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Magicians should be good actors, able to create and maintain an atmosphere of excitement and intrigue. They are masters of illusion. Magicians do one thing, while an audience sees another. Through a combination of "hocus-pocus" and persuasive comments, a magician can appear to pull flowers from a magic wand, levitate a person in the air, and perform a wide variety of other tricks.
There are two basic elements to a magician's performance. The first element is the technique, which is the actual mechanics of performing a set of illusions or tricks. A magician must practice each movement of any trick over and over until the illusion can be executed perfectly. For example, in a trick often called "After the Flood," a magician pours water into a large, rectangular box and then removes various animals (birds, ducks, squirrels, etc.) from the box. To top it off, the magician reveals a reclining person in the rectangular box—with no water in sight. This illusion seems impossible; the box is rather small to accommodate this assortment of animals and human subjects, and the feat leaves the audience wondering what happened to the water.
The reality behind the illusion reveals a mechanical engineering masterpiece. This is where technique becomes crucial to the success of the trick. The magician must rehearse it repeatedly to ensure the greatest illusion without revealing any of his or her technique. Any error in the presentation, and audience members might be tipped off as to how the illusion is done. As a result, magicians jealously guard the secrets behind their illusions. Many hours are spent practicing illusions that might be performed in just several minutes.
The second key element to success in magic is presentation. Magicians must know not only how to do a trick, but how to be entertaining. If the illusions are not presented in an exciting fashion, many audiences will lose interest.
A successful magic show may combine elements of storytelling and comedy with drama and suspense. Magicians should be able to shift from one illusion to another in a logical and smooth fashion. The individual tricks should be arranged and sequenced so as to constitute a complete performance that has variety and a theme. This emphasis on the presentation of a show means that many magicians spend as much time perfecting the delivery of an illusion as they do practicing the techniques of the illusion itself.
It has been said that the best magicians are actors who play the part of magicians. This means they can tell a story and get the audience so enthralled with the performance that the audience members sometimes forget they are watching an actual magic show. Like other actors, magicians must have a sense of timing and a stage presence.
Magicians are constantly interacting with their audiences. Often, magicians will ask for volunteers from audiences as part of their routines. A magician might ask an audience member to pick a card from a group of cards, for example, and then have that same card reappear some other place in the auditorium. Or a magician may invite a volunteer to stand up on stage to discover that his or her wallet has disappeared without detection. Of course, the good—and ethical—magician will give it back!
An important ingredient of working effectively with audience members is to remember that a magician always works to entertain people without making them feel silly or embarrassed. Magicians should never create comic situations by ridiculing an audience member.
Magicians work with many different types of materials. A single performance can include cards, illusion boxes, magnets, chairs, balls, scarves, swords, and other props. A magician might also perform hypnosis on audience participants or escape from handcuffs, ropes, or chains.
Some magicians combine magic tricks with acrobatic stunts, such as flying through the air while holding an audience member. Shows can be quite spectacular: One magician has even made the Statue of Liberty seemingly disappear!
Although many magicians perform similar tricks, each magician brings his or her unique style to the performance. Individual magicians will establish a certain set of illusions to put together a show. Of course, these shows will vary somewhat, but generally magicians will have a set routine that they perform over and over. The most successful magicians, however, constantly work to present their illusions in new ways and to add new and more exciting illusions to their shows.
It takes a high degree of skill to perform illusions. The more skilled and experienced the magician, the more intricate the magic. Some tricks can be relatively simple, such as pulling a certain card out of a deck of cards, but most tricks require great skill and can even be somewhat dangerous. Sword swallowing, for example, takes much practice (and courage!) to stretch the throat muscles.
Magicians generally set up their shows several hours before performances. They may lay mats, set up tables and chairs, or place objects into concealed containers. Often, assistants will do this preparation work, while the magician supervises to ensure that all props are properly placed. More elaborate performances may require the efforts of a team to set up and execute illusions.
Assistants are often involved in the many tricks and stunts performed, such as appearing out of hiding as part of an illusion. They may also help distract the audience's attention while the magician performs the trick. Assistants also help magicians clean up after a performance.
Sometimes two or more magicians will perform at the same time, combining their skills and ideas in a show. The magicians might perform tricks together or they might perform separately, showing the audience a greater variety of illusions. A magician might also perform with a clown, comedian, or other entertainer.