Let’s take a look at how to put together the various building blocks that make up a strong show.
One important thing to realize is that your show begins before you say a word or begin performing any magic. Famously the most vital thing to remember is that a huge part of your audience’s opinion about you is formed during the first 60 seconds they are watching you. Therefore what you a wearing, how you look, and your overall attitude as you hit center stage are of key importance. You must exude confidence and competence as you walk out from the wings to begin your show. No matter what your chosen persona is going to be, the audience need to grasp it immediately and then you can successfully be off and running in that first 60 seconds.
Other vital aspects of a good opening can involve the correct music and lighting to set the tone of what is to follow. Certainly a good spoken introduction is an important consideration that influences your opening. Have a short and effective introduction printed out on a small card for the emcee to read, and then try and make sure that he says it rather than reads it! Don’t fall into the trap of letting the emcee, “Just say anything” or you will almost certainly hate the result. If you don’t care what he says about you then why should he?
Make sure your microphone is working and turned on! Bad sound at the top of your show can be a short cut to looking amateurish and awkward; don’t be so caught up in your props that you cease to remember that your microphone is the most important of them. I could continue with variations on themes like this for quite a while but I think you probably are getting the drift of what I am lumping into concept of the “opening” to a show.
The first trick in your show needs to be a very strong one. In many ways it needs to be stronger than your closing effect, which should be more geared towards the role of achieving applause. That first trick has the most important job of all as it has to establish your style and personality with the audience. Everyone will have a different idea of what does that the most effectively. General rules of thumb are that it shouldn’t require bringing an assistant onstage with you and it shouldn’t be too long or to complicated. My old mentor Billy McComb used to swear by doing a fast visual gag effect upfront because he didn’t think the audience was particularly focused at that point. I am very fond of a “sucker” or “explanation style effect such as the Color Change Silks or Spotcard. A “story” type of effect such as The Six Card Repeat also achieves this result very nicely.
The one important caveat I would apply to any trick in this opening slot is that you should be able to perform it without needing to look at your hands or the props you are using. This allows you to keep in eye contact with the audience at all times. There is no better way to establish a good rapport with your audience than putting a smile on your face and letting your eyes scan the entire venue and encompass the assembled crowd. I am certainly not implying that you shouldn’t look at the props you are employing when you want the audience to specifically focus on them, that is just good stagecraft.
Somewhere inside your act needs to be a feature trick. By this I mean an effect that achieves a particularly strong reaction and one that you aren’t afraid to spend enough time to fully explore. This effect can be handled like the centerpiece that your various other tricks frame. It is particularly nice if this effect is one that evokes some strong emotional response from your audience. Comedy magic generally triggers very little emotional response, and allowing one item to appeal to the heart as well as the mind and eyes is very strong theater. Emotion is greatly to be desired in performance. The touching concept that all lay audiences are thrilled with the experience of mystery and being fooled is simply not true: some audience members are and many more are not.
By having several tricks that function as feature effects you can rotate them in your shows and build up a series of shows that are primarily the same format but appear quite different to audiences. Once you have started to build up a repertoire of strong feature effects you can begin to re-examine and revisit them, a good technique is to see how much you can speed up their presentation without losing the impact. Over time it is inevitable that feature effects become somewhat bloated with jokes and business that can be pruned and tightened to good effect. When you have reinvented and retuned them they can be placed back in the act surrounding a new feature or signature trick.
As desirable as it might be it isn’t really possible to set out to create a signature effect. These wonderful gifts have a way of arriving in your act and it is your job to discover if one is lurking under the surface of your show. A signature trick is one that fits your style and personality so well that audiences identify you with it, and it with you. It is the strongest piece of performance branding that you can achieve and the sign that you are finally becoming the performer you always wanted to be. Usually these are strong magical effects that have a powerful impact on those watching. However, they can also be a unique little trick or gag that just “clicks” with your audience in a special way.
You will know when you have found a signature trick because people talk about it more than other effects in your show–sometimes even effects that you consider much stronger. When you see this happening it is important to really focus on this effect and work on how to showcase it the most effectively in your show. Always take it very seriously and be aware when it arrives that you have moved to another level as a performer. I am not saying you have to make it a heavy sell in your show, just be aware that it is different from the others and treat it that way.
