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  • Nicholas J Johnson

Why so many Melbourne audiences are falling in love with close up magic

Every month, I run an evening of close up magic with four of my magician buddies at The Laneway Theatre in Northcote. And every month, this is what I end up seeing when I log in to the ticketing system:

Why in the hell is close up magic suddenly so popular?

Magicians have always known that seeing magic performed up close and personal is something special. I love the box jumpers and white tigers as much as the next conjurer, but they can’t hold a candle to the pure artistry of a well-handled deck of cards. The magic is happening right in your hands, under your nose.

Close up magicians work out of their pockets (and sometimes their sleeves) using objects like playing cards, coins, rubber bands, and rings. Even your iPhone can be magically unlocked, or vanished into the ether or instantly sealed in a balloon.

Close up happens on the knife’s edge, where every millimetre counts. One slightly skewed playing card or misplaced pinkie can turn a perfect illusion into an embarrassing mess. It is a world where your audience won’t just heckle you, they will reach out and grab the props from your hand.

Close up magic was born at the card table where cunning cheats practiced sleight of hand not to amaze but to cheat. This means that the techniques of the close-up magic have been honed in an arena where a mistake can be met with jail or death. I screw a card trick and the audience boo’s. If George Devol, the famed riverboat cheat, screwed up the same sleight, he would have been thrown overboard.

It is thrilling to watch and even more thrilling to perform. But why the suddenly popularly?

The internet definitely plays a role in micro magic’s current rise in status. By its very nature, close up magic can only be performed for a few people at a time. The props are small and the miracles minor. But youtube and Instagram have allowed close up magicians to reach massive audiences.

Likewise, television shows like Penn & Teller’s Fool Us have allowed close up magicians to appear each week on the small screen, judged by two of the best in the business. Even the Got Talent franchise that previously rewarded grand illusions like Costantino are letting close up magicians share their talents, allowing a single deck of cards fill the enormous stage.

But watching close up magic on a screen only gives you a taste. To experience the real deal, you need to get real close. And that only happens in real life.

And that’s why when I perform at cocktail parties and corporate functions, it is so much easier to draw audiences in. When I first started out in this business, half of my job was convincing my audience that I was worth watching. “What the hell is a close-up magician?” the audience would ask. Now, I have to ask them to form an orderly line.

And that’s why Sleight Night sells out every month. And why more and more magicians are putting on close up magic shows at the Melbourne Magic Festival.

So get amongst it. Slow down for a busker on Swanston Street and check out his cup and balls. Seek out the dude doing coin tricks at your work Christmas party. Give a few minutes to the teenager clutching the deck of cards and the well-worn copy of Expert at the Card Table.

Or maybe try and book a seat at the table for Sleight Night

Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, and con artist.


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