Life Backstage: Do Your Shows Have Enough Variety?

I think almost all magicians know it is good to avoid sameness of effect.  Although, when viewed individually, they are great tricks, if an audience sees illusions such as Origami, the Sword Basket, and Spiker all performed one right after another, the impact is diminished.  People might think, Okay, I get it.  The girl can be in a box and not be hurt by blades.  What else can you do?

It can be compared to singing too many verses of a hymn in church.  Even with changing lyrics, the same tune sung over and over gets old.  A magician certainly would not want his show to be labeled as “one song, just a lot of verses”.

On the other hand, avoiding sameness of effect in a magic show is tricky because the the number of effects in magic is limited.  There are many props and tricks, but the reality is most of them are “other verses” of a familiar song.

This puts a critical question in front of the illusionist:  With a limited number of possible effects, how do we keep from seeming to repeat ourselves?

A classic list of effects in magic gives only nine basic possibilities.  Of course, magicians argue about the list. Some say there are more effects.  Others think penetration and restoration are similar enough that they might be somehow combined to make the list even shorter.  In spite of the arguments, the list is generally viewed as a solid statement about what magicians are able to do.

Here are the classic possibilities:

  1. Production – The magician produces something from nothing.
  1. Vanish – The magician makes something disappear.
  1. Transformation – The magician transforms something from one state into another.
  1. Restoration – The magician destroys an object, then restores it back to its original state.
  1. Teleportation – The magician causes something to move from one place to another.
  1. Escape – The magician (an assistant may participate, but the magician himself is by far the most common) is placed in a restraining device (i.e. handcuffs or a straitjacket) or a death trap, and escapes to safety.
  1. Levitation – The magician defies gravity, either by making something float in the air, or with the aid of another object (suspension).
  1. Penetration – The magician makes a solid object pass through another.
  1. Prediction –  The magician predicts the choice of a spectator, or the outcome of an event under seemingly impossible circumstances.

According to the list, if we were to never repeat an effect in a show, we would only do nine tricks.

In the first eight minutes of my stage show, I do five tricks, four of which are major illusions.  Does this mean, over the course of the other ninety minutes of the performance, I can only do four more tricks?

The reality is, if a show is thirty minutes or more in length, the audience must see some variations on the same effect.  When a show is shorter than thirty minutes, it is still likely that some effects will be repeated.

How can we do several presentations of a fundamental effect without the audience thinking the tricks are the same?

The practical answer to the question is by way of changing emotion.  Emotion, as it relates to routines and effects, is a vital and powerful thing for a magician to understand.  It also is something that many magicians seem to understand the least.

I remember watching another magician’s show and being asked to give him feedback.  The performance took place in a fancy theater.  It lasted about two and one half hours and featured many illusions.

To the credit of this magician, his illusions were varied.  He did not have too many sword tricks, nor did he have too many productions or vanishes.  His props were different.  However, the feeling of his presentations was not.

He did not realize it, or mean for it to be so, but almost all of his stage illusions were styled as sentimental interludes.  He would briefly dance with a girl.  Then she would get into a box, or onto a platform, or sit on a chair, and something magical would happen.  When the trick was over, he and the girl would dance around one another again and then strike a new sentimental pose.

For each of his illusions he had different music.  Yet, the songs might as well have been the same.  They were all around three minutes in length.  They were mainly what might be termed “easy-listening love songs”.

The audience was seeing different illusions, but it wasn’t long into the show before the illusions began to all seem the same.  The show lacked energy and excitement.

It is an easy mistake to make. Since a magician on television gains fame for a trick done with romantic music, and a beautiful lady with a rose in her hand, other magicians want to style their illusions the same way.  Their enthusiasm for the concept leads them to apply it to nearly everything they do.  They fail to understand that what works in a superb way as a segment in a show, does not necessarily work when applied to an entire show.

In other words, one trick in a show featuring a rose and dancing lady is enough.  The key to creating the feeling for the audience that they are experiencing a wonderful event, filled with many different things, is by having strong changes in emotion.  Romance is great as a part of the show, but there must also be drama, comedy, suspense, whimsy and more.

A simple way to ensure changes in emotion is to create routines of different lengths.  Do not try to get as much time out of every prop as possible.  Let a routine with one prop be about one minute long.  Make it strong, fast, and impressive.  Let another one last three or four minutes with a developing story line and more sentimental theme.  Then do something that only takes one or two minutes and gets laughs.

Another way to ensure changes in emotion is to make sure that the music you use fits diverse categories.  If your songs all have a similar sound, it is likely your routines will have a similar feel.  If you use different types of music you will almost automatically end up with different feelings.  If one illusion is done to a “Rock and Roll” sound, try doing another with classical music in the background.

The heart of this matter is the effects do not have to be different, as long as they feel different.  My opinion is it is even possible to do the three tricks mentioned in the introduction to this article, Origami, Sword Basket, and Spiker all in the same show, if they each have unique character.  If the Origami is a tale of two lovers overcoming a tough situation, but the Sword Basket is a humorous happening with the girl inside pushing the swords back out again and sticking a puppet up into the air, and Spiker is about an assistant trying to put something over on the magician, they all might play well.

In this season’s version of Grand Magic, we have three illusions that are similar in effect.  Three girls are produced from the Phantom Cage.  Four girls and Elvis are produced from the Modern Cabinet.  Four girls are produced from the Chests Of Mystery.

Nevertheless, I do not think the audience will care that the effects are similar, or even notice the similarity.

  • The Phantom Cage happens in about one minute.  It is a slam bang presentation with no patter.  All of a sudden, beautiful ladies are on the stage.
  • The Modern Cabinet takes three and one/half minutes.  It involves patter about a Juke Box that must be magic because it has no mechanical means of playing music.  The character of the trick is puzzling and humorous.
  • The Chests Of Mystery take about two and one/half minutes and involve a box that is moved all over the stage.  The pace is frantic.  (Music is “Flight Of The Bumblebee.”)  As this routine takes place, it seems that the magician is as confused as anyone as to how it all happens.

These three productions are spaced apart from one another.  The energy is different, the mood is different, and the pace is different.  I expect them to be viewed as three very different tricks.

Final note:  I am not advocating using similar things in a show.  If we could feature all nine classic effects in one program, that would be wonderful.  The point is, normally it is necessary to use some variations on a common effect.  When doing so, it is changing emotion (and styling) that keeps things from seeming repetitious.

Takeaway:  Watch video of one of your recent shows and assess the energy and emotional changes.  Remember that variety in tricks is good, but variety in emotion is what truly makes a program strong.  If you are an illusionist, identify the emotion associated with each of your effects.  Do you have variety in mood and style, or do the tricks end up all feeling the same?

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