Backstage: Tips to the Life and Development of an Illusion Show

I realize one needs to be careful with this approach, for diverse people have diverse interests and concerns, but generally speaking I try to write about things that I would want to read about. I have often thought it would be fascinating if a working illusionist were to write about aspects of his show that the audience never sees. What unusual problems does he face? What is life like backstage?
Since this is a time of year when our Grand Magic show is dark, and we are building the new version of the show that will come to the stage in May of 2013, I thought it would be good to make a kind of chronicle of what we are doing.
This will not be a day by day, or step by step, account of our work. I think that would be both tedious to write and read about. The focus will be on basic efforts made, and main issues faced, as the show is designed, constructed, and prepared. I will also talk about things we must do to ensure that the public will buy tickets to see the show (marketing and promotion).
The purpose in this is to provide commentary that hopefully will be interesting and instructive to fellow magicians, even if they are not building illusion shows.
The first step in creating a new show is writing it. This is a difficult process that, for me, is spread out over several months. Beyond that, my mind has been on it even longer.
As fun as it is to be a dreamer, the writing of a new show begins by facing practical reality. There must be a cataloging of available resources. For example…some new things I really want to have in the 2013 show are a Goddess Levitation, Origami, and Joaquin Ayala’s “Blades Of Doom.” Since I do not have $50,000 (or more) to invest in such things, I will not have them.

Instead, I must put together a list of the illusions I do have. Since I definitely need to have a few new things in the show, I also list props that I believe I actually can afford to purchase, or might be able to make.
I am fortunate that I do have a lot to work with. A benefit from having been on the scene a long time is the accumulation of a lot of “magic stuff.” There is no way I could go out and purchase the many things I presently possess, but having picked up things here and there over the past thirty years, I nevertheless have a storage space filled with possibilities.
I keep an illusion and stage prop list in my computer. I think this is a good thing to do for anyone who is serious about doing stage shows. It is not uncommon, when looking over such a list again after months of not paying attention to it, to realize there are things which have been forgotten.
In preparing a new show I make a new list consisting of the things I think would be good to use for the next season. Here’s my list so far….

Act One

Flash Appearance
Phantom Cage
Kub Zag
Stretcher (will have to build)
Bandana Banana
Juke Box version of Modern Cabinet
Silken Choice based on girl’s dresses
Funnels Of Mystery
Dekolta Chair/Blammo
Silk Act
Sword Basket
Guessing Game
Body Slicer
Levitation

Time for Act one – 50 minutes
Act Two

Cross Screens (will have to build)
Fire Cage
Hippity Hop Bears
Juggling Routine (guest performer)
Prediction Box
Assistant’s Revenge (with new music)
– Speech
Death Trap (will have to build)
Flower Act

Time for Act two – 35 minutes

This list contains new things, but it also contains things we did in the 2012 season.
Here’s my opinion about how much of a show should be changed. I do not think it wise to change everything. Budget and time rarely allow for such a thing. Also, people like to see some things again and again.
Think about famous performers in other arts. Typically, they have standards or signature pieces that they always do. People would be disappointed if they did not do these things.
In his final years, Elvis closed all of his shows with the song “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” He did it every time and people looked forward to it. If people go to hear a modern artist like Katy Perry, they want to hear her sing, “Firework.” It doesn’t matter that they may have heard her sing it before. When Harry Blackstone Jr. was alive, the floating lightbulb was a continual feature in his performances. Mary and I saw his show at least ten times, and loved the lightbulb every time!
For my own show, I know some things can be repeated. The silk act is a signature piece for me. People expect it and I think they would feel something was missing if I did not do it. A trick like the Kub Zag can be done again and again. Each time people see it they think, this time I will figure out what happens to the girl, but they never do.
It is fine to have some parts of a show remain the same, but it is not good for all of the show to remain the same. Familiarity is valuable, but it quickly leads to boredom. If all the show is the same people will say, “We’ve seen that before, let’s go to another place.” Or, “We’ve hired him before, let’s find someone different.”
My basic rule of thumb is to try to have at least a third of the stage show be new every year. If possible, I would like about half of it to be new. New things are part of getting repeat business and ongoing referrals.
Once the list of possibilities has been created for the new show, the hardest part is next: selecting the music! I’ve never seen anyone else write about this. It is a very important concept.
Before I write the complete script, and actually, before I write out hardly anything more than a potential running order, I work on music.

