Last Sunday, I performed magic for a live audience in a backyard. It was my first live magic show of the COVID-19 era (not counting shows in which I was performing for an audience in my computer). Truth be told, creating and executing that show was a journey with many bumps, forks, and side roads, but one that I’m sure I’ll take many more times in the next few months.
The occasion was the 90th birthday of my mother, Sally. She owns a two-story house in suburbia in which she lives with her Shih Tzu dog Phoebe. Since the beginning of March, she has been isolating in that house. We’ve all been quite strict about her isolation, because she is at very high risk of death if she contracts COVID. She has diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and she can sleep through the night only with the aid of oxygen.
“If I get this thing,” she has said, “I die.”
As Mom’s birthday approached, we struggled with ways to make her birthday special. We had originally planned to travel somewhere—Europe, for example, or maybe just New York City. Claire and I have been visiting her on a regular basis, but have not gone inside the house at all. It seemed quite a shame that she would be isolated, unable to kiss or hug anyone, unable to be comforted, on such a momentous, albeit bittersweet occasion. Ninety, of course, brings with it an expectation of passage.
Gradually, an itinerary for the day formed in my head. I decided we would bring her a meal at noon from her favorite restaurant. We would Zoom with her relatives from 1 – 3 pm. And then her new neighbors would come over and visit in the backyard in an appropriately distanced way.
The neighbor family consists of a couple, Codi and Jeff, plus their three children, aged 2, 3, and 10. Codi has been doing all of Mom’s grocery shopping for no extra charge (Mom just pays for the groceries), and we have all been astounded at their generosity. Her help has saved me an hour in driving time, and probably another hour or two on top of that, every week. Their help has also helped my mother feel less alone, and reminded her that people care for her. Given that Codi and Jeff’s family are such angels, I offered to do a magic show for them at 3 pm.
But I had to think long and hard about the show. The first challenge was my performing space. I couldn’t perform inside of the house, of course. And in the backyard, the main section of the yard has no shade. Since it promised to be a hot, sunny day, that was out of the question. The only option, unfortunately, was on the side of the house, beneath a large pomegranate tree that hadn’t been trimmed lately. But it was quite a poor option. My audience couldn’t be in front of me. I would have to face the house and some garbage cans, and the audience would have to take shelter beneath a patio overhang to the far right of my stage area. My mother, of course, would have to sit at a safe distance from there. The only option was a space far to the left.
The performing situation, then, was the famed Dancefloor of Death that we magicians dread. That’s a situation that magicians often face in hotel ballrooms, in which the magician is instructed to perform on the dancefloor, with half the audience seated to his right, the other half seated to his left, and the DJ directly facing him. It’s a horrible performing situation. First of all, your angles are terrible. Not only that, but you’re always turning right or left to talk to people, and in the process, ignoring the other half of the room. If you’ve ever tried to perform in that situation, you know that it’s a recipe for a bad audience response.
I also realized that I would have to perform a no-touch show. No onstage volunteers. No handling of props. No borrowing items from the audience. That meant that all pick-a-card tricks were out. My Tossed-Out Deck was also verboten. As I thought about that, however, I realized that I could perform some card tricks; there were workarounds. For example, if a trick required that a card be signed, I could actually ask the spectator to name a card, and then ask him or her for their name and for a number between 1 and 100. That makes the card nearly as unique as a signed card. Under those conditions, I placed Card to Pocket on my set list.
There were many other tricks that I could not do. No sponge balls, for sure. Bill in Lemon was impossible, because I would have to borrow a $20 bill. (I could have performed a Signed Card to Lemon, using the signature strategy mentioned above, or a Chosen Card to Lemon, but chose not to work out the new moves.)
Also, almost no mentalism was possible. One of my methods involves asking for thoughts to be written down and secured in envelopes, and that was out. I perform TOXIC with a spectator’s phone, and that was out. No book tests could be performed, because the spectators would have to handle my books. Technicolor Prediction was out because the spectators couldn’t handle my envelopes. My coin bend would have to be modified because I couldn’t borrow someone’s quarter and they couldn’t sign it. My Double Cross was out because I couldn’t touch a spectator’s hand. My Kurotsuke wasn’t possible, either, because nobody could grab any object of mine. I also couldn’t perform Psychokinetic Time unless I used my own watch, and that makes the effect much weaker. The only mentalism trick that seemed to require no touch was the Invisible Deck.
