Handling Humans

Grand stage illusionists, clever sleight of hand performers, mysterious mind readers, and wise guy stand-up performers are in many ways worlds apart in their approach to the art of magical entertainment. But all of these modes of performance share a common challenge. Humans.

We all have seen shows ruined by a poor choice of assistant from the audience. We all have seen routines sent tumbling into failure by an audience member who accidentally (or intentionally) does something other than what was expected.

The skilled performer must be acquainted with tools to control and manipulate the action and reactions of his audience. Such manipulations guide the audience and help them to enjoy the performance they are watching. Most would agree that these tools are invaluable to the serious performer, but sadly, discussions on how audience management applies to the performance of magic are rare. Even more rare is the idea of devoting an entire conference to the topic. In June of this year, The Las Vegas Magic School filled this void with a unique offering called Handling Humans.

I arrived at the Magic School early, not knowing exactly what I should expect. Nestled quietly in an unassuming industrial park in the outskirts of Las Vegas is a single door bearing the words, Magic School. Inside is a wonderful space that has been created to invite creativity and learning in the magical arts. Conference rooms, a spacious stage, and a large general purpose area provide teachers the resources that they need along with a flexibility they would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

As my fellow students began to arrive, I realized that we had more in common than I had anticipated. Many were veterans of other events devised by Jeff McBride. Many had attended Mystery School events over the years, others had attended Master Class sessions. I myself attended three of the early Mystery School sessions, and I have also attended Master Class, and have had private consultations with Jeff. These common backgrounds helped to bring the group together.

Soon the “staff” began to arrive: Max Maven, Eugene Burger, and Jeff McBride. Here were three very different performers, from different parts of the magical stage all coming together to discuss the burning issue, “How do you handle humans?” After a surprise video presentation from Jeff’s secret archives (a very early appearance on What’s My Line which concluded with a performance of a levitation) we got down to business.

The main event of the evening was a show that featured presentations from those who would be lecturing in the days to come. Max brought a participant on stage for a presentation of Psi-con Ruse. He then presented an in-the-audience interactive piece involving a psychic game of poker. This was followed by Eugene Burger giving a performance of the sponge balls. (Every recovering sponge ball addict is allowed to have a relapse now and again). The show concluded with Jeff McBride presenting his interactive miser’s dream routine.

The show was designed to serve as talking points for the lectures that were to be presented in the following days. The audience reacted enthusiastically to the show. But we were not allowed to pause long before the teaching began. Max quickly brought the group together in a detailed discussion on the art of eye contact.

Moving well beyond the usual directive, “You need to make eye contact,” the discussion quickly went in to detail on various methods for achieving this goal. Interestingly enough, there was some spirited debate among the lecturers on what methods were most effective. This was a theme that would occur many times though the event. The point was made often that there are many right answers to the questions that were being discussed. The intention of the discussion was to get participants to think for themselves about what methods might work for them.

Day two continued the discussions. A complete list of all of the topics that were touched would be almost impossible to give. But the following sample will give an idea of the depth of information that was shared.

  • A general discussion on the wisdom of using volunteers vs. using selected members of the audience.
  • Methods for pre-qualifying participants with and without pre-show contact
  • Methods for sending an uncooperative participant back to their seat
  • A lengthy discussion of the importance of and methods for remembering people’s names
  • General classes of people that make good participants
  • Dealing with drunk participants on stage
  • Dealing with hecklers
  • The intent of hecklers
  • Physical management of participants on stage
  • A Detailed discussion the importance making people feel comfortable on stage
  • The importance of clear and detailed instructions
  • Positioning participants on stage for maximum dramatic effect
  • Demonstrations of the preparation of props for handling by participants
  • Demonstrations of careful scripting to create the illusion of choice and freedom where none exists
  • A discussion of the pitfalls of asking participants open ended questions

The list could go on and on.

One aspect of the event that made time seem to fly was the constant introduction of “war stories” into the discussion. The group listened to horror stories from the teachers and from each other on what can really go wrong when humans are handled improperly on stage. Such depth of experience made the material at hand come to life in an entertaining and engaging way.

As the day drew to a close, many made plans to attend a local magic lecture given at Boomers. Others planned to hit the casinos on the strip. I joined some of the students in a field trip to see Mike Close perform at the Houdini Lounge at the Monte Carlo.

The final day of the event was devoted to performances by the students. None were required to perform, but most did. We had an even mix of stage and close-up performers. The diversity of the group was demonstrated as the presentations ranged from spirit slates and mechanical frogs to paste boards, finger rings, and coins. A stand-out presentation from balloon expert and magician John Cassidy was for me the highlight of the day. John combines a charming personality with an energy level that borders on the terrifying. He proved beyond any doubt that the rules of the stage that do apply to some do not apply to others.

The intention of having the students perform was to allow the group to analyze the performances with regard to the human interaction contained in the presentation. A quick survey of those who performed showed that most felt they had gotten solid advice on their work.

As the conference drew to a close, some noted that they had not learned any new moves or routines as a result of their time. Speaking for myself, I can say that I came away with an experience far more valuable than “just another trick.” I had the opportunity to discuss, in detail, subjects of great importance to me in my work as a serious magical performer. I had the opportunity to have these discussions with people whose opinions I respect.

Many of the tips given were things that I had heard before. But all good advice is worth getting again. Most of the discussion reached a level of detail that I had never seen before in a “magic lecture.” Some of the discussions changed my thinking about how I approach certain parts of my show. Changes have already been made to my show as a result of these discussions.

Those who seek excellent training in the art of magic should keep an eye on the schedule of up-coming events at the Las Vegas Magic School. (MagicalWisdom.com) Trusting that the quality of future events matches this one, all serious students of magic should enroll. Those who attended this conference and apply thought to the concepts discussed will certainly be better prepared for Handling Humans.

John Shore is a part time professional magician who has been performing for over 25 years.

John lives in Lexington Kentucky and does business under the company name of Stone Castle Magic Co.
Past President of IBM ring 198.

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