My biggest concern in structuring a show is how it will “feel." By way of observation and experience I am convinced that even great tricks become unappreciated if they are used at the wrong time and place in a show. Every trick and routine must be analyzed in light of the energy associated with it, and in light of the energy that was previous to it.
It is vital to understand that a show is not about how many good tricks the audience will see. It is about how they will feel as they see the tricks.
I recently witnessed a troubling example of this in our local church. A missionary came to share with us about his work in China. For reasons I do not understand, he decided to tell his life story, before actually talking about what he does overseas. The sharing of his life story took forty minutes. Our pastor usually only speaks for thirty-five minutes.
By the time the missionary finally got around to telling about what he does when overseas, no one cared to hear about it. He had worn out and bored the congregation to the point that they were just anxious for him to say “amen” so the service would be finished.
His description of his work in China had no impact on our church because his presentation was poorly designed. I’m sure what he does is a good thing. I know that, if it had been presented properly, everyone in the church may have been interested and challenged by the mission. Instead, the only thing remembered about the man is “he talked too long and said too little.” (We hope he does not come back again.)
With the missionary, his message was lost by way of poor structure to his presentation. For magicians, our magic can be lost when our shows are structured poorly. There is a sense in which we can make the same mistakes made by public speakers. There are plenty of people with good things to say, yet nobody hears those things because of how they are said. There are magicians who are not appreciated because of how they present their magic.
Essentially, the same things that a good speaker does to keep his presentation interesting, are things magicians need to do to keep their show interesting.
Here are some things I consider seriously when trying to ensure that a performance will have good energy:
- The show must start fast
There may be a place for talking to the audience in a casual and friendly way during the course of a program, but that place is not at the start. In terms of energy, a show needs to start with “high energy.”
Think about production shows you see on television. Do they start with someone seated in a chair and talking, or do they begin with upbeat song and dance? They almost always begin with song and dance.
Consider well-produced sporting events. Do they have a gentle beginning where competitors quietly step into view, or do the competitors enter the arena with smoke and fire being released while rock music plays in the background? The bigger the event, the bigger the fireworks and excitement at the beginning.
My rule of thumb for the start of a show is simple. “Say little and do much!”
- Do not let laughs get too far apart
Humor offers a unique kind of energy that keeps people happy and interested. A good speaker will use jokes, in strategic points in his message, to keep the audience with them or to draw their attention back again.
I am not a comedy magician and most of my shows are aimed at portraying a classy and skillful image. Even so, I know the power of laughter.
Professional comedians often talk about taping their performances and then checking the time between laughs. They know laughs must come quickly and often. There is debate about how many “laughs per minute is good,” but it is not uncommon for a skillful comedian to hope for at least three or four laughs per minute.
Magicians do not need to focus on “laughs per minute” because we have other tools to entertain the audience. Along with laughs we get “wow”, “aha”, “no way” etc.. Then too, we have interesting props and visual displays for people to enjoy.
I do not worry about “laughs per minute,” but I do want to get “laughs often.” Basically, I do not want to go much more than five minutes without something funny being offered to the audience. It may only be a quick joke or a brief comedy action, but something humorous needs to be put before the audience in an ongoing way.
Part of how I plan a show is by spacing out places where I know people will laugh. It may be because of something I say, it may be because of something I will do, or it may be by way of what spectators will do when participating. I want to make sure that laughs continue, here and there, throughout the show.
- Do not expect the audience to think too much.
People will concentrate to follow a clever mentalism routine and they will listen as you pose to them pieces of what becomes a magical puzzle. In small and well-paced doses, this can go well.
If instead, an entire show is about thinking hard to appreciate mysterious happenings, most people will not like it. The bottom line is, they are not there to “work” they are there to have fun. If our tricks require them to focus, pay attention, and mentally follow things through, that becomes work. If we ask them to do too much of this, we quickly lose them.
It is true that some extremely skilled entertainers are able to pull off mentalism shows that last an hour or more. However, when is the last time you heard of a mentalism selling out a big theater or even a showroom? (It can be done, but those who do it are exceptional.)
It seems a small segment of the population especially enjoys what might be called cerebral entertainment. They are those who will buy tickets to see a mentalist. A much larger segment of the population will turn out for a rock concert. Rock concerts fill stadiums. Mentally stimulating shows do not
Why? Because rock concerts are exciting and fun. People are not asked to think at a rock concert. They are expected to relax and “enjoy the ride."
Almost always, magicians are hired to provide entertainment. We are not hired to help people expand their intellectual acumen, we are hired to add to the enjoyment of an occasion.
In practical terms, this means I want to present a show that allows people to “enjoy the ride.” I try to keep things simple and fun. If I realize, after putting together a preliminary running order for a show, that I have two or three slower paced and thought provoking routines in a row, I will change that. A little bit of “thinking” is good. For an entertainment program, a lot of “thinking” is usually bad. It is better to mainly feature excitement, laughter, surprise, and astonishment.
I believe this is a place where many magicians make mistakes and it is why people do not get much enjoyment out of the shows these magicians present. The magicians put too much stock in “how hard something is to figure out.” They load their shows with complicated mysteries thinking this will make the presentations extra impressive. Most people would rather see fun mysteries than they would complicated mysteries. They would rather view things that quickly cause them to think “wow” than they would view things that involve concentration and computations.
- Be careful about repetition
To me, this means I must be careful that tricks do not seem alike. Obviously the Cut and Restored Rope and Professor’s Nightmare are two different tricks. Yet, to an audience, they both may be mainly perceived as rope tricks.
Whenever possible, I do not want to do two rope tricks in a show. If possible, I want each trick in a show to be significantly different from all the other tricks in the show. When occasions come where I must do several tricks that involve similar props (such as tricks with silk handkerchiefs), I try to put as much space as possible between the similar tricks.
I would much prefer to have my running order by something like...
A trick with silk
A trick with rope
A trick with steel rings
A trick with a coke bottle
A trick with giant cards
A trick with a table
...than for it to be...
A silk trick
Another silk trick
A third silk trick
A rope trick
Another rope trick
A silk trick
Even if the tricks are good and the effects are different, too many tricks involving the same kind of thing are not good.
It often is not possible to do a show, especially a long show, without some similarity in props and effect. I have seen great performers, such as Andre Kole and David Copperfield, do several things in their shows that seem alike.
It is possible to keep an audience happy while doing similar things in the same show, but it is not easy. Most of us do not have the skills and charisma to pull it off successfully. If we are not careful, a crowd's perception of “sameness” will lead them to think our shows are boring.
- Listen to the soundtrack
This is the easiest and best way I know to check the energy of a show. Create a playlist for the show, then listen through it. It may not be necessary to listen all the way through every song, but listen to each song long enough to get the feeling it gives, then click to the next song and assess the next feeling that comes (songs create emotion).
If you find you have several songs in a row that feel the same and sound the same, you know a change must be made. Several songs of a similar nature mean the show will be slowed down and people will tire of the presentation.
Does a song seem too long? Then the routine it will accompany may be too long.
Does a song go fast when at a point in the show when you would rather have a sense of contemplation? Then the show sequence needs to be adjusted.
If you can put together a soundtrack that you truly enjoy listening too all the way through, then the show should be enjoyable for the audience to experience. If your own soundtrack bores you, or you find it hard to keep paying attention to it, then the show will probably be like that for the audience.