Make Them Care
There's nothing quite as dull as a disinteresting, self indulgent magic show. We've all seen it, the performer who is oblivious to the audience after ten seconds in his own company, performing clever sleights and dashing feats as if we should all marvel at how clever he is learning and perfecting all that difficult sleight of hand. He bores us, he is not entertaining, he is little more than a dull, crusty juggler. So what's he doing wrong?
Simple answer - he's not engaging anyone. He isn't drawing the audience in, he isn't making them care about what happens. But how could our hypothetical magic man rectify his mistake? That's not such a simple answer. There are many things that make audiences care, and I shall attempt to address the ones I feel important, relatively easy, and have the most experience of.
My first performance experience came from showing my magic tricks and effects to friends at their houses or parties or in the pub. Then I'd usually end up performing for a couple of strangers. Slowly I built up the courage to approach strangers at house parties, and I did that for about 2-3 months before I left University.
My first big (I use big in a comparable sense, big compared to the small close up performances I have described above) show was at a pub called the Pack Horse in Leeds as part of an open mic and experimental performance night called Hang Out organised by the theatre company Chotto Ookii. Me and my magic friend Magic Rich wrote a comedy magic show that went down really well and encouraged us to perform more. We did another double act a couple of months afterwards somewhere else (in a precinct somewhere) for the same theatre group and this time we went down a storm. We took that show to the Sheffield Juggling Convention and it was appauling - the crowd were in no mood for anything that night and we were the straw that broke the camel's back...Fire and Blood was retired right there and then after the comedy of errors show turned into a genuine comedy of errors. That and Rich left to work for Her Majesty's, not so magic, Government (Ministry of Defence don't you know...).
After that I moved back home and nothing magic wise happened for a long time. Suddenly I decided that I would like to perform on stage again and I did so a couple of months ago; it was brilliant. I screwed up two of the five things I did but the crowd were totally on my side, really supportive and I got a huge round of applause for declaring my own magic square "utter rubbish!". Following this I performed a much better show (by my own standards) I called Dr Wu's Fabulously Expensive and Utterly Unique Casino Experience, and then a third original solo show called Choice. I'm hoping that these shows will be the basis for shows I can 'keep in stock' and offer as paid for shows to actual paying clients and agents in the near future, using Chotto Ookii as a springboard.
In each of these shows I worked hard on my scripts and routines, making sure things flowed through a neat and logical line of thought, that there was an element of fun, danger and suspense, and most importantly, that the spectators enjoyed the whole package. I wanted to engage them. I needed to make them care.
So I studied. Long and hard. I read books, articles, talked on forums, the works, and I ended up here; passing on what I have learned so far and what I think and feel. One of the most important things we must remember as magicians is no matter what we perform, from cards and coins to stage illusions and mind reading, all magic happens in the minds of your spectators. With that in mind I will now out line the easiest ways of drawing your spectators in on an emotional level:
1) borrow their stuff
2) make things that are yours theirs
3) make things a little personal
4) put yourself in danger
5) make words your weapon
Five deceptively simple things that will help you in all you do. But to look at these five things in more detail will show us that there are lines that probably should be drawn, ethics to consider and some hard graft to get on with. Those of you who thought you'd pick up that Invisible Deck for a fiver and turn into David Blaine are in for a shock...
