Performance theory for stage

Discuss your favorite platform magic and illusions.

Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » April 1st, 2006, 6:28 pm

Hi all,
Last fall I posted a message inquiring about books regarding performance theory. Thanks to the recommendations I received I had the opportunity to read a number of great books including Strong Magic, Our Magic, some essays in the Books of Wonder and Seriously Silly. These were great suggestions and I cannot thank those of you who helped me with this enough.

I am still looking for books which reference stage magic and illusions in their discussions of performance theory. I have had the opportunity to read many of Steinmeyers books, and recently posted a request in the Collectors Marketplace hoping to find someone who would sell me a copy of Steinmeyers Reminding & Deceiving which I learned about recently. I am just putting this post out there in the hopes that one of you might have some more suggestions to help me in my quest.



Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » May 12th, 2006, 8:06 am

:) ERIC 47: You must read Showmanship & Presentation by Dariel Fitzkee, Find the Stuff That's You by Chris Carey, The Magic of Alan Wakeling, by Jim Steinmeyer,and there is a booklet by [Paul Osborne called, I think, 'Illusion Show Planning'followed by Ken Griffin's book ' Illusion Show Know How ( very [PRACTICALl as he and his wife Roberta toured an illusion show for many years.)There are the Jeff McBride DVD's on Stage Magic. For background buy Great Magic Shows & Famous Magicians Of The World by Arnold Furst( pub. by Genii & are reviews with many pics of most of the famous illusionists)
From any of the biogs on the Great Illusionists; Illusion Show by David Bamberg, to The Silence Of Chung Ling Soo by Todd Karr thru to Dante The Devil Himself by Phil Temple to Servais Le Roy, Monarch Of Magic by Mike Caveney & Wm. Rauscher you will learn something of the work involved in presenting Stage Magic & Illusion.
How's that for starters? My next series of 12 articles( 7 written, 5 to finish) for the UK's Abracadabra mag. are all on choosing, presenting and performing illusions covering everything from choosing the illusions, to choosing/training assistants to rehearsing,showmanship etc.
Allen Tipton UK


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » May 13th, 2006, 5:59 pm

Words of wisdom to me from an old illusionist who mounted a HUGE show for several years is that an illusion show had to grow organically. He said he'd never seen one that was successful right out of the box.

Best to get lots of stage experience and then slip into doing illusions,one or two at a time. They require a different skill set than close-up or general stage work.

Then there's the management and directorial skills needed to handle assistants both on stage and off. Some can be troublesome and you have to be ready to handle personal problems since you're the guy in charge.

Too many today simply throw illusions away. As an example - discussed in another thread - Harbin's original presentation of the Zig Zag Girl as contrasted with the throw-away presentation by too many illusionists.


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » May 14th, 2006, 11:05 am

Hi Allen and Alexander,
Thanks for the help with this. Allen I have read most of the books you recommend. I have not yet read Dante The Devil Himself or Servais Le Roy, Monarch Of Magic, but I have enjoyed a number of biographies of the past greats. I have learned a great deal from these and other texts but I am looking to find some unifying theories that help illuminate the relationship between the way magic is presented and the psychological/ emotional realities that the audience constructs. I guess at some level I am looking for a theory of art.

As a youth I had a traveling show for about three years performing small scale illusions on variety stages in California. At the time we were successful, at least as I defined it then, and we had a good business. As I have aged, I look back on that period with the hopes of really understanding what I did not yet know. I have been fortunate enough to have a granddaughter who is interested in magic and that has given me the license to learn a great deal about building illusions and other props. However, I feel like there is so much of the performing art/theory part I still do not understand that I am looking to grow in this way so that I can help my granddaughter overcome my own limitations as a performer. I performed hundreds of shows in my early twenties (until I got married). And, of course I learned a tremendous amount about audiences and strengthening effects, but it was all seat of the pants, rather than based on solid theory. So now I am searching for those underlying truths about stage magic. Thanks again for your thoughtful replies.