I found my signature trick in the Linking Finger Rings. This was the trick people wanted to discuss after the show; this was the effect that bookers requested I include in my performance. To this day I never go onstage without being prepared to perform this trick, even if I have absolutely no intention of including it in my show. It is just special. This one routine has resulted in more re-bookings than any other item in my repertoire. It has also resulted in more standing ovations than any other effect, in spite of the fact I almost never close on it. Finding a trick that does this for you is like discovering the pot of gold under the rainbow. Be on the lookout for it!
Nothing shows the difference between an experienced pro and an inexperienced magician more clearly than the way they link the tricks together in their show. If you watch a magician who has the opportunity to perform frequently you will notice how seamlessly they glide from effect to effect. Very often a less experienced performer will seem to present a trick, stop, and then begin another. There is an enormous difference in the reaction of an audience to these two different performance styles. Sometimes, of course, a real pro wants to draw a line or place a period between two tricks and he deliberately breaks the trajectory of his show. He does so, however, in a very deliberate manner totally planned and carefully executed.
Please note that I am not specifically talking about “good” or “bad” performers in the previous paragraph; I am primarily referring to the amount of stage time that the performers have under their belt. It is not easy to add the “linkage” that can make a show run smoothly and effectively. It takes a great deal of practice and planning to create the words, jokes and business to bridge the more obvious tent poles in an act. The first step towards success in this endeavor is to observe the way entertainers you admire tackle this task and then watch less experienced performers. Note the points in the less experienced performer’s show where the energy suddenly dissipates. Then look at the written script of your show (you do have one I hope!) and co-ordinate the “linkage” to make your show glide along as smoothly as a P & L Reel.
An analogy that is always worth thinking about when taking the long view on your show is the time honored one that compares it to a journey. It isn’t just the final destination that counts but all the steps and stages of the journey that get you there. Linkage is the invisible element that makes things go smoothly and cleanly from point A to point B, whether it is a joke, a suitable line of dialogue or a fast and unexpected piece of magic. Linkage will improve things greatly in any show since nothing is more jarring than a sudden awkward pause that lets your audience hear your magical gearshift grinding.
Even the best show must come to an end, hopefully before it has overstayed its welcome, which means you need a strong closing effect. It should be a powerful effect that has an obvious applause point at its conclusion. Many performers, and I am certainly one of them, would agree that it is wisest not to end your show with a spectator onstage with you. The reason behind this classic stance is that getting the spectator offstage and back to their seat in the audience causes a delay and visual diversion that takes the attention away from the performer and results in diminishing that all important applause. I have certainly seen performers break this “rule” and have a great closing ovation. However you need to know your timing and have a strong trick and even stronger stage presence to pull it of really successfully though.
Another well-established “rule,” is that a closing trick should not tax the brain too much–because thinking people don’t applaud as readily. I have mixed thoughts on this theory I do believe that it is probably easier to get an audience on their feet and cheering with something more visual than cerebral. My long time closing effect is The Torn and Restored Newspaper. I perform a slow motion restoration and cheerfully inform the audience that the slowing down of the effect makes it much more difficult. While this may not be strictly true, the slow motion, and stage-by-stage restoration of the newspaper, allows the audience to fully appreciate and then react enthusiastically to the effect. The flash restoration of a newspaper is a beautiful thing to watch but my slow motion variation certainly gets me the applause and standing ovations that have established it as my major closing effect for over 35 years.
It always amazes me how many variety acts do a great show and then throw away the full impact by giving a terrible bow. Like everything else in show business, a good bow is something to be researched, planned and perfected. The music and lighting must be right, but above all the performer must have the correct mental attitude to apparently effortlessly milk every last “applau” (singular for applause) from his audience. I could give you further ideas and examples about the art and science of taking a good bow but it would be much more beneficial to spend a few hours researching on YouTube. Watch some of the great stars take their bows after a show and observe how carefully and effectively they do it. I referred to it as an art and science for a good reason! Keep watching some of those London Palladium and Ed Sullivan acts until you grasp my idea of a true bow—then go forth and do likewise.