The easiest thing in the world you can do to draw your spectators into your performance emotionally is to simply borrow things from them. If you're bending coins (as I do) don't just pull out a coin and bend it; borrow one off your spectators. Get a whole load of change out onto the table and pick a coin from it, nobody knows if it's theirs or not but now they're all involved as your using the group's money. You cannot underestimate the huge difference in impact simply borrowing something from someone can have. You can turn tricks into miracles. What's a more impressive story to tell your friends after a night in a bar with a magician strolling round - he bent a coin or he bent my coin? Surely the latter. Magic with borrowed objects is a fantastic form of magic on its own, sans pyschological investigation. It's impromptu, it's so very clean and fair and it draws the spectators into the effect emotionally. When you take something of everyday mundane ordinariness that holds little emotional value to a spectator and make it magical you can't not create emotions in that person. Their coin, their own everyday coin they've had in their wallet for the last week was just another 10 pence piece, until you displayed it at your fingertips and concentrated on it hard enough to make it melt in your hand. One of the strongest pieces of magic I perform is Houchin's Coin in Soda Can because every last single piece of the effect can be borrowed on site and handed back without fuss. You enter with nothing, you leave with nothing. If this is the kind of thing you can do with ordinary objects, imagine borrowing a wedding ring to perform a ring flight, or a gifted watch to perform a kind of watch smashing Russian roulette; think of how emotionally invested in these heirlooms your spectators are already, and now they are being entrusted to you the performer in the hope of a safe return. So borrowing objects is an easy way of having emotions invested in your magic, but what else is there to do?
Make things that are yours theirs. And by that I mean sign cards, choose forks, hold onto props. Don't set the cards you need for an effect on the table as you count them, have the spectators hold them. By having a second spectator, one who will add nothing to the magic, simply hold onto your cards you are involving them in the effect. Involve the spectators directly and you will garner stronger reactions from them. They will feel part of the magic, part of the process, part of the overall effect. The more spectators you get involved in an effect directly, the more you can involve the others indirectly. They will feel part of the magic because they are watching their friends become a direct participant. Any direct participant in any effect becomes an antena for the rest of the audience, a yard stick by which to guage their own reaction.
The reason that we turn over ownership of props is that it is akin to borrowing objects off our spectators. A spectator watching an abitious card routine will be more invested and interested in what happens if that card is actually theirs. So make them sign it, maybe even draw a little picture in a corner. Now they've got a keepsake, and they'll probably know subconciously that's what it will be at the end of the effect, something that is uniquely theirs. Now you are no longer performing card magic with the six of spades; you are performing it with their six of spades. It's that one little word, 'theirs', that's the key to this I feel. The more you suggest ownership of something, the more people will invest themselves into it. Tell them it's their poker chip and when you perform Koran's Medallion and you'll get a stronger reaction from the 'owner' of the chip. Tell them it's their card and you'll have a more interested spectator watching your ACR. Tell them it's their deck to hold onto while you make that selection turn face down in the face up deck and you'll have spectators invested deeper in the effect.
All of this ties in with making things personal, both by borrowing objects and by transfering ownership of props you are making the magic something personal to the owner of the object. As I would hope I've made clear at this point - performing magic with their coin is more powerful by far than performing magic with your coin. Another method of making things personal is to include spectators in the effects directly, as previously touched upon. But you can do more than give them things to hold. Why not read their minds?
See, the mind is the source of emotion. Nobody's denying that. The mind is also very personal, and to be able to apparently dip in and take things out of it is powerful. The violation of privicy will stir up some deep emotions alone. Of course, this kind of thing is an ethical mine field, one so large that to step into it is to write an entire book, but briefly I will say that you should always keep your mind reading simple. I prefer to read thoughts over minds, as to suggest I can read minds can create tension in the performance, and that's one emotional response I'd rather steer clear of. To read thoughts is less personal, but still invokes a real emotional response. Thoughts can be as personal as the thinker wishes, and this is why I prefer to read them; it means that if the spectator doesn't want me to divine certain information all s/he has to do is not think about it. That way I don't step on anybody's toes and I can keep the peace rather nicely. But with mind reading, you are going to get people involved on emotional levels simply through your subject matter and the intimacy of the effect. Of course there's the conviniently detatched mind reading of say, a thought of card or the serial number on a £5 note. But even then you are apparently gathering information from the most private part of any spectator. But to read the mind of a spectator who is thinking of say, their favourite song or memory, their first love or their first pet becomes a feat more personal because of the emotions involved in conjuring up these memories in the first place. Let's take the favourite song idea. When you think of your favourite song you are obviously going to feel the same emotions that song delivers when you hear it for real. So we have this emotional investment. Then, when you are told what you are thinking of, these emotions are going to roll into the emotions that come with the revelation. Mind reading is always going to be personal and as such always going to get big reactions. Most times you will find these reactions run along the lines of a little disbelief turning into a bit of a freak out, and then a real mystified feeling that lasts for a while as the spectator replays the event over and over in their head.
