Updated: Aug 6
Dai Vernon once famously said, “A great magic trick should be able to be explained in one or two sentences.” Which also ties in nicely with these thoughts on performance.
When I was younger just practicing how to be a magician, I had all these wild and crazy dreams. I thought bigger was always better when it came to stage shows. I wanted all the grand illusions, all the effects, all the beautiful assistance, and my name flashing in lights on the strip of Las Vegas.
Later I became friends with a Television Producer and Director who was also a very talented magician that taught me the term "pack flat & play big." As interesting as that sounded, I still had these dreams of hitting it big someday. My act kind of sucked because I kept over complicating things. I soon heard a magician who lectured at our local club named Jeff McBride who talked about his commando act. It's the type of act that you can take almost anywhere in a suitcase and still perform a 90 minute show that gets the audience talking. I then started traveling with World Renowned Illusionist Andre Kole who traveled with 5 tons of equipment and had an amazing show and almost always sold out. "Well if he can do it, I can do it." I told myself. I would sit at the table at our hotel and constantly write ideas of big illusions and planning all the stuff it would take to get this big show up and running. Andre began to talk to me about these plans & dreams and he said "Scott, you don't have to haul 5 tons of equipment around the world in order to be a good magician." he went on saying "even magicians who do nothing else but card magic get booked all over the world." Andre explained to me the overhead cost of having so much equipment and a team of seven people that travel with him. He encouraged me to work on a show that packs flat and plays big. In simpler words "keep it simple"
Sometimes routines can be too over complicated and have far too much going on for a spectator to fully and truly appreciate what they are seeing.
I began to develop a portable show consisting of a manipulation segment with an appearing handkerchief, a vanishing cane, an appearing and vanishing scarf, a vanishing candle, and an appearing cane; all done to a nice piece of music. With that I have a some rope, a King Monte (Jumbo Cards) A Vanishing Coke Bottle, an Invisible Deck, a 6 Bill Repeat, A Floating Glass, A Cardiographic Pad, The Vanishing Bandanna, Snow Storm, My Fire Eating Torches, and to close my show, I also have a Floating Table, just a few months ago, I added the Dancing Handkerchief by Sean Bogonia to my show. I have a lot more depending on the length of my show that I am booked for but I can pack this show in three suitcases and perform 30-45-60-& 90 minute shows. I have been doing the same routines for 15
years with the exception of some revamping of my routines and adding my new finale, the floating table.
When it comes to packing small and playing big It isn’t about the props themselves, it is about you as an entertainer. Anyone can take a magic trick and show it to a spectator, but entertaining and holding the attention of your audience requires more skill. The proof of this is that I don't have shiny new colorful tables on my stage, many of my silks are well worn out, I have been using the same deck of cards for several years.
I rarely ever need to replace my props, I'm overweight, 58 years old, and I wear skinny black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black jacket to appeal to some of the younger crowd. None of that matters because I can hold a crowd captivated with just my personality and entertaining style. Come see one of my shows and you will see for yourself. So it does not matter if you have just a deck of cards to do an hour show or five tons of illusions, it all comes down to you and how entertaining you can be.
Can you imagine walking onto a huge stage with just one case of props? Many performers do it all the time. So here is what I do, I have a small portable and light curtain set up so I can start blocking off my performing area and have a backdrop behind me to minimize the depth. I utilize the lighting, a well lit show with a few cues give the show a professional look. I utilize the sound system, I have terrific music, music that is upbeat and well timed with my routines. I like Iconic, vibrant and bass type music, something with a punch and a thump. I also have a very detailed cue sheet that many sound techs have complimented me on as being the easiest cue sheet that any performer has presented to them. Keep your cue sheets simple and precise. I utilize the curtains if the venue is equipped with them and if not I have my own as well, I have a portable set that I can set up in a matter of minutes. If I use the stage curtains, I also bring in the legs to shallow the depth of the stage and trim off the width.
Well, with a stage that is large you get lots of technology with it so the wifi, screens and projectors help to fill the space somewhat with my camera pointing at me for some powerful Close Up Magic.
Going through the airports is absolutely hilarious. If you were to see inside one of my cases when I travel to do a magic gig, it does look rather odd I can tell you. I have seen the strangest looks from TSA agents when my case goes through the x-ray machine. Many times they have to open up my cases and trying to explain to them what I do without giving away my secrets is challenging.
Here are my five top tips to simplify magic tricks, and streamlining them to make them not only more enjoyable and magical, but also more memorable for your spectators. 1. Try to explain what your effect is in one sentence If this is impossible then you should remove some phases from your routine. This doesn’t mean your routines have to be short, they can be long routines, they just need clarity. Let me explain further. For example, if you have a signed card that turned face up in the deck and then was found in your pocket, the back color of the card changed and then it was found to be inside a block of ice; that is a LOT going on that cannot be explained in one sentence. In this example, it would be better to simply have the signed card vanish and reappear.
When communicating with an audio and lighting tech and going over your cue sheets, simplified explanations are key. Here in this example is the first part of my show line-up
Manipulation Act - "I manipulate silks, canes, and candles all to music"
Vanishing Coke Bottle - "I take a coke bottle and paper bag and make the coke bottle vanish."
Rope Routine - "I manipulate a piece of rope to music."
