J C’s Note: This is a must-read article for magicians and performers of any kind. This essay garnered international critical acclaim and has been reprinted in numerous websites and magic club newsletters.
Some of you might be thinking that this has been discussed many times in various books. My problem is that the advice given is often too simplistic for a new performer. The real work does not seem to be discussed.
Very often, you hear advice such as:
“Find a good opening, a solid closer and add fillers in between. Your opener should be short and flashy. Your closer should be the strongest piece of magic you have.”
A good formula? Not too bad, but it is too simple and too one-directional. Following this line of thought is too rigid and possibly explains the reason why there is a large amount of ‘sameness’ in magic shows.
The best source I have read is from Denny Lee’s lecture notes. It is inspiring and gives practical information from scratch. I am not regurgitating information from his notes, but rather using my own experience to give a solid foundation for new performers to work on. This will no doubt be embedded with knowledge learnt from performers like Denny and many, many others. I would have to say that nothing I offer is really original except for maybe, the way I approach the problem.
This essay is not for commercially successful pros (commercially unsuccessful pros might benefit from this) who already have a strong act which works. It is for the magicians, magic-enthusiasts, amateurs and aspiring performers who want to develop a show. The key word is show and not act.
The difference, can be seen in the following:
- Effects make up a Routine
- Several Routines make up an Act
- Several Acts make up a Show
The difference between Acts & Routines making up the show is somewhat hazy. It might be more accurate to say that:
A Show can be made up of acts and routines. In which case a stand-alone routine acts as an act. (Pun not actually intended.)
Thus, the show is made up of three components: Effect, Routine & Act. Understanding the components of the show will help in the construction of the show.
We can look at the creation of your show as a process, made up of three stages:
The construction stage involves two steps. The first is choosing the bare bones of the routine that make up the body of the show.
Here are practical things you must take in consideration during the choosing of routines:
- Performing Venue. Indoor, outdoor, stage area, audience position, angles.
- Type of show. Corporate event, shopping mall, cruise show, club date, birthday parties, part of a revue, bar, etc.
- Type of Audience
- Length of Show 20min, 30min, full evening, etc.
- What you want to be positioned as. That is, do you want to be known as a specialty performer for kids or a close-up worker etc.
- Transportation needs
- Set-up time on stage
- Time needed to clear off stage
- Set-ups, secret loads, convenience of set-ups like liquids etc.
The above all affect the types of effects, routines and acts you choose. There is a disadvantage to this approach; it stifles creativity.
Although practical, you are actually putting restrictions on yourself when taking all these things into consideration. You might end up with a method that undermines the effect. Jim Steinmeyer voices this in his book Device & Illusion. To quote:
“The reason it’s terrible to start dreaming of a trick like the ‘surroundable, examinable, do it anywhere with no trap door, impromptu Elephant Vanish’ is that you’re burdening the trick with restrictions.”
I agree with Mr. Steinmeyer totally but unfortunately, my work does not always allow me this luxury. I guess your ultimate goal will determine the path you take.
So, construction involves choosing the effects, routines and acts which you feel will suit your show. The next step is to practice and rehearse these items so that you know them well. You might have some basic patter scripted out as well as bits of business. If you do, fine. If you don’t, do not fret; scripting is not essential is at this stage.
What you have now are the bare bones of your show. Step 2 is to arrange these bones in the best order which will be your show.
Primavera performing the classic “Sword Basket”
Let’s start with the opener. I feel that it is not necessary that your opener need to be flashy. It also does not need to be done to music to be effective. The opener, I feel, is chosen for a specific purpose. The purpose can be any of the following:
- To set the mood of the performance
- To create an impact and gain the collective attention of the audience
- To warm up the crowd
The type of opening you choose for one purpose will be totally different from another. For example, in a Vegas showroom-type show. You have a captive audience who is ready to be amazed and entertained. They probably expect your opening to be flashy and glitzy. Ayala’s show featured in Spellbound is a good example. His opening is strong and sets the mood, tone and character of the rest of the show to come.
However, for workers who perform in non-ideal conditions. Your opening needs to be more of an attention-getter. If you work a lot of banquets or malls, people are often distracted and not really expecting a show. A good emcee can help in warming the audience and getting their attention but not always. Thus your opening needs to have impact. Creating a giant flash of fire is useful. Loud music helps. Interesting costuming will be a good enhancement as well. The bottom line, do the best you can to draw the attention towards the stage area. The mood setter would then be the second act/ routine in your show.
If you are performing in an informal situation, such as a bar, BBQ or home, a flashy opener may not be ideal. Due to the contrasting setting, a tuxedo and cane will be out of place. This contrast may make you look foolish. A good opener may then be a light-hearted piece with a bit of audience participation. This warms up the audience and gets them on your side.
I hope you see how the purpose defines the choice of an opening act or routine.
Likewise, closers are chosen for intended purposes. Here are two reasons for choosing specific routines:
- You want to end the show with a bang
- You want to end the show with the audience experiencing a desired emotion
The first reason is the most common in magic. Do your most powerful routine or illusion that really blows them away. That is fine by my book, no complaints at all. Just be aware that there are other approaches. A quite affair such as a torn & restored cigarette paper of Gypsy Thread routine under a single spotlight can do wonders as a closer. Lance Burton ended his first special with his Center Tear Newspaper Restoration/ Dove production after an entire hour of mind-blowing manipulations and illusions.
A dramatic story type effect can be fantastic. Kevin James ‘Snowing’ is an excellent example. A heartening and sincere story coupled with the right music makes the effect very strong and ideal as a ‘feel-good’ closer.