Another personal involvement we can create is one where we cultivate a rapport with the audience that makes them want us to succeed. By creating a character that engraciates himself with his spectators, by being someone the spectators can care about, we can have our audiences invest their emotions in our success. We've all seen that film or television show where we got so into it that we found ourselves making involuntary movements as we think about what we'd do or say. You invest emotions into the characters and you have your wishes and hopes for them. Through careful routining and good stage craft and presentation you can do the same. Spend just enough time drawing the audience's sympathies and attention, get them interested in you and your magic in what ever way suits your persona best, and then create some situation where they will desperately want you to succeed. My personal favourite is danger.
Danger is a thrill. Audiences love the excitement, the adrenaline, the cold sweat and perching on the edges of seats. You want a good example of this look no further than Houdini. The escapes he performed were almost always performed behind curtains. And yet, given you might see a curtain and hear the band more than you would see and hear Harry himself, he never failed to create a real buzz during his escapes. Take his Milk Can. Houdini would have the audience hold its breath with him as he ducked under the water. The curtain would fold around him and the band would play. Slowly but surely one by one the patrons of the theatre would gasp as they ran out of air. Minutes would pass, and as more and more people made audible gasps for air so more and more people would begin to wisper - "he must have run out of air by now". The supense would become near unbearable, people edging closer to the stage, listening intently for any noise to indicate either success or failure, and just as the atmosphere reached fever pitch the curtains would be snatched away by a drenched, panting, red faced Houdini. The crowd would scream and shout and stand in ovation, he had done it, he had escaped! The emotional investment in dangerous acts undertaken by magicians is huge.
If you are appreciated by an audience, and have created in them a feeling of wanting you to succeed, when you introduce the dangerous elements into your show the audience will care about your well being. If you are dull and uninspired, they may just want you to fail so you exit stage left sooner rather than later. But if you are an entertaining act (and there are plenty of entertaining acts that are serious, so don't think 'fun' is the key word here - not everyone likes the joker) your audience will be on your side. The old Russian roulette effect of three or five cups and one large spike is a classic in dangerous magic, and even though I am well aware there are many methods out there that are 100% accurate 100% of the time, negating even the tiniest chance of plunging a hand onto 6 inches of sharp brass, I still hold my breath and breath heavy relief when the cup smashed is clearly empty. Not too long ago I performed a gambling themed routine the finale of which was a performance of Marc Oberon's Oddball. I had 5 numbered glasses on stage, a jug of water and a bottle of white spirit. Five random spectators were chosen and each filled a numbered glass - four with water and one with white spirit. I then had each spectator pull a coloured ball from a bag containing four white and one black. The spectators were then asked in no particular order (so it seemed) to answer one simple question for me; which number glass contains the white spirit. The holders of the white balls were to lie, the holder of the black ball to tell the truth. I narrowed my choice down to just two glasses, and two spectators. One spectator was lying to me, and one glass contained white spirit. I had drunk already three glasses of water, and sent three spectators back to their chairs.
I asked the spectators I had on stage to step forward once more. I asked them to again answer me one simple question, again the white ball was a lie and the black ball the truth. I was going to ask them a question I couldn't possibly know the answer to, and base my choice of glass on that answer. I asked them my question
"What is your mother's maiden name?"
