Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A New Years Challenge

I recently had the privilege (read : horror) of watching a recent performance of mine on video. My corporate manager attended one of my holiday shows and taped it with his flip camera from the back of the venue. As with many performers I really have a hard time watching myself on video. With every little tick, nuance and breath on video I only see the terrible, the amateurish and all the things that need improvement. This time was no different.

It dawned on me that sitting there as a hapless victim was going to go nowhere. So I stopped the clip and grabbed a pen and paper. Then I went back to beginning and as I watched I began to make a shopping list of everything I could improve. At the end of the 45 min. viewing I felt hopeful rather than depressed because of the list I had made and the mindset that I had. I went over the list with my wife and she added some things. And then I went over the list with my manager and he added some things. And now this list of improvements has become my New Years resolution. Everything on this list is stuff to work on. Goals to achieve. Scripting, blocking, stage movement, audience management, etc. All with the general goal of bringing the best I can deliver to my audiences in the year to come.

My challenge to you is to do the same. Nobody can make the list for you but I would recommend bringing a couple of people on board that you trust to view a video of your show and to give you honest objective and subjective feedback. And to help you make you and your the show the best it can be.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Unforgettable Christmas Show

Many years ago I was coerced into covering a gig for a magician who was double booked. It was a Christmas party for 300 children and their parents in the basement of a Catholic church. After I said yes, the magician then added that in addition to my regular show I would have to communicate with Santa "via satellite" (I later found out this meant pressing play on a VCR and pretending to speak and interact with a TV screen that featured one of the worst Santa impersonators I have ever seen) and would then "magically produce" the real Santa from a large box. The magician dropped the box off at the church the morning of the show and I arrived to find the box ready backstage along with a TV and VCR onstage plugged in and perched atop a four wheeled cart. A note stuck to the TV stated that Santa would be arriving 30 minutes prior to my performance to run through the illusion and to get into costume.

The kids and parents arrived, ate pizza, drank pop, inhaled Christmas treats and began to run incessantly around the large basement of the church. It was 20 minutes to showtime and Santa was nowhere to be seen. I checked backstage, in change rooms, washrooms, closets and Saint Nick was a no show. One of the parents corralled the children to sit on the floor in front of the stage and I made my entrance. The show had begun. And it went well. There is usually a tremendous amount of excitement and energy at Christmas parties that involve kids, mostly because they are anticipating the big man bringing the gifts. They know that after the magician the man in red suit will be there with the loot, so if you keep the show moving along they're more than happy to put up with 30 minutes of minor miracles.

Well I concluded the show with Chico The Mind Reading Monkey who stole the show as usual and after I put him away I then moved over to the cart with the VHS cassette ready to roll. I declared to the crowd that we would be contacting Santa via satellite to find out his location. I pressed play and some poorly created graphics gave us the faint impression that we were attempting to contact Santa using the TV screen and some (then) unknown technology. Well the over acting of a middle aged man in an ill-fitting Santa suit had some of the youngest kids convinced that Santa was very close and would be landing on the roof of the church at any moment. The screen went blank. This was the cue to produce Kris Kringle from the magic box.

I scurried backstage to find the big magic box empty. I ran from change room, to closet to washroom to find no one. After a couple of minutes, panic set in. Three hundred kids had grown impatient and were chanting "Santa, Santa, Santa" in a unified chorus. I ran out into the parking lot and witnessed an overweight man struggling to squeeze into a red suit while seated in a small Toyota. I banged on the window and gestured for him to come quickly. He literally rolled out of the tiny car onto the pavement. I grabbed his arm and helped him up to his feet and introduced myself. He grunted and I took him through a backstage entrance into the darkness of the wings.

