It is a CONTROL thing!

Every magician knows what controlling a card is; you put that darn pasteboard where you want it, and then it is available for you to deal with as you desire. The dictionary has a slightly different take on the word control and defines it as, “The power to influence or direct people’s attention in the course of events.” I want to zero in on that second definition and then apply it to the performance of magic.

After fifty years of performing magic for a living, I am sometimes a little cynical when I hear some of the more “artsy” definitions of what people aim to do with their magical skills. On Facebook timelines and magic forums I read, “I don’t want to fool people, I want to create a sense of wonder.” “My job is to create astonishment by displaying miracles,” is another comment that I recently read online. While trying to keep an open mind, this kind of talk tends to make me roll my eyes and shake my head. Phrases like these sound remarkably precious and pretentious to most laymen’s ears. 

Another, and slightly more pragmatic view of performing magic can be summed up with the, “I am not a magician, I am an entertainer” line of thinking. Maybe I am very old school; however, I have absolutely no problem being a magician who does tricks and makes people laugh while he fools them. This concept seems like an excellent way to make a living to me. I like being a magician and am deeply suspicious of jugglers who feel they might prejudice their commerciality by using the “J word,” and insist on being “Physical Comedians.” You can probably guess where I stand on ventriloquists who advertise themselves as “Vocal Illusionists!” If you are not proud of the work you do, forget adjusting the linguistics and get a different job. 

Let me take my line of thinking a stage further. When all is said and done, any professional performer’s real job is about control, and this is particularly true for a magician. We have to be very serious about this control business if we want to make a good living as a magician. Let’s start at the mechanical level; unless we learn to control a deck of cards, then a card trick is probably going to be pretty sloppy. Of course, some of my favorite magicians use their mastery and control of a pack of cards to throw their audiences off by the appearance of being sloppy. The great Charlie Miller was a particular master of this style of manipulative illusion. However, most close up guys aren’t Charlie Miller! Let’s leave the world of mechanics though, and look at performance technique. If the performer doesn’t control the audience, then they control him/her.

When a magician walks out onstage and faces an audience, it behooves him to make control of his audience job number one. If he takes control of the audience in the first few moments onstage, then they will likely keep right along with him on the rest of his journey. Let me be clear here; controlling an audience does not mean bullying them or being overly aggressive with them. One of the subtlest and most effective ways of taking control during a show involves using charm to the wooing an audience into submission. However, control is a definitive and powerful tool, no matter how you achieve it.

That multi-eyed eyed beast sitting out there in the dark, which we call an audience, needs to be carefully molded into a responsive group mind that we can make our own. Billy McComb used the analogy of an audience being attached to the performer by invisible threads passing from their minds and through their eyes, leading to the performer onstage. Billy insisted that a good performer picks up those separate threads of attention and gathers and binds the individuals into a cohesive entity. The performer is then able to influence and direct people’s attention to the course of events he has planned for them, which brings us back to that definition of control. 

For many decades now, my favorite opening effects have been the Color Change Silks or the Spot Card. Why? Because I can do some visual magic, make excellent eye contact, get some laughs, and beat the audience up ever so slightly. In a friendly way, I build things up, break them down, tell the viewers they aren’t laughing/applauding enough, and then stop them when they do react. By the time I have spent my first couple of minutes performing, I have subtlety shown the audience who is boss; firmly but in a courteous manner. 

I sometimes listen to inexperienced performers ponder on how and when they lost control of a show. The truth is that they probably never entirely had control of it to begin with. I performed last year in the Palace of Mysteries at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. One of the hosts came in before our late show with dire warnings about an unruly group who had been creating havoc in the various other showrooms. When I walked out to begin hosting the show, I knew exactly where this group of “trouble makers” were seated. They were sitting in the back of the theatre laughing and chatting in a slightly inebriated, but definitely not a hostile manner. I realized I needed to take care of business immediately or this particular crowded showroom would never fully coalesce into an outstanding audience. 

