Making A Magic Show – Part One – Choosing The Tricks
A Blog Post By Greg
This is the first of a new series of blog posts which I am intending to write over the next few months, in between our other posts, about one of our upcoming projects. When I look back at the first blog post I wrote introducing this blog in December 2019 I wrote that ‘the main focus of this blog will be travel, history and magic, but do expect other topics to crop up as we go along’, and I am pleased, looking back over our blog posts, even from the lockdown, that we have actually stayed within that remit rather well. If I were to add another category, I would probably say that the main focus of the blog is travel, history, magic and wildlife, mainly as it relates to creating our videos. Of course we veer off into tangents now and again, but these threads seem to run through it all.
This series of posts is going to fit firmly into the ‘magic’ category, as over the next four months one of our big projects is going to be to create the first series of ‘Greg Chapman’s Magic Show’, a magic show series which we are intending to film over the summer, and then make available on a number of streaming sites come the Autumn. I have decided to document some of my process while working on the magical side of this show in these blog posts, as I though some people might be interested in how I am going to go about creating the magic for this eight-part series!
Given that we are looking at each episode running at thirty minutes, and that my pieces run at an average of about five minutes in length (with quite a range in lengths making up that average!), this means, if my maths skills are working, that I need to put together approximately 48 effects ready for the series. On the basis that there will be at least one which I will get all the way through the preparation stage on and then decide when it gets to the edit that I don’t like how it looks on camera, lets round that up and say I’m going to have to put together fifty different effects over the next four months. Usually I might add a dozen or so new effects to my shows over the course of a year, so this is a big task, and one I am very excited about!
I’m going to pause, just for a moment, to talk about the difference between a ‘trick’ and an ‘effect’. I have heard these used interchangeably by people who do not work in magic, and sometimes by people who work inside of magic, and even when I hear magicians who do separate them when talking about them, they define the words slightly differently from each other. I think that it is probably worthwhile letting you all know how I define the differences between the two, so that we keep the distinctions clear during these blogs.
The ‘trick’ is the actual magic thing which happens – the ball disappears, the rabbit appears in the hat, the rings are magically linked together. These are the things which require technical skill, or knowledge, or equipment, or some other ‘sneaky method’ to accomplish. The magic trick laid bare is nothing but procedure, and if you ever see someone just perform a ‘trick’ then you are likely to go away wondering how they did it, but not to feel entertained or enriched by it. For me, if someone just shows you a trick in its most basic form then you are more likely to look at it like a riddle, something where you just want to know the answer and feel slightly ‘left out’ because you are being shown a mystery without a solution.
The ‘effect’ on the other hand, is how you take that trick and turn it into a performance, to make it entertaining, to imbue it with a sense of ‘theatre’. This can be done with words, music, or just by actions and looks, but it draws you in and leaves you, when done well, with a sense of having been entertained, and at its best it allows you to become a child again and not even wonder in the moment how the magic is achieved. Certainly, afterwards, you may go back and wonder, but in the moment you are entertained by a performance, not being confronted by a riddle.
As an example, consider for a moment the ‘Rabbit Out Of The Hat’ trick which I presented at the end of part three of the ‘Greg Chapman’s Magic At The Waterworks Museum’ virtual show (if you haven’t seen it, you can go and watch that HERE).
The trick here is a simple one – it is having a series of objects appear out of an apparently empty hat.
However, rather than just standing there, showing the hat empty, and then removing rabbits one at a time, I present it as the story of how the rabbits are running around inside my clothes, and it becomes the story of the rabbits leaping out of pockets, along sleeves, through trapdoors and into hats. It works in elements of how the rabbits are trained, the mistakes they make, and turns the rabbits into characters, and the trick into an effect.
For me, personally, magic is all about the effect. I don’t look at magic in an adversarial ‘I’m going to fool you’ kind of way. I know full well that if you really want to know how my tricks are done, especially on video, you can watch them multiple times and probably get pretty close to figuring out what is happening. Of course, I know that the majority of people won’t – my job is to make the whole show so entertaining that you won’t want to spend the time it would take to try to figure out how things are done, I would rather you just enjoy the effects.