He started to walk out onto the stage when I grabbed his arm and told him that he had to get into the magic box. "What?!" he huffed. He clearly had not been informed. I explained that he was to be magically produced from the box that we were now standing beside in the darkened wings. At this point the kids were in hysterics. They were screaming, "We want Santa, We want Santa" with an intensity that had me concerned for our safety. "Okay what do I have to do?" heaved Santa. I quickly explained that he had to lie down inside the box and squeeze himself in as tightly as possible. I would tip the box over and a flap would hide his body from the eyes of the audience making the box seem empty. I would then give him a verbal cue to stand up and reveal himself. Simple. Somehow Santa squirreled himself into the box after some serious effort. I pushed the box on caster wheels out into the stage lights and the crowd went crazy. Kids were literally screaming themselves hoarse and a mosh pit of sorts had formed at the front of the stage. I clapped my hands a shouted into the mic, "Ladies and Gentleman, I know you have been patiently waiting for a very special guest!" Several kids were stomping in unison in front and many were being pulled back by their parents from climbing onto the stage. "Let me see if I can make him appear by magic!" I exclaimed. There was a sudden hush over the audience. I grabbed the top and sides of the large colourful box and began tip it over to show an "empty" interior. I'm not sure how I managed to screw up the illusion, but for some reason the extra wall or flap that was supposed to hide Father Christmas simply wasn't there. So as I tipped it over to display the vacant insides of the box all the audience saw was a panic-stricken, poorly attired Santa in a fetal position trying with all his might to look small. There was a moment where you could hear a pin drop while the audience was trying to compute the strange and terrible image they were witnessing compressed inside of a box decorated in circus paint. Suddenly a small boy in the front cried out, "It's Santa!" and all hell broke loose. Kids had broken free of the their parents arms and were taking the stage by force, I dropped the box back down and turned to face the throng head on. There was a muffled scream from inside the box and I realized that the bottom edge of the box had landed directly on Santa's ankle. I held a couple kids back and proceeded to lift the contraption off Santa's ankle and he gingerly pulled his foot back into the safety of the box. In an attempt to gain control I grabbed the mic from the stand and called out in desperation for the parents to, "Please help get the children back to their seats or Santa will not appear."

It took a few moments to clear the stage and regain a certain sense of calm, but it happened and I began to make some magical gestures over the box. I probably looked like the saddest magician in all the world at this moment. Everyone had already seen Santa in a crumpled form at the bottom of the box. And now I was pretending that they hadn't. That the illusion was still a reality for me. And it would take all of my magical movements and passes to conjure up Old Saint Nicholas from this empty magic box. Well after my charade of stupidity I finally called into the box in a loud stage whisper for my assistant to rise up. Well with some considerable strain our Santa rose to his feet. The audience burst into immediate applause and shouts. Now Santa didn't look good. He didn't even look passable by any child's standard of a regulation Santa Claus. But the journey had been a long and arduous one. And nobody seemed to care that Santa's beard had come loose and was dangling by a sagging white elastic hanging from his left ear. Or that the corner of a pillow was peeking out of the bottom of Santa's red suit. In fact Santa looked more like a man on the brink a heart attack, then the right jolly old elf we were hoping for. Nonetheless I offered my arm to help Santa out of the box and over to a large chair by the Christmas tree and mountain of gifts he would soon be passing out to the excited boys and girls.

Now I should have taken into account that the box was on wheels. And I should have considered the weakened ankle that only moments ago had been crushed by the large magic box. But I didn't. Just as Santa had placed one foot over the edge of the box and was at that crucial point of no return, the box went sailing backwards sending him flying face forward into a bellyflop flat onto the stage. He landed directly on his stomach. There was a moment of complete silence in the room and then a collective "oooooooohhhhhhhhh" from the adults. I stood frozen in time still pathetically holding Santa's hand. I dropped to one knee asking if he was okay. Nothing but rasping breaths were coming from the big man and I gathered that it would take a few minutes to him to resume composure after being completely winded by the fall. We all waited with baited breath. Finally Santa struggled to his knees and allowed me to help him the rest of way to his feet. He hobbled painfully leaning on me to his throne and some quick thinking parents began to announce the names of the children, one at a time, to come to the tree and receive their gift. The children took compassion and when they approached Santa they averted their gaze when they came to accept their handout. It was impossible not to feel the pain, the shame and the utter defeat in our Santa.

But we survived yet another Christmas and celebrated to best of our collective abilities.

