HOW does he do it? That is the usual question I hear asked about my work in the theater.
No, dear reader, it is not my purpose to tell you how I open locks, how I escape from a prison cell into which I have been locked, having previously been stripped naked and manacled with heavy irons. I do not intend to tell you in this book how I escape from the trunk or the tightly corded and nailed-up box in which I have been confined, or how I unlock any regulation handcuff that can be produced—not yet.
I'm sure this one will ruffle some feather bouquets.
If you haven't already, please take a moment to read the preface to this post: On Magic For Children. It may address some things not in this post and provide some context.
Welcome back. I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear at the outset:
This isn't about the props.
It's about the lessons these objects and routines help exemplify. There is an entertainer out there who can use each and every item below to great effect in the proper context, and with an understanding of the challenges that inhere.
Though it may seem otherwise, I'm not trying to write this from a (soft) soapbox, but rather from the standpoint of an interested observer. Then again, I'm not trying to evaluate the food without having been in the kitchen, either. In the past, I did offer a children's birthday party show to clients, and in those shows I even did a few of the very things I caution against now. Yes, I've used the outdated prop; I've said the hackneyed line; I've done the embarrassing routine.
But, as soon as I held each prop and routine to a personal standard (even an ideal), I found myself pruning and deconstructing the act to the point where, for a short time, I could only offer the maximum of a 15 minute show because only 15 minutes of material had survived this Inquisition.
I think that was an important rite of passage to go through, however, and I would encourage magicians of all types to be open to that experience. Incidentally, I soon after realized that I was doing kid shows primarily because it was easy to get booked, and not because I really wanted to be performing for children in the long term.
And so it was that my next kid show was my last.
During that time and since—having seen many routines and performances heretofore—I've made a few notes and observations about some of the challenges that one might encounter in doing magic for children, from a progressively aesthetic standpoint. I'd like to share them with you.
Again, while I often use a prop or routine to illustrate, this isn't a definitive list of props and routines. Other examples could have been used instead; these were simply the first to come to mind.
There is a common character played by many kid show performers, and it involves more than just a colorful style of dress. The performer is often clownish with a lot of gags, and his tricks seem to go wrong initially. He drops things; his props break on him, and feigned surprise is around every corner.
I'm not saying that is a bad choice of character, per se. But, it is a character that is extremely difficult to do well.
It's easy to overact surprise, but much harder to make it believable. Think about the performers in adult shows who try to pretend that something has gone wrong and do so unconvincingly? And, recall the difference between those moments and the one where you really believed it? How about the difference between the guy who get groans from an old gag and the rare performer who brings down the house with the same line? These things are tough to do!
Pursuing this type of character is certainly one choice, but it isn't absolutely necessary to take this route by default. A kid show performer need not be a clown who does a few tricks, need not use old lines and gags (even if they are new to the kids), and need not be successful magically only partially and seemingly accidentally. Again, yes, there is someone who is terrific at all of the above, but is he someone else?
It's good to know what you're trying to communicate with your performances. Are you above all else a comedian, a colorful entertainer, a clown, a cartoon, a magician, or something else?
e.g., Card Castles
I love real card castles, but a large part of that appeal is their fragility. When catalog card castles are produced as though the object is solid, this essential fragile quality is lost, and it becomes obvious that something less impressive than the real thing is in use. Imagine, instead, how amazing it would be to see a card castle produced in perfect construction, and then collapse with a little puff of air or tap of the table.
The idea here is that the production of a large item is great in and of itself. If we cannot make the item have the essential qualities of the actual item, then I contend that the effect of producing the actual item is not realized. Instead, we've produced something else. That's not bad; it just might be less good.
Wouldn't it be more impressive to produce a large ball of black sponge as a large ball of black sponge, than to produce a large ball of black sponge with three white spots painted on it in an attempt to make it look like something it clearly isn't?
"But what about props in a theatre play?" someone asks.