Invisible Deck - "I interact with the audience pretending I have a deck of cards and their chosen card is the only card reversed in an actual deck of cards I produce."
3 Card Monte - "to an upbeat piece of music I take 3 jumbo size cards, and make the queen of hearts appear in different areas."
Floating Glass - I take a glass and a coke can and pour coke into the glass letting it go and it the glass is suspended in mid air."
And my list goes on, but as an example you can see that to the tech people, visually the cue sheet is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and the explanation is simple and to the point.
2. Remove unnecessary patter
If you were to film yourself performing magic to an audience how much of your patter do you think that you could remove and still achieve the same effect? How many umms and errs are there? I think if you were honest with yourself then you would realize there is actually a lot of words that performers say that are not necessary at all. I'm the worst when it comes to umms and errs. I discovered that it is actually ok to pause and think what your going to say next. My routines are very highly scripted and I say the same thing every single time. My wife can literally know what I will say next. The only time I have issues is when all of the sudden I have to improv or adlib and than I fill my speech up with the umms and the errs. I have gotten better over the years and some people are a lot better at it then I am. I'm a late bloomer. Eliminate sentences like, ‘If I just take the cards out of the box..' ‘if I turn over the top card..’ or even sentences like ‘As you can see my hands are empty.' These sentences do not add anything to your performance and are easily understood by the spectator as they can clearly see what you are doing. Think about it, what is better, if something were to vanish and the magician stands there turning his hands up and down whilst saying, ‘and as you can see my hands are totally empty’ or if something were to vanish, watching the magician slows down and simply holds his hands out in the open slowly turning them back and forth without saying a word. The latter is by far the more theatrical and magical of the two presentations. Watch me vanish a silk someday and you will get the point.
3. Go Slowly Try to slow everything down, performing at speed is usually linked to insecurity and guilt in the magic world. If you feel like something you are about to do might be figured out or they may catch something then the tendency is to speed up your performance. This is very natural and you must fight it. You know how these effects work, but trust me, when your spectators are seeing magic for the first time they are miles away from the method. They have a billion confusing thoughts occupying their brain when you are performing. When you speed up you are actually doing more harm than good, you are telegraphing to the spectators that there is something dodgy going on. They will subconsciously pick up on this and will not necessarily know where to look and pay attention, but they do know when and this alone increases the odds of them catching you. Do not let the guilt of deceiving people overcome you, stay calm and composed. Another reason for speeding up is insecurity, you may feel like you should have got a great reaction for something and instead of getting ‘WOWs’ and ‘what the’s’ you may get a more deadpan reaction, this can make you feel like you have to go quickly into another phase or effect to get that big WOW you are looking for to let you know your magic is good! People react in many different ways, I cannot tell you how many times I have felt at a gig that someone has not reacted well and I have looked at how I performed only to be contacted by them the day after or a couple of days later wanting to book me because they were so impressed. Sometimes just pausing after an effect can give the spectator time to process what has happened and let their brain catch up so they can react. Try it out. 4. Focus your spectator on just the key points in your routine.
This will begin to happen naturally as you eliminate the filler in your performances. As you remove unnecessary patter and sleights, you are honing the magic down to make it more potent. The less they have to concentrate on, the better the magic will be received. Another way to make spectators focus on the key points is to recap briefly before a reveal. Sometimes this is really not needed, but other times it can totally enhance the moment of magic and inflate the reaction you receive. For example, if you had a word selected from a book and you read their mind and said, ‘concentrate, ok, now the word I am getting is… Tree, is that right?’ You will get a strong reaction but if instead you said, ‘Please concentrate, ok, I think I have it. Now, just think about this for a moment, you freely chose any page in that book, all the pages are different and there are about 300 words to each page. There are 225 pages in the book so that is an average of 67,500 words in that book correct?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Of all these possibilities I am certain that the word you are thinking of is… Tree.’ Briefly recapping, you are elevating the impossible nature of the effect and making them focus on key points, the free selection of page and the fact that there are an enormous amount of words in the book. Even though they may have been instructed to look at the first word on the page and not ANY word, this sort of reprogramming can really help elevate the impossibility factor and prevent backtracking when a spectator tries to remember what happened.
5. Leave your spectators with a clear memory of the magic you performed. There are many ways to do this, one way is to leave them with an impossible souvenir that they can keep and tell their friends about. This could also be a business card with a word reveal or drawing duplication you performed for them. Something they can take away and show when they tell the tale of the conjurer who captured their heart! In my show, I perform Martin Lewis's Cardiographic and the spectator always walks out with the drawn picture of their risen card. I also sign that picture and they have a nice souvenir that they can now take home.
You don’t have to leave them with something though, you can create a moment with your spectators. If you watch Bill Malone he has a chant that he gets the spectators to do when he performs as part of the celebration and reaction, this can be very memorable. By framing your routines up near your face, for example, holding a signed card up near your face with a cheeky grin when you reveal it is actually their card. Small images like this can stick in people's minds and can increase the chances of them thinking of you next time they need a magician or are talking about a magician. Using techniques like this can help elevate areas of your routine without adding extra patter lines or actions that will cloud up the performance So there you have it, these are my top 5 tips for simplifying your magic. Remember by doing this it not only helps you but it helps the spectators to appreciate your magic more and in turn your reactions and the general response to your magic will be more rewarding.