One and all.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Check Check One Two

I received a message from a performer named Peter this week, who asked me what my theory was behind using a corded microphone on a stand during my performances. I had to ask myself if I had a ‘theory’ at all and why it’s been something I’ve been doing for such a long time. So here are my thoughts.

In my performance experience I have used every type of microphone under the sun. Wired, wireless, lavaliere, headset, countryman, handheld and even (heaven forbid) those microphones permanently attached to the podium/lectern. If you have the luxury of performing in the same environment with a dedicated sound engineer on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, it stands to reason that you have the ability to pick and choose your microphone options. The reasons I always went back to a corded microphone on a stand over the years and why it’s all I use today for my everyday performances are listed below.

  • I never get feedback. Ever. I can walk into any banquet hall stick my cord into any P.A. system (and my cord has been in them all...whoa), and it will work.
  • There is never any cutting out, radio frequency interruptions or blackout moments.
  • I don’t have to find the “right” place to put the receiver. I never have to worry that I’m not on the right channel. And I don’t have to replace batteries. Ever.
  • I don’t look like Garth Brooks or Madonna circa 1996. I believe that those big wrap around headsets with the black muppet ball on the end is a HUGE eye sore and takes away from a TON of human interaction via the performer’s facial expressions.
  • I have incredible vocal control due to the distance I can have from the mic, I can deliver cues to my on stage volunteers without the audience hearing them and have more flexibility than a headset or lavaliere microphone. The depth of sound created by the mic I use is unparalleled with any cordless or headset mic currently available. Don’t believe me? Ask an informed sound engineer for their honest opinion.
  • The picture above is of my Shure 55SH Series II Mic replica of a vintage 1950’s microphone but with all of the modern “insides” that gives me great performance after great performance. It’s rugged die cast casing is designed to withstand rigorous use in any environment. And after about 11 years of still looks fantastic. Beyond its performance, I bought it because it’s a prop unto itself. I can remove it from the stand and hold it in my hand for mobility and to interview onstage and offstage audience members.
  • I have performed a version of the cut and restored mic cord for several years (thanks to Wayne Dobson) using this mic, as there is a feature about it that makes the method a lot easier. I have also used it for the silk through mic stand effect in the past to great response. What a killer that is!
  • I have become incredibly comfortable in using a corded mic on a straight stick stand, to the point where to use something else would be uncomfortable at this point.
  • No cords go down my shirt, pants or get clipped to my belt, creating an obstacle for any potential steals or deposits.

I realize I may sound like I’m trying to convert performers to my practices and preferences in the ways of the microphone. I’m not. But I challenge you to think about how much anxiety is created from your sound system situation. Do you have a bullet proof no-fail microphone that works in most any environment? Are you comfortable with it? Is it flexible enough for your show and the routines you use?

If you answered yes to these last three questions you probably have all the info you need.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Take time. Give it time. Enjoy your time.

Take time.
Give it time.
Enjoy your time.

Take time selecting effects to include in your show. To build a solid show it must have a foundation that is built around you, the audiences you perform for and the typical environments you perform in. This selection process takes time. Sometimes a lifetime.

After years of trial and error, work-shopping and multiple performances my show is still a constant work in progress. It can be frequently frustrating to invest time and energy into some routines or scripts only to find that the effect doesn't fit me or work for my audiences. A great show is never created overnight. Give it time.

The real secret to longevity, success and fulfillment as a performer is to enjoy the process. A very small percentage of our time is actually on stage in front of audiences. Most of it is spent trying to land the gig to get on that stage or putting in the time to make that 45 minutes the best it can be. Learn how to enjoy your time in all these things. This is what being a performer is all about.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Your Gas Stinks

Okay calm down, don't have a complex.
Every ones gas stinks.

It always seems that when I'm on my way to a gig, I need to get gas (or petrol to our European friends, or diesel if you're like me). The problem is when the inevitable happens and gas/oil residue on the gas pump handle gets on our hands, the smell of gas doesn't come off. Believe me you can scrub your hands 'til they're raw in the service station restroom, that stench will NOT come off. If you're working close-up with your audience that night or simply shaking hands with a client, you could potentially be sending a negative 'odorous' vibe that could effect your first impression on them. This is something I have been doing recently that has circumvented the 'stinky gas hands' syndrome. Most service stations have paper towels at the pumps and if they do, try this easy fix...