There are subtle differences. For example, Hamlet can be holding in his hand a real skull, a fake skull, or nothing at all—without any loss of effect. David Copperfield, however, didn't become world-famous by only telling the story of the Statue of Liberty's disappearance.
"But they are just kids!" another protests.
True, and most of them won't notice. But wouldn't it be great to challenge ourselves to do more than just the minimum?
e.g., The Miser's Dream
The lesson here has nothing to do with the effect; the idea of producing money is quite magical. But, when a middle aged man in a sparkling suit pulls things out of various parts of little Timmy, all that touching can start to look a bit creepy. I know it's all in good fun, and the kids like the trick; nevertheless, it would be wise to understand how a protective parent might see this and similar hands-on tricks.
Some will want to point out a few well-known magicians who do the Miser's Dream with children, as if that invalidates the point above. I don't think it does, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I think people are more protective of what happens in their own home (or neighborhood) when they are one of the few adults tasked with the safety of children. When parents are part of an audience of dozens or hundreds of other parents, however, there is a sort of collective reassurance combined with a higher expectation of professionalism. This is worth mentioning, but it's beside the point. More importantly, however, is that exemplary performers have taken this sensitive issue into consideration and have modified their approach, often in subtle ways, to minimize generating any vicarious discomfort.
Compare the routines of Al Flosso and Jeff McBride. In Flosso's day, his approach was probably considered acceptable—surprisingly, even his reaching into the child's front pockets and poking his wand below the belt-line. Today, this would certainly not be wisest approach—which may partially explain why Jeff McBride's routine is far less invasive. Unfortunately, there are some who are still living in Flosso's day.
Incidentally, when I was recently discussing this with a local magician, he shared the story of another performer in-town who does the underwear trick by personally stuffing the scarves into the front of the little boy's pants. The fact that he gets laughs, gets applause, and gets paid does not mean he's got it all right.
Keep in mind, the average parent will not wish to confront the performer directly about this sort of issue, unless absolutely necessary. They just won't hire that magician again, and they won't recommend him to anyone else.
Breakaway wands, fans, boxes, &c., present a dilemma.
On the one hand, if we were decent magicians, our props would not break on us. On the other hand, if they break on cue in the hands of our volunteers, we can seem a bit mean for having made this happen. Some kids find it hilarious to be holding the broken wand, but then there's the few who feel differently. I'd rather not get a laugh from the audience at the expense of the one kid on stage.
Perhaps, instead, the wand or fan is discovered broken at the outset, and you and the helper fix it. You win, they win, and everybody gets cake.
Oh damn, it's breakaway cake.
7) The Mouth
e.g., Mouth Coils
When I was 11, I had three mouth coils. One day, I surreptitiously loaded one and made a scene in my school cafeteria as I coughed and coughed and finally pulled out a colorful length of braided paper.
The other two mouth coils have never been used.
It's not that I didn't get a good reaction—just the opposite. Instead, I realized that every other noun that erupts from a mouth is generally seen as disgusting. Unless you're aiming for gross, that's a strong association that I'd rather avoid. Think about it: vomit, spit, loose teeth, phlegm, blood . . . and words.
Honestly, I don't think most kids have any problem with paper coming out of the mouth of a magician. I simply decided this didn't fit with what I wanted to be presenting, and I know I would be embarrassed if there were a video of me using a mouth coil floating around. Your mileage may vary.
How cruel and inconsiderate is it to deliberately make your audience look like fools or bring a volunteer to your stage and proceed to make them look like a failure while everyone else laughs at them?
While it could be said that many magic tricks are inherently sucker tricks, there's a difference between things being not like they seem, tricks with group participation, and "gotcha" sucker tricks where the performer has been encouraging the audience to vocally take a position that he can later show to be a foolish one.
The latter produces one of two undesirable attitudes: 1) either the audience and the performer are thenceforth in direct competition and/or 2) the audience learns that yelling out the secrets is permissible during the performance.
