A recent study at Johns Hopkins revealed a fascinating paradox in mice. Scientists tested two sets of mice. One set watched another mouse perform a magic show. The second set of mice watched TV. Not surprisingly, the scientists had the mice watch Tom And Jerry, a cartoon where the mouse (Tom? Jerry?) outsmarts the cat (Jerry? Tom?).
The group of mice watching the magic show became bored and left the theater soon after it started while the TV watching mice stayed seated in their seats for more than three times the length of time.
This may come as a surprise to some magicians, but not to kid show magicians. We already know about this paradox. Children will watch movies on television like zombies for hours without losing interest. This, despite the fact that in many cases they have seen the same movie dozens of times. Yet, during a live magic show the children can lose interest easily and in some cases, even attack our props.
Isn’t that strange? You would think that a new experience, a magic show, performed by a live person, would hold their attention better than a movie on a two dimensional television.
Readers who follow me know that my philosophy of performing magic for children is to put as much interaction as possible into your routines. I call this Increasing Your Interactions Per Minute. By performing in this style for 20 years, I know that this technique is the best way to hold the attention of children watching a magic show.
In my routines there are approximately seven interactions per minute. This means that, on average, the children are reacting to the show either verbally or physically every nine seconds. This continuous interaction is like a magnet holding their attention. At this rate of interactions, there is no time for children to get distracted or bored.
Yet, even the best technique for holding the children’s attention is not perfect. May I introduce to you the family dog, the toddler who just learned to walk, and the mother who thinks the little darlings have to eat right now. Not to mention outdoor shows, which have even worse conditions with heat and sun.
And yet, these monsters sit, frozen in their places, as they watch Frozen for the hundredth time. What can magicians for children learn from animated movies about holding a child’s attention? First we have to concede that the conditions in which children watch TV are very different from the conditions in which children watch a live magic show. As we all know, it can be the distractions we suffer through during our show which are the main culprit stealing their attention. When children are distracted during a show you can see their eyes wander, they check their email, or get up and walk away entirely.
But there are few distractions when children watch TV. The television screen is mounted on or sitting against a wall. The television is the singular focus. There is no activity behind the television to distract the viewers, like a bouncy castle, a dance floor or a wall of tempting toys. Without distractions children become hypnotized by the television. We have all experienced the mom entering the room to ask a question several times before she can wrestle attention away from the TV.
Not only are there no visual distractions, there are no aural distractions, either. As we know, parents are perfectly happy to talk during a magic show. It’s as though they don’t even consider the option of not talking. Yet they respect the TV enough not to talk while children are watching. And any sounds in the room are instantly eliminated with a simple, “Mom, shut up! I can’t hear the TV.”
So TV already has innate advantages over us. Damn you, TV! You ruined radio and now you are all cocky about how well you hold kids’ attention.
What about the content of the movies children are drawn to? What is it about these films that holds their attention so well? And how can we apply those techniques to our shows?
There are several elements of animated children’s programming that I have isolated that we can incorporate into our shows. The first is the use of bright colors. Animated movies for children use lots of color in every frame. The colors are bright and lush, bold not nuanced. Arielle has red hair, Nemo is bright orange, and Belle’s ball gown is yellow. (And the skin tone of most of the princesses is Caucasian.) Using bright colors holds their attention and makes it easy for children to instantly recognize the different characters.
To apply this idea to your show be sure to use colorful props and colorful sets. Most magic created for children is colorful, in the Supreme Magic style, so that’s covered. But there is more. Put away the black and white tuxedo from the Robert-Houdin Collection and wear colors. Add color to your gray roll-on table by using Velcro to attach colorful panels to the front and sides. And people who use back- drops and banners should remember to keep them full of color as well. The only thing that should be black and white are your magic wands.
Because children need more time than adults to process new information, the plots in these movies are simple and are revealed slowly and clearly. (Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, boy buys tie-in merchandise.) Children get easily overloaded because unless the plot is going slowly, their mental processing simply can’t keep up.
This should remind us to keep the plots of our tricks simple. The magician cuts a rope then puts it back together. An unusual-looking metal pan is empty then there is a foam cake in it. A ball on a stick moves around while the magician overacts. You can lose the attention of your audience if you perform routines with complicated plots.
In these films the speed and style of the action from scene to scene varies. There are exciting segments, like action scenes or big musical numbers, followed by slower segments, for character development or to move the plot forward.
This would suggest that the tricks in our shows should alternate between fast and slow tricks, loud and quiet tricks, interactive and passive tricks, decent and lousy tricks. You can also vary consecutive segments by performing non-magic skills in your magic show. Break up the magic by singing a song, then juggling, then pitching Herbalife. I use this technique in my show. I do an hour show but the magic portion lasts about 40 minutes. During the rest of the hour I perform other variety arts.
How long should these differently paced segments last? Well, if you look at the old Warner Brothers cartoons, like Bugs Bunny and yes, Tom And Jerry, you will see that every one of these comes in at about seven minutes in length. Likewise the scenes in animated films are always seven minutes or less.
In popular animated films for children the characters are well-developed, with personality traits that are clear. There is the lovely princess, the wicked witch, the good fairy, and the wisecracking animal (who, if you ask me, should really be the one who gets poisoned by the witch). The use of clearly defined characters keeps the kids watching because they are interested in these characters and want to see what happens to them.
If the character you play is well-developed with an obvious and fun personality, then the children will care about you and pay more attention to your show. If you play a generic, interchangeable magician, with no distinguishing personality traits, the children won’t care as much about you and may lose interest in your show.
Children live in a world of fantasy. When children play “pretend,” anything is possible. These films tap into many different kinds of fantasies which children have. One fantasy is that their stuffed animals, dolls, and toys speak and have personalities. So movie makers use this fantasy to entertain children. Cars talk in Cars, bugs talk in A Bugs Life, and toys talk in Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3. (Those toys won’t shut up!) Is it any surprise that this technique is used constantly in these kinds of movies?
When children watch magic tricks such as “Peek-A-Boo Bunny” and “Run, Rabbit, Run,” it is this fantasy that allows them to accept that the pictures of animals are alive. Puppeteers and ventriloquists also use this fact of a child’s life.
Magicians also use this fantasy when they give personalities to their props, a technique called The Ornery Prop. A good example of this is the “Silver Scepter,” which is a magic wand that misbehaves to the frustration of the magician. It is as if the wand has a mind of its own. (“How many times is this idiot going to let me hit him in the head?”)
Children also fantasize that they have superpowers. Children can acquire these powers via their favorite superheroes. One superpower children fantasize about is the ability to fly. Levitating a child is a perfect way to give children the fantasy of flying. (That is, if Superman flew on a wooden board and a folding chair.)
Do children fantasize about having the ability to do magic? Does Harry Potter go in the woods? This may be the easiest fantasy for magicians to satisfy. We can fulfill a child’s fantasy of being able to do magic by having the audience say the magic words in order to make the magic happen as well as having an individual child assist us on stage and empower him to do magic.
When you watch these films yourself, search for other techniques to hold the attention of your own audiences.
Meanwhile, I am looking forward to seeing the results of a study starting soon at the Mayo Clinic. Though this is a study of mice, it should teach us something about performing magic for children. In this study scientists will be testing to see how many times mice can watch the “Banana/ Bandana” trick before they drown themselves.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.