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » May 14th, 2006, 12:36 pm

I think it's rather simple: an audience wants to interact with an interesting personality, someone larger than life and they will pay money to do it.

All of the people who were/are successful as professional magicians with large shows were exactly that: larger than life characters. That is their performing persona, not necessarily their real personas offstage, but what the fantasy the audience paid to see and experience.

The need for entertainment/diversion from the everyday is a deep-seated need in humans. Life, for many, is difficult and a few minutes or a few hours away from the grind of daily life is important and necessary. Witness Tihany's massive success in Mexico and South America....a 4,000 seat tent filled twice a day for months on end; David Copperfield and Lance Burton's success; John Calvert; and on and on.

George Burns hit it on the head when he said about show business, "When you can fake sincerity, you've got it made."


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » May 16th, 2006, 8:43 pm

Hi Dave,
I completely agree that a stage performer needs a personality that can fill the stage and connect with the audience. What I am concerned with are the two states of "wonder." That is, I wonder how that was done? vs. wonder as a sense of awe. The performing theory I am searching for would relate the way we present material and the audience's experience of the disjunction between the psychological conviction of the moment and at the same time the implicit knowledge of the impossibility of the experience. In other words how to build conviction that leads to the magical experience while avoiding an approach that presents the magic as a puzzle. It seems to me that promoting the awe type of wonder on stage requires different strategies and theory than accomplishing it in a close-up situation.

With illusions you typically, although not always, are using some strange contraption and presenting something so foreign to the audience's experiences that achieving the state of awe, rather than the "I wonder how he did that?" response seems particularly challenging. In magic, unlike other theatrical performances, the deception is explicit and the audience approaches the situation much differently. It seems to me that the idea of "suspending disbelief" in the theatrical sense (i.e. we do not need to be convinced the wall is really brick, or that a character really died) is not particularly relevant to magic. So the questions that I have relate to how one can present illusions to produce the awe, and limit the puzzle response.


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » May 17th, 2006, 6:29 am

Neo Magic.


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » May 17th, 2006, 9:56 am

Again, the performer's performing persona is key to your stated goal. Absent the context of someone actually appearing to be doing something, the illusions are simply theatrical puzzles. The illusions must be within a carefully crafted performing context.

A larger-than-life performing stage persona is an absolute necessity. The audience must be in awe of the performer who can work "wonders" before they can be in awe of those wonders. You might think this is a chicken and egg problem, but it isn't.

It begins by establishing the performer's persona in the mind of the public. No easy task for a given individual without a lot of money behind him. Witness the build up to the Keith Barry special recently on CBS. Barry didn't fall out of the sky fully formed. He was a product of years of work, Irish television, lots and lots of shows, and a major management team who helped craft his career. A lot of time and money were spent on Keith before he set foot in the US and a lot more was spent to make sure he showed well in his first US outing.

It begins with setting up expectations.

Years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Ormond McGill. I observed that for a stage hypnotist the hypnotic process began with the hypnotist's poster. Ormond was surprised at this insight as it had never been published. He agreed completely. The poster sets up expectations in the minds of the audience, expectations that, in may cases, could be brought to fruition by the audience member acting on those expectations and volunteering for the hypnotic experience.

That said, as a professional entertainer who uses the medium of magic to interact with my audiences, I have no interest in producing "wonder and awe," although that is, in a small way, a product of what I do. I am hired to entertain an audience, not produce "wonder and awe." That, sometimes, comes about by my competence, but it is neither a goal nor a direction of my performance because, frankly, I think performing with that goal is highly pretentious and potentially boring to today's audiences.

Gone, mostly, are the days when audiences still believed that the performer was in league with "dark powers" to accomplish his ends. Posters showed every major illusionist of the 20s and 30s with imps and the Devil at his shoulder or in silhouette behind him. The implication was clear: Satanic powers fueled this magician.

While there may be some who still believe that, I think the vast majority of American audiences know that what they're seeing is accomplished by theatrical means. (Film makers, wrongly I think, run television specials to explain how they produce their effects, lessening, I think, the movie-going experience.)

