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Topic: When Murphy's Law kicks in...
Message: Posted by: Steve Brooks (May 30, 2009 03:15PM)

Anyone who has performed for any length of time has had things go wrong during a show, or even prior to the event (e.g, You arrive at the show only to learn your props, costumes, etc are held up in customs or were sent across the country to the wrong venue!). The house is sold out and as they say - The show must go on!

Having said all that, perhaps you might share with us some of your experience's dealing with this sort of thing and how you delt with all the drama.

Thanks for your time Jeff. :)
Message: Posted by: Jeff McBride (May 31, 2009 01:10PM)
Greetings Steve, and all...

Over the years, I've had my fair share of unexpected turns. I'll start by saying that I now travel with just about everything I need on my person, to deliver an acceptable show. I wear a pod belt; I carry a shoulder bag, and a roll-on. My show trunks go as checked baggage.

Even if I get my show props stolen or lost, and my shoulder bag and roll-on taken, I still carry enough magic with me on my pod belt to get me through. If worse comes to worst, I can always borrow a pack of cards, a stack of coins, and two bowls from the kitchen, and do a completely satisfying routine for an audience of up to three or four thousand.... Hey, I worked Radio City Music Hall with props this size, and that was 6,000 people!

Life has taught me to pack small and play big. My friend, Jack Goldfinger, told me a great saying that I've never forgotten. "Mother Nature's a !@#$%. She gives the test first, and the lesson after." Here's a few tests I've passed:

*getting my truck stolen on Wednesday in Boston, and having to recreate an entire one hour show by scrambling around town, thanks to the help of David Oliver and the folks at Hank Lee's for helping me get through this nightmare and put on a great show on Friday! The audience never knew.... The house was sold out, the show did go on.

I've had my table catch fire, flashpots set off prematurely, causing fire damage to other props... I've had my table knocked over by the emcee, burned my hands with lighter fluid dripping down the sides of my fingers. I've had doves fly out of my jacket, cut myself and bled all over my props and doves; I've had assistants fall off levitations, and even had audience volunteers start bleeding because their bandages peeled away prematurely during an activity onstage.....

So, what have I learned? I don't use flashpots or lighter fluid anymore. The doves are gone, and so is that levitation, and I always check for bandages on my audience participants.

Eugene Burger talks about this quote in our classes. In fact, he does an entire lecture on the subject, where he teaches our students just how to go about "handling mistakes." Mistakes will happen. We have three choices, I feel, in how we deal with them.

In the “heat of the moment,” when things apparently go wrong on stage, we really only have three choices. Choice A: FREEZE AND FREAK OUT
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Fight or flight.
Ignore the mistake, and hope that the majority of the audience does not detect it either.
Acknowledge the mistake with humility and good humor.

Here are living examples of all three.
Example A.—Freeze and Freak
This is the situation when something unexpected happens during the course of your show. You see the mistake; the audience sees the mistake. Often, you do not see the humor inherent in the situation, but the audience does. You stop. You lose your place. The audience may have a variety of responses, from mocking laughter to sympathy, to total disgust. This is every magician’s nightmare.
Flashback! New York City, 1980.
I am getting ready to walk onstage in front of an all magicians audience at a ballroom in Manhattan. I am about to debut my new “King of Cards” manipulation act. It is a seven minute act, with jumbo and regular cards. All of the cards are carefully stacked on the edges of the table, and inside my manipulation box. The master of ceremonies of the event, Larry Weeks, announces me, and, as I make my entrance, he swings his arm to gesture towards me. He backs into my table, sending it flying towards the wing, and scattering hundreds of cards across the stage. I freeze. I freak out. All the audience can do is laugh. All I can do is walk off the stage, defeated. I had to scrape up all my props off of the floor, re-set them, and go on later in the show. This was not my best show, but it was a huge lesson. I vowed never to have a table or equipment that could get knocked over on stage ever again.