Or 3) they love that you led them down the garden path and are entertained nonetheless. I suppose the question to be asked is, "Does the sucker element produce a net gain? That is, does it add to both the mystery and entertainment without producing a greater negative response?"
We've all come across people who, upon learning that we are magicians, say they don't like magic. Upon further inquiry, some will say it is because magicians make them feel foolish.
And yet there is an entire genre of magic devoted to this!
At most, I would only include one trick of this type in an act, and structured in a way that made it less of a personal challenge to the intelligence of the children.
I'm really only saying that because I know you love those Hippity Hop Rabbits.
e.g., Chick/Dove Pan
Everyone expects the dove pan to be on this sort of list. Some will point to it being an outdated object (the original was modeled after an old style of housewares); some will claim it is overused to the point of being hackneyed; and others will say that the lid isn't the most deceptive piece of apparatus invented.
While it's probably a bit of all three, I have occasionally seen the prop taken in different and somewhat interesting directions.
Let's face it. Some props, like it or not, have baggage. That is, an honest appraisal reveals they have more working against them than for them, so the challenge becomes how to acknowledge this rather than ignore it, and try to turn those weaknesses into strengths, or, if necessary, be unafraid to try something else in its place.
Personally, I would try not to use props like these; that is, I would only include them if they really are the perfect fit. And what constitutes my "perfect fit" is probably different from yours. That's OK.
e.g., spring flowers, feather bouquets
The issue here is not with flowers, per se. It's with the poor quality of the prop that most have purchased. If flowers are used in an act, I think it would be better that they look like actual flowers than like feather dusters. Or, if they were fake paper flowers, wouldn't it be wonderful if they were visually interesting pieces of origami rather than the spring flowers currently available?
We often complain that magic is seen as a cheap form of entertainment. Well, let's make sure the quality of our props isn't a contributing factor.
As for routines with flowers, I think most are fine. I understand Pat Page and Cesario (Le Grand David) had wonderful technique with flowers. Again, this certainly isn't about tricks with flowers; it's about steering clear of inferior quality when possible.
But, since we're on the subject, some flower routines don't make a lot of sense. Consider the Flower Box Production. Two paper flowers inside a plastic box with a Mylar border are produced from a odd-sized paper sack. In this sort of situation, I'm not sure the flowers add anything to the routine. It would be more interesting to produce something like small presents wrapped in a bow (and appearing solid) from a bag rather than clear boxes of paper flowers.
Plus, you could give the last one to the birthday boy/girl after a little legerdemain, or prestidigitation if you prefer.
How many of you have ever put a little flashlight up to your finger and made your thumb glow red?
Me too, and I'm guessing most of our audience has too. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of manipulating light, but some great ideas miss the mark in practice (total sales notwithstanding).
There is a great exception. I'm not at liberty to divulge the routine, but suffice it to say, the prop can be used to great effect, when one is creative enough to stray from a standardized handling and presentation—and ask themselves what it is exactly that they are doing and why they are doing it.
The idea here is that the default handling of some props makes the magic, well, translucent. I think we often fool ourselves into thinking that audiences, even audiences of children, aren't as smart as they really are.
Finally, let's remember that we can't measure the quality of illusion in units sold.
e.g., Coloring Book
It may come as a surprise, but I really like the coloring book effect. It has audience participation, it packs small and is easy to do, and it can be quite mysterious when presented properly. So, what is the underlying issue? Simply that the magician they had last year did it too, and the magician they'll see later that year at a friend's party will do it too.
Of all the items on this list, the coloring book is the most likely trick that they have seen before, and they might just tell you that. We can't prevent every "I've seen that before" outburst (often they only think they have), but repeated over and over throughout the act one starts to wonder what it is that they really do that is unique—and not just presented differently.
e.g., Change Bags
We have dozens of options for changing one thing into another, don't we? Why then use a prop modeled after a church offering bag—an object which is highly unlikely to be recognized or expected in most magic shows?
This isn't about change bags in general. A lunch sack, a Ziploc bag, or a grocery sack could be made to do the same and would appear far less anomalous.
