Reviving the Wonder
Known for constructing original, mind-blowing material that easily fits into any professional repertoire; Caleb is also one of the best teachers of magic. Want to learn more? Check out his fantastic blog for magicians, and you can also find him on Twitter.
As a magician, I know you have experienced one of those nights where everything seems to go perfectly. Every trick is well received, your spectators are engaged, and the magic mood is in the air. You try out your new favorite routine, and your audience goes nuts. You are the MAN!
Unfortunately, I know you have also had those times where everything seems to fall apart. You drop your thumbtip, your jumbo Chinese coin falls to the floor, and your Invisible Deck makes all the odd numbered cards disappear. Don’t worry; I’ve been there... on more than one occasion. Every magician has failed at one point or another. Fortunately when we do, it is usually fairly easy to determine what needs to be done to prevent our errors from repeating themselves.
However, sometimes our failures are not so complete. Sometimes we seem to be doing everything we should: we get through the night without any major disasters but something just doesn’t seem right. This article is aimed at addressing those times when your routines may not fail, but the audience reaction is less than you would expect. More specifically, I want to investigate why a trick may get a great reaction when you first start performing it, but begins to fade with time.
On the surface, one might expect that the audience reaction and the amount of time you’ve been performing a routine would be positively correlated. It seems reasonable that the more time you spend performing an item, the better you will be, and the better your audience will react. This is often the case, but at other times, it seems as if your audiences, in general, have lost interest in a particular effect. What do you do?
First you must decide if the audiences really are reacting to a trick with less enthusiasm. After all, it is possible that it is all in your head. Consider the similarities between a magician and a drug addict. Don’t stop reading just yet. I promise I have a valid reason for that outrageous comparison. Think about it; both are definitely adrenaline junkies. When you first begin to perform magic, any audience reaction is considered a success, a “high.” However, as you mature as a performer and gain experience working with people, the audience reactions grow. It takes a greater and greater response to feel that “high” again. This phenomenon may cause you to feel that your audiences, in general, are reacting with less energy than before.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose you are right about your audiences. Perhaps they are not reacting well to a specific trick even though it seems they used to love it. I’ll share a personal example. When I first began performing simple card tricks for family and friends, they were impressed that I had taken the time to study magic, but they were never completely astonished. However, the first time I ever performed a simple silk vanish using a thumbtip, my friends went crazy. Sure they knew I could find a selected card, but this was like real magic.
I will never forget the first time I performed the effect for one particular friend. After I made the little orange handkerchief disappear into thin air, she became very excited. She grabbed the first object she could find, in this case an 8½ by 11 inch cardboard folder, and exclaimed, “Quick, make this disappear.” The event was comical, but it illustrates just how powerful the effect can be. Later, when I began performing the routine for children in my restaurant work, the families were entertained, but I never received reactions that rivaled the initial responses of my family and friends. Why, after I had practiced and mastered the routine, did the trick not receive as strong of a reaction? I have come up with a list of reasons that I think may explain the situation.
First, when I performed the silk vanish for my family, they were not expecting a miracle. In fact, they had never before seen me perform something that would qualify as more than a puzzle or clever sleight of hand. I was an amateur just beginning my magic journey. They still pictured me as a goofy kid who had read a few children’s magic books. However, the families at the restaurants viewed me differently. To them, I was a professional magician; they expected to see something truly magical. After all, they have seen magicians vanish the Statue of Liberty and float across the stage. Why wouldn’t I be able to vanish a small silk handkerchief?
Also, when I first began performing the silk vanish I was especially excited about being able to perform the trick. But years of stuffing that little cloth into my fist have caused me to become desensitized to the magical effect the vanish can have on a lay audience. Although I still loved to perform magic, the silk trick no longer excited me. Perhaps my body language, facial expressions, or other unspoken clues did not promote a feeling of real magic. To me, it was just another trick. It’s impossible that my lack of genuine enthusiasm took something out of my audience.
Another common reason that some older routines may not garner the same reactions they once did may be the fact that they are not as polished as they once were. It is a fact that magicians spend most of their practice time working on new routines. As a result, their older routines sit in the back of their brains collecting dust. Consequently, when it is time to pull out one of those old tricks, it may not be performed with the same expertise it once was.
The final reason for the decrease in the spectator reactions is perhaps the most obvious. In any two magic performances, the tricks are the same, but the environment is different. Maybe your first audience wanted to see a particular routine and your second audience did not. The lesson is simple: learn to know your audience. Try to anticipate their reactions while planning your show. Through trial and error you will discover how to read your spectators. You will understand how to react to their reactions. You will be able to adjust mid-performance to ensure your show is a success.
So now that we know some of the reasons why things might not be going the way you want, how do we go about fixing the problems?
Well, in many ways, determining and addressing problems with your own act can be the most challenging aspect of performing magic. It is difficult enough to develop a mental image of who we want to be as entertainers. When we force ourselves to discover whether or not we actually fit that image, things become even more troublesome. Honestly examining your performances can be insanely difficult and very humbling. We all have this ideal of what we want to look like when we perform. When we discover for ourselves the disconnect between how we think we appear and how our audiences truly see us, it is easy to become discouraged. The experience can be disheartening.
I offer two approaches that I have found to be the most effective in improving my magic. First, record your performances. Watching yourself on tape is very humbling. I have yet to see a performance of my own on video that I was completely happy with. While my friends and audience might praise me for doing a great job, I always find something that can be improved. Also, each time I record myself, I become increasingly more aware that I need to record my performances more often than I do. It’s a very quick (yet painful) way to find the problems in your act.
A second approach is to develop friendships with fellow magicians who care enough to provide completely honest feedback. It takes a very special person to be willing to hurt your feelings when he knows it is for your own good. I have dozens of friends in magic, but I have only a handful who are willing to exhibit this degree of honesty when I ask them about an effect I’m working on. When you’re searching for such a relationship just remember that you cannot let your ego interfere with the feedback. Your job is not to defend your performance and convince your friend that his analysis is incorrect. You cannot grow as a performer if your buddy isn’t willing to tell you how much you suck and you aren’t willing to listen. Man up and take the criticism.
“Learn from everyone. Follow no one. Watch for patterns. Work like hell.” – Scott McCloud