If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me “How did you do that?”, I’d have enough money to run for President! Some magicians just give a pat answer “It’s Magic” or “It’s a secret”, leaving it up the audience to reply, in unison, “And magicians never tell their secrets”. Then there are the clever responses like, “You promise not to tell? So, did I”, or “If I told you I’d have to kill you”. (FYI - no actual killings have ever been reported.) Of course, one must wonder that if magician’s never reveal their secrets, where do new magicians come from (Ask the Shakers)
But why DON’T we tell our secrets? Is it a secret pledge that every magician takes, before they are sold their first Dove Pan? Is magic a secret society, with elaborate secret handshakes and rituals, where, in a candle lit cavern, we swear not to ever discuss the workings of an Egg Bag? Well, actually most magicians would say it’s simply ethics. One does not break the implicit covenant with other magicians not to reveal the secret workings of the trade. Some say it is because knowing the secret would ruin it for the audience, destroying their sense of amazement and wonder.
I say both of these are true. But another reason, one that is harder to grasp, and therefore harder to describe, must be brought forward. The reason I don’t reveal magical secrets is not because the secret is so valuable, but rather because it is so worthless. To explain, I must first define what I mean as the “secret”. Most lay people, and even some magicians, think the secret-not-to-be-revealed is the physical working of the trick – the pass, the gaff, the holdout, the load. And I have to admit that if a lay person was shown some of these tools they might be satisfied that they know how the trick is done. BUT THEY DON’T! They only know a small, easily shown part of the secret.
What can’t be revealed is the other 80% of the work that goes into making an audience feel it has witnessed “Magic”. The set-up, the story, the persona, the psychology, and all of the theatrical arts (sightlines, lighting, focus, etc.) that must be considered and mastered before one attempts to transport the audience into the world of magic. All of these are the skeleton upon which we build our tricks and our show.
None of this would be even mildly interesting to the person who says, “How did you do that?” They would slowly back away before you reached the part about how you can misdirect with your voice. And even if you revealed the move, or gaff, or load, they would still never be able to duplicate the effect. Because aside from the hours of practicing and preparation, they wouldn’t have the theatrical skill to present it in an effective and convincing way.
So, the “secret” is actually worthless to them. They would merely get an incomplete idea of how you fooled them. The audience is not equipped to understand what it takes to make a trick “magical”. However, they ARE well equipped to experience the amazing feeling that something magical has just taken place. And for this reason, we adore and cherish them.