The Successful Illusionist

The Successful Illusionist


Anyone thinking of embarking on a career (whether full-time or part-time) as an illusionist will no doubt dream of bright lights, their own stage, in their own theatre or perhaps their television special. In short, making it big as an illusionist.

The ‘luck factor’ plays a significant role to becoming successful. For purposes of this discussion, let us suspend our belief and exclude luck as a factor.

So, what makes a successful illusionist?

Here are my thoughts on the subject:


The basic techniques and methodologies of illusions, are less likely to be huge factors. But the presentation and application of the illusions will be. There will be new innovations and discoveries but that has always been the case.

One constant that I think (hope) that will come back with the next thing in illusion is motivation and good story-telling in illusion performance. (I don’t consider ‘cheesy’ plots where the magician is ‘captured’ by bad guys and put into a box etc necessarily good story-telling unless it is performed WELL in the right context and the right theatrical environment.)

Good close-up workers (not necessarily the new-age ‘Street Magicians’) strive for credibility and motivation for all the actions. There is story-telling, from subtle to elaborate, in practically every effect. All illusionists should read Darwin Ortiz’s ‘Strong Magic’ and apply it to their illusion performance craft. Of course, I recognize the need for ‘no-brainer’ visual bubble gum in the context of a larger show. But, I do not think 50 illusions performed in succession make for a good presentation of illusion.

Jet Ski 2Sean Alexander making a full-size jet ski appear from shadows


This is the single most important factor in making a particular style/ presentation the next thing in magic. If you are working only out of a small market segment, no matter how original and commercial the style is, it is unlikely it will catch on. The ‘next thing’ means it has to be seen by many and then perceived to be good and the rage.

Like it or not, mass media markets (Television, Internet, Movies, Radio?) are generally what make the style of today. If you are going for any mass media market, being right up there with the latest in pop culture and trends is a must. Predicting what the next trend will be a lot trickier. Movie and music genres/ styles can give an indication of what might work. Examining financial successes over the past twenty years might allow for some educated guesses. Entertainment trends, like fashion and business, are cyclical.

However, it is also highly possible to establish oneself in other mainstream markets first, then crossover to mass media markets. This is generally the route many have taken as well.

What is your target market for your type of illusion show? Cruises, Showrooms, Music Concerts, Resorts, Special Events? What are the hottest shows (out of magic) in your respective market? Can magic emulate those formulas or use magic to elevate that formula?

Take advantage of the medium to create something different. In recent years, that is what has happened with magic on TV. The medium has been used to great advantage (or deception) to create an apparent new type of magic.

Many successful magicians all over the world have become the best because they created the ‘next thing’ within their respective market segments.


This will help narrow what the next thing will be; as it is a certainty that the next thing will not be a ‘me-too’ act. The ‘me-too’ syndrome is just as prevalent in magic, as it is in other entertainment forms. The true fact is; there are so many illusion clones out there. I personally do not understand the phenomena but I accept that it happens. Ethics aside, I find it difficult to see how one can except to get wide success by being a dime out of a dozen. It think there is a market for one clone of another act but multiple clones?

Again, please understand that I’m speaking from the point of view of working outside a small market – as this is relevant to the quest of creating the next thing in grand illusion. If you are working for laymen within a fixed population threshold, yes, it makes no difference if you look the same and perform the same stuff as another person outside this market. However, if you are looking to make an impact at a national or international level, you will be judged by experts in the entertainment field; world-class talent brokers and show producers. Trust me when I say that good agents/ producers have literally seen it all… or at least, anything worth seeing.

J C Sum Extreme BurnA fiery version of the “Bo Staff” illusion that I call “Extreme Burn”

Just to illustrate this, here are some specific illusions/ presentations that make informed individuals thing we ‘magicians/ illusionists’ are just the same.

Packing Crate-style Sub Trunk – 9/10 illusionists feature this. Origami and Interlude are close seconds and thirds as well. I’m not knocking the illusion, it is a brilliant illusion but everyone does it and not all well, unfortunately. I think it is fine to do it in your show amongst other illusions but don’t put it in your promotional material. (Again, I stress, I’m not knocking the illusion. I’m just stating this in the context of the discussion).

