Thought For The Week December 29. 2008
"The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend." -- Henry Bergson
You tend to see what you expect to see. Sometimes I reread something immediately after writing it and think it is perfect. I know what I intended to write so that is what I see. Then when I read it again days later, or sometimes weeks later when an article has been published in a magazine, I am embarrassed by all the errors that slipped by. It is only after enough time has passed that I forgot what I thought was there that I see what is really there.
Here is how I applied that in a circus routine. I enter carrying a tray with a wicker basket on it. The basket's lid is slightly ajar because the end of a flute is sticking out of the basket. I transfer the basket to a table, and then turn up the tray revealing that it is actually a sign that says, "Danger Baby Rattler." I was surprised how many times young children would ask a parent to read the sign for them, and the adult would respond, "It says, 'Danger Baby Rattlesnake." That is not what it says, but because the appearance of the props started them thinking about a snake charmer that is what they saw. I cautiously open the lid, reach into the basket, and jerk my hand back suddenly. Then I quickly snatch the flute. When I begin playing the flute, a toy baby's rattle floats up out of the basket. (The rattle is attached to the end of the flute with fishing line.) That routine gets a big laugh from the adults because they have snake charming firmly fixed in their mind which increases the surprise when the toy appears. I have seen performers do a similar routine with a brief case. They have the sign painted on the lid of the case, and then open it to reveal the toy. I don't think that is as effective a presentation because the audience has not started thinking about snake charming. The audience does not know what is in the case, but they aren't expecting a snake so there is less of a surprise that it is something else.
When I was performing my snowman packet card trick, one of the kids asked me if I could throw a card depicting the snowman up in the air and make it disappear. I took the card with the snowman off the packet, and raised my hand as if to throw it, and then brought it back down. I raised the hand containing the card a second time, and brought it back down again. I raised the hand a third time in a throwing action and opened my hand. The child was amazed because the card apparently vanished in midair. What actually happened is that when I lowered my hand the second time I put the card back on top of the packet. Then I immediately made a throwing motion with the empty hand. However because the child expected to see the card in my hand that is what they thought they saw. I followed the flight of the imaginary card up into the air to reinforce the idea that was what happened. (That impromptu effect was based on one I remember learning as a child.)
I decided to experiment one time while teaching how to do a French Drop with a coin in a sleight of hand class. In that sleight I hold the object in my right hand, act like I am taking it in my left hand, and then open my left hand showing that the object is gone. I had demonstrated the sleight several times. Then I performed it again, opened my left hand showing it was empty, and immediately opened my right hand showing that it was also empty. My students couldn't figure out where the coin had gone. In reality there had not been a coin. I had pretended to pick one up, and then pretended to do the sleight with the imaginary coin. Because they had repeatedly seen a coin in my right hand, my students expected to see a coin in my right hand, so that is what they thought they had seen. My point in doing it that way was to demonstrate that what the audience comprehends is more important than what actually happens. If the audience does not comprehend that there is a coin in your hand they are not surprised when you reveal that there isn't any coin in your hand. If you don't make sure the audience understands what is supposed to be happening, they won't see it. However, if you make them think something happens it does not actually have to occur. You don't have to have a coin if they think you do.
How can you make sure the audience comprehends what you want them to? How can you make sure everything is clear? How can you take advantage of people seeing what they expect to see? How can you make the expectation stronger?