This is a story unfolding in real time of how magic is reinventing itself. Many other types of entertainment hit a wall with the coronavirus crisis. But magicians have found a way forward through the computer screen. Almost overnight magic has transformed into a new type of interactive online socially distanced entertainment. The best online magicians have found entertaining new ways to reach through the screen. They exploit the video chat format to create new kinds of magic to grip audiences. Why do I think this has worked better for magic than other performance arts? Well that is part of this fascinating story…
As COVID-19 hit, the entertainment world went reeling. It was already a precarious industry dependent on full venues to make ends meet. In appreciated measures of goodwill, many institutions and artists put their performances online. From the Met Opera in New York, to the National Theatre in London to Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendez in their living rooms.
The free live streamed performances were a breath of fresh air for a world trapped in lockdown. But they also left a strange void. Both for me and others I know, seeing the show (designed for live consumption but now online) left something to be desired. In other words, throw a few cameras up in the theatre, and it all can fall a bit flat. Those mediums just weren’t designed for cameras.
Conductor Herbert von Karajan spotted this back in the 1970s. He adapted operas (of course created for the stage) into a cinematic format. Roaming cameras followed characters around and camera angles were carefully planned. I Pagliacci below is a great example of that – the opening scene is chilling! But remember he didn’t just film a theatre format. Instead von Karajan translated the theatrical work into a cinematic language. You can check it out here:
Although here’s an example of an actual live show in front of an audience that was also filmed in thrilling ways. Cirque du Soleil released it as a gift during lockdown. The first 25 minutes are from their show KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities. Carefully planned camerawork captures every moment. Cameras even show acrobats’ points of view as they fly through the air. It’s almost even better than seeing it live. But — and it’s a big but — little socially distanced entertainment online hits that sweet spot. In other words, you usually feel like you got less than you would have, if only you had been there. I know, ‘how it he going to come out of this with any good news for magic shows online?’… well keep reading!
To Laugh or Not to Laugh
But first, here’s one more tricky subject. Have you heard that George Berkeley thing? ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound’? The online entertainment equivalent must be ‘If someone tells a joke on a video chat and you don’t hear anyone else laughing, is it funny?’ Journalist Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic:
“Comedy without an audience is, by definition, less funny,” she said. “Laughter is heightened when it’s a collective experience. We laugh more in a club or an arena than we do watching the same comedian’s Netflix special from our sofa.
“Comedy without an audience is,
by definition, less funny.”
– Helen Lewis
To back that up, there was a fascinating study done at University College London last year about this effect. To summarise, the laughter you hear even after a bad joke directly influences how good you think the joke is. (You can read more of the canned laughter study here.)
So you can imagine this presents its problems when the comedian is performing online without a studio audience. For obvious reasons, when you have a Zoom meeting with more than a few people, everyone’s microphones should be muted unless they are speaking. So even a good joke on a video show as social distancing entertainment would fall flat as a pancake.
Magic Has Always Embraced Change
All this in mind, you might think magic as socially distanced entertainment faces the same problems. In a way, yes. Although it has a lot going for it to help it rise above those problems too. But before I tell you why magic might just be the silver bullet of interactive online entertainment, a bit of context won’t hurt…
Magic has a long history of reinventing itself. It has rolled with the punches and embraced the opportunities of change in the past. Magic has used new technologies to facilitate devious new methods of deception. And it also has coped with adapting itself to new methods of delivering magic to audiences.
The 20th Century alone has great examples of both. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, a certain magician and filmmaker called Georges Méliès used film to perform visual illusions. Audiences went wild at seeing the early ‘camera tricks’ do magic before their eyes. Then when silent films gave way to the mainstream tidal wave of talking pictures, an ironic fate came to be. Moving pictures – the very medium that Méliès used in his magic to make popular – ended up coming full circle to bring the world of magic to its knees.
How? It’s because in the same period the Golden Age of Magic was alive and well. Live magic was always part of variety shows on both sides of the Atlantic. The shows packed out theatres several times a night. But then the talking pictures made people flock to the cinemas through the 1930s and ’40s instead. Variety theatres emptied out and very quickly magic entertainment on stage disappeared. A phoenix rising in the shadows was the popularity of close up magic that amateur enthusiasts performed in homes. This grew to become the predominant type of magic decades later.
As close up magic kept growing in popularity, it didn’t take long until magic found yet another new medium: television. American magician Mark Wilson debuted his weekly TV show The Magic Land of Alakazam from 1960 to 1964. Through the years the torch of TV magic legends was passed from the likes of Paul Daniels, Doug Henning, David Copperfield, David Blane and Darren Brown. All this TV magic fuelled the demand for live shows — from theatres to the mercilessly hip street magic varieties. I tell you all this to show just how much magic has reinvented itself — both in terms of how and where it’s performed. So would the biggest pandemic in the memory of every human on the planet bring an end to it all? Well if history is anything to go by, you may be a few steps ahead of me…
And Then Coronavirus Hit
If the historical nutshell I just ran you through is anything to go by, magic would surely rise above Coronavirus as well. From the time of writing, it still looks less and less likely that live events with large groups like before will resume anytime in the foreseeable future. That means one thing is for sure: people more than ever want to be entertained at home. Netflix reported that people created over 15 million new accounts on the network between January and March 2020. But what about magic adapting to video chat? I already showed you how theatre needs careful video production planning to pack a punch. And a concert doesn’t have that raw energy exploding around you when you watch it on your device. But you see, magic is different…
Magic as Socially Distanced Entertainment
So yes there are challenges, and yes like anything video magic can be done badly. But I think magic is well positioned to embrace the online revolution when good performers successfully managing these four points…
1. No Fourth Wall
A magic show is unlike a play broadcast online. An interactive online magician, breaks the fourth wall between the performer and the audience in their homes. The magic in a good online show makes you feel connected with what is happening. The audience interacts and is involved in ways that so many other kinds of online performances can not do.
2. Connection with Others
The big problem with social distancing is the lack of social interaction that so many of us feel being cooped up at home. We aren’t certain if it’s safe to go to a live event or gather people together. The laughter and thrill of a good virtual magic show connects people despite the distance.
But is it entertaining? Like the example of the opera above, if magicians deliver the goods with the camera and audience in mind, they can pack a punch. And like the Cirque du Soleil video above, there’s a thrill with how they deliver the goods that is almost as exciting as being there live. A good socially distanced magic show should entertain in new ways. That means you shouldn’t log off feeling that you’ve missed something because you weren’t there live.
It’s exciting to take part in a moment created just for you. When every show is different, anything can happen. You are there, with a front row seat. You aren’t sitting behind someone with big hair. And you aren’t sitting in front of someone who’s chatting away during the show. It’s just you, the magician and the moment.
For all these reasons, magic has the tools to reinvent itself in exciting online formats. These four points are harder to apply with other kinds of live performance that has tried to move online during the pandemic. True, it’s more than likely that when this pandemic’s tide goes out, people will want to see live magic just as much as before. But the crisis that COVID-19 has brought to the magic entertainment world is only bound to push magic forward in new ways that will stick around for good.
Read more about organising your own virtual Online Magic Show. Or first, check out a few popular questions about this type of entertainment…
FAQ on Social Distancing Entertainment
The goal of the best distanced entertainment is to embrace new ways of engaging audiences. This makes sure that your are interacting and entertained, not just wishing you were there in person! It’s a whole new kind of entertainment experience.
As for magic shows in this format, they are a proven way to liven up business meetings, give family reunions a special experience to remember, and spread joy in this uncertain time.
Thanks for coming along. Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.