People Support What They Help Create
One of the maxims I live by is “People support what they help create.” This holds true in just about any organization, political movement, internet group, club and yes, even in the theatre or at a magic show. I currently feel that the more audience participation there is in a show, the more successful that show becomes. If you look at current Las Vegas shows, the ones that have lasted have a lot of audience participation: Penn & Teller, Mac King, Amazing Jonathan. Even Criss Angel has taken out most of the Le Cirque music and dance numbers, and replaced them with audience participation routines.
After years of study and professional training, my personal magic style has evolved to include much more audience participation. When I first started in magic, I didn’t have good role models. Many of the magicians that I saw interacting with their audience members made jokes at their participant’s expense. It was very typical to see magicians using “insult humor” to get quick and easy laughs. I did not feel comfortable doing this type of comedy; in fact, I wanted to perform dramatic magic, without all the cheap comedy bits.
“Stand on the trap door.”
“Show me your hand, no the clean one.”
“Show the card to your friends… if you have any.”
This kind of humor simply was not what I was looking for.
MODELS AND MENTORS
Early in my career, I did not have teachers to coach me through the process of creating an effective magic show, or to help me design interactive audience participation segments for my show. It was challenging enough to rehearse and control my own movements and choreography. The addition of having to manage audience participants on stage was beyond my ability at that time.
Many of the most successful magicians utilize audience participation in their shows. Before I go any further, I must really differentiate “magic acts” from “magic shows.” The typical magic act, the kind we see on variety shows, on television or at magic conventions, are very often music-driven and highly visual in nature. They are usually short, three to twelve minutes—acts like Rudy Coby, Kevin James, and Jerome Murat all come to mind in this category. Many magicians start with an act, and then develop more repetoire, to create a full “magic show.”
MAGIC ACT OR MAGIC SHOW?
A “magic show” differs from a magic act, in that it is longer, often a full evening experience. There are usually different styles of magic: dramatic, comedic, solo effects, grand illusions, smaller close-up effects with video support, and yes, audience participation routines.
SPECTATORS VS. PARTICIPANTS
There is a huge difference between a spectator and a participant. A spectator spectates, merely watching, witnessing without being directly involved. A participant is co-creating the experience, and has a role to play in the production of the magic.
When I hear a magician say: “I have the spectator select a card,” I cringe inside. I am aware that they are not conscious of the words they are using. The more conscious we are of our words, the more conscious we can become as performers. Spectators do not pick cards; they watch cards being picked. Participants pick cards.
A MAGICAL FORMULA: TRANSFORMING LOOKERS INTO DOERS
When designing your show, try to find the times where you can move your audience from being objective witnesses into subjective participants. Objective witnesses have less responsibility, and do not participate in the action. A subjective participant is actively engaged in the magic experience. They support the show by not only applauding at appropriate moments, but also by selecting cards, helping the magician with various tasks and activities like holding ropes or other props on-stage with the performer.
Not everyone wants to participate by coming on-stage! I have seen many acts get into embarrassing situations by forcing an audience member to come to the stage. An audience member doesn’t have to come to the stage to participate in the show. There are many ways to transform individual objective witnesses into a collective of subjective participants. Even getting the entire audience clapping rhythmically, to the beat of the music, transforms single individual objective witnesses into a group of subjective participants. When an audience is all clapping rhythmically, you have given them the temporary role of “the drum section,” in the musical accompaniment, and they are helping to create the experience.
MICRO AND MACRO PARTICIPATION
My good friend and mentor, Bob Cassidy, taught me the difference between solo audience participation and mass audience participation. Micro-participation is when one participant is involved with an effect, such as a book test or a billet reading. A macro-participation effect is where the entire audience gets to play. The classic “question and answer act” is a good example; everyone gets a pencil, a question card, and an envelope. Many magicians have had good success with micro-participation. The Amazing Jonathan has one person from the audience on stage for much of the show. Mac King utilizes five or six people during the show, yet, at the end of his show, he has the entire audience chant his name: “Mac King! Mac King!” This is an example of macro-participation.
AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT TECHNIQUES
You can create subjective participants in the audience by having them involved, for instance, by:
- Saying “ladies and gentlemen, by a show of hands, how many people have traveled to Asia?” Audience members raise their hands, participating in answering the question. Another way to have people answer a question is by saying, “ladies and gentlemen, by a round of applause, who has traveled to Asia?” Both ways work to not only create energy and movement in the audience, but also to give them another place to applaud, other than just the ending of an effect.
- Asking everyone in the audience to think of the first person they ever kissed for a prediction effect, and then tossing a ball out into the audience to select a participant is better than getting one person up onstage and then asking them to think of a person’s name. Simply, more people get to play the “think of a name” game.
Another popular way is to have the audience all do the well-known “arm twist” illusion. Penn & Teller, at the beginning of their shows, often invite members of the audience to come onstage and sign a special prediction envelope. When a magic theatre-goer steps onto the stage, they are no longer a spectator, they are an involved participant. In many cases, these participants play the role of the Judge and Jury, to make sure that all the procedures look fair.
I encourage you to study great performers and how they generate excitement, mystery and fun by utilizing effecting audience participation techniques. Explore ways you can welcome your audience into your magic world, and participate in the magic. People support what they help create! If you have ideas to share with me on ways that you engage your participants, email me and let me know!
Originally published for Wittus Witt’s “Magische Welt” magazine in Germany.
Posted in Philosophy