Why do people hate magic?

17 08 2011
Wayne Kawamoto is the author of Picture Yourself As a Magician, a beginner’s book on magic. He has written a blog article called: The Five Biggest Mistakes made by Beginning Magicians that should be read by all science presenters. It is uncanny how easy it is to switch out “magic” for “science presenting”.

Wayne says: Why do so many in the general public say that they hate magic? It’s probably because they’ve seen poor magic or an arrogant, boorish magician, or both at the same time.

Now to the best of my knowledge “the general public” don’t say that they hate science shows, at least not yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from a magician’s advice. The parallels between performing magic and performing science are too similar for us to imagine we won’t have fallen into the same traps. And we certainly don’t want science performing to make the same mistakes if people are going to end up hating us.

Wayne lists five commonly made mistakes made by beginning magicians and notes that it is not always just beginners who make them. When I think about my own shows I have to admit that I have been guilty of 3. and 4. and not just in the dim and distant past!

1. Arrogance and Acting Smarter Than the Audience

No one likes a performer, or even a person, who thinks he or she is smarter than everybody else and tries to demonstrate it. Magic is not an opportunity for a magician to show off or demonstrate how clever or intelligent he or she is.

When magic is performed in a manner that says “ha ha, I know the secret and you don’t,” it’s been turned into a puzzle and the audience is only encouraged to try and discover the secret. Also, many magicians don’t understand that what works for Amazing Johnathan is not necessarily what they should be copying and doing in their shows.

The Amazing Johnathan is an acerbic performer who humiliates his audience and assistants for comic effect. You can see some of his work here. I don’t know of any science performers who deliberately set out to offend their audiences but there are plenty who inadvertently come across poorly by showing off how clever they are.

The most important trait for anyone on stage to have is likeability and no-one likes a smart arse. The best way to get audiences to like you on stage is to act as you normally would in real life. Be nice. Be generous. Be polite.

A science performance is not a lecture and it is not a lesson. University professors and school teachers will almost certainly have to alter their regular styles to connect to a science show audience. Novices especially will have to avoid becoming “the sage on the stage” and over compensating for nerves and lack of confidence by trying to sound intelligent.

Your job as a science presenter is to share what you know with your audience and try to make them feel as excited about it as you do. Coming across as arrogant or acting smarter than the audience won’t get you very far at all.

2. Humiliating or Embarrassing Volunteers

When audience members come up to assist, they are going out of their way to help the magician. It’s imperative to treat volunteers with respect and not go for the easy jokes that get laughs and belittles and embarrasses volunteers. Sure, there are lots of bald, fat, ethnic, gender and more jokes that one can utter, but for entertainment of a higher level, these can be left behind.

I have written about this at length in another post and I think the secret to using volunteers is to know exactly why they are being used and then to send them back a hero. There is no more effective way to lose the sympathy of an audience than to treat a member of that audience poorly.

I don’t know of any science performers who would deliberately humiliate a volunteer but I’ve seen it done accidentally. Think long and hard before inviting someone on stage with you, make sure what you are asking them to do is suitable, ensure that they never “fail” and send them back to their seat feeling two inches taller than when they came up on stage.

3. Inadequate Preparation

Magic is not simply a matter of visiting a magic shop, purchasing a trick or two, taking them out of the package, reading the instructions and then performing them. Entertaining and baffling magic takes time to develop and practice, and routines need to be engaging, dramatic or funny, whatever works best for a magician’s personality or character.

And the same goes for science performing. An old saying in magic goes like this: an amateur practices until they get it right, a professional practices until they get it right every time.

If you agree to perform a science show then don’t underestimate the time it will take to properly prepare. You have to give yourself enough time to 1. write the show, 2. get the props together, 3. rehearse the demos, 4. and then work out how to perform them.

Just because, as a beginner, science performing isn’t your main job doesn’t mean that you can get away with preparing poorly. In fact because it isn’t what you do on a regular basis you will need to prepare for it that much more.

I would suggest, as an absolute minimum, you’ll need to set aside between ten and twenty times the length of the performance for the preparation. A ten minute presentation needs between and hour and a half and three hours to prepare. An presentation that lasts for an hour would require the best part of a working week.

4. Not Properly Structuring a Show

Tricks in sequence should be varied. One card trick where a spectator selects a card and the magician finds it may be entertaining, but five such tricks in a row are probably too much. Mix up the effects.

Wayne gives excellent advice here that I’d like to take further. Structure goes beyond mixing up your demos. Structure is essential in any performance and structure comes from knowing exactly what you are trying to do. Every show should have an ultimate ambition, you should be able to say in a single sentence what the whole point of the show is. Once you’ve identified this end point you can then decide where to start and how to get from the start to the end.

If you have identified a clear reason why you are performing your show you won’t end up performing the equivalent of five card tricks in a row because you won’t just be performing card tricks you will be taking your audience on a journey that will require a good selection of exciting demos.

5. Wearing a Character Costume

Many beginning magicians may feel or know that their magic is inadequate and will consider wearing a costume – a clown suit, wizard outfit or more – to seemingly make up for this. After all, the logic seems to go, if one doesn’t feel that they are optimal at magic, at least they’re dressed up as a character.

However, this is completely wrong. And unfortunately, entertainers in costume are too often a sign of awful magic.

A costume should only be worn to reinforce the character that an entertainer is portraying, which, in turn, supports the theme of the magic effects. If an entertainer is dressed as a wizard, for example, what’s he doing with a deck of cards? Shouldn’t he be casting spells or causing things to float and such?

This is great advice. Do you really need that lab coat? Perhaps if you are going to do something messy you should wear it but do you need to wear it at the start of the show or after the messy section has finished? And what about that clown suit? If you have been to clown school and perform a science show that includes real clowning then you might need it but otherwise why are you wearing it? And as for that comedy mad-scientist wig, those thick-rimmed glasses and the tie-died lab coat… I’ll let Wayne have the last word on that:

Bottom line, the path to good magic is to build solid magic and presentation skills and perform in an entertaining manner. Save the money and forget the cheap costume. Work on the magic instead and in the long run, become a far better entertainer.

And I think the same goes for science performing.

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