The steps are:

Make a potential running order for the show based on equipment you have or expect to have.
Put together the music for this potential running order.
This is what I am working on now (December 2012). I am thinking about songs that might go with the illusions I hope to do next season. On my iPod, a 2013 show playlist has been created with songs in the order that I expect to use them. I listen to this playlist again and again. As I listen, I visualize what should happen on stage.
Working through music like this is incredibly helpful. It enables one to get a feel for the show. Will the pacing be right? Will the energy be right?
Since going to work on the music list, I have already changed the potential running order at least six times. I discovered, just by listening, that what I originally thought would work, would not work. On one “listen through” I realized that three routines in a row were all about the same length of time. They also had a similar pace and feeling. This was not good. Three presentations in a row that will feel the same, will lead to monotony. They will give the show the sense of being a documentary rather than a spectacular.
Along with listening to the music in order, I take individual illusions and work on them with the music I have in mind. I do not worry about choreography, lighting, and such. I just work on steps and movement to make sure the trick and a song actually fit together.
This is something I very much enjoy, but it can be frustrating as well. When I realize a song is not right, I must search for a new one. That means going to iTunes and checking through multiple possibilities. There are times when it has taken a month or more to find the right sound. (This is why it is good to start thinking and dreaming about a new show as far in advance as possible. Finding music in just a few days, or even a few weeks, is extremely difficult.)
At the moment I have music for the full show, but there are a couple of spots with which I am not satisfied. This means there will probably be yet more changes in both music and the planned running order. Today Mary and I leave for a drive to visit her mother in Rochester, Minnesota. On the way I will listen through the 2013 show playlist repeatedly. By the time we return home, I will have adjustments in mind.
Listening to the music is a key aspect of writing the show! It means I am getting the sequence and energy of the show firmly in my mind. Once that is done, I can go to work on the actual script. It is a waste of time to write more than a list (potential running order) until there is confidence that the progression of the show, and the choices for tricks and illusions are good. It is getting music right that brings this confidence.
When I get to the point of feeling good about the music, then I can go to work writing dialog. It also will position me to work through staging issues and put my thoughts on such things as scenery, costumes, and lighting.
Another benefit of the music is it assists in calculating the time of the show. If the first half of the show is supposed to be 45 minutes long, but you discover the songs you have chosen for the illusions add up to 60 minutes of time, you know you have a problem. There is much editing to do, either with the music, or the planned running order, or with both of those things.
In my present situation, I do pay both ASCAP and BMI for the rights to use music in the show. (Respecting issues of copyright is important.) The down side of this is the expense. The up side is it gives me access to a huge library of songs.
In years past, in order to have integrity relating to copyright, I used all royalty free music. When doing so, I followed the same process I have described in this article. I would listen through songs to get a vision for tricks and routines they might accompany. Next I would make a list of things to do in a show and match them up with musical possibilities. Finally I would listen through the song list to see if I liked what I heard. Was there enough variety? Was the energy and emotion of the sequence good? If I liked listening to what might be called the “Soundtrack Of The Show,” I knew I would like the show. This has never failed. When the music is great, I know the show will be strong.
In conclusion, I offer a recommendation…
Get yourself an MP3 player or iPod. Make “show brainstorm” and “potential show running order” lists of music. Listen to these often and use your imagination while you do. It is one of the secret techniques to building a great show.
Once you determine a running order for the show, and have listened through the intended soundtrack to make sure the running order has the right “feel” to it, you are ready to write out the show as a script.

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