Example B. – Fake It & Make It
The following situation occurs when you know that something has gone wrong on stage, but the audience has yet to discover the fact. This is often the most challenging. I have seen the performer’s face wince and give the audience the clue that something is not going according to plan. Often the audience has no idea that something is going wrong, but the facial tells of the performer give it all away. Eugene Burger, Dean of the Magic & Mystery School, offers this sage advice:
“The audience only knows what they see, they don’t know what they don’t see.”
Remember this the next time you lose someone’s card in a deck. Don’t cop to the fact that you’re in trouble and cannot recover. Develop your improv skills to be able to handle any situation. Johnny Thompson, as the Great Tomsoni, once shared a famous lesson with our students. He had forgotten to load his doves one night. He went out on stage, and suddenly realized this. He pantomimed the act, and the audience, who had never seen him, enjoyed what they were watching; a magician having fun in a humorous situation onstage. The audience only knew what they were seeing. They did not know that he should have been producing birds. Johnny also told us that he whispered to his wife, Pam, in the wings, “Go to the dressing room, and grab as much magic stuff as you can!” Being very intuitive herself, she did as she was secretly signaled, and saved the show. This combination of seasoned professional improvisational skills and humor is a necessary prerequisite for adding the “fake it til you make it,” formula to your magical laboratory.

Example C—Play the Moment
Channing Pollack, our friend and teacher, would often share with our students the following advice on how to handle things when they went apparently wrong:
“You can tell the quality of a performer by the way they handle their mistakes onstage.”
Channing went on to describe how much he enjoyed watching acts that he had seen dozens of times, to see the subtle ways they would maneuver out of unexpected situations: broken gut loops on harnesses, dropped load bags, flying birds, flashpaper burns, music mis-cues, lighting and curtain mis-cues, microphone problems, hecklers, and many more. Many of these problems can often be covered by just ignoring the situation, but, sometimes, when things go really weird on stage, the audience gets uncomfortable. They see a bird fly into a curtain and drop to the floor. If the magician ignores this, the audience watching and empathizing with the poor little bird will see the magician as lacking awareness of the safety of the bird, and the magician will only lose esteem in their eyes.
Flashback! Portland Oregon, 2005.
Abbi and I are performing on a concert stage at a rock festival. Hundreds of people are grooving to the DJ spinning trance/techno music in the background. We are halfway into our show, and suddenly the sound system quits…. Nothing… The entire music groove has vanished. The whole audience collectively goes “Awwww.” Quick-thinking Abbi, picks up her drum, and gets the audience to clap along with her as she picks up the beat that had just fallen. Everyone participated in making the music. In an instant, Abbi had transformed this snafu into a massive audience participation game. The audience felt great about being able to “save the moment,” and the show went on. Now, I am always prepared, with this memory, and if the sound system goes out, Abbi always has her drum ready.

Yes, now we can laugh at these unexpected situations. We can squeeze the humor out of them, in retrospect. But, I ask you this, Steve, and all.... Will you be able to seize the magic of the moment to be able to make instant choices that will
a) make you freak out
b) fake the audience out
c) trust the moment and roll with it?

Experience is the best teacher. It is by pushing our limits that we learn and grow. Mistakes will happen. We can, as magicians, transform the lead of these heavy situations into the gold of wisdom.

Yours in rolling with the punches,

Message: Posted by: Decibel33 (May 31, 2009 01:55PM)
This is a wonderful thread, and I for one can lean so much from it. I don't proffessionally perform (or spell) but I have done some shows where things went wrong, mostly on my part (i.e. lack of practice ahead of time, trying something new out before practicing it, or simply not practicing enough...well you get the picture!)

But even in situations where things go wrong in which the performer has absolutely no control, it's good to have a back-up plan ahead of time (or multiple, if you're me!) Murphy sticks close to my side, so I've developed a show that allows for and incorporates mistakes, should they occur....I mean WHEN they occur!
Message: Posted by: Levent (May 31, 2009 02:22PM)
Hi Jeff;

There is one great McBride story about "Fake It & Make It" that I love. It was when you were unknowingly booked to open for the rock super group "ASIA" in Montreal. I know the story, but if you have the time, I would rather have you tell it.

