Performance insights for the online magician:

So during my first month of being unemployed for Covid-19, in my plenty of spare time I picked up Ken Weber’s book, "Maximun Entertainment", to re-read, it has always been my bible. It hit me how much our art has to change for the new medium. How many rules and facts are no longer relevant for online shows, and how many still are be must be adapted.

A lot of people look down on zoom shows saying that its not the same as real shows. Of course, it’s not the same. This is why we have to ADAPT to new performing style. The same way close up is different from parlor and stage: online shows requires a change in mind set. If you try to synthetically recreate the energy of your stage show you will have a hard time and the result will be mostly be awkward and unnatural for you and the viewers.

This is a new concept to us, but I found there are other talents and traits we can summon to make online performances smooth and enjoyable for performer and spectator. Some of them are the complete opposite to what we learned and practiced our whole careers. Here are some tips I picked up on with my one-month experience in online shows:

1) Spare the applause ques. On most platforms we cannot collect immediate feedback in the form of applause or laughter. Leaving pauses and space for the audience to react is pointless on online shows. You can acknowledge the fact that you can’t see them and encourage them to react via chat and replies. I do this in the beginning in the form of comedy and do an “applause test” and ask them to send emojis when they like something. Remember Michael Close’s “just give me one of these OK signs”? Who knew his joke will be our reality?

2) Don’t tell jokes – make conversations. For the same reason as 1 – you don’t have feedback. Any joke you tell will feel like its bombing when no one laughs. What I do is script my comedy into a conversation I have with a chosen spectator before or during a trick. It will seem you adlibbed it mid conversation and the response from the person you are talking to (given everyone can see him) will project the energy to the viewers. This is similar in energy to “crowed work” in standup comedy. 3) It’s ok to talk to the audience as a collective, but when doing a trick that involves a spectator, create a personal conversation that naturally segues into a trick. Think of it as close-up magic meets radio: radio has a rhythm, the DJ talks to the listeners (no feedback), puts a caller, has some small talk, then plays his song. Replace song with tricks and you have close up magic. Close up in my opinion is the art of sneaking magic into small talk. The setting in online shows is a bit more formal than close up, thus the comparison to radio. If you stop trying to perform, and imagine yourself as a radio host, managing a program that is broadcasted, it will give your online performance a more intimate feeling, give more authority, sincerity and charisma.

4) Practice and master the technical aspects required to operate the platform you use: be it zoom, face, Instagram, ect… make sure you know how to use is well. This might sound obvious, but nothing is more awkward than technical hiccups that ruin the rhythm of the program. Make sure you know how to open and close mic’s and cameras, create a panel of views for multi assistant effects, create breakout rooms for preshow work, insert slides and screen shares. These things should be done smoothly as your double lift and pass. Practice and rehearse them accordingly and PAY FOR THE PRO PLANS. If you have a means to get a technical assistant – make sure you rehearse together. I like to do this myself.

5) Don’t over produce! It’s a must to have professional sound, video and lighting, but most of your views are at home, in pajamas, some of them even in underwear. I like my setting to be just a bit better than theirs. I try not to use professional backdrops, equipment that might suggest I’m in a professional studio with someone other than yourself “helping”. I do it in my living room, library or home office. Of course, it’s important to have good composition of the frame that’s organic to you home setting (tidy up you living rooms!). Don’t over dress. No need for a three-piece suit. Wear what you need to get the tricks done. And please… pretty please – DON’T PUT ANY GRAPHICS ON YOUR STREAM. That go’s for logos, any fancy picture in picture that isn’t organic to the platform or any sort of augmentations to the live stream, multiple camera angles that cut to each other mid-stream... This highly suggests you can use the same video tricky to obtain the effects you do. The audience already suspects this, don’t confirm this. It might look great but it will kill your magic. Even if you are very proficient in video production – hide this ability from your audience. It’s like doing card flourishes, its eye candy but it says that you can use it to trick them. Bad.

6) Material: what I have found is relevant for my performing style – comedy magic and mentalism. Like any show variety is king. A lot of “hands off” type effect that are practical for long distance performance are predictions. You have just prediction type effects this will be very monotonic. If you do any manipulation type routines, the audience cannot inspect or see them in real life, this diminishes their value and means they must be exceptionally interesting to engage your audience, be honest with yourself before you put them in your online show. If you perform an effect with long process on counting, calculating or moving to force a result -make sure that you involve the whole audience and not just the one spectator or the rest will be bored to death. Don’t try to force old material from your regular show – pick material that the medium does not harm – but amplifies. That’s it for now. If you read thru all of this that thank you, and sorry if it turned out to be long and preachy. This is a field that is new to me, and I am learning it as a work. It will never be like the real thing and I hope we go back to real shows ASAP. But its still enjoyable in my opinion. Online shows are to live performance as Porn is to sex: it will never be the same, but when its all you have, it gets the job done.

Stay safe, do magic, Gideon. PS These are opinions, feel free to disagree and I would love to hear what you think in the comments

Gideon Livnah, 2018, -Israel