Magic Trick: Tips on Stage Magic

The learner has now arrived at that point where he will quit the humble drawing-room, understood in its ordinary sense, and essay to grander flights on the stage. It is true that this stage may, after all, consist only of the back drawing-room, the front one serving as the auditorium; but, in a conjuring sense, it is a drawing-room no longer. It is the exclusive domain of the performer, in which he will work his spells of enchantment unmolested by busybodies indulged in too close a view. In this exclusiveness consists the main difference between the two branches of conjuring. In what may be aptly termed impromptu conjuring, the performer is greatly at the mercy of his audience, who may at any moment, if so disposed, seize upon him and wring from him his secrets. He is beset with difficulties on all sides, and must exhibit a total invulnerability. In stage performances, he has matters much more his own way. To a great extent, he can control circumstances, to which he is constantly liable to fall a victim when exhibiting in a humble way. He can so arrange matters that one effect follows another in a most natural manner—a state of affairs which it is almost impossible to bring about under any other system of arrangement. So far stage conjuring possesses its advantages; but, unless the conjuror has gone through a course of training such as has been set before him in the preceding sections, he would be quite unable to avail himself of them. The performer, with a limited amount of skill in execution, could never succeed in true legerdemain on the stage, where it is far more difficult—in most cases impossible—to cover a mistake or clumsy movement. Everything must be reduced to an absolute certainty. To ensure this, the learner must engraft on his mind the single but important word "preparation." Effective preparation is the great secret of success in stage conjuring of any magnitude: without it, things are tolerably certain to result in what is expressively termed a "bungle." The reader will discover, as I progress, what is meant by "preparation" quite speedily enough, so I will not now enlarge on what will sometimes prove a somewhat tedious operation. I once asked a well-known conjuror how he liked conjuring for its own sake. "As far as conjuring itself goes," he said, "I could perform all night; but what settles me is the everlasting preparation." I must say, that my ideas on the point are marvellously like his.

There are many axioms which belong equally to either branch of conjuring, and which it is well for the learner to bear in mind at the outset. By getting into the way of acting up to them from the first, they soon cease to be irksome, and so assist, instead of detain, when anything important is being undertaken. One important thing is to be careful to give borrowed articles to be held, when it is required to do so, in a part of the room as far removed from the owners of them as possible. This rule need not be observed when the article is not to be changed; but it is so seldom that this is the case, that the possibility of its occurring is hardly worth while considering. It can never do any harm to remove an article which is not to be changed far from its owner; but a great deal of harm may be done by substituting one article for another in such proximity to its lawful possessor that that individual is able to discover the fraud. If this care be not taken, the most perfect dexterity will be thrown away. In a large room, full of strangers, one can perpetrate the most barefaced deeds, such as giving a substituted ring, which is in every respect totally unlike the original borrowed one, to be held openly in the fingers. Neither the holder nor the owner of the ring will know that the article is not the one which was borrowed.

Where possible, always give articles, when they are not too ponderous or awkward, into the custody of members of the weaker sex. Ladies, as a rule, have much less self-possession than men during performances, and, besides, are naturally anxious (and not without some success) to do everything that is asked of them in the most graceful and effective manner possible. These causes conduce to the result which the performer so much desires, viz., an absence of that inquisitiveness which ultimately leads to a private and premature examination of the article in custody. This axiom applies only when an article is to be held passively. Under no circumstances must the performer cause a lady to rise from her seat; rather let the trick be shorn of some of its effect. When the assistance of one of the audience is required, select an intelligent-looking man, who will not be likely, from either incompetency or malice, to act exactly contrarily to your directions. Unfortunately, a large number of block-heads and malicious persons, with intelligent and winning expressions of countenance, do exist. On meeting with either individual in a dangerous shape, make him look ridiculous by giving him something big and cumbersome to hold above the head, in a conspicuous position (such as when standing on a chair), and let him remain there during the whole of the trick, or even longer, if he will put up with it, selecting someone else to render you the assistance you require. Be careful not to allow it to be palpably seen that you are hoaxing the person, or offence may be given to more than one: and conjurors must always strive to keep their audiences in the best possible humour.

