Brad Weston is a professional writer, juggler, and magician. He's also exceedingly generous. As proof, I offer this excellent guest post which he was kind enough to share with our readers. Brad makes his living as a full time variety artist and he has much to share with those in our field. Take the time to read this and you'll gain some valuable insight from a man who knows. Ignore it at your own performance peril!
For more information about Brad Weston and his work check out his website at http://www.bradweston.com
1. Relying Solely on Improvisation
There are a lot of good things to say about improvisation. If used properly, your act will look more alive and more present than without it. If used properly you will really seem as though you are in the room, responding to what is happening in front of you. I believe that it is an essential part of doing a great show. However… if your act relies on improv, then you need to have a lot of support structures in place to make sure that the show doesn’t nose-dive.
Make sure that you know what the show order is. That way you won’t lose your place. If things start to stagnate, or just seem a little too slow, you can pick up the pace and get the show back on track. If you don’t have to think about what is coming next, you will be free to think about all of the other stuff that is going on in the room and in your head. This is not to say that you need to be stuck in the same show order every time. If there is a reason to switch it up during the show, fine. Do it! Then if you get into trouble you can easily put the show back on track.
Sometimes, the audience just isn’t very vocal. Sometimes, frankly, they suck! If you end up with a dead house and your show is totally reliant on improvisation you are sunk. I have heard beginner entertainers say that they needed the audience’s energy to make the show happen. They couldn’t just do the show alone in an empty room. I think that is a sign of laziness. How fun would it be to use the audiences energy if they are a dead audience. This will happen sooner or later and you have to have something to do on stage when it does happen, otherwise your act will bomb so badly that people may talk about it for years to come. Worse still, you might not be able to fill all of your stage time and, therefore, not get paid.
2. Changing Character with each Routine
There are many different kinds of routines. Some are beautiful. Some are sucker gags that require the audience to yell out that you are doing things wrong. Some are more clever in their approach and make the audience think. In each case you have to present these routines differently. However… you still have to be the same performer. If you are pretending to be clumsy to get laughs in one segment of the act, you can’t very well be sophisticated and polished later on when you go to ‘wow’ them. I mean you can. It’s possible to do it and they will sit through it. The problem is that if your personality seems to change, then you will lose the momentum of the rapport that you have worked so hard to build.
Each time a new performer comes onto the stage, there is a ‘get to know me’ phase that happens. It often takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes for the audience to get comfortable with the new performer. If it is the same person, but who has undergone a personality shift, this phase can last much longer because the audience has to work through who you are not before they can learn who you are now. Some people who had felt an attachment with your persona (hopefully this is most of the audience) will actually feel a little betrayed when you change because they lose that character. Also, you are kind of rubbing their nose in the fact that it is all an act. It is, perhaps, the single easiest way to lose an audience.
3. Opening with Audience Participation
When you step onto the stage, they don’t know you yet. They don’t know what you are capable of and what you are like as a person. It’s going to take them a moment to take it all in. Let them look. Start with something that will let them see you in a non threatening way. If you try to get a volunteer onto the stage too soon, you won’t be giving them a chance to meet you.
One of the most important parts about being successful on stage, is to be viewed as the one in control. If you get a member of the audience on stage before you have established this control, you might very well be handing your act over. Seasoned entertainers usually start out doing something more visual and less conversational in the opening, which gets the crowd into the mind set that they are watching a show and not hanging out.
4. Ending with a Volunteer Routine
When the show is over the audience will let you know how much they appreciated the act by the applause they give you. This is a very important moment. I have seen substandard acts work this moment very well. They get the audience clapping and they build the applause until it is nearly deafening. Like I said, in some cases the act wasn’t that great, but what the audience will remember is how much they clapped at the end. They won’t even remember being told to clap, or if you used a ruse to get them to do it, like telling them to clap a rhythm. The just remember the clapping and that’s often how they know if they liked the show or not.
So, if you finish a routine and they start clapping and then you have to get the audience member back to their seat, this is going to cut into this important ‘clapping time’. You can not afford this interruption. One way around this, if your strongest routine involves a volunteer, is to get them off stage just before the end of the trick. If they get applause as they get seated and then you time it right and finish strongly, then you can build on the applause and end with a really solid finish.
5. Using Tired Old Tricks
You would think that this would be obvious, but it seems like originality is often overlooked by new performers. This can be okay if you are performing for very little children who have never seen a magical coloring book before. But there are very few kids who haven’t seen that trick. When you have older kids or adults, forget it! If they think they have seen it before, they are far less likely to take an interest in what you are doing, and far more likely to heckle.
It doesn’t take much originality to use the same methodology of a routine but to change the way it looks. The magic coloring book could easily be made into a check book, or a menu, or a stack of drawings that children gave you after previous shows. Whatever. Whatever suits your personality. The thing is to be creative.