Upon recieving my answers I stood at the table, looking down at the glasses. I reached out for glass number 4, the glass all but me knew contained white spirit. I held it at arm's length and after some thought put it down. I closed my eyes and thought deeply. Again I reached out for glass number 4, again holding it at arm's length and again deciding against it. I wiped my forehead, I was sweaty and looked nervous. Clearly this was a big decision, choose wrong and I'm looking at a quick exit off stage straight to hospital. I closed my eyes and thought hard. I put a hand to my ear as if to hear the answers to the questions again. Once more I looked at the glasses left on the table. Springing into motion I grabbed glass 4, pushed it across the table out of the way and downed glass number 2. The applause I got for that effect was the most gratifying I think I have recieved. It was a fantastic feeling.
After my performance I spoke to some of the other performers on the bill, all of whom said the same thing: really well done. A performance poet who's opinion I deeply respect told me that the finale of my set had really drawn people in, that I had created some really good suspense. He'd personally realised that I knew which glass not to drink early on, but had pretty much forgotten by the time I was down to my choice of two because of the way I had created the suspense. I myself had noticed that as my set progressed the audience got quieter and quieter until all was near silence as I approached my final decision. The audience had invested their emotion in me and my success, they wanted me to get this right, they cared.
So danger is definately a good ploy to use in my book. Obviously an entire programme made up of dangerous magic will be difficult to play well, but used in moderation danger is a fantastic method to have your audience become deeply emotionally involved. But there is one method that transcends all of the above. Without it we can do very little. If we are to get the most out of spectators, and the most emotional involvement out of our spectators, then we must learn to use our words as weapons.
If David Devant taught us anything it is that silent magic could work. Obviously other peformers played pantomine too, Theo Bamberg being the best example of these. But I feel Devant taught us that used in moderation, these silent effects could be slotted in very nicely as a change of pace, and create a really wonderous magical feeling. Certain effects lend themselves to pantomine performance, and so often when it comes to scripting less is very much more.
First things first you must always speak in character. It's no good performing Needle Through Arm as a Derren Brown type character if you're going to use words like "ming" and "blazin'" like The Great ASBO. You need to speak in character at all times. Again, this is (and will be) another essay, but bear it in mind for now; it's important. Secondly, choose the words you use to draw emotional investment and involvement as much as possible. Don't just ask someone to pick a card, ask them to "take the card you feel most drawn to" (Sankey). Don't just ask them to read what's written on the back of the poker chip, ask them them to "read what's engraved on the back of your chip" (part credit Jermay, part myself). You are the master of your own vocabulary. You are the armourer of your own stockpile. You are the General in this war of words.
Another thing I can say with absolute certainty and insistance is to never give a running commentary of your effects from start to finish. By all means tell people what is going on, but choose to do so by influencing their perception of events. Kenton Knepper has tomes on the value of what he calls Wonder Words, and although I haven't got the series myself I understand the basic principles from other writings of his. Certain words come with certain connotations or preconceptions, and using these words to enforce these connotations can give you the magician the upper hand. Koran's Medallion is a wonderful example of this. Luke Jermay's recent take on the effect has this to say about the revealation:
When you ask the spectator to read the prediction you made on the back of the poker chip, rather than ask them to read what is written, ask them to read what is engraved on the back of the chip. Engraved suggests to the spectators in the audience who cannot see the back of the chip both an actual engraving and linked to that, a permanance you can only get through engraving something into an object. The prediction becomes almost literally set in stone.
The words you use to describe what's going on can alter people's perception of the action. Take the Jermay example above, people aren't really aware of it, but when they think back over the action the idea of you changing your prediction to fit the choice is almost completely removed from the equation - it was engraved remember. Again, Kenton's Wonder Words is the place to go for this in such incredible detail it's almost daunting. Some things I can give you to think about are:
* using words like 'yours' suggests possesion, which fits in with the making things personal, making things that are yours theirs and borrowing objects
* using phrases like 'thought of card' will remove the physical selection, if there was indeed one made, and place the idea in the heads of the spectators that the card was merely thought of, negating the possibility for sleight of hand or trickery
* using words like 'watch' and 'see how it's insert action' will direct the attention to what's actually going on, even if it is not. Display a bent coin that is supposedly the spectator's straight borrowed coin. Hold it at your finger tips and perform say, one of Banachek's displays for coins. Say as it slowly 'melts' in your fingers, "see how it just bends like that?". Nod as you say this. The spectators will take away with them a mental video of the coin actually bending at your fingertips, probably not too far removed from what it all looked like but much more visual and obvious.