Never perform a trick twice. If the performer is weak enough to give way on this point, he must expect to have the secrets of half of his tricks the common property of his audience in a very short time. Such interludes as swallowing an egg, orange, &c., and finding it at the elbow, point of the toe, or other unexpected place, one may repeat with tolerable frequency, although it is as well to vary the precise method a little each time. The reason such feats are comparatively safe to repeat is, that they come unexpectedly. If people knew that it was intended to vanish any particular article, they would keep a sharp look-out, and endeavour to discover what really became of it; but, as the performer is particularly careful not to warn his audience of what is about to be done, the movement is executed before anyone has had time to think. I wish to lay particular stress on the suicidal policy of performing the same trick twice during the same evening, as I know it is a weakness to which young beginners are much addicted.

Conjurors must never fail; that is to say, they must never allow the audience to see that they have failed in arriving at any desired result. The surest method of avoiding this is to practise and rehearse everything, down to the minutest detail, in private, so as to be able to present it in its perfect form to the audience. The beginner feels a little awkward and stupid in rehearsing at first, but when he discovers, as he soon will, the necessity for it, he will soon become used to it. The great thing is to begin well, and this is best done if two persons commence studying together, in which case one will act as a critic to the other. My plan—and I recommend everyone else to adopt it—during the first six months, was to write down everything I had to do or say, accompanied by the most minute stage directions. Each hand and foot had its proper position at a given moment. Book in hand, my fellow-student would take up his position as audience, and keep me rigidly to my stage directions, besides giving such hints as seemed to him to be necessary. At first, this kind of thing feels somewhat irksome, but the good results derived will soon make themselves manifest, and compensate for all trouble. I have frequently spent a whole evening in getting perfect in a single trick, which would perhaps be rehearsed ten or twelve times. The properties of each trick should be written on a separate card.

One thing of paramount importance is the talk to be used with each trick. At the outset, this should invariably be written out beforehand, and committed to memory, if not word for word, very nearly so. By this means, one is best able to avoid a repetition of any well-marked points, which would pall upon the audience, and cause them to fancy the performer before them to be a man of limited ideas. At the same time, great care must be taken to avoid making anything approaching a speech, which is even worse than saying nothing at all. People come to conjuring entertainments expecting to see sleight of hand performed, and not to listen to speeches, however beautiful they may be in themselves. What is wanted is something to accompany the trick, just as a pianoforte-player accompanies a singer. If this simile be borne in mind, the learner will not go far wrong. The only occasions on which nothing should be said are when some feats of dexterity—corresponding to the runs and scales of the expert vocalist—are being performed: a verbal accompaniment would only spoil them. On the other hand, a very poor trick can be made a good deal of by the introduction of a few lively sallies, mingled with allusions to topics of the day, which will be made to appear to bear upon the matter in hand. I shall give but very few examples in my descriptions of tricks, for I think that a conjuror should be, before everything else, original; and this he would not be if he only repeated what other people had to say. I hope the reader is impressed with the absolute necessity of being as well up in "patter" as in sleight of hand.

Address in execution is another thing which cannot be too attentively studied. It is not enough that an orange is successfully vanished; the operation should be performed with all possible grace. This will naturally be impossible if the performer is not well up in his trick; but this he must not fail to be. The learner must study to acquire a manner that is neither hurried nor slow. Some tricks it is necessary to do with extra dash and rapidity; but the extra speed will never require to be sustained. As a general rule, audiences prefer a suave and easy style—one which appears free from the slightest exertion. Being in a hurry is the way to forget many little but telling points; whilst being too slow is the way to weary the audience. The worst possible style to adopt is that which impresses the audience with the idea that conjuring is nothing but a mere cheat—a swindle—from beginning to end. This impression is given when the performer wishes to appear extra sharp, and endeavours (to use a common idiom) to thrust everything down people's throats, whether they will or not. Always endeavour to impress spectators that they are being deceived by skilful manipulation, and not "bamboozled" by talk.

Be careful not to substitute impertinence for impudence. Too many beginners err in this respect. They mistake the precise nature of the impudence required by the conjuror. A better name for it would be audacity. To be successful out of the ordinary way, the conjuror must be audacious and venturesome now and again, although it is as well not to tempt Fortune too much or too often: the jade may fail at an awkward pinch. The warning not to play with edged tools should be taken to heart by the conjuror.

On no account play the buffoon, as I have seen conjurors do before now. When a laugh is raised, it should be with, and not at, the performer. Also, on raising a laugh at anyone's expense, let it be done in a polite and inoffensive manner, unless, of course, it be a punishment for previous misbehaviour.

Index of Magic Tricks | Previous Trick: Magic Tricks with Common Objects | Next Trick: The Table and Costume