Step One: Grab a towel. (see photo)

Step Two: Wrap the towel around the gas pump handle before picking it up.

Step Three: Pump your gas and...voila! Your hand is protected from the evil residue and consequent odour of gas.


I was walking along the boardwalk near my home and came across this prose near the beach on a piece of bristol board. For some reason it struck a chord.

Copy, paste and share.

"If you do not compare, you can not judge.
If you do not judge, you can not criticize.
If you do not criticize, you can find compassion.
When you are compassionate, you can love yourself.
When you love yourself, you can open your heart to the world and be free."

Intawuk (The Unicyclist)
April 2010

Friday, February 18, 2011

Smell good, but not too much.

When you're working up close at tables or cocktail receptions, it's always professional (as well as a good personal habit) to smell good. This includes both your breath and your body. To combat halitosis I developed a habit, when I was working on a weekly basis in several restaurants, to place a small handful of strong mints in a pocket. As the evening wore on I would pop a mint every so often and over the course of the night I maintained nice breath. It's now a habit that I continue for stand up and stage presentations because I am still interacting with clients and audience members before and after the show. The brand I currently buy is sugar-free Altoid Smalls. The one habit you don't want to develop is chewing gum to obtain fresh breath. If you chew gum when interacting with your client, my personal feeling is that you give off a unprofessional and an overall negative casual attitude toward your relationship with them. For obvious reasons this applies to chewing gum while performing as well.

Body odour from perspiration is another factor to contend with as a performer. Most of us sweat and some of us, at the very least, glisten from time to time. I have experienced two extremes as an audience member at more than one magic performance. There is the performer who overcompensates his fear of creating a stench by lathering himself up with enough cologne to kill a herd of rhinos at 20 paces. This is not a good alternative for body odour as many people deal with extreme allergies to perfumes, aftershave and cologne. I do not have allergies to perfumes but I do cringe and try to escape the overwhelming intoxication of someone who has overdone it.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the performer who is oblivious to his odour and perspires himself into a rank puddle on stage. Even from a distance this guy smells like a gym locker room full of aging wrestlers.

The main idea is not to be the guy who smells like he fell into a vat of Aqua Velva, or on the other hand smell like King Kong's crotch either.

Somewhere in between is the happy medium that your audiences will tolerate and appreciate.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My 11 personal challenges for 2011.

1. CLEAN UP MY ACT : I have been hemming and hawing about adding a couple new pieces to my show for way too long. 2011 is the year they GO IN! As in NOW! As in the my NEXT PERFORMANCE!

2. SEEK CRITICISM : I want to grow as an artist this year. I want to take my performances to a different place this year. AND I want someone else's perspective. AND I'm willing to pay for it.

3. LEARNING TO SAY NO : I want to achieve and attain what's important to me this year. This means I will have to say no to a LOT more stuff, to get those things done. I'm prepared to do that.

4. KEEP A NOTEBOOK : A notebook. For notes. Close by. Always. And then re-read it, digest it and enact it.

5. LOOK FOR OUTSIDE INSPIRATION : I want to gain my motivations from OUTSIDE of the magic medium and community. Time to spread the wings and soar to another land.

6. BUILD YOUR REPERTOIRE : I want to add just two new things this year. That's it. But make them awesome.

7. SHARE : I'm teaching magic at my son's school this spring. I'm excited and a little nervous.

8. NO COMPROMISES : Stick to the vision and anything that pulls me away in other directions is to be shaken off, removed or put to rest. (humans and animals not included)

9. OBSERVE TRENDS - AND AVOID THEM : I've always found success and fulfillment in "different-ness". May that continue.

10. SWEAT : Stop ignoring and putting off the hard work that is necessary in becoming GREAT at something. You know what that 'something' is. (don't you Bill!)

11. BE A HERO : For me it's being a hero to my sons. That means more time together, more attention given and less selfish endeavours.

Please add your own challenges below...