Mysterium: Difficult Spectators

Posted by Jonathan Bayme on 20 February 2013

Editor's Note: This article is the fifth in a new, weekly series by Jason England: MYSTERIUM. Each article in this series will be posted on Wednesday at 11:00am EST - every post on a different subject. This week, Jason talks about how to manage performing for "difficult" spectators.

It’s better to maintain control than try and regain it.

As I type this, I’m sitting on a cruise ship docked in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, at the very southern tip of South America.

While I’ve been on the ship the past few weeks, I’ve been performing close-up magic shows for approximately twenty guests at a time in a small theater that’s been set up on board just for these performances. It’s very much like performing at the Close-up Room at The Magic Castle, only without the raked seating. Still, the room is intimate enough that sight lines are not a problem and I don’t need a microphone.

Over the past fifteen or so shows, I’ve begun to realize that I don’t have a lot of the problems that other, less experienced close-up performers often have with non-magician spectators. Until I gave this some thought recently, I had always shrugged off my success with “good” spectators as mere luck. Now that I’ve been thinking about writing an article once a week however, I’ve begun to analyze my act a bit more and I think I realized something these past few weeks: I’m not lucky at all.

I’m actually coaching my audiences and I wasn’t really even conscious of it.

Let’s back up a bit. How many of you have ever had this experience: you have a spectator select a card, memorize it, and perhaps show it around to others nearby. You then perform a swing cut of the deck and ask them to place the card onto the half in your left hand.

If you’re fortunate and have a cooperative spectator, they’ll do exactly what you ask and you’re able to continue without any problems. But many times the spectator seizes this opportunity to try and dictate the terms of the selection’s return to the deck. They’ll insist that they be allowed to shove the card into the middle of the deck and square it up themselves, or they’ll try and circumvent your cut by lifting up some cards of their own and dropping the selection deeper into the deck than you had intended. Although this exact thing has happened to me many times in the past twenty-plus years, it virtually never happens any more.

Why? It’s simple. I don’t allow it to happen.

Now, you might read that and take it to mean that I still do the swing cut and ask the spectators to return the card and if they try and take control I just insist that they do things my way. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. The way I handle selections these days actually removes the possibility from ever occurring.

The method is very easy. I almost always work with a table, but these ideas can be adapted to entirely in-the-hands methods also. I ask the spectator to slide a card out of the face-down spread. As soon as they do this, I gather the rest of the cards as I say to the spectator, “I’ll get these out of your way.” I then turn my back and ask them to show the card around and replace it face-down onto the table so that I can turn around again. When I turn around, the selection is face-down on the table and I swing cut the deck and use the right edge of the left-hand half to scoop up the selection and “lose” it into the deck. Sometimes I hold a break, sometimes I use a crimped card, and sometimes I know a key card or the numerical position from the top.

The control of the card isn’t important. What’s important is that I maintained control over the situation.The only time the spectator can potentially achieve the upper hand is when they have the capability to hold the selection “hostage” until it’s returned to their liking. By having them place the card onto the table, they no longer have the ability to seize control. Preventing the problem through a minor restructuring of the effect is the name of the game here.

A similar problem comes up frequently just as the performer is reaching the ending of an effect. Let’s say you’re performing Dai Vernon’s Triumph,* and you are just about to spread the deck to reveal that the spectator’s card is the only one that is face up in the face-down spread. You look at your spectator and you say, “Name your card!” In a perfect world, the spectator names her card and you spread the deck to amazement and thunderous applause. Unfortunately, what often happens is that instead of naming her card, the spectator often says, “Aren’t you supposed to tell me what my card is?” While a completely innocent and natural (albeit erroneous) question, this has the effect of derailing the climax of the effect until the performer can reply, reassure the spectator that naming the card aloud is for dramatic reasons only, and then attempt to restart the “magical moment” to end the trick.

How do we avoid this problem? Again, the solution is a sort of “pre-emptive strike” against the spectator’s line of thinking. In the first solution, we controlled the physical location of the card (we got it out of their hands before it was returned). In this example, we have to anticipate the objection of the spectator and address the concept of “naming a card” for magical or dramatic reasons ahead of time.

Don’t get me wrong; I wish we didn’t have to do this. But I find it takes only a second to say something like, “Now, I’m not a mind reader. I can’t tell you which card you chose. I honestly don’t know what it is. But I’ve got something amazing to show you. Please name your card out loud.”

I can promise you that if you say something like this to your spectators, you’re going to have far, far fewer problems. Only the most dedicated “troublemaker” spectators will stick to their guns and insist that you tell them the card. If that’s the case, then you have to finish the effect however you can and immediately get them off the stage and away from you.

I should point out, that I don’t say the exact words I wrote above. In fact, what I say isn’t even close to that, but the concept is the same. I’m removing the very idea of resisting from their minds by planting the (better) idea of a dramatic build. The end result: they cooperate every time and never realize that they’ve been manipulated in the least.

The really nice thing about using this strategy is that it doesn’t have to be repeated for every effect in which a spectator names a card. Once you are a few items into your show, the audience should come to realize that cooperating with your instructions provides them with a better experience than trying to take charge of the show at every turn.

There are other problems that come up from time to time that can be addressed in similar ways. Some spectators want to shuffle the deck after choosing and returning a card. Others want to grab the deck between effects, remove a single card and insist that you tell them what it is. Still others remove a card from the deck and “protect” it with both hands to the point that it’s mangled beyond repair and then try and return it to your deck. We solve these problems the same way the two problems in the examples above have been solved: we anticipate the issue ahead of time and either restructure the effect to eliminate the possibility of a problem, or we plant a better, competing idea in the spectator’s mind – one that obviously coincides with what we want them to do.

Analyze your effects and your act, and I’m confident you’ll find places to apply these and other techniques to improve the experience for your audiences.

* I don’t actually ask the spectator to name her card before I end Vernon’s Triumph. I just used that effect as an example of a situation where the ending was all but over and the performer wants the spectator to name her card out loud. I don’t necessarily think Triumph needs that element, so I thought I’d clarify.