The common change bag found in kid shows today is often a velvet bag with a zipper glued to a wooden brim with a small handle. What is this to an audience if not something that, to warrant its inclusion, must be the thing absolutely necessary for the magic to happen? They may not get the inner workings just right, but they know it's the bag, because why else would someone include such a crazy looking bag?
I understand that most children won't have this revelation on the spot, but as I mentioned earlier, I don't believe in doing lesser magic for children.
I know many disagree.
There you have it! Some of the items one might expect to be mentioned, e.g., balloon to dove, arm chopper, and linking rings, were addressed in my previous post, 11 Stage Props To Vanish In 2011, though the context there was centered around general adult audiences.
With the same breath, I will also say that some of the items in that previous post, e.g., top hats, capes, and multiple silk handkerchiefs, might be quite appropriate for a kid show, especially the younger demographic. That said, while we may benefit by immediately establishing ourselves as a magician with these props, remember that we're also reinforcing the general magician stereotype—and not one that many performers who work for sophisticated adult audiences are particularly fond of.
I know there are a lot of good kid show performers out there who understand these issues. I'd like to see more join them.
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When I was very young, one of my favorite things to do was wait for the garbage truck to come collect the bags of trash that lined the curb. Driving the big truck didn't interest me much, but the man hanging off the back of the truck got my attention. He would swoop down, like he was having the time of his life, and use the inertia of the truck's movement to slingshot bag after bag behind his back directly into the compacter. It was like I got to see a little show once or twice a week. Looking back, he was something of an artist.
And so it is that art can appear in any human endeavor.
But, when the term "art" and "artist" are used, it's usually not trash collection that is being discussed. Generally, we're talking about the visual arts and the performing arts. More specifically, the major disciplines of drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and film for the former, and music, dance, opera, circus, and theatre for the latter. Magicians like to think they are in that last group, right alongside Willie Shakespeare or Cirque du Soliel (their other shows, not that one), but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that when magic is mentioned in the context of art by non-magicians, it is nearly always mentioned as a minor or lesser art.
Whether you agree or disagree with this placement is immaterial; the general consensus is that magic is not really an art, but its inclusion is allowed as a lesser art form, so as not to offend.
Now, when magicians read something like this, we're naturally defensive, and we want to remind everyone of those we all revere as artists in the discipline of magic. I think of Tommy Wonder, David Copperfield, and René Lavand. Another might say Ricky Jay, Teller, or Cardini. Still others may think of Jacobus Bemelman, Seth Kotkin, and Héctor Lavandera.
To be sure, these people have elevated the form to art. But, let's think about this further. René Lavand is a poet; Cardini is in a one man play; David Copperfield embodies drama and dance; Ricky Jay delivers a theatrical monologue; Teller is an incredible mime; Tommy Wonder was Robert Houdin (which made him an actor playing the part of an actor playing the part of a magician.) And, they are all compelling storytellers.
For each of these performers, then, the artistic focus is equally on magic and a major art (e.g., dance, theatre, music), and occasionally the major art is the primary focus. Magic becomes theme; it coexists with the major art in a symbiotic relationship. Each is allowed to shape and enhance the other. We see magic as art in these performances because art would still remain without the magic.
Let's contrast this with the current ubiquity of the label "artist" among practitioners of the craft. Today, if you get booked to perform at any convention, you get the label. If you fashion tricks for other magicians, you get the label. If you do a difficult sleight really well, you get the label.
How many online magic shops, for that matter, refer to those who contribute effects as artists by default? When we look at the individual websites of magicians, how many refer to themselves as an artist? I don't blame any of them. There is no significant consequence for doing so, and it sounds nice, but would they be found on our selective lists of artists, or have they stapled the badge to themselves with self-referential claims and branding? One panders one; another strokes another, and so on. From the outside looking in, it starts to look like mutual masturbation.
