Years ago, I attended an open evening at The Edinburgh Magic Circle. I was a teenager and it was the first time I saw Sonny Day, a remarkable and ingenious close-up magician (who I will discuss in another blog) but that night, the loudest applause followed two performers - Sonny and Len Edwards.
Len was an elderly gentleman with a white cane and incredibly thick glasses who performed card magic with charm and intelligence. He was a fascinating, kind man who made every effect seem far more interesting and impressive thanks entirely to his personality. He rarely performed a sleight or made a false move. Everything was fair but most importantly, he made you care what happened.
Len often commented that he didn't do "the hard stuff" like "you wizz kids" but I later learned that what he was doing best was far more difficult and would take a lot longer to master than a few false deals. Every routine was about something and Len's personality was as engaging and as fascinating as his magic. As a result, I clearly remember the trick he performed for me that night.
Reflecting on this, I made an important decision about how I would try to perform magic in the future.
I am not a professional performer, though I perform professionally from time to time. This affords me the luxury of choosing or dictating what shows I'd prefer to do and how much I'm willing to accept in return. Unlike (real) working pros who do the same routine a thousand times a year, I have more time to adapt and re-think between each engagement, while having fewer opportunities to test and perfect those ideas. The exception is when I'm asked to do something in a social environment or a non-show related event.
This happens enough that I began to wonder what the best approach is for these occasions. It occurred to me that while a great deal of time and text is dedicated to formal engagements, a lot more should be spent on how we can be better during informal situations that demand (or deserve) more than just a quick trick. After some thought and having experimented with different approaches, I decided on one rule to try and follow:
Take one shot.
No gimmes. No re-takes. No encores. One miracle and one chance to create a moment they might never forget.
When constructing a routine of magic effects, there are several approaches to structure. In a restaurant environment, the first effect might be quick and visual; designed to engage people before they can decline a performance, while stage illusionist often opens his or her show with a big, splashy production to charge the room and set the show off on a high.
But there are other ways.
Take magic out of these scenarios and the options widen. If the goal is not to "grab attention" then the material you perform can be selected for other reasons based on how you wish to engage with an audience, which could be a few people around a bar or a thousand people in a theatre.
But let's start with a hard truth: magic is often used as a substitute when the performer has nothing interesting to say.
That may seem harsh but it's not necessarily a criticism.
Your thoughts on life, the universe and everything may not be all that fascinating but a great magic effect can be something worth talking about. The trouble is, many of us rely solely on the trick to make a connection with people while experience teaches how to move the focus of a presentation until the effect becomes part of what we're doing rather than all of what we're doing.
Having something to say is an important part of making the process or procedure fascinating so the result or effect becomes more impactful.
The opening quote for my "13 Paths" manuscript states:
"Magic must be fascinating and impossible."
This came from a discussion with Juan Tamariz where I observed that magicians sometimes rely on a trick to be interesting solely because the end justifies the actions that proceeded it; when something only proves to be intriguing at the end, the natural instinct is to ask that it be repeated.
When asked to perform something socially, we briefly have everyone's attention and we are at the apex of expectation. This is not the same as having to warm up a crowd or establish your persona. It's you, it's them and they are asking to have their socks blown off. There are so many aspects to this kind of scenario that are unique and many performers come loaded for bear, ready to make real magic happen in the real world but make the mistake of performing too many miracles.
My goal on these occasions is to concentrate on one memorable experience and I have in my repertoire material that can resonate much longer than a loud reaction or a drunken "wow!"
To achieve this, I have to be ready to work much harder and the question we must ask ourselves is:
What routines qualify as that one trick that's guaranteed to create a powerful, memorable experience?
More on that, shortly.