Setting The Stage

The success of your magic show hinges upon your audience being ready to receive it. I have a four phase process I use to develop a relationship with my audience, maintain a positive mood, and roll out the red carpet for a magical evening.

Listen to episode four of Theory & Thoughts for Magicians!

Episode Transcript

I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and now speaking about the process of making magic. Some real high-falootin’ stuff! However, despite what some of my theoretical discussions may suggest, I don’t consider myself a particularly artistic magician.

I’m just your general magician. I don’t work particularly fancy gigs. The thing I’m really, really good at is pulling up to an empty community hall, loading in some gear, and turning it into a theater for the night. I’m a one-man crew; lights, sound, and magic. I aim to put on a show which will be an evening of laugh-out-loud entertainment for hard-working people and their family. Or lazy people and their families… who am I to judge? In the magic biz, we call this a “real-world show.”

It’s not really about what I want to achieve as an artiste, not if I am selling my services as a magician. Audiences are seeking a solution to their entertainment problem. It’s about what they need and what it takes for me to deliver the best experience for them.

I’m Ryan Pilling, this is Theory and Thoughts For Magicians.

In this episode I’m dangerously close to crossing over from theory to real practical advice. However, it is chock-full of thoughts. This is my process, which I’ve used for many years, to deliver the best magic show I possibly can.

I can’t call it formula, it’s not so restrictive, but I do follow a general guideline when planning out how my show unfolds. The Set-Up, the Warm-Up, the Pump-Up, and the Touch-Down.

The heavy payload of entertainment is packed into the Pump-Up section of the show. All the wrappings around it are strategic choices to prepare the audience to receive this delivery, and carry it with them into their lives. It’s not really about what I do, magic-wise, but how I package it into a show.

The Set-Up

The most overlooked part of the evening may be the most important. I feel The Set-Up phase truly begins when your individual audience members leave their homes, as they arrive at the venue, settle into their seats, right up to the moment when the curtain opens and the performer steps out. It is all the show before the show, and it determines the state of mind with which your audience joins you, and how likely they are to come along for the ride.

This is less about your skills as a magician and more about your skills as an event planner. Assuming most audience members will be excited and looking forward to the show, a positive state by default, most of this is about avoiding problems which would sour their experience.

Things like choosing an accessible venue. Struggling to find parking will bring you a grumpy audience. Poor signage to get to the theatre will have people rushing in all flustered, and their mind won’t be open to you until several minutes into the show.

I try to do a mental walkthrough of the entire front-of-house process for people arriving at the show and look out for pitfalls. From the parking lot to the lobby, through the ticket line, through the doors and into their seats. How do we make that experience smooth and painless?

Pre-show house music helps people transition from the busy world and settle into your magical space. Light entertainment, be it live or pre-recorded, offers a pleasant distraction for the early-arrivals to stay connected.

Finally, the smooth transition from pre-show to show-show has been perfected for a century or more; The soft house music turns to a loud overture, the lights dim, the audience is naturally hushed, the curtains open, the stage lights come up, and… showtime!

If this whole process rolls out smoothly, you’ll have an audience full of people primed to enjoy your performance. You’ve rolled out the red carpet for them, but… they’re not ready to commit just yet.

The Warm-Up

At this point you and your audience are strangers. Much like real life, you can’t just leap into their arms and give them a bear hug. It won’t go over well. Like two wild dogs meeting, there are certain social maneuvers which need to be made before you’re willing to trust one another and expose your belly.

(let me stress, “expose your belly” is intended purely as a metaphor.)

This relationship-building process can be broken down further.

First, you need to claim your space.

Express your right to be the one in control for the next hour, and give the audience a reason to trust you are capable of doing so. Note, trust cannot be taken, it must be given. False bravado, and fake, loud enthusiasm displays a lack of confidence. Calmness, and being in no particular hurry, suggest you know exactly what you’re doing.

Coming out and fumbling with your microphone will torpedo everything you’ve built up in an instant, and you’ll be starting by digging out of a hole.

As a magician, I feel it is very helpful to begin with a quick display of your competence. Do some magic, magic boy. Show me if you’re any good.

I learned this lesson the hard way. For years I would plan an awkward start, faking a lack of skill. Looking back I see how my comedic rouse failed, as it lacked any sense of irony. I just looked like a straight-up disappointingly bad magician. If I had begun with a quick flash of skill, then my tongue-in-cheek tom-foolery would have landed on more solid ground. The audience wants to feel like they are in good hands.

Second, you set expectations.

Now that the audience knows they are in your house, they’re ready to listen to your rules. You establish your show. The who, what, where, when and why of this theatrical world.

Children’s entertainers often take this time to literally explain the rules of the show. (“clap when you see something you like!”) Adults also need this sort of guidance, though not so bluntly, to be taught they are allowed, and encouraged, to engage. (“Everybody put your hands out in front of you, thumbs pointing down…”)

One thing I like to establish here is that I don’t believe in real magic. It’s a big part of my science-minded character, but also lets the audience know that I know that they know it’s fake. I deliver this message while performing a magic trick, and I ask them to drop their skeptical guard. (“For the next hour or so, let’s just relax and enjoy.”) This is one of my house rules.

