The past day or two, this video has been making its rounds on social media. If you're in the magic community you're very likely to have seen it by now. It depicts a magician from Poland who hurts the female show host's hand by accident during a performance of a "Spike Roulette" routine.
Before I get on with the blog post, you should maybe watch the video if you haven't done so already. I warn you, the content is graphic and disturbing, and the show host is clearly in great pain. If you're squeamish or uncomfortable watching these things, then don't, as I will briefly describe it below.
Okay. I'm just going to say it. What the fuck was he thinking?
For those of you that didn't watch the video, he is performing a sort of "spike roulette", a game in which there is a spike hidden in one of three or four bags, which are shuffled and mixed around so that the performer does not know where they are. He then takes a risk by slamming his hand down on all but one of the bags, leaving the one with the spike in for last and he gets away unharmed.
I've never been very fond of these types of routines for many reasons, but it's not the trick itself that has the blame here. It is the performer, and the performer alone. It's him, his incompetence and his inability to take responsibility.
First of all. If you are going to perform a piece where there is an element of danger, a chance of someone getting hurt - you never, and I repeat never use your spectator for that. It doesn't matter if there is no actual risk involved and the method is safe - as long as there is perceived risk, you are being irresponsible for (apparently) putting your spectator in harm's way. You're supposed to be a professional entertainer. Risking your spectator's health and limbs is not entertaining, it is stupid, unprofessional, pathetic and irresponsible.
If you are a professional entertainer and your approach is involving danger in your act somehow, then it is also expected of you that that danger is your problem, and yours alone. You're the one that knows the risks involved, so you take them. You can't make someone else suffer for your irresponsibility.
I happen to know the specific method used in this trick, and that makes this video all the more shocking to me. Without divulging any specifics, it is designed in such a way that as a performer you are 100% in charge of the outcome and you always know where the spike will be, as long as you do it correctly. In theory this is so safe that a 10 year old could successfully and safely perform it a hundred times in a row, once they know the trick. The only thing that could cause anything like this to happen is negligence and human error from the performer.
Nevertheless, no matter how certain you are that your method is safe and that you have done everything correctly, there is still inherent risk. Even if that risk is very very small, it's there. You always have to account for human error and you have to be prepared for that. Which is why you should always take responsibility yourself if you choose to perform a piece like this.
Penn & Teller has a bit in their Las Vegas show about this, in which Penn uses a nail gun to shoot nails into a piece of wood. However, the strip of nails that feeds into the gun doesn't have nails in every slot, and Penn has supposedly memorized the order of nails and blank slots, so that he fires every nail into the board and every "blank" into the palm of his hand. An error would be disastrous. However, as we learn, this piece only exists to prove a point, and the point is that doing something even with perceived risk, is extremely irresponsible and disrespectful to ourselves and our audience. In this context, Penn's feat seizes to be "risky" and becomes an impressive illusion and a profound message. The tense feeling of "Oh, is he going to screw it up?", however, lasts. Even if you reveal that it is all just a trick, it doesn't negate the tension and the suspense you felt moments earlier. I feel that's the way to approach it.
I feel being irresponsible in this regard extends so much further than just performance pieces that involve danger.
Just think about how many magicians are out there, doing bad magic and humiliating their spectators. I'm sure if you think about it for a few moments you'll think of some acts and performers that you've seen humiliate and embarrass their audience. Some even treat their audience members as props. Some might be inexperienced, some might be tactless, some are trying for a character and an approach they can't pull off, some might just have poor social skills, but the thing that they all have in common is that they are irresponsible.
As entertainers we are responsible for making our audience feel good. We want them to feel taken care of, we want them to feel respected and appreciated, and we want to draw them into our world, where they experience incredible things. They've been gracious enough to give us their time, attention, trust and money - so I feel at that point we are obligated to take care of our audience. Without them we'd be nothing. So that's where I am coming from when I say that doing bad, humiliating, embarrassing, awkward and - yes, dangerous magic, is irresponsible.
And before I finish this article.. No, I didn't forget about that guy in the video. He's obviously irresponsible. But he's also probably an idiot, and he's negligent. He doesn't take care of his audience, he uses her as a prop, he puts her in harm's way, he injures her thanks to his failure to do his job properly and respect the trick for what it is - and he doesn't deal with it very well once it happens, either. Unfortunately he is everything that is wrong with magic today, and people like him are the reason some people look down on this branch of entertainment. But if you're reading this blog we might be on the right track. Hopefully we can change that together.
Let's just be aware of how we can make our audiences truly enjoy the time that they spend with us. How can we involve them in a way that is rich, meaningful and interesting to them? How can we make them feel appreciated, understood and valued? How can we interact with the audience in a way that is worthy of their time and their attention?
Certainly not by making hack jokes about which hand is the clean one, and stabbing a spike through their hand.
Try again, and please get it right.