Best regards,
Message: Posted by: Steve Brooks (May 31, 2009 02:41PM)
Good stuff Jeff - Thanks! :)
Message: Posted by: Jeff McBride (May 31, 2009 03:14PM)
Greetings Levent, Steve, and all...

In the early 1980s, I was performing at a lot of rock venues. I was called by an agent in Montreal to do an opening act spot for a band called ASIA. Sure, I'd heard of them, and I knew the venue, but I had no idea how BIG the venue would be. It was an ARENA! (throbbing heart noises here)

I got to the venue, and it was immense. I did have my commando show:
two fire eating torches
two decks of cards- one for spinning, one for backpalming
linking rings
mouth coil
throw streamer
last but not least, my cassette tape! (yes, it was the 80s)

All of this material fit into my shoulder bag, my "commando act" bag. I had only a little strip at the front of the stage to perform in; the rest of the stage was entirely taken up with band equipment... yeah, the headliners always seem to call dibs on the stage set-up, what can you do?

I told the Master of Ceremonies not to announce me. I had learned over the years that opening acts at rock and roll shows often get booed off the stage. I even learned that the hard way. I made an edit in my music so that a voiceover would say "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jeff McBride" just AFTER I performed my opening fire eating routine.... I learned this trick from watching rock bands open for other rock bands. Music started, the lights went down, I took a deep breath, and went out into the entirely dark theater.

Click. I lit a lighter in the darkness... and I lit my first fire-eating torch. Suddenly, hundreds, perhaps a thousand lighters and matches all went off all around the arena. It was beautiful. Not just visually, but the crowd thought that I was part of the ASIA show... They had no idea of what they were in for.

I ate fire, did some blow outs, and then the voiceover announcement introduced me. By this time, I had the crowd, and it was a fantastic experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Since then, I've used this technique many times when I open for rock bands like Alice Cooper, or Cheap Trick. Thanks for reminding me of an incredible time of my life, Levent.

Your friend in rock and roll memories,

Message: Posted by: Thunderstar (May 31, 2009 03:50PM)
Man that's astounding Jeff, thanks for some great stories, lessons and a couple of laughs along the way! Well met on Abbi's part for rescuing that one moment and let these stories be a reminder that when we make mistakes, we do indeed have choices in how we handle them and those choices often reflect the kind of preformer we are.
Message: Posted by: Levent (May 31, 2009 04:23PM)
Thanks Jeff!

I love that ASIA Montreal story.

One extra detail you told me at the time was that the pre-show music at that concert was a Steely Dan album (perhaps they were playing the AJA album as an inside joke? :) ).

When a Steely Dan tune would begin the audience would boo the song. Then they would get into the tune and when the song ended, they would politely applaud. Then when the next Steely Dan song began, they would boo again.

This process would happen over and over. So you could imagine what the reaction would be if they stopped everything and said, "Here is a Magician".

The request to NOT have your name announced at the beginning of your act was brilliant. Often bad performing situations can be transformed into good situations by making a clever request such as yours. Bravo Jeff!

Best regards,
Message: Posted by: Levent (May 31, 2009 09:39PM)
Hi All:

I just want to clarify the "ASIA" Montreal story and why I think it is an amazing tale that displays Jeff's brilliance as a stage performer and his great show business savvy.

The thing that Jeff didn't mention above was that the agent who booked him did NOT tell him he was THE OPENING ACT for a rock concert at the Arena. If Jeff knew that he certainly would have brought his entire stage act with the Masks, etc.

Jeff was told that he was to do some walk around close-up magic and perhaps a short stage spot on a small platform as part of the overall event. So he brought a small carry-on case with some elements of a "commando show".

When Jeff got on the airplane from JFK Airport to Montreal, he noticed that the band ASIA was also on the flight. It was only when he was talking to the band and their staff while en-route that he got an inkling that he was actually the opening act for a sold out concert in a huge arena. This terrifying fact was fully confirmed when he got to the venue.

Keep in mind Jeff had to perform that night and had no time to get his equipment brought over from New York.

So with a small bag containing a few tricks he successfully entertained thousands. Truly an amazing story about an amazing man.

Best regards and Yours in Lying Agents, :)