There used to be the principle of nostalgia that was a powerful tool to use on stage. In the olden times (pre-internet), people used to really like to see the same things over and over. “Oh look, Honey, here’s the Chinese Linking Ring routine. I saw this last year.” I think that our culture has grown a LOT more jaded over the past two decades. Deal with it. You have got to take a look at crowd psychology and be ruthlessly honest with yourself about how your stuff is going over. The beautiful thing is that there are so many magic tricks for sale out there, that it is extremely easy to show the audience things they haven’t seen before. Just take a look at what is being done by other performers in your venues in your area and, either avoid them like the plague, or slap a new coat of paint on them.
I’ve never met Mike Ferguson, he’s a gentleman I know only through tweets - but you’d be amazed what you can discover in 140 characters. His twitter bio reads as follows:
Business Development Director for Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters and I also croon the corpus eclectic. Opinions, attitudes, typos found here are mine alone.
There is one mistake in that bio.
I’m willing to bet there will be more than a few out there that share in his opinion.
Although his bio mentions nothing of magic, he clearly has some powerful insights into it. The following is one of Mike’s excellent essays on the topic. It is a shockingly good and I'm grateful that he allowed me to share it with my readers
A Question of Magic
by Mike Ferguson
One of my favorite movies is Funny Bones with Oliver Platt, who plays a character that desperately wants to be funny but isn’t. What’s worse, he’s living in the shadow of his famous comedian father, played by Jerry Lewis. In one scene, the father explains to his son, “There are two types of comedians, a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”
I think there are magic bones magicians and non-magic bones magicians. Both can fool you and both are entertaining. One makes you say “how did you do that?” The other makes you say, “who the f#@k let you out of your bottle.”
This is an important distinction and has something to do with why magic is on my mind lately.
Asking “how did you do that?” is a common response to watching a magic trick. But when you’re watching a magic bones magician your initial response is not “how did you just trick me?” The most common initial response is disbelief, which actually means your very first response is to believe. You question your senses and even your sanity. You don’t wonder what the secret is or what is happening that you can’t see. You wonder when the seams at the corners of reality are going to be sewn back together.
When you watch people watching a magic bones magician, they do things like reaching out to the person next to them to steady themselves, or scream, or simply walk away. They almost always have a physical reaction, bending over, crouching, jumping, spinning, as if they need their body to help them absorb the force of the impact. One of the most innovative things about the street magic David Blaine filmed for TV in the 1990’s, beyond whittling the magician’s presenting premise and need to talk down to almost nothing, was to focus on these types of reaction.
If a magic bones magician is performing for a large audience, the applause comes slowly because people must remember themselves, where they are and the appropriate social response. They gasp; they look at their neighbor to see if their neighbor saw the same things and they wonder if they are dreaming, then they applaud.
The non-magic bones magician may be very skilled, a master technician, even a true sleight of hand artist and a talented entertainer. But almost everyone in his audience believes that if they knew the secrets, owned the proper accoutrements, and practiced; they could do the tricks too.
The magic bones magician makes you ashamed that you ever even owned that Mark Wilson magic set when you were seven and makes you vow never again to pull a quarter from a child’s ear.
When I was in high school I had the good fortune, by pure happenstance I think, to not only work at a magic shop but to meet, hear lectures from, and on occasion receive personal instruction from a group of magic bones magicians. You would not recognize any of their names. If you are a professional magician, you would recognize them all.
You know, I never recovered from that.
Good magicians (whether it is in their bones or not) walk a tight line of dynamic tension between your need and their own, your need for wonderment and their own need to travel secret passages that are near meaningless apart from the presence of those who do not know they exist. The fact that they are willing or actually desire to provide you with wonderment is what sets them apart from con artists. The fact that they have these secrets, some of them surprisingly profound in their wider implications, sets them apart from jugglers or acrobats or flamenco guitarists.
If there are tiers to these secret passages, and I believe there are…at Chilean miner depths, then I suppose I never saw more than a few top levels. But I have never forgotten what I saw there and the things I learned. Most of the time, I keep these things neatly tucked away and don’t think about them much. Maybe I even avoid them.
I generally stay out of magic shops, but if I should happen into one I am overwhelmed with the feeling of loss. It’s not really the feeling of personal loss; it’s a feeling of loss around the emptiness inside most magic shops. The secrets are not there. You can buy every trick in the place and learn them all and you will be a collection of paraphernalia and moves and people will ask you how you do it but no one will reach out for a shoulder to steady them when they watch. If you’re a magic bones magician in waiting, my guess is the first clue will be when you set aside the objects acquired from the magic shop and carry the principles you’ve learned to other things and other frames.
