words, what type of persona do you want to exhibit to your audience. Trickster, huckster, sage, mind reader, etc. Knowing the type of character you want to portray would help determine the personality of the show. 

What type of magic are you doing? Close up, parlor, stage, mentalism and whatever else is out there. Combined with the answer to the first question the magic you do will have to fit, or be fitted to the character. Question: Would Merlin do card tricks? Answer: Maybe, if the tricks were done with tarot cards. Question: Would a huckster do mentalism? Answer: Probably not, they would stick with gambling tricks and cons, unless the huckster was doing a 19th Century spiritualism show.

Why are you doing these tricks? A dove act would have a different approach to magic than say a huckster doing a three card monte set. Neither of them needs to explain the why of their act, the first is for entertainment and the second is a grifting demonstration. An internal, even if fictional, structure to magic would only be needed if the magician was presenting themselves as having "strange powers".

These three questions, I think would help determine whether a structured concept of magic is even necessary. Lance Burton's act was a presentation of skill and beauty with his doves and there is no need to have a fictional magic system.  Pop Haydn is Edwardian era con man and again, there is no need for a magic system. Max Maven presents himself as someone who possesses strange powers, and that type of act might benefit from a set of rules as to how his "strange powers" work.

I don't know if this helpful, and I apologize if it is not on topic, but this is where my brain led me as I pondered the original questions and the replies people have given on this thread.

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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #19 
Good comments Sam. Regarding Lance Burton, there was a theme, not overt, but he was portraying a well-dressed character walking the street. All of the props were on his person, no need for a table. He had the street sign and/or streetlight for a dove perch, but nothing else except for the waste receptacle for the cards, etc. In my imagination he was a batchelor who had just come from the theatre or the opera and as he walked down the boulevard, magical things happened.

Similarly, Cardini's magic act, was a bemused, gentleman, possibly tipsy, to whom magic things happened. Much to his surprise or dismay. So the theme was the character.
His acting ability carried it off. At one time, his was the top nightclub act in the world.
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