I CLEAN & TRIM MY NAILS
by matt & prakash October 22, 2011
fortnightjournal.com

PERFORMERS PREPARE RITUALS OF CHARM.
MATT DECKS OUT HIS MAGICIAN'S OUTFIT.

Essay by Matt Holtzclaw


I clean and trim my nails, brush what’s left of my hair, trim and groom my beard, put on a tailored suit—my tie and pocket square knotted and stuffed perfectly. My shoes are shined and my cufflinks, two bespoke silver skulls, gleam. I fill my pockets with two decks of Tally-Ho Circle Back playing cards, four 1964 solid-silver Kennedy half-dollars, a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Rolling Ball Pen, a Staedtler permanent marker and a few secret odds and ends that will give the appearance that I have unusual powers.
My shoes are shined and my cufflinks,
two bespoke silver skulls, gleam.

Everything on my person is there to give a sense of an approachable but powerful human being. This is all preparation for an event where wealthy people will mingle and smile and I will be paid to delicately, inoffensively entertain them with displays of magic. For most evenings, this is the routine of a professional magician.

There is some artifice involved, aside from the card tricks: I am much more of a plaid-shirt-and-sneakers sort of person who would never carry nor care about such an expensive pen in my daily life. My posture is not nearly as good at home as it is at these events—and my working-class Southern accent is, or is not, as deep depending on what I want this or that group to think of me. I curse far more among friends that I do with these “polite” people. Even my business cards are designed to give a feeling of high-end quality. In keeping with the physical deceptions I could have some hair surgically moved around my head, but I have too much pride and not enough money.
I am in a country club, a sort of place I never once visited before I was hired to entertain it...

I am not sure how I ended up here. I am in a country club, a sort of place I never once visited before I was hired to entertain it, and I constantly feel that at any moment I will be tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave; an impostor discovered. It is my own silly insecurity—one that I know is not uncommon—but I do feel like a feral child in fancy dress, a wolf in chic clothing. I am to perform “magic” for these drinking, dancing people in short bursts; ten minutes with this group, maybe only five minutes for the next because I may be interrupted by guests who have just arrived, or the hors d'oeuvres tray may be more attractive to hungry attendees.

Maybe a speech starts midway through the magic trick, and the valuable attention is dispersed. Like a good joke, if one part of a magic trick is not taken in, the punch-line (or in this case, the climax) makes no sense. That’s all fine. As long as the client is happy, I will gladly rest at the bar and reset my pockets while the speeches finish. I do, however, quietly critique the speakers’ oratory skills.

This is not how magic started for me. It is not exactly where I would like it to end up, either. Events like this pay the bills, quite handsomely at times, but are not what magic is, or should be. Magic was never polite or delicate when I was little boy. It was bizarre and powerful. It was a social and physical violation. Magic was an upset; a raw, vibrating note in a flat, routined world.
Magic was never polite or delicate when I was little boy. It was bizarre and powerful.

The first trick I ever saw live was a terrible rope trick done by a youth group minister at church. It was a piece of Gospel Magic, a usually very easy trick with a Christian message shoehorned into it. I did not understand or care about the message at all but the magic trick itself shattered me. Three ropes of varying sizes, small, medium, and large, all miraculously became the same length and then returned to their previous state. The ropes were then given to us to handle, proving their solidity. There was some message about how God sees all sinners as the same, even though we mortals may see each as different, or some other such nonsense.

Again, all I cared about was those impossible ropes. I was in the same room as something that simply could not be. Rules had been violated. What was possible in the physical world became infinite.

When I learned my first magic trick, I wanted to immediately demonstrate it for anyone who would sit still long enough to watch it. First, it was with members of my family, who I interrupted mid-task, and who impatiently waited for it to be over; then, it was for visiting family friends who did not expect a ten-year-old to force playing cards and rabbit-y things into their hands. Whether they were indifferent, or honestly amazed, it was immediately powerful to be able to do something that the adults could not. Soon though, they were no longer interested in seeing the same trick again and again.
To be asked to perform is delightful. To fight for an audience's attention is murder.

I also learned that plastic boxes and objects made of spongy foam rubber are immediately suspect in their toy-like appearance. These props also break without warning, sometimes mid-performance. Most importantly, I learned that like the wooing of a lover, nothing is less interesting than eagerness. Passion is fine. Desperation? Never. To be asked to perform is delightful. To fight for an audience’s attention is murder.

Magic must happen live and the audience must be captive. Not only must they be captive, but they must also invest in the performance. It cannot be forced upon them.They must be hungry for it.

My partner and co-conspirator, Prakash Puru, will only perform socially, i.e. unpaid, if he is asked around three times over the course of the evening. Therefore, most of his friends and acquaintances have never seen him do anything magic-related. He wants there to be a build-up of suspense; a sense of him withholding something from the potential spectators; an aching, slow wind-up.
Also, in this setting we can be as quiet
and still as we wish--an aesthetic
we find often missing from magic.

For these reasons, Prakash and I have started performing a live theatre show, for the pure reason that we want the audience to enter our room, our country club, our event. Also, in this setting we can be as quiet and still as we wish—an aesthetic we find often missing from magic. Most importantly, because the audience is traveling to see us, spending money and more importantly, time, to be in the room with us, they have invested in the evening. By performing in this way for this sort of primed audience, we are again reminded of why we started doing magic.

Prakash and I often talk of the gulf between how an audience perceives us, versus how we perceive ourselves. We take what we do seriously and want our audiences to feel the same. However, in magic, a great deal of the power-displays are trivial in the grand scheme. Of what practical use is it to make a coin vanish? Or to push a coin invisibly and painlessly through someone’s hand?
Of what practical use is it
to make a coin vanish?

Bizarre, yes. Ritualistic, maybe. But practical? I cannot think of a use for it other, than to show it off. As the great magician and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer says in his book Hiding the Elephant, “When a magician places a coin in his hand and makes it disappear, it’s a reminder that there’s something about hands and coins we’ve failed to appreciate. Unlike a mere deception or a simple secret, which gives the impression that something’s been taken away, a great magician makes you feel like something’s been given to you.”

We constantly remind ourselves that magic is no longer about power, now that we are adults and can make our own choices. Magic is about that very strange, human experience of knowing that what has happened did not actually happen—even though it took place here, in your living room, in your own hand.

When we feel a bit trivialized in our own eyes (speaking for myself here, and not Prakash, who I doubt has human feelings like “insecurity”), we remind ourselves that we are not the heavy-breathing, intensely solemn TV magicians that make the levitation of a half-naked woman or the vanishing of a national monument to be something other than a clever trick.

We are live performers, as vulnerable and as powerful as anyone. We want our work to have the appearance of miracles, but to not mislead our audience to think that what they see is anything more than clever thinking on our part, and a glitch in perception on theirs. We want you to know that we know that you know it’s all a big, fun, safe lie. Everything we perform for you as magicians is carefully designed to make you see and feel something that simply is not—just like me standing up straight and enunciating in that expensive
suit.