Magic on Stage

Over the years, I have been both a student and a teacher of magic. My friend and mentor, Eugene Burger, has shared many of his thoughts with me about his creative process. Together, we have been teaching magic for over ten years. I am happy to present some of our ideas on how to go about creating better magic.

For many magicians, just getting into the habit of a rehearsal discipline is often difficult. In beginning the creative process, it is important to create a supportive environment. Following are some of the essential tools that will help set up an effective rehearsal space.

– LIGHTS – Having a few simple clip lights, with 100 watt bulbs to illuminate the practice area and solid-color backdrop, is very helpful.

– CAMERA – In my rehearsal studio, I have a large, full-length rehearsal mirror. This is a crucial part of the early phases of creating new material. Remember, however, that the mirror is often deceptive, and it is important to work with a video camera. I prefer to use a Vado by Creative Labs. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s great for getting rehearsal video onto my computer where I can review it immediately.

– ACTION – It is necessary to have an uncluttered area, with ample space to move around in. You will want to have a good sound system, with music that inspires you to move. Even if you are creating a piece of magic that does not use music as the main soundtrack, you might consider trying different background music to set the mood for a scripted piece. You will find, through experimenting with mood music, how this often enhances your performance of a spoken-word piece. Once the rehearsal space is set up, we are now ready to begin experimenting with different ways of making better magic.

At the beginning, there is a time of creative play. Here are some of the techniques I use in putting together new routines.

  1. I make sure I am alone, with no distractions, and the phone is turned off.
  2. I put on some inspiring music I like.
  3. I turn on my video camera and let it run.
  4. I lay all the props that might be involved in the creation of this new routine
    out on tables.

At this point, I turn off my inner censor and let my imagination run wild. I experiment with new ideas and different ways of combining the unique elements that I have selected. During the creative process, all ideas are good ideas. The video camera will capture the magic, so I will be able to re-create it later. After the play session, I will be able to show this video tape (or at least, the less-embarrassing parts), to trusted friends, and get their feedback and constructive ideas. After the feedback session, I can carefully consider all of the feedback I have received, and then decide what changes to make. Once I have finished my session of brainstorming and creative play, I am then ready to begin the process of practice and rehearsal.

After the initial play session comes the time of stripping the routine, both script and effects, down to their bare bones. This can be the most difficult part of the process. My personal goal is to find the way to get the point across in the least amount of words and moves. From studying with master magicians and professional theater directors, I have found that brevity is an art. What most magicians convey in a paragraph of script, Eugene Burger can deliver in one line, and Max Maven can convey in one lift of an eyebrow. One of the most helpful thoughts on streamlining a routine comes from my friend Steve Vincent, “Good directors cut!” This simple thought has helped me many times when a routine is getting too complicated.

Practice and rehearsal are very different aspects of theatrical discipline. Practice is what we do when we are sitting down, working on our split fans or false shuffles. It’s done by ourselves, for ourselves, and is not complete by itself. It is polishing the parts, but not considering the whole. Rehearsal then involves taking each one of the polished parts and putting them together into a gleaming, cohesive whole. Rehearsal is where most magicians fall down. Rehearsal is very demanding. It involves:

  • Setting up all of the required magical properties.
  • Utilizing all expendables, such as the flash paper, the confetti, the torn cards, or any other messy or time-consuming preparations.
  • Performing the script out loud, memorized.
  • Starting at the beginning of the routine, and continuing all the way through to the very end, whether mistakes are made or not, and never stopping the routine in mid-rehearsal. You must make it to the finish line.
  • Repeating this process over and over, as if there were an entire audience witnessing the performance.

Often it is helpful to have a trusted magic friend sit in and silently witness this process, and not to give feedback until you have run through the routine three times. Then, you can sit and watch the video playback and take notes. At this point, most often, you will edit both the script and the effects in an attempt to make the routine as direct as possible.

Penn Jillette often uses the analogy of “flight time” to convey the importance of performance experience. Penn says that airplane pilots get their license after a certain number of hours spent in the air, actually flying the plane. This is called putting in your flight time. At the end of this flight time, one doesn’t need to be a good pilot, one just needs to be a live pilot! This same idea applies to magicians. The magician who does the most shows for the live public gets the most experience.

Now, the next step is to get our new creations out of the rehearsal studio and into a live performance venue. One of the problems that many magicians run into early on is that their “dream show,” that they practice only in the rehearsal studio, is not practical in many real-world conditions. Flight time is getting you out into the real world, whether you are performing a new close-up routine or working a stage act. You will need to take it out and try it in many diverse performing conditions, possibly including rowdy comedy clubs, loud banquets, and chaotic nightclubs. Most professional performers “bullet-proof” their routines so they can play in almost any real-world situation. Bullet-proofing your material means removing all the unnecessary script, preparation, or angles that might make a routine vulnerable in unfavorable conditions. If a routine is not bullet-proof, you may consider dropping it from your show if the conditions are not perfect. Experienced performers know what routines will play in different situations and can make adjustments in their repertoire to suit the venue.

One of the important tools to make any piece of magical theater better is eye contact. If you are doing close-up magic, consider routining your presentations so that you can make the moments of magic happen between your eyes and the spectator’s eyes. When watching many magicians, especially in close-up situations, I have noticed that the magician’s head is usually looking down, at their hands, and the magic is happening just above the close-up mat or table. The magician is looking at his own hands; the audience is also looking at the magician’s hands. This is what I call “head-down, hands-down,” or “old-school” close-up magic.

A very helpful exercise I give many of my students is to hold the magic up, just to the side of their face, while the moment of magic is happening — kind of like selling soap on a commercial. This allows the audience to see the magic, but also, for the performer’s face and eyes to be involved in the experience. In addition, there is also the magical moment when the magic happens, between the performer’s eyes and the spectator’s eyes, that you can both share in this moment of magic. This is what I call “heads-up hands-up,” or “new school” close-up magic.

An example of this can be seen in David Roth’s “Hanging Coins,” where the magic happens between the magician’s eyes and the spectator’s eyes instead of on the close-up mat. In short, get your magic to happen between your eyes and the viewer’s eyes.

It is also important to remember to play to the camera as well as your imaginary audience during the rehearsal. The camera is the “home audience.” Getting comfortable with making eye contact with the camera is a skill that will be helpful when you play on television. These are just a few of the techniques I have learned over the years. I hope you find them useful in your quest for creating better magic.

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