Now seems like a good time to make the distinction between skill and art—a distinction that has nothing to do with one being "better" than the other. It is an incredible accomplishment to be skilled. It is an honor to be seen by others in the field as one of the most skilled in your area. If one can do a flawless anti-faro, a king cobra cut, or a six coin downs star, they have some undeniable skill. If one can create new magic and take the pulse of what magicians want to consume, that too is an incredible skill. But, if and only if they use that talent to communicate something beyond the skill, to construct an experience apart from it, where the whole transcends the parts, does he or she become a candidate for artist.
To not make this distinction, however, is harmful to the greater perception of magic externally. Heretofore, we have developed the habit of referring to someone with tremendous skill as an artist—to be complimentary, and not necessarily as a genuine appraisal of artistic content. That's understandable, but to refer to every magician with an audience as an artist is a slight to art.
I know many magicians who desperately want to believe they aim for art, but is this really true or are we bending the rules that we would usually apply outside of magic? Let's look at the standard approach for fashioning one's act; let's have a look at the marketplace. Which do you find more of—the raw materials for fashioning art or prepackaged presentations and routines, that is, "finished" art? Let's face it, we have a lot of birdhouse kits, karaoke tracks, and paint by numbers. (For the record, I'm actually a fan of paint by numbers, karaoke, and birds owning real estate.)
Don't get me wrong—I would be sad if magic books went away and new effects didn't appear. And contrary to what you might expect, I think it's OK to have prepackaged routines, standard presentations, and instruction manuals for practicing the craft because most practitioners of the craft aren't really aiming at anything above some good skill, a solid routine, an entertaining presentation, and a paycheck.
It is perfectly fine to have magic as an occupation to pay the bills, but let us then be more selective in our use of the terms "Art" and "Artist." Let us not disrespect the Ones who walk among us, by diluting the honorary title we give them. After all, there is nothing disparaging or derogatory with the terms "performer," "card mechanic," or simply "magician," though clearly we're getting tired of these labels because we keep insisting on calling ourselves something else. Allow me to fashion some examples: "deceptist," "artainer," "mysterist." (By the way, you may call yourself a mysterist, but no one is going to leave your show exclaiming, "That was the best mysterist I've ever seen!")
Many don't like being called a magician because of the associations it conjures. I understand this sentiment; I've been there myself. Now, I see two issues with this. Firstly, assuming your act is good, are you helping magic and magicians by distancing what you do from magic? How can you "elevate the art" when you don't even place yourself within the discipline? Secondly, I've seen a lot of terrible singers, but I have yet to see any aspiring vocalist insist on labeling themselves a "vocal chordist" or a "thoraxist" or a "pitch-n-tonalist" just to distance themselves from the crummy singers.
Artist is a label best applied by others.
I don't blame someone for wanting to brand and promote themselves, but when performers infiltrate discussions on the "art of magic" with a view to bringing it back to how their performances exemplify art, it is like someone nominating themselves for The Modesty Award. I believe that "Artist" is a label best applied by others to you, instead of self-referentially. At least then it will have legitimate external meaning—however subjective.
Ultimately, art is mostly subjective. It exists when another says it exists. Consider this: if I label my work as art, it is immediately debatable and without validation. But if another labels what I do as art, that is subjectively indisputable. So it follows that we should be allowed to call everything art, right? And furthermore, why does it matter if magicians go around boosting the esteem of each other and crafting artist hats for each other to wear? Because that approach can only keep magic where it is in the public perception.*
I don't think we gain any artistic standing if we simply label all of our practitioners as artists and then demand to be seen as legitimate, highly-disciplined curators of an aesthetic. The more sacred the terms Art and Artist become to us, the more artistic recognition we stand to gain in the real world.
* * *
By the way, the garbage collector who worked on my street when I was a child wasn't an artist because of he made a difficult task look effortless. That's what made him incredibly skilled.
He moved through the world as if to say that joy could still be found in the thankless act of cleaning up the waste of those who ridicule people like him. That's why he was an Artist.
