The Online Journal of the Art of Magic
A Fine Prop Position
In the very first article in this column, I discussed the key distinctions between mental magic and mentalism. One of those was the fact that true mentalism doesnt use any unusual props, while these are often used in mental magic (although some would argue that theyre equally undesirable in either situation). Since that column appeared, Ive gotten a few e-mails asking what exactly constitutes an unusual prop -- in other words, asking, When is a prop not a prop?. This month, lets take a look at that, both in a general sense and with some specific examples.
First, a general explanation: By the strictest definition, any object you use in your show is a prop, so obviously we cant say that a mentalist doesnt use any props at all -- that would be silly. What we can say, though, is that if a prop youre thinking of using seems out of the ordinary to an audience, its something you should stay away from. If an audience can look at a prop and doesnt know what it is, thats a sign that you might not want to use it. If they can look at it, not know what it is, but immediately think, that looks like a magicians prop!, you definitely shouldnt use it.
What you can definitely use are pads, notebooks, markers, dry erase boards (the modern equivalent for chalkboards -- a substitution that will easily update many old effects), and other everyday objects. Silverware, glassware, and other household objects are fine. What you shouldnt use are things like Mental Epic boards, bizarre prediction boards, etc.
There are some things that are not quite everyday objects that I feel are acceptable, too. For example, I often use Ted Karmilovichs Vision in Black drawing duplication as part of the closing sequence of my show. In this, a spectators drawing is rubber-banded between two opaque plastic panels, which are in turn sealed inside an envelope. These plastic panels arent exactly anything youd come across every day, but they dont seem too unusual and are perfectly justified in the presentation -- theyre simply two plain black panels that are used to insure that nobody can sneak a peek at the drawing. Because of their simplicity and justification, they are ignored by the audience, written off as unimportant. As with playing cards (discussed in the Pre-Spring Cleaning column a few issues back), if the prop is simple, ancillary, and doesnt arouse suspicion, you should be okay.
One key thing to remember is that there are very few actual effects that cant be used in a mentalism show -- its more specific incarnations of those effects that arent suited to mentalism. Let me explain with some examples.
One specific question I was asked in relation to this subject was whether the popular Mental Epic effect has a place in a mentalism show. As I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago, my answer is that it doesnt. What I mean, though, is that the version known as Mental Epic, using the gaffed, sectioned blackboard/dry erase board, shouldnt be used in a mentalism show. The basic effect, and even method, though, is a great piece for a mentalist. All you have to do is ditch the board and do it the old-fashioned way, with folded slips of paper in place of the sections of the board. Its the classic incarnation of the one-ahead principle, and it works. Why clutter it with a silly little board that looks like nothing anybody other than a magician would use?!
Recently, two methods of bending a nail have appeared on the market. As a note, I havent played with the first, so I cant speak as to method -- Im talking only from an effect standpoint. One, Super Nail, uses a nail with a black rubber sleeve around it. This is a no-no -- why the heck do you need the sleeve? More recently, Menny Lindenfields Carpenters Nightmare came out. This version bends the nail out in the open, with no covering (an earlier method for this effect is Doc Doughertys PSI Flexion, which is available from Tannens). Do you see why this one works for a mentalist where the former wont?
Now for a bit of a surprising one, ESP cards. At first glance, you might think theyd be a perfectly logical choice for a mentalist, right? WRONG! As Banachek writes in his Pre-Thoughts notes (available direct from the source at www.mentalist.com), nobodys ever seen them. While playing cards are an everyday object, ESP cards are incredibly unusual, and often will seem gimmicked to an audience since theyre not familiar with them. Again, this doesnt mean that you shouldnt do effects that use ESP cards. My suggestion for a way around this is to use blank index cards, and draw the ESP symbols on them. This way you have a completely normal seeming deck made out of everyday objects that are beyond suspicion.
As you can see, its not terribly hard to find a way to do an effect you want in a way that seems like real mentalism and not a magic trick. It just takes a little bit of effort...and as with anything in this world, that effort will pay off in the end.
Till next time,
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