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Venue and the Repetoire You Choose

When I began to work at the Houdini Lounge, I made the amazing discovery that almost none of the repertoire I had developed in the past twenty-five years felt right in that venue. Part of the problem had to do with the physical space. The tables were smaller, and most of them were circular. This eliminated The Card, the Forehead, and the Saltshaker. The lounge has a dignified, elegant feel to it. The chairs are overstuffed and are deep red. The walls have dark wood. The Illusions restaurant, on the other hand, was lighter, more open, and more playful. Because there was magic going on throughout the restaurant, lightheartedness (and even downright silliness) was tolerated without judgment.

A trick like The Frog Prince, with its whimsical nature, seemed wrong for the more serious vibe of the Houdini Lounge. Even the Unbelievably Useful Comedy Prop felt out of place. Lighting was also a factor. The lounge was quite dim, making it difficult to appreciate tricks like Dr. Strangetrick. After a week or two, I realized that I had to create an entirely new repertoire to fit the clientele and the room.

This leads me to the first important point, which is: Venue will dictate repertoire. Actually there is more to it than that. If your goal is to make your performance feel real, to make your show grow out of the environment, then venue will absolutely dictate repertoire. If you simply take the tricks you know and perform them without considering the venue, then you will just look like a guy doing tricks. That’s what I felt like when I tried to paste my old repertoire into my new venue. I felt like a guy doing tricks, and I hated it.

Anyone who spends enough time practicing and studying conjuring will reach a point at which they can fool the hell out of anybody. The question then is: Why am I doing this? Deception is at the heart of conjuring, but there should be a reason for the deception beyond ego gratification for the magician. Ego gratification is the reason most people get into magic in the first place. The magician’s need for ego gratification is also the main reason why a lot of laymen hate magic. “I know how it’s done, you don’t. I’m smart; you’re stupid.” (To paraphrase an old Jerry Seinfeld routine.)

I haven’t got this all figured out yet, but what interests me right now is putting people in a position in which their hearts and their heads are in conflict. Their heads say, “What I just saw can’t be real.” Their hearts say, “But it felt absolutely real.” Somewhere at the core of this dilemma lies the great puzzle of human existence. What is real? What isn’t real? How can there be any reality at all when each of us sees the world in a different way? This is the message I wanted to impart, but the only way I can even begin to achieve it is not to look like a guy who is doing tricks. The only way to make that happen is to let the show grow out of the environment.

The only way to do that is to study the venue and to understand the conditions it imposes. If you go back and reread the first three routines (The Trick Lance Burton Showed Me, The Magnetized Cards, The Luckiest Cards in Las Vegas), you’ll see how they evolve out of the environment of an elegant lounge in the middle of a busy casino. The prop is one of the most common objects in that environment – a deck of cards. The presentations are situational; they come from the experience of working in a casino and living in Las Vegas. If I do my job well, I draw the audience in before any magic happens at all. I hook them with the story; I bring them into my life; and before they realize it, they are seeing something that is unexplainable. And it feels completely real.

[From Closely Guarded Secrets]

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