The above shows that your opener and closer can vary from show to show. That is true, especially if you are an On-Location Performer (OLP). The OLP is a self-coined termed which I refer to performers who go to different venues to put up their show. They do not perform in formal venues such as casino showrooms, Magic Castle, cruises etc. Often each show is in a totally different setting and to different audiences. Thus, an OLP will have different openers to fit different performing occasions. There is no rule which states that you must have a fixed opener and closer.
This makes up the body of the routine. Here are some features of filler acts:
- They are usually longer than the first and last routines.
- They usually involve audience participation and interaction.
- These routines should emphasize your stage character and allow the audience to get to know you better.
- Entertainment value is essential.
Filler routines are usually material you are most comfortable with. I cannot list or suggest any routines because, almost no routine is fixed as an opener, filler or closer. One magician’s filler can be another magician’s opener or closer.
Denny Lee also makes an excellent suggestion. One filler can be a sharp manipulation routine done to music. A visual routine performed smartly to appropriate music can break up the monotony of a talking act. It can be the midway point of your show.
This is the first step in a long road, but do not be disheartened and do not try to breeze through this stage. This is the most important stage! The reason why there are so many bad magic shows out there is because the basic foundation is weak. To be frank, to construct your show is the hardest of the three processes. It can take years! Just stick with it.
Bottom Line of Construction Stage:
Find & choose effects, routines and acts to form the foundation of your show.
Jason Bishop presenting Op Art
After constructing your show, I have no doubt that you will venture in the world of performing reality. From the end of your first show, you will have officially moved onto the 2nd stage of this process – Development.
There are three aspects of the development stage:
This is where you get serious in scripting your show and developing bits of business. Through performing, you will automatically realize which routines work and don’t work. You will also learn which lines, patter, presentations and routines work and don’t work.
I would also call this stage a re-constructive stage. You will often be discarding routines, lines and ideas for better ones. At times, you may even have to start from scratch. Don’t be disheartened because know you have the luxury of knowing which routines don not work. When Edison failed countless times before inventing the light bulb, he did not consider his failures as failures. He regarded them as discovering ways of not doing it. This is exactly the same. You will discover which type of routines and ways of presenting suit and don’t suit you. As you mature, you will find it easier to decide which routines to use and spend time on. Development!
If you actually get this far, you will realize that it is no longer as difficult as the initial construction stage. You will often find joy in finding better and new ways of doing things.
This involves smoothening your transitions between routines. You could say that you are now going to ‘gel’ your string of routines to a cohesive show. This is what makes your show a ‘show’ and not just a few routines put together and performed in succession.
It is not necessary have jokes to link routines. The routines need not be related in anyway. Routines just need to flow from one to the other with no obvious breaks of pauses. Things to take note of include:
Reducing dead time between routines.
Improve order of routines. This comes with experience. From show to show, you may want to try out different permutations of routines. This will allow you to assess which is the best possible order of routines, resulting in a better show overall.
Develop your stage character as a means to give the entire show character. In the construction stage, your routines were what made the show. In the development stage, you want to may ‘you’ be the show. Your routines are just vehicles to convey your character.
Again, this stage does take a fair amount of time. I would say that if you get to towards the tail end of this stage, you would already be a fairly seasoned performer with at least 50 – 100 performances under your belt.
Seeking Advice during Construction & Preliminary Development Stages
At this point, I would like to say something about seeking advice and help from fellow magicians and performers. When you are in the construction and preliminary stages of the development stages, avoid seeking advice from fellow amateurs.
I am no way saying that their views are not good. But I strongly feel that at this stage, their advice may not be accurate and in your best interest. For the singular reason that they have not chalked up enough time on stage. Although, they may have good intentions, their inexperience on stage may sway you from your correct course.
During this time, seek and heed the advice of seasoned performers from various sources. Their experience will help in constructing and developing your act. The one danger that can result is that the seasoned performers will also be restricted by their own performing stereotypes. Due to certain experiences, they may believe that something works one way because it works for them. So, please seek advice from all angles and different types of performers. Assess which suggestions are common and take that those as safe guides.
When you are in the final stages of the development stage and stepping into the evolution stage, it is time to open yourself to all suggestions.
The simple reason is that by now, you should be very aware of your own performing restrictions and know what works in your show. If fact, every routine in your show should be working and you should already have a decent show. Now comes the polishing and perfecting of the routine.
Suggestions from laymen, magicians, non-magic performers and anyone can spark off ideas which can improve your show drastically. The evolution stage is where the small things make you different from the rest. Simple things like music, costuming and character of props play significant roles.
The reason why I do not need to really dwell on this stage is because: If you are already at the stage, you will automatically understand what is expected.
Just remember, reaching this stage is not the end of your journey. Evolving is a continuously process and it NEVER ends! I see many competent magicians who do get complacent and stop evolving once they get through the development stage. So, remember evolution never ends, nothing is perfect!
Components of Show:
Effects + Routines + Acts = Show
3 Stage Creation Process:
Time line for each Creation Process (varies from performer to performer)
Construction: 6 months – 1 year
Development: 1 yr. – 2 yrs.
Realistically, this is what you should expect. Commitment, patience and perseverance are needed if you intend to succeed. Expect to take at least 3 – 4 years to get a decent show. 6 – 10 years is what it usually takes to get a quality show of high standards in all aspects.
I know this is a long read and may seem too systematic a process for pursuing an art. I do not feel that this approach is sacred or suitable for everyone. It has helped me develop my own show to a large extent. I have also helped magicians develop and improve their acts along these lines. If you are a novice performer, I sincerely do believe this information will point you in the right direction.
Highly Recommended Readings
- Denny & Lee’s Lecture Notes
- Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz
- Shattering Illusions by Jamy Ian Swiss
- Absolute Magic by Derren Brown
- The Event Magician Vol 1. by J C Sum
If you are a new illusionist, check out “How to Be an Illusionist”, the most comprehensive modern guidebook on the market.
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