Many creative thinkers believe that giving yourself restrictions can spark some of your best ideas. Jim McDonald has many difficult limitations placed on his magic act. He hosts a family show. His venue is only lit by candles. He blends history lessons in with his tricks. And he does it all in the character of a man from the late 1700s.
The end result sounds pretty stellar.
McDonald hosts the Magic Parlor at the historic courthouse in Colonial Williamsburg. Shows take place at 7:00 pm and 8:30 pm on Wednesday evenings through the mid-summer, and it is likely that the Magic Parlor will become a standard fixture in the area’s programming.
His act isn’t just a history lecture interspersed with magic tricks. It’s a more immersive storytelling experience that relies on lots of interaction with the youngest audience members.
“It involves people mentally and physically, but it’s a much easier show when I have children here and I can get them to play,” McDonald told the Daily Press. “If I can get them involved, then almost everybody will be in the mood to play, and it turns into something that could be very moving and enjoyable to everyone.”
Because of his audience and persona, McDonald doesn’t do either large technical pieces or intimate, close-up sleights. Every trick is meant to engage the entire audience, and ideally to spark reactions and comments from the children.
“The trick itself is important — but not as important as the story developed around it,” McDonald said. “If you get the kids to buy into the story, you never know what they are going to do with it. With this show, we know all the parts — the beginning, the middle, the end — and you just let them take it where it’s going to go.”
Read the Daily Press’ full interview with McDonald here.
Three talented kids, one big city to explore. That’s the premise of The Thrillusionists, a charming web series from CBC Kids, the children’s portion of the Canadian broadcaster CBC Television. It’s a set of ten episodes, each about five minutes long, featuring three young illusionists performing in unique and unusual situations around Toronto.
In one episode, they do some classic card magic for fellow youngsters in a pizza parlor. In another, they entertain journalists at a CBC newsroom. The three performers are very sweet and are impressively composed doing both their tricks and their on-camera monologues. So if there’s a young person in your life who really likes magic, set them up to watch the whole series on YouTube. CBC Kids recommends The Thrillusionists for ages 6 and up.
Great magic is all about the presentation. Most acts are based on a set of familiar standards, so the details in how you deliver the trick to an audience is what sets you apart as a skilled performer.
Chicago magician Scott Green gets that. He specializes in shows for families and children, but he still approaches this “not a snake” bit with so much charm that you can’t help laughing. Or giggling and squealing, as his audience members above do.
No, the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston, MA doesn’t actually float (at least it doesn’t anymore after the boat burned down in 1927), but that hasn’t stopped Adam Trent from connected a few dots with his magic routine. He’s in Boston for a show next week, and took some time out of his busy schedule to make a table levitate for the hospital’s pediatric wing the other day.
ICYMI: Magician and illusionist @AdamTrentMagic visited Floating Hospital yesterday and (appropriately) showed our pediatric patients his floating table trick! pic.twitter.com/Qr1HcWHmoN
— Tufts Medical Center (@TuftsMedicalCtr) February 28, 2018
The kids were, of course, delighted. You can check out video footage from his appearance at the hospital in the tweet above, and watch a video of Trent helping a toddler move a pair of glasses around by waving her hands in the tweet below.
Today @AdamTrentMagic performs his best for the children of Tufts Hospital to brighten their day! pic.twitter.com/Cm3gWzHHDg
— Boch Center (@BochCenter) February 27, 2018
And here are some pictures from his time spent at the hospital:
Magician and Illusionist @AdamTrentMagic stopped by Floating Hospital this afternoon to visit our pediatric patients and perform and teach some magic tricks! Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to bring a little magic to Floating Hospital! pic.twitter.com/5PLrlcRLTS
— Tufts Medical Center (@TuftsMedicalCtr) February 27, 2018
Back in November, actor and magician Neil Patrick Harris released the first entry of his middle-grade novel series The Magic Misfits to rave reviews (including our own), and has since spent seven weeks on the the New York Times bestseller list. If you or your children have been clamoring for the further magical exploits of Carter Locke and his cadre of conjurers, Entertainment Weekly has you covered with an exclusive first look at the next chapter of the series.
