Let’s focus on focus………
I want to say a few words about a very important topic that does not get the attention it deserved. Focus. It is a vital factor in taking your show from fairly good to really good. If that sound like a plan, then stick with me for a few hundred words while we focus on focus.
My first real discovery of how you could use focus to control an audience was as a very young magician watching Billy McComb transfix the entire audience at the London Palladium putting a coin inside an empty mixer bottle. It was a power object lesson and it took me many years to fully understand it. How could a magician stand onstage in London’s finest variety theatre and entertain a huge auditorium with two such tiny items? Eventually I realized it was all about focus. While the focus never made the two objects larger, it certainly made them more important and caused the audience to watch more carefully. That’s why the trick got the huge reaction that it did.
The first, and simplest, way the focus was controlled was via the lighting. A tight spotlight on the action made the coin, the bottle and the performers hands into the center of attention for everyone present. In addition the way Billy focused his own attention on the props caused the onlookers to do likewise. Another entire sense was focused when he tapped the bottle sharply with the coin and the entire theatre could hear the resulting ‘clink.’ The proximity of the coin/bottle to the microphone around his neck made this a much more profound sound within the theatre. It is easy to underestimate the importance of ambient sound in performing magic.
The simplest example of how to use focus to your advantage is to realize that you are focusing your attention on the audience when you are making eye contact with them. This in return causes them to focus on your face—just what you want if you are selling a joke with the help of your facial gestures and reactions. On the other hand, if you have a small prop in your hands then all you need to do is stare intently at it in order to influence the audience into doing likewise. This is a very simple but extremely important point.
Curiously enough some of the very least focused magic that I see performed is by mediocre illusionists who seem to think that the larger sized props they use are a surefire way to be seen. If you are sawing a lady in half then it is vital at one point to really focus the audience’s attention on the blade involved in the effect. Another amateurish give away in an illusion show is the half-assed twirls, turns and awkward dance steps that sometimes pass for choreography in such shows. The job of an assistant is to focus attention on the trick that is taking place. Are you a bad dance act or a good magic show? Make your decision and live with it.
As an example of unfocused action think about the female assistants you have seen padlocking the magician inside a sub trunk, and doing a high kick in the air as they display each and every lock before attaching them to the hasps on the crate. This is wasted time and energy that looks dated and dumb and in no way contributes to the action in the effect.
With a top-notch illusion show every movement is planned to draw attention, not solely to the performers, but in particular to what they are doing and to the action of the ongoing magic in the act. Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean that you should. Being precise and focused is a much better procedure than being random or ‘overdone.’
The reason a comedian spends most of his time trying to cut unnecessary words from his routine is because it more clearly focuses the audience on the important words in the joke, the words that get the laugh. The same is true for physical actions ,which can just be distracting and get in the way. By focusing your words and actions you maximize the impact of the magic when it arrives.
My rule of thumb is to keep cutting things down to the basics (i.e. focusing) until you achieve the maximum impact with the minimum effort. Ideally it should look like the magic is happening on it’s own– just because you happen to be there. In the 40 years since I have been performing in the United States I spent the first 20 learning what to do and when, and the last 20 making it look like I’m not doing anything.
My friend Tim Glander commented on this column and I liked it so much I wanted to include it in this blog post. “Don Alan always taught me: “Edit, edit, edit! Stop trying to get 10 minutes out of that cup (s) and ball! Ya know Tim, I see these guys flogging that damn trick to death! After 2 minutes, you’ve lost them” (incidentally, Don’s chop cup routine was 99 seconds, 300 words, 11 laughs with 5 effects. Can’t get better than that!)” Thank you Tim.