* miscalling cards or other objects casually will seal their identity in the mids of your spectators. If the card on the table is supposed to be the six of spades but is in fact the Jack of hearts, ignore it for a while, and when you refer back to it casually refer to it as "the erm, the six of spades". Draw as little attention to it as possible, just name it as if you would if it were really the six.
* emphasise the ideas of 'if', 'maybe' and 'I'm not sure'. When you read minds for example, act uncertain and say things like "I'm not 100% here, the image is a little hazey but...". 'if', 'maybe' and 'I'm not sure' put the audience on the back foot, you have them off beat. You aren't sure anything's going to happen, means they can relax their concentration a little. That's when you get away with the most, or hit them with a big impact out of the blue.
* certain words carry with them connotations or preconceptions, think of any racist term you know and you will know what I mean. Utilise these. 'choose' inplies a fairness and openess free of influence. 'think of' disolves any idea of sleight of hand, as everything will happen in the mind. 'trick' suggests just that, a trick. Stick to words like effect, demonstration, experience, experiment, etc ad nauseam. There are hundreds of examples.
* finally, it is what is left unsaid that pays off the best. Adjectives like 'ordinary' and 'empty' will so often throw suspicion on what it is you are trying to prove innocent. Obviously this is intended for the adult audience as children have not the life experience to make assumptions like bags held upside down are empty or showing a deck of cards as all different and all one colour is done so as to remove the idea of a trick deck. Avoid this overproving, the less you try to prove the more the audience will go along with it all.
I think it is important to write yourself a script for all your routines and stick to it when you perform. Obviously this script should never be set in stone; you should always be prepared to improve it over time as you and it go through more performances for real people in the real world. There are a few very good reasons I think we should always write scripts, and by following a few simple guidelines these scripts can help make your performances even better than they were. Firstly scripts will mean you are never stuck for something to say. There's little worse in a magical performance that watching something excellent and wonderful and having the experience sullied by a stuttering faultering nervous cracked voice telling you what you can see. Scripting the effects you perform means that you know what you are going to say when, taking away that nervous cracked voice not sure what to say and replacing it with a bold confident voice without that worry. Also, because you know what you are going to say you can choose it carefully. So the second reason we should write scripts is because that way we can make the most of our words. We will be able to utilise these Wonder Words of Knepper. We will be able to garner maximum reactions from our audiences because we make them see what we want, feel what we want and remember what we want. Thirdly, writing scripts will enable you to speak in character at all times during your performances, something that is vital in creating a well rounded and entertaining magic show. You are not yourself when you perform magic, you are always playing a character. Whether this character is a simple extension of yourself or someone you always wished you could be, it must be remembered that this character is not you. Robert-Houdin himself said it
"A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician"
So choose your words wisely when writing your scripts, this is the first rule. Always talk like your character; this is the second. And less is more often than not more; this is the third.
So, dig deeper under the surface of anything you see or learn in magic and you will find that every last single thing has been designed, rehearsed and created to aid in the overall goal - making people emote. Magic has the power to create emotions in people stronger than those that an actor in a play or a singer on stage can. Magic makes people question reality itself, to doubt their own hard set and deeply held perceptions of the world around them. Magic can really get inside people's heads. But only if they let it. And they won't if they aren't enjoying it. So draw them in on a emotional level, and create all the feelings magic can once you do. Make people happy, sad, fearful and relieved. Make them feel wonder and joy and allow themselves to be taken away with the pantomime and impossibility of it all. Make them care about you and your magic, and in doing so make them experience it all. Make them care and they will take away so much more from your performances you will be amazed.