Become a Better Magician
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I’ve been performing at the Edinburgh Fringe since 2007, and doing magic there since 2009. It is fair to say that Morgan & West’s entire career is built upon the work we did at the Fringe. This year, for the first time, I decided to go up as a punter to see shows, eat fried food and complain about all these pesky performers giving me flyers.
My goal for the two weeks was to see as many magic performances as I could - it has been a lean couple of years for live theatre, and I was eager to get back into the uncomfortable seating and dripping ceilings of a tiny pop-up fringe venue. I saw a lot of really enjoyable magic, but there came a point halfway through my trip where a lot of the shows I was seeing began to blur together in my mind, because so many of them were so similar. In an industry where standing apart from the competition is key, it began to feel like a lot of the magicians were working from the same template.
So, for those of you who may be looking ahead to next year’s fringe, or who are just thinking of putting on a show in general, here are a few tips that might make your work stand out in the now wonderfully crowded marketplace of magic.
Firstly, know what you are standing out from. If you want to do magic on stage, you have to know what else is out there so see a lot of magicians, both those similar to you, and those who are totally different. Go and see weird avant-garde shows, shows of cards tricks with jokes in between, magic on big stages with huge crowds, or in the back room of a pub with an audience of four people. But most importantly, pay attention to what you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing.
When you watch lots of magic you get a feel for what most others are doing, and therefore what you should avoid in order to stand out. Magic is an art form with thousands of tricks comprising thousands of different methods and infinite possibilities for presentation, and yet almost every show I saw had at least one trick I’d already seen another magician do that week. Every magician alive right now is hell bent on pulling out a Rubik’s cube, saying “This is called a Rubik’s Cube” (we know, they are one of the best selling toys of all time), and telling us that there are 43 quintillion possibilities on a mixed cube. Always assume your audience has been to see 5 other magic shows before coming to see you. Give them something different, something they haven’t seen before otherwise you’ll go from “someone with incredible magic powers” to “someone who inexplicably bought the same retro toy as the magician we saw yesterday”. Even the most casual of magic viewers are going to start to think there’s something fishy about that cube.
Obviously, not doing the easy and obvious stuff that everyone else does will make it harder to come up with material for your shows. Good. Magic shows shouldn’t be easy to write. The hour we spend on stage isn’t when performers do their work, it is the culmination of all of the work we have done at home and in the rehearsal room. Which brings us neatly onto my second tip:
Magicians talk far too much. Most shows I saw had so much superfluous talking; introducing props that the audience can clearly see (“I have here a length of rope”), announcing what you are about to do (“I’m going to cut the rope in two”), describing what you’ve just done (“I’ve tied the two ends of the rope together in a knot”). You are an entertainer, you shouldn’t be reciting the script verbatim from the instructional video you learnt the trick from. A show can tell a story, or reveal something about you as a person, or have a grand geopolitical message that will benefit all of human kind. Anything is better than just bland narration of what we can plainly see happening. If you want to introduce a trick by telling a story about it’s origin, or how you learned it, or the magician that you have dedicated it to, you can say all of that stuff during the process of doing the trick. Please, please don’t spend five minutes telling us the backstory of a trick before spending five minutes describing your props.
If you are going to make your show funny, remember that writing jokes isn’t as simple as voicing a funny idea. Joke writing in itself is an art form and comedians will do a dozen work-in-progress gigs to get their jokes in the most efficient form. If a joke takes five or six lines of set up and gets a meagre laugh, it isn’t worth having in the show. Either cut it or rework it to make it punchier. In fact, this applies to the script for your entire act - if lines don’t serve a purpose, or if they can be removed without changing the logic of what you’re saying, they should be cut. I saw a lot of magicians repeating instructions, repeating what was happening, repeating entire sections of script they said earlier. When doing an hour long show, it is fair to assume that we remember things you said twenty minutes ago.
So we’ve talked about your choice of magic, and we’ve talked about what you say as you do the magic. That’s pretty much everything, right? No! Bad magician! Go sit in the corner!
I have a real pet peeve. The thing I think Fringe magic shows lacked the most was high production values. Obviously the nature of the Fringe means that your show could be performed in one of a spectrum of venues - from large theatre spaces with hundreds of seats, to a few rows of chairs in cellar. Clearly not all venues are capable of the same lighting or audiovisual set up, or even the same amount of props or set. What I do expect from a show though, and where my expectations were so often not met, is as much production as their venue is capable of.
So my final piece of advice is to give more consideration to the audience’s experience of the show as a whole, by caring about production values.
Let’s assume you are in the most basic venue imaginable - I genuinely saw a show in the corner of a bar, with a small audience crammed onto plastic chairs with the performer’s playing space so small they touch the front row and the ceiling at the same time. What possible production values can you expect in a room like this?
In this case we’re going to ignore lighting and set design because there was very little control over that, but instead start with costume. Does it fit the character you are portraying? Does it help the props you are holding stand out (or not, if that’s important)? Does it, y’know, fit?
Next up, sound. Every venue has audio playback, and music (or, more broadly, sound design) can add a world of depth and texture to your show. If you are a full-time professional magician who has been performing shows for years, there is no excuse to run your music from a phone and have songs unceremoniously cut out when you no longer need them. Use the show running software available, especially if your show ends with a hat line saying how much money people should give you for watching it. Even if you’re just starting out and don’t want to invest in something like QLab or SCS, there is free editing software out there that can make audio tracks with built-in fades. No one should have bad audio.
Last up on the design front - props. And I don’t just mean what brand of cards or colour of rope you use. I mean everything that you bring to the stage. What table are you using to hold your props? Are you even using a table, or are they just on a chair? What are your props held in? Is it a fun, interesting piece of set that reflects your character, or is it a collapsible fabric box from Ikea? Because both of those choices say something about you. If you are holding up cards or signs to show to the audience, are they mounted on stiff durable card? Or are they tatty bits of paper that look like they’ve been kept in a suitcase all year?
Maybe you are reading this and thinking that no one in your audience cares what kind of box you keep your props in, or what jacket you wear, or how your sound cuts out. Remember, for over a dozen shows at the fringe this year, I was in the audience, and if I care other audience members probably do too. My partner (who is not a performer or a magician) was with me for many of the shows and is still angry about the act who had thought quite carefully about their look and props, then drank water from a completely incongruous bottle. So with all aspects of your production design, ask yourself these questions:
- What does this say about my show?
- Does this look/sound intentional?
- Does this help me stand out?
I started this article by suggesting you watch lots of other magic shows, so you know what it is you are trying to stand out from. I’m going to broaden that suggestion: watch lots of shows. Watch comedy, and theatre, and mime, and poetry, and puppetry, and whatever else you can get to. But don’t just watch those shows - study them. Pay attention to every element of the show. How the show looks. How the show sounds. If it’s comedy, what are the jokes per minute? If it’s horror, how many scares are there? If it’s drama, how do they pace the show? How do they tell the story? How do they maintain the tension in the room? Ask all these questions, observe all these things, and learn from them. At the end of the day, and especially at the Fringe, you aren’t just trying to stand out from the magic shows, you’re trying to stand out from everything.
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