Recently I was returning to my home from a series of magic events. I was tired of performing and being out on the road. I had one last stop to make at the Illusion Warehouse Magic Shop in Fort Worth and for the meeting of the SAM 138 Assembly that met in the back room there that evening. The meeting agenda was a showcase of famous magicians and their acts. I wasn’t particularly excited for this event. After all I could watch magic videos any time I wanted. As a habit, I don’t watch very many videos of other performers. I enjoy live shows much more than videos. But I am so glad that we watched these clips that evening. We saw performances of Tommy Wonder, Fred Capps, Don Alan, Channing Pollock and others.
For the first time all season I felt revived! I felt a sense of joy and eagerness to rest up and return to the road and continue my performances.
It is the magician’s job to be the face of magic to the audience. Too often is that face of magic one of complacency or even boredom! The magician who is careless with their execution of a magic routine is damaging to the art of magic and to audiences.
A magician should never perform any magic with the intent of gaining respect or worship from the audience. Too often do I see magicians perform magic with the attitude of “I can do something that you can’t do.” These magicians try to impress audiences by looking cool and they approach audiences with an attitude of what they can get from the audience instead of searching for how they can serve the audience.
A magician’s goal should always be to serve. Let’s honestly consider how much audiences really care that we chose magic as our hobby or profession. They care very little! While audiences hope to see something amazing that you can do, they are searching for an emotional experience, not to be dumbfounded, belittled nor to have their intelligence mocked. Most of all, they are NOT there to watch you out of a sense of duty. The audience owes the magician NOTHING, not even pity applause. Would you spend an hour of your evening watching a television show that you despise? No! You would change the channel or do something else with your time.
A magician serves out of joy. Audiences know when a magician is merely going through the motions and not working out of joy for what they do. A performer is CONSTANTLY communicating to the audience. As my college speech instructor would say “You cannot not communicate!” So what is it that you are communicating? If you’re not working from a place of joy, then the audience is going to know!
Let’s take a moment to define “joy” for the purposes of this writing. I’m talking about a combination of happiness as well as a sense of honor and duty towards the audience. In the English language the word “joy” has been bastardized in recent years and is now synonymous with “happiness.” By contrast, you can be “joyful” but not happy. To be joyful in magic is to work for your audience and to choose to promote an air of happiness and beauty to the audience. The word “joy” underscores my mission as I work for my audience whereas the word “happy” merely explains a temporary feeling that I may or may not have.
Furthermore, I use the word “joy” over the word happiness to explain that not all magic performances are designed to make the audience feel “happy.” Magic is an art like any other and can be used to portray a wide variety of emotions. When David Copperfield did his Death Saw illusion or his Grandpa’s Aces card effect on television the audience may have felt an array of emotions other than “happiness.” Through these routines the audience may experience fear, sadness, nostalgia, shock, compassion or a variety of other emotions before feeling happy in the end. Most magic shows have a happy and delightful ending to
them (excluding ghost shows, Halloween events, etc.) but ALL performances can be done from a place of joy despite the emotional goal of a magic routine.
Does the film Poltergeist make you feel joyful? Perhaps not. Even in the end when (spoiler alert) the Freeling family successfully retrieves their youngest daughter from the reaches of astro-diminsional limbo and escapes the house built atop a forgotten graveyard, the audience feels less “joyful” as the film fades to the closing credits. But did Steven Spielberg have a sense of joy in his mission to create this film and deliver it to audiences? Yes! It was the filmmaker’s sense of joy that brought about the completion of a classic film; however dramatic it may be.
But if joy is a vital ingredient to magic presentation, how does a magician obtain joy, practically speaking? First of all, every performer needs a mission greater than himself. Do you seek to honor God as your mission? Or perhaps you want to serve your audience by welcoming them in and introducing them to new ideas and feelings.
Beyond this, there are then two ways to bring further joy to your audience. First, by doing the magic that makes the performer happy and second by getting feedback from the audience.
The magician should carefully choose magic effects that he or she finds fascinating. These can be virtually any magic trick. Do you enjoy Six-Card Repeat? Then do it! How about the Dancing Cane? Do it! What about the Egg Bag? Then do it! If a certain magic effect brings you joy, then that is the magic you should be doing.
