Friday, 4 January 2013

Talent and Theory

{The following ideas are inspired by Tommy Wonder's Book of Wonders Vol.1. See Mr Wonder in action here.

For those of you unfamiliar with these works they have been described as such:
Never has there been a more articulate manifesto declaring magic a true art. And never has one man offered a more detailed and coherent plan for achieving art by the practice of magic.

The point has been made again and again, with various paths of reasoning, that to theorize about the arts of the Showman is a waste of time. Talented Showmen don't need theoretical knowledge to create their acts. The good ones just know what's right. They simply go with the flow and follow what they feel is right. And no amount of theoretical knowledge will land you a great act if theory is all you have. In the following post we will examine these proclamations and the value of intuition vs theory.


These are valid points and are raised by Tommy Wonder in his first chapters. A certain amount of instinct, or talent, as Wonder calls it, is needed to get anywhere with your act.
Anyone can create an act but not everyone can create a great act. A great act excels not only in its originality, but also in its execution and in its connection with the Crowd. Great act are often described by those who have witnessed them with a feeling that words can't describe what they saw. They are experiences that you "really have to be there," to fully grasp. (Something which I believe, in these times of the internet, TV and radio has. The time for societies desire for live experiences by Master Showmen has returned again.)
After performing my signature act people often ask: How did you know that you could do that? As if they think the act was something I woke up one morning and did. But the truth is, Great Acts does not spring from nothing. There is no spontaneous generation of great acts. All acts you see are this way because of the hard work, endless shows and rehearsals of the Showman. The repetition of, for example magic tricks, make them into experiences of true astonishment in the minds of Crowds, no matter its size. No amount of talent makes for a great act without development. For talent is also not something that springs from nowhere. Talent develops. You can polish and amplify your talents and make whatever little talent you have shine. Tommy Wonder likens it to a diamond.
The raw diamond of talent.
"Talent is like a raw diamond. An uncut diamond is not particularly interesting, but once it is polished to perfection it becomes a thing of beauty. The same is true of talent. The more talent, the bigger the raw diamond, the better one can become. But it still requires polishing."
But what is talent? I guess it might be a cousin of Charisma, something we have looked into previously on this blog.
It is an elusive thing. Hard to pin down. It is that certain something that makes a Showman captivating. Be it his way of swearing and spitting but yet somehow being nice, the way he fumbles his way through his act yet remains in full controll, the way she makes people laugh at themselves by making you laugh at her, the thing that makes a joke told by one person bring the house down with laughter and told by another elicits nothing but groans. It is a person's schtick.
I think talent might be connected to truth, and truthfulness, (see Originality post for more on this). Talent could be what makes something appear as truth when presented by someone. It is that something that makes the Crowd feel like the material of the Showman springs from his heart.
It is the expression of the Little Candle of enthusiasm that burns in a young Showman's heart. When a budding Showman acts on this burning feeling to step up and face the others the first expression is interesting and captivating, like a toddler playing the violin or a precocious reader reciting Shakespeare, it has novelty and a naive truth. Something I recognize in myself when I look at early footage of myself performing. Many of the themes and feelings that I would develop and explore are already there, but only dimly and crudely.


Tommy Wonder does not believe that you can be a Showman without talent, but he also believes that everybody has some talent. Not everybody has been endowed liberally, but there is talent in everybody. To Mr Wonder it is important that a Novice Showman, not gets bogged down in how big their raw diamond is, but rather focuses on how to polish what they have to perfection. I find this a fascinating thought.
Mr. Wonder also warns Showmen not to use their supposed lack of talent as an excuse for not polishing what they have. For in Showmanship as in life we will get nowhere if we worry by comparing ourselves to others. You are but one person and the world is filled by many Masters in many fields, if you compare your talent to their talents in their respective fields you will always fall short. This is no Way to go through life. It is a game that can't be won. Instead we should undertake the challenge of finding and defining our talent and get to work on refining it. Polishing that Raw Diamond will make your act great and will step by step lead you toward Master Showmanship.

How to Polish

The best way to make the raw diamond shine is to do shows. Perform the act as much as possible. Under as many different conditions as you dare. As innocence turns to experience you will develop a feeling for what is right for you. The more experience you have as a Showman the stronger this feeling will become. Developed enough you should be able to form ideas for acts and how you should do them simply by imagining it. As you then take the stage with your new ideas you will feel whether your thinking was right and what you should do to improve. This experience becomes you guiding compass and you choose your way by a feeling that doing it a certain way is "just right" as Wonder calls it. It's as simple, yet as complicated as that. Its the wisdom that only comes from doing it for 10.000 hours.


Many performers does not go beyond this indistinct feeling of things being just right. It is unclear to them why what they do is working or not. They are inventors of the Edison school rather than Tesla. Both get there in the end. The feeling is absolutely necessary for any showman that wants to become a Master of his Craft. It is as mentioned his compass. But there is more to exploration and journeying than the compass, there is the map. Maps are drawn out by those that have perused these landscapes before. It is those that have not only topographically understood it but also knows the ways and more importantly knows the shortcuts. The sum of collected and well thought out recounts of experiences and previous explorations of your chosen territory have always been tackled before. General ideas and skills which has been synthesized by early Masters and these maps are the theory. Another invaluable tool in the Showman's toolbox. 
The development of your inner compass is absolutely essential on the way to Mastery and it must always be developed with more direct experience, ie. doing shows and practicing.

Your compass will guide you through the territory of theory. But if your compass is already pointing out the way what good is the map of theory? If you think you have nothing to learn that others can teach you, you obviously haven't read enough or met enough people. Theory can help you understand why something you feel is right is right. There are patterns and lessons that synthesizes structures of routines, ways shows should run and tricks should be learnt. Without these lessons you will be stabbing in the darkness all alone. You might get there, but often you as you get there you realize there are Showmen waiting for you that could have gotten you to the top of the mountain much quicker and thereby given you the opportunity to spend your time and energy to climb beyond them rather than catching up.
"After your intuition tells you what to do, theory can become a great aid. Once you have decided that something feels particularly right, thought guided by theory can give you important insight concerning your decision. Understanding why something feels right can lead you to more precise or effective utilization of your insight. ... Intuition is a great step towards accomplishing good magic, but intuition alone is unlikely to achieve the full potential of the ideas it generates." {T. Wonder}

The seed comes from you

Let your compass guide you to where you want to go. Then study what you can about the matters to get as far as you can with your idea.
Let it start with your feeling. When your idea for an act feels just right you will know you have something to work with. Theory and suggestions from elders and others will not make a great act without the initial input of your feeling and belief in your idea. Your feeling for what is right for you is the foundation upon where to build your finished act but theory is needed to fully form and finish it.

Intuition first; theory second. This progression is essential!
 It is important to remember that theory is not just something you get from others. It is not some infallible wisdom passed down as religion and to be taken dogmatic. You yourself create theories by analyzing why your own work works. If you take a step back and look at what your favorite, or your audiences favorite, routines and comparing them you might be able to gleam some piece of wisdom from them. Your creations are not just random events. They are the way they are due to the pressure of natural selection with your audience serving the role of death. If the crowd doesn't like it, your acts die. With experience you will be able to see why your material is working and what it is in each act that makes that work. Is it what you say, how you say it, the way you use your face, the way you interact with the Crowd, all this knowledge is the building blocks of your own theories. The theories only you can perfect, the theory of what made you a great Showman. Polish your talent and your theories.

Don't just do, think about what you do. This makes the Crowd think.

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