It may be that one of the most difficult issues to work through, when growing as a performer, is the identification of your on-stage character and personality. The truth is, until you know exactly who you are, and how you want your audience to view you, you will never be a great showman.
There are two major concerns related to this matter. The first is the critical need for consistency as a performing personality. The second is the need for being believable.
I. About Consistency:
It is not good to mix ketchup with vanilla ice-cream. It does not make sense to combine roller-skating with a cornfield. Nor does it make sense to have more than one performing style and character on stage!
Consider the magicians Mac King and Lance Burton. They are both great showman. They both have wonderful technical skills and they both have found commercial success. They are two great performers, but entirely different personalities on stage. They also happen to be friends. Because they appreciate one-another, and because they both are good magicians, do they try to be like each other? The answer is no. Mac does not try to channel a bit of Lance in his show. Lance would not try to channel a bit of Mac into his show. Each of them is successful because each of them is true to themselves.
To do well, every performer must be true to himself. Not just true to himself in a general way, but true to himself at every point in a show. If this is not the case, there will be failure.
It is not uncommon for novice magicians (and sometimes those who have been in magic long enough that they should know better), to possess multiple performing personalities. At one moment, while doing something such as a substitution trunk illusion, they act like David Copperfield. The next moment, while doing a sucker trick, they go into kid-show magician mode and tell corny jokes while using exaggerated facial expressions. Yet another time, while doing a mind-reading trick, they try to be serious and intimidating like the mentalist, Max Maven. This does not work. One cannot be Max Maven, a kid-show magician, and David Copperfield in the same show.
It is disturbing for an audience to see a person being ridiculous in one moment, then suave and sophisticated in another. It is just as unsettling for an audience to see a strong and smart performer suddenly behave like a school boy. They want to feel like they know the person they see on stage. If they cannot decide who the person really is, they will not like him. Or, if they decide they do know who the person is, and conclude him to be a confused amateur, his performance will be judged as weak and unworthy of purchasing a ticket to see.
A likely reason for this tendency among magicians to bring mixed personality to the stage is the fact that they often learn how to do their own tricks by watching other magicians. In this, they fail to distinguish between technique and style. Becoming educated about the principles and methods used by other performers is beneficial. Copying style from other performers is almost always detrimental.
To state the matter directly: There is a huge difference between doing what another magician does, and trying to be who another magician is. Moves, maneuvers, and secrets can be shared by many magicians. Personality must remain with each individual.
It is not something that happens quickly, but it must happen. Every magician must discover his or her own style and do everything in that style. The style a person discovers may be a mix of things learned from other performers, but it still must be one style. Tricks and routines may vary in a show, but character must not.
If the choice is made to be a comedy magician, it must remain so all the way through the show. A comedy performer may have serious moments, as the great Red Skelton did, but when the serious moments come, character and personality must not change. If the choice is made to be a sophisticated “James Bond” type of magician, that too must be followed all the way through the show. Bond cannot be a clown and a clown cannot be Bond. (This does not mean a Bond magician cannot be funny. He can be, but it must be a Bond kind of funny.)
It is wise to check ourselves on this matter. Watch, from start to finish, video of a recent show and make sure that your personality and style does not change while doing different tricks and routines.
Note: It needs to be clear that a serious performer can be funny and a classy magician can be caught in a silly situation. The point is, in the midst of changing situations, the performer himself (or herself) must stay the same.
II. About believability:
It is critical to see that it is important to be consistent in performing style, and consistent with one’s personal identity.
When I was beginning in magic I struggled in this area. I did not understand who I was. I tried to be a funny guy but it took quite a while for me to realize that I am not a natural born comedian. In light of my build, how I move, and how I speak, comedy was not my strength. I finally accepted the fact that it would be better for me to present myself as a grand showman. I went to work developing that kind of style and on- stage character. In doing this, I became more comfortable and audiences responded wonderfully. Now, the way I act on stage works because, in light of what the audience sees when they look at me, and in light of how I talk and move, everything seems to fit together. It makes sense that I would be what I am when performing.
This can be a hard thing for an individual to accept and process because some very much want to be something different than what they need to be. They admire a tall, graceful, Blackstone persona, but they are not tall or graceful. It is doubtful that they have the rich and impressive voice that Blackstone had. If such an individual insists on trying to be a Blackstone on stage anyway, he will always struggle.
I recently saw a DVD of a well intentioned magician who was an on- stage absurdity without realizing it. In describing this I mean no disrespect to those who are out of shape and carry too much weight. It is simply a reality that must be faced.
The man wore black jeans and an open jacket over a tight t-shirt. It is the garb that other magicians, young and athletic magicians, wear. It appeared he was trying to present himself as one of them. However, he was severely over- weight. His stomach hung down several inches over his belt. The t-shirt emphasized the rolls of fat around his body. It was very difficult for the audience to take him seriously.
It was actually a sad thing to watch his performance. He posed with pretty assistants. At times he would do so with a rose in his hand. He tried to move gracefully, as if he was one of those guys you see on the cover of a romance novel. If he had really looked like such a guy, it might have worked. Since he looked nothing like that kind of guy, it did not work.
I want to be careful in how I speak of him, for I am sure he is a very nice person and he clearly had worked hard on the design of his show. He was well- rehearsed and employed many solid showmanship techniques. Even so, the audience could not get around the fact that he was intently trying to portray himself as something he was not. I am sure some wondered, Is this a joke or does this guy really expect me to take him seriously?
It would have been much better if he had donned a fancy zoot suit look, or maybe even dressed himself like some of the heavy rappers do. They do not try to pretend like they have flat stomachs when they do not. Instead they take pride in their size and may even flaunt it. If the magician had paid attention to what he looked like, and who he was, he could have shown some class and style. Had he been true to himself, he could have been a convincing performer. Since he did not do so, he was far from convincing. Another option, if he truly did want to perform with the physicality of a young illusionist, would have been for him to go to the gym and work on getting in shape.
Common advice on this subject is that the best person for a performer to be on stage is a magnification of what he or she is in real life. If, in real life, a person is a disciplined and physically active individual who takes on challenges and usually masters them, such a person is likely to do well with illusions and tricks that happen on a grand scale. If a person is more of the intellectual type, it probably will work well for him or her to focus on the puzzle and mystery of magic. Mentalism would be a good choice. On the other hand, if the person has a sharp wit and quirky approach to life, he or she will probably be a strong comedy performer.
The point in this is not to say that “such a person must do such a kind of magic”. Rather, it is to say, that we need to take a good look at ourselves and understand who we are. This is to be followed with choices that maximize our natural strengths and minimize and/or compensate for our natural weaknesses.
The good news in this is that success in show business is not just for beautiful people. There are many celebrities and stars who are not in shape or blessed with great physical features. They find success by going with whatever it is about them that makes them different. They are who they are. They do not try to be what they are not.
To be believable and credible as performers there must be consistency in appearance, style, movement, action, expression and everything else about us that the audience sees and hears. We must act and look the part that we have chosen to play.