Having said that, I also want the magic to appear ‘magical’ – and so as I’m presenting the effect I don’t want you to know how the trick is done, I want you to experience it as a piece of magic.
So at the moment I am starting at what, for me, is the first step in adding a new effect to my performance, I’m just trying to do it with fifty different effects at the same time. When I decide I want to add a new effect to any of my performances it usually starts with the trick first. Then I turn to the books!
This is the phase I am currently in, as I read through my collection of old magic books (along with a few new additions purchased from eBay!), and for me the older the book the better in a lot of ways, to find tricks that I can adapt, modify, pull apart and put back together. My reading here is as diverse as the ‘Tarbell Course of Magic’ (a special thank you to James Bonine for sending me the first four volumes of this at the start of lockdown), volumes made up from what was originally a mail order course in magic from 1926, through books of plans for building large stage illusions, and even several books written to teach magic for children which often have hidden gems which can be rethought and reworked.
Next to me as I type this is a volume of the Tarbell course, and sticking out of the side of it are lots of small ‘Post-It’ notes marking pages where a trick has appealed to me as I am reading through. On the first read through each book to find tricks I deliberately keep my options open – at this point all a trick needs to get a sticky note is to appeal to me in some way.
My next read through these tricks is more critical, and I am applying a number of criteria to them to whittle down the numbers. A lot of this is fairly subconscious, and it is a ‘gut-feeling’ whether or not I’m going to start working on a trick, but some of the thinking I can explain.
My first question is stylistic – does it fit my style. Obviously, given the style of this series, and my shows in general, I’m a little old-fashioned in my aesthetic, and so any tricks which use a lot of technology, or are focussed around technology, such as magic tricks with mobile phones, for example, are discounted. There are some tricks which I enjoy the sound of, and can imagine being performed perfectly by another performer, but which don’t suit my style at all. Those lose their sticky notes!
The next question is one of practicality – can I get hold of or build any props or apparatus I would need in order to create this trick, can I do in time for the shows, and can I do it with the very limited budget which this first series will have. If the answer is no to this question then these pages lose their sticky note – but do get noted down in a separate notebook for potential inclusion in a future show.
My third question is quite a personal one for me. Do I know somebody who has created an effect around this particular trick which I consider to be perfect, or pretty close? For example, I wouldn’t perform the multiplying bottles trick – Tommy Cooper’s routine for that was such a perfect presentation of the effect that I don’t think I could take it in a different direction which would avoid comparison, and I certainly don’t think I would do it better than his performance. Any trick which I feel that way about goes. There may be tricks which I know perfect versions of, but where I can envision an effect and presentation which I would put to it which would be from such a different angle it wouldn’t result in people comparing the underlying trick – those get to keep their sticky notes.
Finally, I begin to think about effects. When reading about the trick do I get a glimmer of an idea about a possible presentation? Is there a way that I can make this trick my own and build something around it to make it right for my shows? Does it suggest a story, or a bit of business which I can create? Does it remind me of something from my life, or of a message which I want to share? Is there a joke which immediately leaps into my head. Is there another trick which would link with this to create an effect between them?
If a trick passes all of these tests it gets written onto a fresh page in my notebook, ready for the next step in the process… which I will take you through in the next part of my blog series!
In the meantime, if you are interested in my magic or our upcoming magic series, please consider heading over to our Ko-Fi page and supporting the series. For just £3 you can get our ‘Join The Team’ perk (HERE), and get behind the scenes details and emails from us as we work on all our projects, but for just £50 you can become an Executive Producer of one of the episodes of the magic series (HERE), with your name as executive producer in the end credits and, as we work on the series, some extra behind the scenes videos with Greg rehearsing, working on, and discussing some of the tricks for the upcoming series!
Thanks for reading, and please, take care!