Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Little Magic in Amsterdam

Street performers are in many ways components of a city. A street musician might add to the mood of the city, or a street artist might paint himself/herself completely white and hold still in a position for minutes to transform into a kind of sculpture. The real effect of a street performance comes in how it might redirect the path of an unsuspecting passerby and change something about his/her day.

Mark is a street magician who makes things disappear and performs seemingly impossible escapes. Aside from his actual magic tricks, what is truly magical is his ability to draw and sustain a crowd. While the technical aspects of his magic show were basic, he treated the holistic act as an elaborate performance.

I walked through Dam Square to find a crowd of about one hundred people gathered in a circle. Curious, I made my way to the inner edge of the circle to see what was attracting everyone. The most surprising part was that the performance had not even begun.

In the center was a single man dressed in black. He had a microphone, a juggler’s fire club, a bull whip, and a box of supplies. He introduced himself as Mark. At this point, he was still setting up. He laid out a rope to set boundaries for a stage, all while talking to and engaging with the crowd. Though the magic tricks had not officially started, his show already had. In fact, I did not know what kind of show or what kind of art he would deliver, and neither did most of the audience. But the suspense played to his advantage. People were going to a show for which they did not even know the content. It was the intrigue that was drawing people in, and Mark’s “small talk” with the observing crowd kept everyone present and rapt. 

Mark kept his discourse very casual and even vulgar. He called out different members of the audience and made fun of age, sexual orientation, race, and really anything remotely sexual. It worked: the crowd laughed and, more importantly, stayed to watch. At this point, he functioned more as comedian than magician. It was effective: the objects he had as a magician, the fire club and the bull whip, served as a hook, and his jokes made sure the crowd did not wander off. Amusingly, the fire club and whip were not used in his magic tricks. He merely lit the club ablaze and cracked the whip to generate curiosity and draw the crowd.

I did not know that this show would last over an hour. In that span Mark only presented two tricks. If I had known that I might not have stayed. I expect the same of most of the crowd. But it was the anticipation that kept the crowd locked. The magic part of the show did not happen until about half an hour in, and when it did, it was slow progressing (in terms of pace and duration, not energy). The trick was to transform a 5 Euro bill into 10 Euros in plain sight. The slow pace played to Mark’s advantage. The trick itself would have lasted seconds, but his comedic side built great anticipation—making a small trick much bigger than it seemed.

The next trick, his main act, involved escaping from a straitjacket. By this point the crowd had nearly tripled. More people came to watch, and everyone got closer to Mark’s makeshift stage. By this time, the crowd, once timid and reluctant to volunteer when Mark called on them, was engaged. Spending so much time during the build-up not only generated greater and greater crowd anticipation, but it had also weeded out those who were passing by from those who truly wanted to see a show. As such, Mark was able to tailor his audience.

Mark performing the straitjacket escape

I had been a hobbyist magician when I was younger and had seen a lot of magic shows. The two tricks that Mark had performed were ones that I had seen before. The tricks were not completely original, and from a magician’s technical point of view, they were not spectacular. Nevertheless, Mark was a true crowd-pleaser. When I had talked to him about his show, he explained that he was there almost everyday. When I asked if he used the same magic tricks, he gave a very indirect answer: his shows really depend on the energy of the audience. Today, in his words, Mark succeeded in his attempt to “…have a crowd, [and] turn it into an audience.” He had generated a kind of trust with them. At the end, right as he was about to make his straitjacket escape, he brought up the topic of money and tips. He apologized when mentioning it but still demanded respect. He wanted money on the order of 10-50 Euros. If you only had some change, he did not want it. Mark compared it to a performance at a bar. His self-valuation was a smart psychological move—it showed that he kept his show to a certain standard and, as a result, the audience treated it by that same standard. They did not feel the performance was a street stunt, but rather a show in which the magician chose to set the stage on the street.

What an atmosphere Mark had created! There was a moment when he discussed that he was merely trying to give people a good time. Mark wanted to bring strangers together shoulder to shoulder and have some fun together, rather than fighting wars over differences. That seemed so Amsterdam of him. If Amsterdam is the leading model for tolerance, then this show was a prime example of the city’s culture. Perhaps it is this underlying theme that helped him gather such a large crowd and keep them in place when they could be spending an hour doing something else. People arrived from Centraal Station to experience Amsterdam. That is what they did at Mark’s street performance.

So the question is: Do you want to see Amsterdam? Do you want to feel what Amsterdam is like? Wander around Dam Square and maybe you will bump into a little unexpected magic. 

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