In the past, I called my tricks “routine.” I referred to the act of developing my routines as “routining.” These terms aren’t mine. They are not exclusive to my work. I inherited these words from other magicians. While I have continued to use these words publicly for the sake of clarity, I recently abandoned them in my private notes.
Why? The truth is, I never liked those words. Routine is about the most horrible way you can describe art. It’s akin to calling your mom “a sturdy woman.” Extra points to those listeners or readers who thought of M*A*S*H just now.
Magic performances are not routine, no matter how well rehearsed. A routine is something you do before going on stage—to prepare for performance. A routine is something you do before work in the morning, and it usually involves a lot of time in the bathroom. Routine becomes rut, which becomes a midlife crisis. Two crooks blaming a crime on each other is one cop saying to the other, “You know the routine.”
The term has always felt like chewing on aluminum foil to me. It stings even worse here lately.
A few years ago, I started adapting one of my short stories, Baby in the Box, into a play. About the same time, I started writing a new story specifically for the stage. Over the past two years, I have been working heavily in theatre in some capacity—stage crew, director, actor; my brain immersed in theatrical storytelling; where the magic is important, but different.
In this theatre world, never once have I heard the word routine. Yet, much of the action, much of the work in theatre and in playwriting is the same as in the magic world. And think about it. Comparing theatre to performing magic isn’t far-fetched—magic is a type of theatre. It’s not like we’re comparing MTV to something in the music industry. That would be insane!
Here’s the sting. I come away from my theatrical work, and now when I’m brainstorming a magic sequence, “I’m working on a routine.” I am “routining.” It hurts. To go from adventure to routine is to go from anything is possible to nothing is impossible. Words and phrases that we use not realizing how limiting they can be. How these words may impede our work is overlooked.
A “routine”—a good one at least—has a beginning, middle, and end. It introduces the props and/or characters, it sets up the magic. Creates the illusion. Climaxes and resolves. Viola! Applause. Curtain.
That’s called a scene.
And there is no such thing as “scening.”
Scenes are composed.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a routine is a “regular course or procedure.” How boring. It makes me think of the multi-page instruction booklets Howard Hughes drafted for his cook staff detailing how to open tin cans in a sterile manner. Yet this word, routine, is in our heads—for some of us at least—during the very act of creating art. Art! Not plucking feathers from a chicken. Not mopping the floor. Not washing the car. Art!
On the other hand, a scene is “a sequence of continuous action,” and “compose” means to “write or create (a work of art, especially music or poetry).” Compose is from the late Middle English, “put together, construct.” Compose is create . . . ive. Routine is following directions, or a public display of OCD for the sake of entertainment.
You may think I’m splitting hairs. But today, I think of my “routines” as scenes, and rather than “routining,” I compose. The difference is new energy. The difference is art without banality.
This has done wonders for my work, especially at the performance level. Eventually, these new techniques will infiltrate my marketed products. In a way it already has. I had a series of items planned for early this year, but I delayed them so that I could apply this manner of thinking—not just using the words composing and scene, as I have been in that mindset as a writer for years—but the realizations that have come along with removing certain words and limiting factors from my magic vocabulary. The two mentioned thus far, and some I’m saving for a future episode.
Also, the difference between “compose” and “composition” is worth discussing. The latter being the Methods category title for this essay. I did this on purpose. Composition is both the nature of a thing’s ingredients, and the act of constructing the thing in the first place.
Composition is not only what we put into our magic, but the act of mixing it all together into art.
My transformation isn’t complete. I still use the words routine and routining. It’s an accident a majority of the time. There are those moments though when I use them for clarity when speaking with other magicians. Now, I’ll use what I feel are the more appropriate terms, and point to this essay when there isn’t time to explain my position in person or on a social media outlet.
As this blog and podcast progresses, I am going to try my best to break the habit of referring to the act of building an effect—a scene—as “routining.” Instead, I will refer to it as composing. Perhaps you will too. Or you’ll disagree with me in the comments and we can learn about this process together.
There is nothing routine about art, if its real and imaginative and if it makes you feel.