The Beauty of Imperfection

Dear Friends:

Those of you who frequent our Mystery School Monday webcasts will no doubt recognize the thoughtful ruminations of this month’s guest columnist, Stonewick. We greatly appreciate his work on behalf of our community!

I recently led an online discussion on one of my personal “Books of Gold.” That book is “Intimate Power” by Eugene Burger. (1983). There is a simple, yet wonderful piece of Mentalism taught in the book, that exemplifies how the ideas outlined in earlier chapters come together in a complete and scripted piece. One of the interesting aspects of the effect is the intentional error made at the end by the performer. It is a very small error. One that does not reduce the “impossibility” of the prediction, but, through this small error, a ring of truth is brought to the fore. It is a near miss that actually strengthens the effect because of the error.

I know that our teacher Eugene Burger was very much in tune with Eastern Philosophy. So I must assume he had the concept Wabi-Sabi in mind when he performed this piece of magic.

For those who may not be familiar with the term, Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic. It loosely translates to…Beautiful Imperfection. It is meant to reflect the impermanence, rustic simplicity, and incompleteness of a thing. Besides, (at least in my view) perfection tends to be a little boring anyway.

Hand in hand with the concept of Wabi Sabi is the Japanese craft of Kintsugi.

There is legend from the 14th century of a Japanese Shogun, (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu) who, after breaking his favorite tea bowl, sent it off to China to be repaired. Upon its return the Shogun was dismayed with the ugly metal staples used to hold it together. He charged his own craftsmen with coming up with a more elegant solution. The craftsmen prepared an epoxy mixed with gold dust. Rather than trying to hide the bowl’s injuries, the cracks joining the broken pieces were emphasized and made to shine out in gold. Kintsugi highlights, and even celebrates, imperfection and brokenness.

The art of Kintsugi, as you might imagine, applies not just to pottery, but to people too. After all, we are, all of us, broken people in a broken world.

So how might Wabi Sabi and Kintsugi play out in entertainment? Three characters come to my mind right away. Although I am sure you will think of many better examples.

Someone looking at Orson Welles might think…” That is a big guy” …and they would be right. But Orson Welles’ girth gave him the gravitas and authority that was his brand. If Orson Welles had been a slender man, our impression of him would be entirely different. TV detective Columbo also comes to mind. We remember him from his smelly stub of a cigar, rumpled raincoat and his never-ending questions. Yet in spite of his off-putting appearance and manner, (or perhaps because of it) he annoyed and badgered his suspects to the degree that they would expose their hand, and eventually have to confess to their criminal deeds. Then there is Don Knotts. Not a particularly handsome man, yet he made a career of playing awkward, cowardly, yet lovable characters.

It seems that the more flawed and broken a character is, while still remaining believable, the more impact they make on us. We don’t love them in spite of their flaws. We love them because of their very visible cracks and imperfections.

So what does that mean for us as magicians? We are each playing a character. Some very much like our true selves, and some totally “out there.” Although there are many rich examples, the first modern magical performer that comes to my mind in this regard is Rob Zabrecky. Watch any Zabrecky performance, and you are witnessing a master class in highly impactful character presentation: Wabi-Sabi in all its delicious colors.

 I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I will ask you the same question I ask myself nearly every day: What does Wabi-Sabi mean to you in terms of performance magic? What is your own personal Kintsugi? Whether it is part of your true self, or something specifically manufactured for your performing character, what is your sublime imperfection? And how do you mix it with gold, so it shines out loud in all of its broken beauty?

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