Our Magical Art

Genii Magazine
December, 2002

Eugene Burger I sometimes find perfectly obvious things to be deeply mysterious. Take something as apparently simple as the beginning and end of the performance of a magic effect. Generally, when we talk about a close-up magical performance, most often we are talking about something that we say begins with the performer’s opening line (or opening music) and ends with the audience’s applause.

In the theater, of course, when the curtain comes down the show is over. Everyone knows that it is time to stand up, put on our coats and leave. It’s pretty simple.

I don’t think that it is quite this simple for a close-up magician.

Does a magician’s close-up performance really begin with the opening line and end with the audience’s applause? To be sure these are the mental parameters that we typically put around this thing we call a magical “performance” or “show” -- and, I submit, that they may be entirely too narrow.

Let me tell you something that may surprise you. I have seen many—really, very many—close-up performances ruined, not because of the performance itself, which might have been just fine, but ruined because of what the performer said or did before the show supposedly began—or afterward, when the show was supposedly over. My sense is that, until we recognize and deal with this situation, our close-up magic will never create the impact on our audiences that we might want it to create.

Let’s begin at one beginning. Most close-up magical performances are done for family, friends, acquaintances, at parties (private or corporate),at trade shows, in restaurant or (more rarely) in theaters or for real or prospective clients. These magical performances are almost always parts of larger human experiences and activities: the corporate party is going on all around the magician, people are walking up and down the aisles of the trade show, your friends are only going to give you so much attention for you to present the magic that you want to show them.

So, let me ask you: really, when does your “performance” begin? -- and when does it end?

Last week I performed for three hours at a party in a hotel ballroom. There were about three hundred people present. I worked completely out of my pockets for small groups, mostly standing. There were a few tables and I did sit down when I performed at them. I arrived about twenty minutes early, met the client briefly and unpacked things for my pockets. When I finished, the client immediately brought her boss over to meet me. We talked for some time before I showed him any magic. When did the performance begin? I submit it began when I first walked into the room and met the original client.

During the course of this party, I worked for about an hour and a half, and then stopped and took a break and had a soft drink. While I was drinking it, several people approached me to talk about my work and life as a magician, my travels or, sometimes, magic in general. Had the show suddenly stopped? I think not.

I performed for about three hours and twenty minutes (always give the client a bit more than they expect) and, as I was leaving, another person stopped me to chat a bit (and get my card). Isn’t it obvious that the “show” is still going on?

Honestly, I don’t think the show “ends” until I close the door of the taxi.

And it is much the same when I perform at private, as opposed to corporate, parties, it was true in the days when I performed in restaurants and it is true on the (mercifully rare!) occasions when I have performed at trade shows. (mercifully, because trade shows are really hard work!)

In most every real-life professional performing situation that I can imagine, when the close-up magician finishes his or her set ‘show,’ the performance continues until the performer finally leaves the premises—just as it began the moment he or she first walked into the room.

Consider, further, performing magic informally for your friends. Needless to say, this is far more difficult than performing magic professionally for strangers! Strangers tend to have much better manners. Yet, here too, ask yourself this question: what happens before I begin my magic performance? Do I begin with apologies and excuses?

Apologies and excuses. Honestly, I have seen very many close-up magicians who did start their informal show in this way, apparently without the slightest awareness that this preamble is really a part of what the audience perceives is the performance.

When we perform for our friends or acquaintances, further, do we finish our performance with more apologies and excuses? Again, I have seen very many magicians who did just that. They thought their show was over, but it wasn’t. This entire performance, if you will, is what the audience is experiencing as your performance. This complete picture is what they are experiencing and so it is this complete picture, including any apologetic preambles or wrap-ups, that they will be judging and evaluating as your performance.

Apologies and excuses: they certainly are very much like little demons who hide in our self-presentations, seeking to ruin our magic shows!

Obviously, I can certainly think of many real life situations where the best thing we can do is to apologize! And I can think of many situations where we might best apologize to others. In the context of a show or performance, however, to begin or end with excuses or apologies is generally to begin a walk into the quicksand There is no way you are coming out of this “alive.” You are already telling your audience that the show wasn’t as good as it might have been. Now, obviously, that is always true! No one is perfect. Our shows might always have been better! No doubt about it. Yet, this is a little “theatrical secret” that we best hide from our audiences! Let’s not remind them of our imperfections. Let’s allow them to be captivated by our magic on whatever level they can. This is, after all, the art of illusion.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning: I have seen many—really, very many—close-up performances ruined, not because of the performance itself, which might have been just fine, but ruined because of what the performer said or did before the show supposedly began—or afterward, when the show was supposedly over.

Think about this the next time you want to show a friend a card trick.

Eugene Burger
1260 North Dearborn Parkway #105
Chicago, IL 60610 USA
E-mail: eugene@magicbeard.com

More Our Magical Art Essays

Magic Secrets Revealed Gotchas Magic Fraternities & Organizations