I don’t perform the Sub Trunk for this reason – because everyone is doing it and it will be too embarrassing for someone to point this out. How do you answer this question: “Why do all you magicians perform the same ‘tricks’?” I guess a possible answer is: “Just like musicians, we perform various classics with our own interpretation. While they look the same, they do feature our own unique styles and presentations.” The problem is, not many see magic as a mainstream art as we do, thus would not take that answer as a credible one. Another ‘problem’ is inherent with the magic art. Secrecy is a what separates magic from any other art form. The thing is, most laymen also think that the secrecy is kept among magicians as well, especially in the area of grand illusion. They do not naturally assume we know each other’s secret methods. Thus, it is surprising to them that we can perform the same illusions. But, I digress.

Kevin James Snowing Routine  – Specifically, the tearing of the napkin paper into the snow flake, his story about a child’s first impression of snow and snowing method/ effect (animator). Or Peter Samelson’s Snowing Presentation with the traditional snowstorm & fan. Again, both a beautiful, logical and motivated piece but has lost its novelty. For the record, I’ve personally seen the exact presentation performed on videos and live performances by magicians/ illusionists in the UK (3 performers), US (12 performers), Singapore (3 performers), Hong Kong, Australia and several from Europe. I’m sure there are many more out there.

The ‘Copperfield’ Look – The tucked out shift over T-shirt can be seen on many performers trying to look the same. Sigh…

The Sentimental Grandfather Story – Everyone has a grandfather who inspired them with the first magic effect they learnt etc. Some can pull it off, most cannot. Not because they are incompetent but it is just not their style. They are doing it because others are doing it.

Are the above examples only apparent because we are learned students of the illusion craft and are aware of all that goes on in magic. Not really, because these examples (except for the last one) were highlighted to me by an international show producer.

To understand the business/ commercial upsides of being different, Jack Trout’s ‘Differentiate or Die’ is a very easy must-read.


This does not really answer the question but it is something to consider. While working towards being the ‘next thing’, which can be a hit & miss thing as mentioned above, it is wise to consider longevity in the business. Translating a short-term fad into a sustained success can be a challenge given today’s ever-changing world.

It is possible to do very well with a ‘safe’ style that has a long shelf –life with sustained appeal but is unlikely to be the next BIG thing. But, that is not the topic of discussion anyway.

I guess the key for all is to present good magic, preserve, work hard and constantly innovate. Remember, what is often an overnight success or tomorrow’s trend has actually been in development for the past decade.

Related article: Why do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?


Learn how to book more shows that pay more, check out the Backstage Business Academy, a website dedicated to creating highly successful entertainers

Backstage Business Academy Header 2




  1. JC

    Firstly, “Congratulations!”, and secondly, “Thank You”, for making these views and invaluable advice available to such a wide audience. I have no doubt that it is appreciated by all, and I can assure you that you are in fact shaping the thinking for the next generation of performers. Such change is essential, and THIS is the right way to influence such change!

    I can only agree with all the points made above, especially your comment “I do not think 50 illusions performed in succession make for a good presentation of illusion.” To the audience, there is no story line, and hence no reason to watch the ‘tricks’.
    Consider the success of Cirque du Soleil. Without wanting to undermine the incredible skill and dexterity of most physical performance artist, including jugglers, there is little motivation to watch such a feat for longer than a few moments. Cirque managed to create movement and motivation for characters, and in such, pull you into the telling of a story…

    Having said the above, and I ask this with the utmost of respect, could you explain your thinking and rationale for doing your world record breaking mentalism routine. Admittedly I have not seen it, but what would concern me is that such a delicate art could be seen as simply a collection of ‘tricks’…

    Your view and opinion would be greatly appreciated.

    • Thanks Len for the comments.

      I think my comment on 50 illusions performed in succession should have a caveat, and that is if not performed in a context. For our “Mind Heist” act or “15 illusions in 5 minutes” or any type of “Record” act, there is a context, which is the story of the act. The drama, theatre and emotion is “whether this record can be set/ broken”. While we attempt not to trivialize the individual acts/ routines/ effects in the record act, to the audience, the actual “tricks” are not important. They are there to see if the record can be set and they are witnessing history. Set against a countdown clock, suspense automatically builds. From the magic show’s perspective, this is quite unique, as we have a premise and context for a certain number of acts to be performed. The audience also knows way in advance what we are trying to achieve which is also not typical of magic, since we rely heavily on the element of surprise. Hence, why in traditional magic presentation, we do not tell the audience what we are going to do. So, I consider these “record” acts as a unique case to why the motivation for each individual effect is negated by the context of the setting the record in itself. Does it trivialize magic? I do not think so as based on interest that these acts generated, it is doing good for magic due to exposure at a mainstream level.