I solved the problem that had plagued the other Castle showrooms and I did it in about a minute. I started to talk to the audience, and when the renegade group continued talking loudly amongst themselves, I began to speak a little more quietly, and then I stopped talking altogether. I looked in their direction in a mildly puzzled manner, and very quickly, they realized that the only sound in the showroom was their chatter. Suddenly there really was total silence, and I gave that entire group a little smile and then speaking directly to them, I said, “No…Just No!” The rest of the audience were delighted that the problem had been addressed and resolved. The “trouble” group shut up and behaved beautifully for the remainder of the show, they really hadn’t meant to be a problem or disturb the show. 

I didn’t try and out talk this group or put them down in any way. I didn’t pull out some antiquated Robert Orben style “Zinger” or “Heckler Stopper.” I just took control of the problem group and directed their attention to what was actually happening in the room. The full interaction that occurred between us in the Palace that night took far less time to execute than it has just taken you to read about it. After headlining in the comedy club circuit for 11 years, I was keenly aware that only the guy onstage with the microphone should be in charge in a showroom. This errant group didn’t consist of villains or bad people; just regular folk who needed to be brought slightly into line, because they were having to much fun and were spoiling things for other people in the showroom.

One of the men who gave me an invaluable lesson in control was the great mindreader Maurice Fogel. He was a brilliant showman and within seconds would have any audience wrapped around his little finger. One of my favorite Fogel moments was during Maurice’s bullet catch routine. At the height of the pre-feat tension, with rifles pointing at him, and fingers on triggers, Fogel stepped dramatically forward and halted the action saying; “WAIT, it occurs to me that in a moment I may be lying dead, or dying, on this stage; unable to hear your applause! Would it be too much to ask to hear that applause now?” At the peak of the thunderous applause that followed, Maurice cut into the audience’s ovation triumphantly proclaiming; “…Then if that was your applause for a gallant loser, may I assume that should I succeed your applause would be twice as loud!” It always was.

The way Fogel controlled his audiences has stuck with me for 45 years and still inspires me. It was not that he intimidated the audience or in any way overstepped his role as a friendly entertainer; however, he OWNED those crowds. With equal parts charm and chutzpah, he influenced and directed people’s attention with the skill of a brain surgeon. I was always fascinated by the way first-rate mentalist such as Fogel and Al Koran were able to dominate the rather complex proceedings that constitute a mentalism show. Nowadays, practitioners such as Max Maven and Jon Stetson continue to bridle the skepticism of their audiences using their own highly theatrical systems of authority. They make it a fun part of their performance, and to me, it is usually fun that lifts mentalism to another level with contemporary audiences.

It would be inconceivable to write an article on this topic, and not talk about the iconic hypnotist/magician Peter Reveen, who always exerted an ironclad control over his audiences. After his magnificent show, Reveen would stride to the footlights for his final applause, and after his formal bow, he would stand, absolutely stationary, gazing at the crowd as they applauded him. He would just stand there until the audience stood up and gave him a 100% standing ovation. Reveen would remain motionless for 15 or 20 seconds, which is an eternity in stage time, and then he would wait as long as it took. Of course, Peter had an incredible show that deserved a standing ovation, however, he took no chances; he just stood there and silently commanded the audience to their feet. It was a powerful expression of something close to mind control to watch that inevitable ovation manifest itself.

I have taken some time to talk about control issues, which I do not recall being featured much in any books or articles about magic. If you are planning to convince an audience that you can perform any magic, then you should unquestionably be the uncontested focus of attention in the room. Of course, it is worth noting that the performers who are true masters of this control thing almost inevitably have great shows to go along with them. It is essential to make sure your material is worthy of the gravitas or whimsy that is being used to control the reaction to it. Nothing communicates insecurity more than poor material, so go out and construct a strong show, and learn to control the audience. If you do this, then the sky is the limit!  


~ by Nick Lewin on July 8, 2019.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: