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Managing the audience's attention is the aim of all theater, it is the foremost requirement of theatrical magic. Whether the magic is of a "pocket trick" variety, or, a large stage production, misdirection is the central secret of all magic.
Though it is difficult to say who first coined the term "misdirection," an early reference was made by an influential performer and writer, Nevil Maskelyne, "It consists admittedly in misleading the spectator's senses, in order to screen from detection certain details for which secrecy is required." (Our Magic, page 117, second edition copyright 1946)
Around the same time, magician, artist and author Harlan Tarbell noted, "Nearly the whole art of sleight of hand depends on this art of misdirection." (Harlan Tarbell, The Tarbell Course in Magic Vol. 1)
"The central secret of conjuring...is a manipulation of interest." (Henry Hay, The Amateur Magicians Handbook, pg. 2, copyright 1972). The term is used to describe either the effect (the victim's focus on an unimportant object) or the sleight of hand or patter (the magician's speech) that creates it.
There are two basic ways to "misdirect" your audience; one is time-sensitive, the other isn't.
The time-sensitive approach encourages the audience to look away for a fleeting moment, so that the sleight or move may be accomplished undetected.
The other approach has much to do with re-framing the audience's perception, and perhaps very little to do with the senses. The minds of the audience members are distracted into thinking that an extraneous factor has much to do with the accomplishment of the feat, whereas it really doesn't have any bearing on the effect at all. "The true skill of the magician is in the skill he exhibits in influencing the spectators mind." (Dariel Fitzkee, Magic by Misdirection, pg. 33, copyright 1975).
In his influential and scholarly The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians, pg. 232, copyright 1988, author T.A. Waters wrote, "Misdirection is the cornerstone of nearly all successful magic; without it, even the most skilled Sleight of Hand or mechanical device is unlikely to create an illusion of real magic."
Misdirection takes advantage of the limits of the human mind in order to give the wrong picture and memory. The mind of a typical audience member can only concentrate on one thing at a time. The magician uses this to manipulate the audience's ideas, or, perceptions of sensory input, leading them to draw false conclusions.
The Audiences attention may be directed in various ways. In the book, "The Secret Art of Magic", authors Eric Evans and Nowlin Craver posit the theorem that Magic is directly related to warfare, and relies upon the same principles for success. Sun Tzu's "Art of War" is referenced showing how deception is essential to any successful campaign. What is more, Mr. Craver goes on to illustrate, through the 36 strategies, how they form a blueprint for every known method of Misdirection.
In his book Principles and Deceptions (copyright 1948, page 27) Arthur Buckley questioned the accuracy of the term. Since that time, magicians have debated the use of the term "misdirection", thereby creating a great deal of discussion about what it is, and how it works.
Buckley drew the distinction between misdirection and "direction". One being a negative term, and the other a positive one. Yet ultimately, he equates the two as the same thing – "If a performer by some means has directed the thoughts of his audience to the conclusion that he has done something which he has not done, he has wrongly directed them into this belief, hence, misdirection."
It was left to a Jacobus Maria Bemelman, under the stage name "Tommy Wonder" (writing in his book The Books of Wonder Volume I, copyright 1996), to point out that it is much more effective, from the magician's point of view, to concentrate on the positive aim of directing the audiences attention. On page 11 he writes, "Misdirection implies 'wrong' direction. It suggests that attention is directed away from something. By constantly using this term, it eventually becomes so ingrained in our minds that we might start to perceive misdirection as directing attention away from rather than toward something."
Among the magicians who have researched and evolved misdirection techniques are John Ramsay, Tommy Wonder, Derren Brown, Juan Tamariz, Tom Stone, Tony Slydini and Dai Vernon.
- The 36 Strategems
- Ganson, Lewis. The Magic of Slydini, Harry Stanly Publishing, London, 1968.