What you CAN’T learn from the Paper Engine!

The Paper Engine was written to help you get more fundamental success out of your sleight-of-hand. But no matter how well you learn the material inside, there are many lessons about being a magician you can only learn from a living breathing audience.


close up room 2

A Truly Awful Spectator – What do you do?

In formal close-up situations, it’s often useful to choose a couple spectators to sit at the table with you for the duration of the show. My act, even more than others, is all about encouraging free and open interaction with my audience. At times I feel like 90% of the set depends on the quality of the people sitting in the chairs beside me.

Last week I performed my 200th show in the Magic Castle close-up room. One of the people I chose turned out to be a bad pick. I selected a big, hulking guy with what seemed like a congenial attitude. But within a few moments of starting the show, I saw forming what could only be called a situation.

The guy would not shut up! For every line I uttered, he spoke two. He stepped on the pace of the show relentlessly, and seemed oblivious to every single clue I offered as to his appropriate behavior. Over the next few minutes – his conduct got worse. He stepped on punch lines. He ruined effects. To be clear, I don’t think the audience felt he was ruining the show – but from my perspective, he was really crippling the act.

About halfway through the show, I felt we were reaching the point of no return. We were coming to the point in the program where the effects get notably stronger and more mysterious. I had no sense that this blackguard was going to let the show happen. He didn’t mean to be a turd – he just didn’t have any concept of how to behave. Plus, he was drunk.

So even though I normally work with the same spectator for the duration of the act, I asked the audience to give this bozo a round of applause, and had him switch seats with an amiable fellow in the front row.

The new fellow came up, the show picked up tempo and energy and ended as it should – on a high, satisfying note.


What you can learn from this sad tale

Don’t be afraid to relieve a bad soldier of his post. I knew this guy was a lame by the end of the first trick. Instead of waiting for him to do something truly terrible, I could have sent him packing at the end of the first effect, seemingly as a matter of course. Nobody would have known the wiser, and I could have saved myself about 6 minutes of heartache. And remember, 6 long minutes on stage feels like a lifetime of hard bondage.

To whether storms like this, on stage in real time, you require two things: experience and confidence. You need to have done enough shows to have suffered, and enough self-assurance to make the call quickly – and nip the problem in the bud.

When I first started, I endured this sort of thing often – at that point, I hadn’t had much experience picking spectators. Not surprisingly I bet on the wrong pony a good deal of the time. This week, I only put up with it for about 8 minutes.

Next time I notice a problem like this, I’ll give it about a minute, just to make sure I’m not trigger happy. Then I’ll fire the clown in question and get on with the show! 

Have you ever had a truly terrible spectator?

Drop a comment on this post and tell us about it. We can all learn from hearing these stories, and I’d love to read yours. Be sure to include how it ended, what you did about it, and what you learned from the harrowing experience!



4 Responses to “What you CAN’T learn from the Paper Engine!”

  1. 1 Dennis van den Hove October 13, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Here’s one I’d like to share. Note that I am inexperienced at performing, but this sure was a lesson for me.

    About two months ago, I decided to take part in a magic competition. This is one held every year in Rotterdam, in honour of the late great Fred Kaps, and judged by a few of his relatives.

    It’s unfortunate that they have connected his name to this thing; the competition is held at an annual camp site festival sort of thing. There’s workshops by day, shows by night, and people sleep in tents. This is just to sketch the circumstances; this particular day, the weather had been lousy, so most people had spent a good deal of their time drinking.

    At 8 PM, the time of the competition, half the audience was drunk, and another good 30% was simply uninterested in any magic (they were all laypeople). The massive tent we were performing in simply was the only dry place there.

    I didn’t have a mic, and nobody could hear me, so (cheered on by the audience) I climbed onto the stage, grabbed a mike and stuck it into my breast pocket.

    I then had two people come up, one guy, one lady. By the second effect, someone in the tech crew provided me with a mic stand, so I wouldn’t have to strain my neck anymore to talk into the mic. This limited my position to my current one however, which was on my left, right next to the lady.
    I then went into John Guastaferro’s Club Sandwich. Two selections were lost, the first (the guy’s) found, and put in front of him (way of to my right). By the time I had found the second card (which then is revealed to be the first), he was sticking the other one into his sleeve, pretending to make it “dissappear”.