Fortunately, over the past 15 years, I’ve developed a silent opening segment (to music) that warms up the audience and lets them get to know me. It seemed tailor made for this situation. It includes the following tricks:
- Torch to Rose
- Glass Production
- Linking Rings
- 50-foot streamer production from a rolled-up map
- Extended Salt Pour
- Billiard Balls
- Fingertip flowers
- Spring Flowers from a Cone of Construction Paper
- Tom Frank’s Yes We Have No Bananas!
This silent segment generally takes about 15 minutes, so that was taken care of. As I thought about these tricks, I was also thinking about my summer walkaround gig at the 5-star Terranea Resort, which may or may not happen. I realized that there are a number of tricks of the silent or manipulative sort that I should quickly work up, if my summer walkaround gig is to be successful. This includes no-touch classic tricks such as:
- The Shell Game
- A coin matrix
- The Endless Chain
- A walkaround Billiard Ball routine
- A thimble routine
- Three Fly
- Dice Matrix
- Coin Flurry
Some of these require a table, of course, and I don’t own one of those walkaround tables; I’ve always preferred to work in the hands or on the customer’s table. I guess I’ll be buying one of those.
Back to my 90th birthday set, the silent magic segment was easy. When I moved into the talking part of my show, however, I ran smack into limitations. I could perform my rope routine, but I couldn’t invite up any spectators to hold or test the rope. I could vanish silks, but I couldn’t invite up spectators to hold the silks. I couldn’t perform my Impossible Rope Escape, because nobody could get close enough to me to tie me up. I usually toss a fake egg into the audience to choose a volunteer, but that was out, too.
The rest of my set list, then, looked like this:
- My version of The Coloring Book (which is custom made and doesn’t look anything like the original trick)
- Flash $100 Bill Production (using flash paper)
- Daryl’s Rope Routine
- D’Lite routine
- 51 Cards to Pocket
- Die Box
- Invisible Deck
- Dice divination
Fortunately, it was enough material to make a full show. It looked like it would take about 45 minutes to perform, which is a perfectly respectable length of time.
I got a good sleep the night before the show. I was eager to pull off this show. After all, I had really performed for people for weeks. When I arrived at the house, however, I realized that my performing spot—underneath an old pomegranate tree—was difficult. The branches hadn’t been trimmed in a couple weeks, and I would have to use gardening shears to give myself some headroom. Even after doing that, however, I realized that anything involving fire was too dangerous because the branches were still too low. Therefore, Torch to Rose and my Flash $100 Bill Production were both out.
Still, the rest of the show was quite doable, so I set up, and by 3:15, Codi and Jeff’s family had arrived. They were mostly dressed in masks, but I wasn’t. After all, how can you perform for people if they can’t see your face? You can’t project, you can’t emote, and the audience doesn’t connect. I didn’t remark upon my lack of a mask, but simply kept my distance. I was never closer to them than 20 feet.
I also worried about the 2- and 3-year-olds. I envisioned them staggering towards me, as kids that age do, and endangering my health. I imagined the show being disrupted. I imagined me running from them in comic terror.
Despite my fears, the show generally went to plan. I wouldn’t call it my best show. I wouldn’t even call it an average show. It was rather subpar because I was performing on The Dancefloor of Death. On the other hand, I think the audience understood my limitations and cut me some slack. I also suspect they were laughing and gasping underneath those masks, even though I couldn’t see them. The 2- and 3-year-olds knew to keep their distance, too.
And the angles certainly did mar the show. Often, I had to make a choice between exposing a trick to Codi and Jeff’s family, or exposing it to my mother; I always chose my mother. Billiard balls, after all, are quite angular. The music was great, and my Audio Ape remote system worked flawlessly. Mistakes crept into the show, and it always had to do with the performing situation. I stepped on and destroyed my pair of performing sunglasses, which I wear only for the first trick. I also dropped a couple of tricks from my set list on the fly, just because they didn’t feel right. But certain tricks felt like naturals for this situation, including Invisible Deck, which is a perfect no-touch set piece. BEKOS was perfect, as well.
After I had finished, though, it got weird. Usually after a show, I mingle through the audience to let my new fans get to know me, passing out my business card and allowing them to float their own ideas about hiring me for their own events. They all want a piece of me. They ask me how I got into magic, how long I’ve been doing it, and then showering me with compliments about my virtuosity and their astonishing experience. However, after this show, I was afraid to mingle with the audience, and they were afraid to mingle with me. They drifted off in their masks. It’s a sign of the times.
This COVID tragedy has damaged magic badly, to be sure, but it hasn’t killed it. There are still people who want to be amazed, to feel the wonder lift their hearts. And one day, this flu shall pass.