*The music industry has now started to refer to everyone as a recording artist, such that there is no difference between Prince and Ke$ha—both get the same label. But, music as a higher art form has been solidified, so this has less of an effect. Magic, in an attempt to elevate the perception of the practice, would do better to be more linguistically careful.
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Before we start, let me offer my categorization, for the purposes of these posts, of the different types of kid shows.
There are two types of kid shows that roughly correspond to two age groups: those under 5 years of age, and those 6-12 years old. The obvious question that then arises is, "What about those older than 12?"
Well, in case they haven't told you, teenagers don't don't like to think of themselves as "kids" and this is reflected in nearly all they do. If you look at the other forms of entertainment and activities they consume, you will see that they prefer more mature material all around. Because of this, it may not be the best idea to show up with a bundle of silk scarves, props with cartoon rabbits, and a story about a spaghetti factory. They would prefer a magic show that respects their becoming an adult.
At the other end of the spectrum, those five years old and younger are mostly just excited to be there, and are quite happy to be entertained by an entertaining character, whether or not they realize that something impossible or incredible has taken place—though it's great when they do!
Between the extremes, there is a demographic for magic shows delivered with items that are somewhat different from what would be used for very young children or presentations different from what would be presented to adults and older children. When I refer to kid shows and magic for children, it is this 6-12 year old group that I am primarily referring to.
Now that the definitions are out of the way, let's begin.
There is no other magician with more power and influence to shape the perception of magic among non-magicians than the kid-show magician.
But, with great power comes great responsibility.*
Your performance is going to answer the question, "What is a magician?" for most of the children and many of the adults in attendance, and it will establish (perhaps for both groups) the ground rules for appreciating magic and interacting with magicians. This is not a job to be taken lightly, of course. Two ideas emerge from this:
I believe a good kids magician understands he is working for the adults too.
I don't believe in doing lesser magic for children.
In other words, I wouldn't do a trick if I had to justify its inclusion only on the grounds that it "works" for kids, that is, it gets by. Just as a personal standard, I would not measure the quality of a routine in screams and laughs, for if I am presenting myself as a magician, and not as a clown who does tricks, then I want there to be a high level of mystery too. And, with each routine I want to deliver material that will entertain, mystify, and resonate with the adults as well—whenever possible.
We all understand that we were hired by an adult to work primarily for the children, and we don't want to lose sight of that. But, what I'm suggesting is that the adults who hired you probably believe that magic is a form of entertainment that is really only suitable for young children, that is, that magic belongs at a certain "level." They don't mean that to be insulting necessarily; that's just the preconceived notion they have at the outset.
With your show, you can reinforce this thinking, or you can challenge and change it.
As for ground rules, a friend of mine tells the story of a performer who had to deal with a woman heckling him throughout his routines one night. At the end of the performance, he approached her about this, and remarkably, she genuinely replied: "I thought that's what you wanted us to do!"
It's likely that at an earlier point in her life, she saw a magician who—perhaps in the course of a "sucker" trick—was encouraging his audience to yell out what they thought the secret was. The ground rules for interacting with a magician had thenceforth been defined for her.
While I do advocate for a progressive, highly aesthetic, and even idealistic type of magic performance, I also recognize that the primary focus of many kid show magicians is something much more practical—get booked to get paid. Matters of aesthetics are usually considered secondarily, or tertiarily. This is certainly understandable in the beginning, but it is an excuse with an expiration date.
At some point, we must address the quality of our material and its level of entertainment as it relates to the perception of magic in the general public (i.e., non-magicians). And we would do well to hold ourselves to the highest standard we can. When we do this, we help all magic and all magicians. To perform this examination now (for what good reason is there to delay?), let's be open-minded toward the observations of those who would like to see us get there.
With that in mind, I've seen a lot of common props and routines in magic shows for children that can serve to illustrate a few points worth considering as you fashion a kid show. As you read the forthcoming post about these items, please keep in mind that it is not ultimately about the props and routines; it's about the larger points these help illustrate.
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