    I simply took back the card, went back over to the mic stand, and ignored him for the rest of my set. The lady was quite nice, I didn’t feel like making a hassle, and it’s hard to judge if the audience is on your side if they are mostly severely inebriated. 😉

  2. 2 Tim Flynn October 14, 2008 at 7:47 am

    I recently did a show at a policemans home for his and his wifes 50th birthday party.
    Overall the gig went great.
    At the beginning of my act, right after I was announced. A young man walks up to my performing table and begins to pick up my props and look beneath the table. I have an open table, no props beneath it, but a piece of cloth slung across underneath to place my props when I am finished with them. Anyway, he picks up a magic bag containing my nice Viking mfg. Chinese Sticks. He says something like”there’s sticks in there!” I walk over and pick up my magic wand and say, “yep, and there’s another one right here” as I slapped it hard into my hand. He begins to walk back away from me and the table. I spoke to him in French because he was from France ( I knew this because I had done about an hour of walk around magic before hand) and I blew him away! He paused and I said, “Au Revoir” as I waved bye bye to him. The audience loved this!
    Going into my third effect which is Cellini’s cut and restored rope routine, a man in the back of the room yells out, “Hey, we need to measure that rope to see how long it is.” I responded, incorrectly with an open ended question of my own. “Why is that?”
    This lead to some discussion about hanging himself with it or maybe I should hang myself with it. He had been drinking, in fact he was the brother of the man who was paying me. He was also the bartender for the affair. He thought he was quite funny. After a little more by play, I wanted to end it so I said to him, “you should go find your mother.” He slinked away and I didn’t see him for the rest of the show. There was no audience response to my comment. I think they wanted to see how I was going to handle the buffoon. As I looked out at them after my comment about him finding his mother, I didn’t see any happy faces, so I said,”JK” (slang for joke amongst cell phone users texting) This got a mild chuckle and on we went!
    Later he told me that every “act” needs someone like him, Right? I said, “no, there’s already an act like that, it’s Penn & Teller.” He seriously thought he was helping my show.
    People are weird, but we as entertainers need to realize that not all hecklers are heckling. Sometimes they are just simple and ignorant.
    Also, I should never have asked an open ended question.

  3. 3 Adam Sachs October 14, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    I can’t count the number of spectators gone bad. Often the culprit is alcohol, which makes many spectators think that they’re funny and should be the center of attention. So the spectator who has the ideal profile, and I pay close attention to who I ask to join me on stage, will want to dominate the act. My standard act relies on a good interchange with the spectator, as I try to make the spectator the star, and I get a good interaction more than 95% of the time.

    Usually you know within fifeen seconds whether the spectator will be a problem; I usually open with a variant of Chicago Surprise, and in my routining, I ask the spectator four questions before they’re selecting a card, so I get a reasonable sense of the spectator. When I sense that the spectator is going to be a problem, I take three steps. First, I will see whether I can direct the spectator to quiet down or be more controlled, usually while I have them select the card and show it to the audience. If that doesn’t work, I’ll see whether, if I give the spectator greater control, the spectator will quiet down (that sometimes works when they try to be funny and are met with silence). If that doesn’t work, when the first effect is done, I thank the spectator and find another.

    Here’s another interesting and somewhat related challenge: controlling kids in an adult audience who either are so fidgety that they annoy everyone or who call out they know how something is done, or who keep talking.

    For what it’s worth, while I don’t enjoy the difficult interactions, they are part of what we do, and your ability to handle them effortlessly, so the audience doesn’t have any sense that there was any problem, is absolutly critical.

  4. 4 Tom Cutts October 14, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Can I be alittle greedy and tell a few quick tales.

    First, many years ago I did a private party. Nice house, acoustic jazz duo playing in the yard… should be a dream gig. First group I aproach seems a little cool. As they start to warm I can tell one is “The Troublemaker”. He is the classic: trying to catch you out, figure everything out, inject his own humor. I finish my 7 minute set with them and excuse myself to move on. I no sooner turn from them then the guy was right on my shoulder. He said, “Sorry for being so tough on you… let me help you out.” He proceeded to introduce quite kindly to the next group and then he vanished. AS soon as I was done there he was back again and leading me to the next group. I had a lead-in for the whole party and since everyone there knew him they knew if he was impressed they were in for a real treat.

    Well over a decade ago I had a fun gig doing shows one or two weekends a month at a Children’s Park about a mile from my place. I had worked up a routine for sword through neck where the “victim” gets to play the part of a dragon. Needless to say kids all looked forward to beeing or seeing the dragon played out. Once I made a wrong choice for the dragon and the kid got stage fright and was afraid to put the shackle around his neck. That was an easy fix. New kid!

    But ONCE I saw a little girl having a great time in the audience. When it came time for the dragon voluteer her hand shot right up and I picked her without a thought. Then she clamored up to standing and grabbed her crutches. This litttle six year old girl was “disabled” (though I doubt she saw it that way much) The routine requires some mobility and with her hands firmly rooted in her crutches which wrapped around her arms I was looking at an uphill go of it. Worse would be to turn her back after she had gotten up… so I let it run its course. The girl was AWESOME! The audience loved seeing this girl be just another of the kids (though she probably lived her life that way 24/7). It was such a rush that stayed with me for days.

    Maybe sometimes our perceptions are contributing to our nightmares.

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