Today's audiences may not know the exact methodology, but they know, instinctively, that the girl is not sawn in half, even though the evidence of their eyes tells them that happened. Highly unlikely that a magician would publicly murder an assistant at every show. What they experience is not necessarily the "puzzle" effect, but the experience of a paradox. They know it cannot be happening, but there it is, right in front of them. That, I think, is the best you're going to get unless you wish to tinge your performances with hints of danger to the audience.

If you're looking to infuse "awe" in your work apart from the awe that will naturally flow if you're highly competent at creating the illusion, I think you'll have to add an element of danger and audience fear.

This is not my performing style and the performer who attempts this runs a great risk of self-parody. I could see this being pulled of by the right performer on the stage of a major New York theater, but on the stage of a local high school or college it looses a great deal of credibility.

Again, to return to the major necessary ingredient, the performer's persona, I remember Bob Gunther telling me about the performing style of The Great Raymond. Bob said that Raymond performing "slightly mad," as in crazy, not angry.

This was Bob's take on Raymond. I never had the opportunity to see him, but that might be a clue. If the audience is never quite sure about the performer, if what is carefully planned looks to be impromptu and, perhaps, accidental, then a different dynamic between audience and performer can be created....but, as I said, this would take a high level of acting skills because that sort of persona (or any performing persona that is not simply an enlargement of your own natural persona) is difficult to maintain for a long period of time....the 90 minutes or so that a stage show needs and the off-stage publicity that would be vital.

One other observation: you're not going to accomplish this in your hometown where people already know you.


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » June 25th, 2006, 9:37 pm

Originally posted by David Alexander:
"I think it's rather simple: an audience wants to interact with an interesting personality, someone larger than life and they will pay money to do it."

David knows alot. It's all about being interesting on stage.

I've seen magicians who can take a ton of equipment and do nothing with it, while others can hold a theater audience spellbound with a single playing card. The difference is the performer.

I think we often spend far too much time focused on the issue of how to be an entertaining magician as compared to simply being a good entertainer. Other art forms can be instructive.
Some months ago, I saw Mandy Patinkin in a live show during which he sand and told stories. He was so interesting that if he decided to eat bananas onstage, people still would have paid to see it. It's no different for magicians.

Of course, there are differences. The issue raised in this thread about drawing attention away from the "puzzle-end" of magic presents a different problem. But it's also problem largely addressed by the stage persona. And that has to be adapted to the individual performer.

David noted:

"Gone, mostly, are the days when audiences still believed that the performer was in league with "dark powers" to accomplish his ends. Posters showed every major illusionist of the 20s and 30s with imps and the Devil at his shoulder or in silhouette behind him. The implication was clear: Satanic powers fueled this magician."

Though this is true, a satanic figure is one option that remains a viable performance mode, and one way of distracting from the puzzle-end of magic and amplifying the sense of wonder. Consider the range of perspectives offered by some modern, great magicians, and how they use their stage character to make the magic work: Ricky Jay, the scholar-magician, amazes and amuses with history, chess problems, math and story-telling. Doug Henning, as the flower-child magic, appeared to be as amazed by his illusions as his audience members. Penn and Teller bring a witty, cynical, self-deprecating approach. Lance Burton uses his undeniable likeability to hold his audiences. And Jeff McBride weaves a spell from mysticism and exotic cultural references. These performers use their strengths: comedy, wisdom, energy or even credulity to imbue their performances with wonder.

So I think the first step for anyone trying to establish a stage persona is to try to figure out what makes them different and interesting and use that to their advantage.

Gary Brown


Re: Performance theory for stage

Postby Guest » July 8th, 2006, 3:08 pm

I agree with David Alexander that an illusion show must grow organically. I have never heard it put that way, but it really feels right.

Adding one illusion at a time, such as a finale' effect then adding effects as you master them will allow your show to grow in a natural progression.

And by all means, you should do something unique with your presentation. Make what you present your own.

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