Not all great street magicians make good stage magicians. Despite that, nearly all great stage magicians can hold their own as a street magician. I can’t think of a single successful stage magician who doesn’t have the ability to translate their performances to a close-up setting, yet I can think of more than a few successful street magicians who practically crumble in a stage setting *coughCrissAngelcough*.
The history of stage magic is rich, and rife with references to the Vaudevillian age, albeit even temple high priests who perform elaborate “miracles” for their pharaohs could conceivably also be called stage magicians. What really sets this art on quite a pedestal beyond other forms of magic is that stage magic definitely requires a lot of planning and a lot of ability to improvise on the fly when the plan doesn’t go according to plan. You can’t just go up there with no idea what to do and expect a good show, whereas a street magician can just go into performance mode with a deck of cards and zero idea what the flow of things would be.
As a performer, I really started off onstage, albeit I was bereft of good foundations and grounding in magic before I really went semi-professional. When I went semi-professional, I realized I didn’t have enough resources or material to perform exclusively onstage, and stuck for about a year or so to street/table magic, then slowly built enough of a repertoire up so I could be onstage and not make a fool of myself. It took quite a while, but I currently perform onstage more often than I do on the streets now, although I definitely haven’t turned my back on my street magic roots at all.
Stage magic routines are often called “illusions”, and this tends to denote that your eyes are fooling you, to a large extent, often coming with the dismissive excuse that anything there can be done by smokes, mirrors, or trapdoors. Those in the know may not appreciate the way their life’s work gets trivialized, but I feel compelled to say that it’s a whole lot more than just sawing a woman in half (A cliché of a request, if I ever heard one.) or pulling a rabbit out of a hat, if someone insisted on another cliché: stage magic, like any kind of magic, is an art, and from the days where people guarded their secrets oh-so-carefully and stole dimensions and diagrams from each other, to the day of commercialized, industrialized magic (As opposed to a long-running tradition of simple artisan-based magic, stemming from individual performers and illusion-makers rather than mass market ones.) that we see now, there is so much that can be said about stage magic, and so many luminaries to speak of from Tarbell to Houdini (Yes, he counts.) to Copperfield, that I’m pretty certain one month wouldn’t be able to cover even just a concise discussion on the history of the industry.
Personally, I am a huge fan of stage magic. I like watching and having my eyes fooled, looking at everything as though I were a layman, rather than a colleague in the magic art. I don’t bother looking for the hidden wire or the trapdoor or whatever else, because I don’t want to kill my faeries while I’m enjoying the show. I can always do that after, if I really felt the urge to, but there’s no reason for me to let it get in the way of my personal enjoyment.
Stage magicians arguably have it worse than street magicians when it comes to hecklers. As highly publicized events, stage magicians, particularly those who draw huge audiences, can attract a whole lot more hecklers than an average street magician who performs for 5-10 people at a time. To make matters worse, the effects of a sole dissenting voice in a room of 500 or so people are magnified in such a setting, and you will see that some of the best stage magicians are anything but charitable to these distractions. For instance, there have been many stories of world-famous mentalist Richard Osterlind practically manhandling these nuisances, or maybe even embarrassing them in the middle of his performances by making the person seem like a total pervert. Other magicians actually go out of their way and beat up these people, and while I personally don’t feel the need to go that far, I can’t say I feel sorry for the heckler since magicians do this stuff for your entertainment, and not to convert you to their religion.
I know I’ll be discussing the nature of hecklers and the futility of it in December where I talk about issues in the magic world that need to be addressed constantly, but I think I’m not pre-empting much by saying this: magicians do this for a job. Their secrets are theirs to keep or theirs to divulge, and just like Coke keeps its formula under lock and key, magicians are entitled to keep their secrets to themselves if they so choose. There is nothing wrong with this. We go to a magic show with the express understanding that there will be deception involved. This is not a bad thing. We don’t go to a moviehouse and watch Batman, expecting that Christian Bale is truly the caped crusader. Magic, or heck, even pro wrestling, is more of the same. The least you can do is sit back, enjoy the show, and don’t sweat the details. I don’t have powers. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be performing magic for a living, and instead cleaning out casinos on a daily basis.
As a mentalist who uses psychology and the like to achieve magical effects, I can say pretty much the same thing: though what I do seems impossible, it’s nothing you couldn’t pull off if you mastered the art to a tee. It’s just how it is.
Stage magic holds a special place in my heart, because this is where I really get to come into my own as a performer and pull together everything I’ve learned as a magician: the intimate approach of a street magician, the non-stop analytic mind of the mentalist, the hilarious rapid-fire patter of the standup comedian, and magnifying all these nuances to give everyone a stage show worth watching. I am going to relish this coming month, as an opportunity to write about stage magic routines I’ve always loved and admired, and personalities I have a deep respect for. It’s not that I don’t have much affection for any other facet of magic: it’s just that stage magic, along with mentalism, are the two things I’ve always dreamed of doing, and hopefully, I can match the kind of zest I exhibited in mentalism with the things I will write about for stage magic in the coming days.
Note, though, that certain routines that don’t necessarily fall under the strict definition of “stage” will still count, such as, say, Copperfield crossing the Great Wall of China, or Harry Houdini making an elephant disappear in the middle of a circus tent. These are all well within the realms of stage magic, and I don’t want to have to bore you with a shopping list of the general classifications of stage magic effects such as penetration, teleportation, vanishes, and conjurations.