SPS Magic

By Samuel Patrick Smith

Every performer wants applause from spectators, but why? Ego may have something to do with it, but the real value of applause lies in how it improves the show and the audience's perception of the performance.

People have positive memories of shows when the audience applauds frequently and enthusiastically. Their applause also contributes to the flow of the show and helps inspire the performer. For these reasons, it's useful to develop techniques which let the spectators know it's time to clap. Of course, we hope they will break into spontaneous applause, but even the best performers have learned that applause is not necessarily automatic.

The following suggestions include some simple and common sense ideas. But you may also find a tip or two you haven't thought of before or a new twist on an old idea. These are by no means the only ways to get applause, but this list should start the wheels turning.

(1) Have the spectators applaud for an inanimate object. This is primarily a kid-show technique. David Ginn calls it, “Clap for the cardboard cat”! A piece of rope can be Wilbur the Worm for whom the children clap as he performs his trick. “Let's give Wilbur a big round of applause!”

(2) Let the spectators applaud for themselves. Again, a primarily but not exclusively kid-show method. After spectators throw the woofle dust or say the magic words, and the magic works, they clap for themselves. In my “Magic Knot Tube” routine, I have everyone—even adults—tie invisible knots and throw them toward the tube containing three silks. “If this works, you may give yourselves a big round of applause,” I say. “If it doesn't work…you may sit there just as you are!”

(3) Send a spectator back to his seat with applause. This is a simple way to transition between routines, and it's also good manners. When a spectator assists you on stage and the audience has applauded for the effect, send the volunteer back to his seat with a round of applause.

(4) Fool them. As Bev Bergeron has noted, even if you're doing a comedy act where everything goes wrong, you'll gain their respect by doing at least one really strong effect.

This doesn't always work, however, as Howard Thurston once discovered. Having created a new illusion, “Iasia,” in which a girl vanished from a cabinet in mid-air, Thurston expected people to break into applause. But instead, the spectators sat in silent amazement, thinking, “Where did she go? I wonder if she's coming back?” And there stood the greatest magician in the world waiting in vain for applause. Thurston solved this dilemma with Technique Number Five.

(5) Make them laugh, then they'll clap. Laughter breaks the spell of amazement and makes people realize it's time to applaud. Thurston used this principle when he realized the spectators didn't understand the “Iasia” illusion was over after the girl vanished. After a few moments of silence, he remarked, “And I, myself, stand here night after night, wondering where she has gone. But she always comes back on pay day.” The spectators laughed, realized the illusion was over, then broke into applause.

(6) The applause position. The trapeze artist strikes a pose with both hands held up as if to say, “Ta-da!” We can use the same pose at the conclusion of an effect to get our audiences to respond, as well. It's more natural if you end up with a prop in each hand, such as two silks, and incorporate them into the applause stance. Once struck, however, you must hold that position until they do clap. Although it takes nerve, make yourself wait. They will applaud.

(7) Dramatize the applause position. Performers of completely opposite styles can utilize this principle to increase applause. Clowns can really ham up the applause position at the conclusion of a routine or effect, and it seems perfectly natural and amusing. The audience will applaud and laugh at the strenuous effort of the performer to get applause.

On the other end of the spectrum, a completely serious and dramatic performer can use this principle, too. I tell about this in my book, On Stage: Bringing Out the Better Performer in You, illustrating it with the story of my mentor, Burling Hull. Burling was not a particularly funny person, but he could play a dramatic role with exceptional skill, illustrated by one of his routines, “The Burned and Restored Turban.” 

Burling told a dramatic story which began, “Ah, well do I remember the occasion. It was on the banks of the sacred Ganges, when old Omar took the turban from the top of his head…and tossed one end to the temple maiden on the right, and the other to the temple maiden on the left.” 

Burling removed the turban and tossed one end to his assistant and the other to a volunteer on stage. He cut the turban, tied it back together, set the knot on fire, extinguished the blaze bare-handed, and pattered his way to the finishing line. 

When he revealed the restored turban, he very dramatically dropped to one knee with arms up—releasing the turban to be stretched across the stage by the volunteers—and said, “And thus endeth the mystery…of the turban…reborn!” Even magicians jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. It was a good routine, but the dramatized applause pose wrapped it up with style.

(8) Extend the applause by sharing it with others. This technique can triple the amount of applause a routine receives. If you've had the assistance of one or more spectators, simply redirect the applause toward your helpers. 

For instance, spectators applaud for the trick itself when a borrowed and vanished ring is found in a locked nest of boxes. Just as their applause begins to fade, say (gesturing to the owner of the ring sitting in the audience), “Let's thank Susan for letting us use her ring.” Then as applause starts to fade again, keep it going with, “And let's give Fred a big hand for the great job he did on stage!” Allow the spectators to clap for the trick, then pass on the applause one at a time to those who helped in the performance.


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