Now, in the third phase of the warm-up, we’re ready to commence with the warming.

My goal here is share my personality. For me this means more goofy comedy and less jaw-dropping magic. They get to know me, and I get to know them.

I’m also looking to progressively ramp-up my audience engagement. Much like the bear hug I say it’s too much, too soon to ask for a volunteer from the audience at this point. You probably won’t get any hands raised, at least not from people you’d want. They don’t know you well enough. They don’t trust you.

I start with low-commitment engagement. I ask questions and speak directly to individuals in their seat. No stress, no spotlights in their face. I aim to show that I treat people with kindness and respect. That they won’t be the victim of a joke.

Next, I will go into the audience to interact with somebody. I come to them. They are still in their safe comfort zone, but I’m entering the audience’s bubble. I’m gently advancing our relationship and trust.

My “Energized Cards Across” routine was born out of needing to solve this exact problem with cold corporate audiences. Over the course of seven minutes I aim to take them from a collective of strangers to a group of friends. It progressively invites the audience to participate both individually and as a group, ending with high fives all around the crowd like I’m Wayne Newton in Las Vegas.

Every move is strategic, and it works! By the end of that routine, the audience is fully engaged and ready for a magic show!

The Pump-Up

If you’ve done your job right, and your audience is in this highly engaged state, you’re set to deliver the performance of a lifetime. You’ve nurtured your relationship with your audience, and now they’re ready to invest in you. As the show-biz saying goes “If they like you, you can get away with anything!”

They will follow you on the dramatic roller-coaster through high energy romps and quiet, mysterious moments. They will laugh at your jokes, gasp at your magic, and be ready to catch you if you try crowd-surfing.

This section is pretty loosey-goosey on structure until it gets to the end. Of course, you’ll end the show with your blockbuster climactic routine, your most amazing, impossible magic. However, just before you start into that you’ll want to signal the show is on the home stretch.

This is the right time to make any announcements, and deliver information the audience might need immediately after the show. (pitch your merchandise, meet and greet, etc.) This is the time to thank the people who made the show possible. Your audience gets a chance to catch their breath before your finale, but be careful your talking doesn’t drag on or they will start to wind-down. Not yet!

Your grandest routine of all is fast-paced, high energy, and pulls out all the stops. You can do this without a Broadway budget. Look at Martin Nash’s “Ovation” routine, or Jorge Alexander’s “Sympathetic 10” as mere card tricks delivered with the energy of a closer.

Everything about your delivery signals that there is absolutely nothing you can do which could be better. That’s how it ought to feel to the audience. The truth is subjective. Watch street performers to see how they build up finale energy around a relatively lame stunt. It’s not what you do, but they way that you do it.

With your moment of triumph, you graciously accept all your well-earned applause, but… the show is not over. Not quite yet.

The Touch-Down

While your climactic routine may have been a touchdown, as in football, your show still needs a touch-down, as in airplane. You can’t just drop out of the sky. You need to land it and pull into the gate before your audience may depart.

You’ve got one more performance to deliver. If your grand finale required the best of your mind and body, this final routine requires the best of your heart.

I call it the “stool closer,” in honour of Lance Burton who ended his grand illusion show sitting on a stool, under a single spotlight, performing some small magic. It went from a huge production show focused down into one tiny moment. Without that final piece, you’d remember all the amazing magic. With that stool closer, you remember Lance.

This is the hug, finally, at the end of your journey together. You connect with your audience, heart-to-heart, human-to-human, to make it personal. To make it matter. They won’t remember what you do, they remember how you make them feel.

With that, you bring the audience back down to earth and ease them back into the real world. The houselights come up and the spell is broken. The background music, with subdued energy, escorts them out into the lobby and on their way home, having had a real magic show experience.

Ultimately, entertainers are in the business of making memories. The deal is if you spend your time with me, I’ll give you a return on that investment. You get to revisit that time down the road, think fondly of it. You squeeze more experience out of your life. The more valuable entertainers create stronger memories. Legendary entertainers may create memories to span generations!

This show process is really about working to avoid the negatives. Removing potholes from the path towards a memorable experience for your audience, so you may maximize your impact.

I hope this made an impact on you, too, and that it’s something you’ll remember fondly and reflect upon. It’s no coincidence that I use music throughout this Theory & Thoughts for Magicians podcast. I want to control the mood, to take you away from your normal life for a moment, and prepare you to be open to some new ideas. I appreciate the time you spend with me. As always, you can join me for more magic at

Published: April 5, 2022

Access: Public



Hi Ryan - I just listened to the first 6 episodes of your podcast. You are really inspiring and the content is helpful and encouraging. I love the way you use music to punctuate and in fact further explain your message. Just perfect. It's an integral part of your message. Thanks for these and be sure to do more. - Mike

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