Of course, doing the tricks and routines you enjoy do not guarantee a five-star performance. I may enjoy performing the Zombie Ball but if I perform a routine that is far too long or in a way that exposes the gimmick; it doesn’t matter how much joy I get from doing the trick.
Alternatively, if I notice that audiences enjoy my fellow compeer’s version of The Ambitious Card, but I don’t enjoy doing that trick, I should avoid doing that piece for my audiences. The audience will know that I’m trying to do something I was not made to do.
As you look at your repertoire from a standpoint of joy in magic, here are a few common joy-stealing pitfalls to consider:
• Skill Level. Do you prefer self-working magic or sleight-of-hand? It doesn’t matter! Most of the time the audience doesn’t care if you’re performing with props, with everyday objects, or a combination thereof. If you’re using vibrantly painted props with mirrors and trapdoors, just make sure that your portrayal of that magic is still entertaining and relatable to the audience. Also make sure that the props you use to demonstrate your magical ability reflects your magic character. You won’t see David Blaine using the same colorful props that Doug Henning used. That’s because they don’t match the character of Blaine! If you disagree that stage illusions and tricky boxes can’t be used to entertain modern audiences, then that is your philosophy, and you should not perform with this kind of apparatus because it will not bring you joy!
• Worrying about what other magicians think. Unless you’re performing for other magicians don’t spend time concerning yourself with what a magician would think. Magic is for the audience, not other artists. The only times you should consider what other magicians think is if you’re in the business of performing at magic conventions or if a fellow performer offers you some “red flag advice” such as gimmicks flashing or other elements of exposure.
• OVERTHINKING elements of showmanship and theatricality. The audience wants to have fun and engage with the performer through an entertaining experience. Don’t get stuck worrying too hard about the artistic nature of your performance.
• UNDERTHINKING elements of showmanship and theatricality. Magic tricks don’t simply do themselves. Even if I could demonstrate all of the magic that David Copperfield performs it would be little more than a magic dealer’s presentation, lacking in emotional and theatrical quality. David put time and effort into using his magic to tell stories and evoke specific emotional reactions. Quality showmanship is 90% of the magic experience.
• Forgetting about the sheer joy of performing. The audience is there to experience MAGIC and not simply to see a trick. Each audience you work for is likely seeing you and possibly even any magic at all for the first time. Don’t water down the experience by being a robot. Save bad acting and a lack of enthusiasm for soap opera actors and other daytime television. You are a superhero to your audience!
• Obsessing over getting applause. If you’re trying too hard to earn the respect of the audience then you may come across as needy, under-confident or pandering to the audience. Just like a restaurant server working for tips, a magician should gently prompt or cue the audience for applause but never demand it. Upon cue, the audience will applaud as much as they feel is deserving. You can milk the applause once you have it; but don’t overdo it. Just as if you would not greatly tip a server for bad service in a restaurant the audience will not clap for you if you don’t deserve it.
• Obsessing over the business side of magic. Don’t do magic for the sole reason of getting a paycheck! Just like applause, your renumeration is only there as a “thank you” even if your contract with the client guarantees that you’ll get paid no matter the quality of the performance. If you’re doing a show just to fill your calendar and make ends meet then your audience will detect this and respond accordingly.
• Beating a dead horse. Someone once said that “there is no bad audience; only a bad performer.” I believe there is a technical term for that… ah yes, “bull crap!” If you’re doing a corporate holiday party gig and the XYZ Corporation audience is concerned about layoffs next month, then they are not going to respond well to your show! When it comes to these bad audiences you have to recall your sense of joy as you perform and serve the audience with your all, anyway.
In conclusion, approach the performance of magic with joy. If you need to remember that sense of joy, then hop on YouTube and watch your favorite classic magic routines. Love your audience and they will love you in return. Go through the mere movements of a performance and experience an unmoved audience.
Tell me your thoughts! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org You can also read past columns of Beneath the Trapdoor on my website at www.bronsonchadwick.com/trapdoor