The big question is "Why Do You Do This Magic Trick?" Discovering your own answer can inform your performance, create a stronger show, and help you better connect with your audience.
As I sit in the shadow of my magic bookshelf my mind does a rough calculation of the lifetimes worth of tricks at my fingertips. One single book could supply an entire career’s worth of material. The tricks and routines on those shelves number in the hundreds of thousands. For a new show I need to narrow that collection down to just six tricks. Yikes!
I’ve been taking some time for self-reflection, looking closely at the routines in my own repertoire. Part of my process is asking the question, “Why do you do the tricks you do?” Why did you start doing that trick, and more importantly why do you continue doing that trick? Honest answers can reveal whether or not the trick deserves a spot in the show, or if it could be replaced by a more strategic choice.
Let’s look at some of the common answers to the question.
“Because I learned the trick when I was a kid, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” With the years of experience that I have now I wouldn’t be asking 12-year-old me for advice on my repertoire. Time to re-evaluate my choice.
“Because it’s an easy trick, and I can focus on the presentation.” If that’s true, then my presentation better be spectacular! If not, it’s just an excuse for laziness.
“Because it packs small.” I will always remember a bit of wisdom from Giovanni Livera. He said to pack as big as you need to make the impact you want. Even if it means carrying a 5 foot plastic tree to your shows. I won’t sacrifice the quality of my show for one extra trip to the car.
“Because I really liked it when I saw Doug Henning do it.” But I’m not Doug Henning. I’m inspired by seeing great performers, and I have to remember it’s more the performer than it is the trick. Doing a salt pour will not make me Fred Kaps. What tricks can I do myself that will inspire others?
Looking at those four reasons, one thing these answers have in common is a self-serving attitude. It reflects choices to make the show easier for me. However, when I get hired to do a show, it’s not about me. So I need to focus on choosing tricks that serve the audience. My answer to Why needs to be others-oriented.
I’ve got a few routines that are working well in my show with more audience-focused justifications.
I started doing Cards Across years ago because “I saw Bill Malone do it” and I liked it. It snuck into my stage show “because it packs small”, then the routine started evolving. Now it has cemented in place as my second trick because I have developed a presentation that turns it into the ultimate audience warm-up. It is used strategically to turn a cold audience onto my side and get people actively engaged in my show.
Honestly I would be happy to never do Bill in Lemon again (it is so common people tell me they’ve seen it before) but I have yet to find a replacement that is such a memorable talking point for my audience. The consistent feedback keeps it in my show, despite my own wish to be more unique.
One ongoing project for my show is sawing an audience member in half. I’ve been struggling with the idea of balancing my own unique style while still meeting the common expectations of a magic show. From a business perspective, some potential clients were less than enthralled by the prospect of a show full of card and rope tricks. They wanted “a big show”. So my reason for this trick is specifically about creating that experience people seem to want.
Once I can pinpoint a strategic reason for having a trick in my show, I can evaluate that routine to see if it is meeting the goal. For Cards Across, with my goal of audience engagement, I am always experimenting with ways to get even more people directly involved in fun ways. If I have a target in mind, I can adjust my aim to hit the bullseye.
Because the Bill in Lemon has proved to be so memorable, I place it at the very end of the show, almost as an afterthought. “Oh... one more thing...” The trick’s "Why", its reason for being, influenced my choice.
As I develop my sawing illusion, I will be working towards creating the feel of a classic magic show experience, which will be reflected in my music and scripting choices. Without my defined reasoning, I wouldn’t be clear in which direction I should be going.
I encourage you to evaluate your own repertoire in this way. One trick at a time. If you can figure out why you’re doing the trick, you give yourself guidance for improving its impact. If you do a trick to emphasize audience participation, focus on adding one more element to make it even more interactive. If a trick is there for comic relief, add one more gag to your routine. I believe great magic shows are made one little step at a time, and asking Why helps you make that step in the right direction.
Why Link Rings?
Here is a scripted example of how choosing the motivation for a routine helped push the direction of the presentation towards something new.
The text is written just as it would appear on stage, with important actions set out in bold type.
When I meet people after the show, I am often asked ‘How did you get started with magic?’
It all began with a gift from above. And by that, of course, I mean I received a gift from... my mom. She was taller than me then. I was about your age. [looking to an appropriately aged kid in the crowd]
Ryan picks up a piece of a rope and large ring.
The gift was a magic book, the Klutz Book of Magic, and it came with props. A short piece of rope and a shiny silver ring. At the time both the rope and the ring were smaller. At the time... so was I.
This caught my eye first. The book said that this ring could be threaded on, and with a little magic, be pulled right through the middle of the rope. I, too, was suspicious at first.
The book told me to tie a knot in the rope. A special magic tricky knot. As I was reading the book it talked about wrapping left around right, end A over middle B, something called an index finger... was I missing a special magician finger?
Ryan ties a chaotic, messy knot around the ring
I tangled myself through step 14, and held my rope beside the book. It looked nothing like the picture. I felt more Klutz than Magic. The great secrets of magic remained a secret. There was only one step left on the page, step 15. All it said was ‘Snap your fingers.’ Yeah right.
After a thoughtful pause, Ryan snaps, and pulls the ring free from the knot.
I didn’t know it then, but it was a life-changing moment. It all seemed tangled and hopeless, and then in a moment, in a snap, it got straightened out. As if by magic.
Another moment, another snap, and the rope is pulled tight, the tangled knot melts away.
Now, 20 years later I’ve discovered all the greatest secrets of magic, and they aren’t magic tricks at all. I’ve learned perseverance. I’ve learned ingenuity. I’ve learned how to learn. With practice, what originally felt so overwhelmingly complex, so impossible... seems simple!
With that remark, Ryan tosses the ring towards the middle of the rope, where it visually links on as it falls.
Best, period, gift, period, ever, period.
With smooth grace, the ring is simply pulled off through the rope once more. The rope is set aside and a second ring is picked up.
My original rope is long since gone, but I still have the ring. In the world of magic you come across a lot of shiny steel rings. They are in every magic shop and a lot of toy stores. Old magic books show the world’s greatest magicians holding these very rings. It took me a long time to learn their real secrets.
You won’t find these on any store shelf. Seamless, solid, and near unbreakable. Hard. But there is a big difference between hard [one ring is tapped on another] and impossible. [the tapping ring penetrates through]
It takes practice. A lot of practice. A lot of lot of practice [repeatedly trying to pull the ring free] before it works. [the rings melt apart]
What you are about to see is 15 years in the making. It lasts 3 minutes and 24 seconds. So, that’s 26 days per second. Don’t blink. Every time you do, it’s a week of my life. Pfffft!
Music begins, and Ryan performs a full linking ring routine.
The music fades out, as the rings are put away.
Not bad... for a Klutz!
This story is (mostly) true to my experience. You’re welcome to make use of it as is, though I would encourage you to adapt it to tell your own story. The theme of perseverance is one all magicians can relate to, and can just as easily fit the egg bag as the linking rings.
Your homework assignment is to write down the story of your first magic trick. Try to copy this script format, setting actions apart from speech, and only writing down what the audience sees or hears. For the creative exercise it’s actually better to make up the magic tricks as you write. Don’t get tangled up in making your story match a specific trick. Write as if you had the magic power to do anything, and we can figure out the details later.
This pair of articles was originally published in Northern Peeks, the journal of the Canadian Association of Magicians.