The feeling of loss I experience in magic shops is only personal to the extent that there is nothing in those places for me to recapture. Even if I decided to return to a proper study of magic, the things that I want to understand are not found in magic shops or on YouTube, and they most certainly don’t involve a deck of cards. Some of them are found in books, but only if you know how to read between the lines and past the last page. Still, I am a great fan of all sorts of magic, whether it comes from the bones or not, whether it is corny or stupefying, as long as it honors the places and people from which it came. And I appreciate anyone willing to walk that line of dynamic tension. I don’t care if you’re dressed like Fred Astaire in evening attire and putting together and pulling apart giant metal rings that serve no earthly purpose outside of a magic act, or if you’re dressed like a 1980’s glam rocker, I’ll watch if you’re willing to stand up and declare you’re a magician.
But my favorite magic is magic that happens along the way, magic with very little premise beyond circumstances that appear to be a part of going about our everyday lives. Years ago I was walking down the street with friends. I took the stir stick from one of their coffee cups and made it disappear right in front of their eyes. It vanished. It was as gone as gone can be. They all started cussing and looking around for the stir stick. That must have been eight years ago but those people still talk about it. They had never seen me do a magic trick before then and they have not seen me do one since. The satisfaction of that moment, when everything was right, was worth forgoing a manufactured repeat.
That trick was taught to me 30 years ago by a magic bones magician. That day was not the only time I had done the trick, but I really think it was the moment for which the trick was taught to me and, I have to admit, probably the only time the teaching was earned. I was disappointed to find the method, which to my mind is something like a haiku poem in its beauty and simplicity…even in its meter, described in a recently published book of magic, but that is how it goes. I’m sure it is not its first appearance in a book and I know it won’t be the last. For all their talk about keeping secrets, magicians love to write books and a stunning number have been published over the last 300 years. Despite this, very few secrets have taken up permanent residence in the public consciousness. I think the only real secret of magic that just about everyone believes they understand is the concept of misdirection.
The gap between what most people believe misdirection to be and what it is in all its fullness as used by magicians is part of the pact we (ye ol’ laypeople) make with the performers. We don’t want to know, we really don’t.
The 2006 movie, The Prestige, openly presents a great secret of magic as part of the narrative, indeed, as a completely overt theme within the movie. But it is easy to capture only the implications that float on the surface if you don’t ask the second and third questions and then ask those questions again outside the context of viewing the movie. But most of us won’t ask those questions outside the context of a given scene, let alone the context of the movie or while watching a magician in some other place and time. That is the gift, after all these years, which was given to me by my brief but very intense career in magic and by the magic bones magicians I met. I learned to ask another question. Then, ask another question. Then, ask another question. Long before the poet Rilke taught me to love the questions over the answers, I loved the wondering of how magic happened more than I loved the knowing. I think this is why I would always pick a magician’s biography or a magic history over a how-to book. One is full of questions and the other is all answers.
The one question I never ask is, “How did you do that?”
This week features a "guest" post from my good friend and Elmwood's resident interviewer, Joseph Malkiewicz. Joe recently sat down to craft this excellent essay on the popular discussion of books versus dvds in the world of magic. Here's the word direct from Joe....
Let’s begin with a couple of centering thoughts.
First, an ancient Japanese Zen tale:
A man was being chased by a ferocious tiger through a field at the edge of which was a cliff. To escape from the tiger, the man grabbed a vine and swung himself over the cliff’s edge. To his dismay though, when he looked down, he saw more tigers below. Furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. In the instant that he knew he would fall to certain death, he noticed a wild strawberry growing from the wall of the cliff. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth. He never realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.
And second from the 19th century writer, Charles Dickens, who began his novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” with these now famous words: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
These two examples illustrate a profound point: extremes, that is to say, polarities, exist and persist over time because 1.) our knowledge changes, 2.) tensions between old and new technologies, and generational knowledge and methods compete, and 3.) our perspectives are modified by our own personal learning styles.
Every now and then, some consternation is expressed regarding the use—perhaps, in the minds of some, overuse—of DVDs as learning tools for neophyte magicians. The superiority of learning through reading, by which the learner creates mental models of what the process of the trick looks like are viewed as the “only” or “right and proper” way to learn how to do a trick. That point is then bolstered by an equally meritorious hypothesis that the learner is compelled to inject his own personality into the trick. DVDs, on the other hand, the advocates of reading only argue, teach learners to merely ape the teacher in the DVD, bypassing the rigors and intellectual process of interpretation and struggles with nuance and ambiguities which flourish in written language.
This, however, is a false dichotomy. When it comes to learning anything—whether it’s magic, personal hygiene, how to meet members of the opposite sex, solve simple math problems, file one’s income tax, acting, etc.,—it can be argued that there really are no either-or, right or wrong approaches. It’s up to each individual to discover what works best. Our brains evolved from cultures that were steeped in oral traditions, that were rich in mentors, guides and sagacious elders who instructed the young in all manner of survival and leisure pursuits. The models for instruction and learning, millennia ago, were built on looking, experiencing, mimicking and memorizing. In fact, the wisest people of antiquity were those who’d committed hundreds of axioms, proverbs and aphorisms to memory. Even Aristotle is supposed to have warned parents not to teach their children to read as it would turn their children’s brains to mush. Teach them to memorize was his advice.
I remember hearing Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, give a lecture in Buffalo about 45 years ago. Her observation, that “once man created and used the iron axe, he would not go back to the stone axe,” remained with me these four plus decades and has served as a bedrock principle both during my teaching career and in my own personal view about human progress. The last three to four decades witnessed the birth of entirely new technologies by which to learn and advance knowledge. New research in cognition and neuro-science have challenged old models of both teaching and learning. Recognizing multiple intelligences compels us to re-examine the sacred cows that have been passed down to us.
Once upon a time, it was believed that children were simply smaller versions of adults which resulted in teaching practices that, while effective for adults, killed the joy of learning for the young. During the early part of the twentieth century, people like John Dewey and Jean Piaget introduced concepts of child-centered and hands-on learning programs that revolutionized education, altered teaching practices and learning theories. The first half of the twentieth century saw “progressive education” blossom.
The latter part of the last century ushered in a technology revolution, the scope of which was unimaginable. Now, of course, we’re steeped in it, but the full impact of new ways to learn and teach have yet to reveal themselves. Even a quick search on YouTube’s, “magic tricks revealed,” illustrates that DVDs are not the enemy of book learning for magicians. If anything, magic’s professionally produced DVDs are sources of enrichment and edification that, hand-in-glove, make books even more usable. It is imperative that we not tether or limit our thinking to just one way to learn. Consider this: learning an Elmsley, a shuttle pass, a side steal, a Chink-a-Chink, a square or slip knot may possibly be more effectively taught and learned with newer, interactive animation technologies which don’t even utilize a human teacher. DVDs, PDFs, streaming video tutorials, visuals, etc., could actually ameliorate someone’s struggle and frustratation with text.
The task ahead, it seems to me then, over-run by and flooded as we are with a plethora of magical voices and sources, will require a discerning, critical mind to separate the gems from the crap, the great from the trivial. We need to cultivate the critical sharpness and criteria to notice the “sweet strawberries” within reach despite the surrounding polarizing pulls. Every age confronts such issues. That’s why it’s the “best of times and the worst of times” all the time. Magic doesn’t survive solely on dogma, that is to say, one path. Magical arts and crafts rely on creativity, individuality and uniqueness whether one’s a professional or an amateur. We are fortunate to still have our wise elders, our “sacred” books, experienced critics who nurture a bold, pioneering spirit that invite us to think outside of the box, and to peer courageously into the future — which is, after all, where’d we’d all like to take magic.
Trying something a little different - a “guest” post to let you know about a great event taking place just north of the border. My good friend and corporate magician Anthony Lindan is producing a fantastic convention in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Anthony, along with his partners David Peck and Brian Roberts, will be bringing some to notch talent to the Greg Frewin Theatre to share their time, insight, and expertise in an incredibly intimate setting. Here’s the word direct from Anthony...
The 2010 Magic By The Falls convention is only a few weeks away. It's held September 24-26 at the beautiful Greg Frewin theatre in Niagara Falls, Canada.
Registration is only $125.00 (US)
Complete details and registration information at magicbythefalls.com
What makes this convention so special is its small, intimate size - we cap it at 50 attendees. There are no lines or jockeying with hundreds magicians to talk to the stars. It is like having some of the biggest names of magic in living room. It's laid back, informal and a blast.
Another unique feature is the amount interaction provided by our round table and panel discussions. After the Friday night public show we hold a round table Q&A session with the performers so attendees can ask them about the performances and the show. We also hold another round table with all the performers involved in the convention where attendees can ask questions about anything and everything magic.
A highlight of the convention is our Sunday morning 'routining' workshop with comedy magician extraordinaire David Merry. You bring an idea or routine you're working on and David Merry brainstorms it and develops the idea with you and the audience. Roll up your sleeves and get ready to get creative with this one. This workshop has been pure gold in previous years and several attendees have said it alone was worth the registration fee!
We provide time to meet and talk with the headliners as well as hospitality time to hang out with other convention attendees.
Come and see some great magic, meet some great people and have a great time! If you have any questions or would like to register drop me a line.