Simply subtitled The Second Story, the book will continue the Misfits’ adventures, this time with a larger focus on Leila Vernon. Leila was an orphan before being adopted by her two loving fathers, and has since grown into her talents as an expert escape artist. Not much else is known about the plot of the book, but expect it to have the same playful tone as the previous book, along with secrets, codes, and actual magic tricks to learn.
Entertainment Weekly has the full scoop on its site, including exclusive cover art and non-final page excerpts from the book featuring more gorgeous illustrations from Lissy Marlin. You can pre-order the book ahead of its September 25, 2018 release date on Amazon.
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.
There’s no shortage of toys and gadgets for kids to play with these days. But amidst the technological wizardry of tablets and game consoles, branded dolls and action figures, and noise-making doo-dads lies the humble magic kit. Each kit is different, but all share one goal: to give children the opportunity to share the art of magic with their friends and family.
Magic kits are incredible toys for a kid, filled with cups, balls, gimmicks, and of course, the ubiquitous magic wand. It’s more than just a box of plastic, though; a humble magic kit is a gateway to unlocking the full potential of a child’s imagination and curiosity. Beyond getting to fool their friends on the playground, there are loads of beneficial life skills kids can learn thanks to magic.
Some tricks are so easy to perform their effects can be achieved right out of the box. Most, though, require hours upon hours of practice to simply learn, let alone pull off naturally. It’s like any skill—train enough and you’ll eventually develop the necessary muscle memory to make performing it second nature. Getting to that point requires dedication, sticking to routines and schedules, and devoting time to harnessing a craft.
Repetition is vital for developing minds. According to the Montessori Academy in Australia, repetition helps to form neural connections, which make tasks easier and require less energy and thought to perform. Performing tasks over and over also helps increase self-discipline, increase skill acquisition, and even improve cognitive abilities. By practicing magic, children will be able to make these neural connections while also getting to see the surprised looks on their friends and family’s faces.
Public speaking consistently remains one of humanity’s number one fears, above death, loneliness, or even spiders. The best way to gain the confidence and self-esteem needed to speak to groups of any size is to practice early, and often—which is why it’s so important for children to develop those skills when they’re young. Turns out, practicing magic is a great way to build those skills.
Magic as an art form requires an audience, along with a certain level of confidence, to be performed well. Through practice, kids can learn to think on their feet, build rapport with others through developing patter, and learn how to interact with a variety of people.
There’s even science behind this. A 2008 study by the British Association for the Advancement of Science found that a single lesson of “magic school” led to “dramatic psychological effects, with the results suggesting a significant increase in sociability and confidence.” In fact, their “magic school” was more effective at building social skills than a standard self-esteem lesson. By learning magic tricks, kids can learn vital real world skills and have a ton of fun doing it.
There’s science behind every magic trick. A trick as simple as the ‘torn-and-restored newspaper’ requires an understanding of the way paper bends and folds, while more complex tricks apply the scientific principles behind mirrors, chemicals, magnets, and more. Even something invisible like gravity has an effect on magic—and in order to be a good magician, one must have a general understanding of the science behind an effect.
Magic, then, becomes a fun way to learn how the world works around us. It’s one thing to learn how a mirror reflects and refracts light in class, but it’s way more fun to use mirrors to make objects disappear before your very eyes. There are even special magic kits for children that specifically teach the science behind their favorite tricks. Making learning magical makes it more entertaining for everyone.
One of the words magicians love to use is “ordinary”. Here’s an “ordinary’ deck of cards, or an “ordinary” ball, or an “ordinary” stack of coins. It’s why magic is able to amaze people—you’re taking the mundane and making it special. This can be mind-blowing for a child, as they see all the things in their house that they take for granted everyday and learn how to use them in totally new ways by thinking outside the box. Let a kid learn how to make a rubber ball disappear under some cups, and you’re opening up their mind to a world of creative possibilities. Start with a magic kit full of “ordinary” items, and maybe they’ll find the inspiration to design and build their own tricks.
Getting children to focus on a task and follow directions can be difficult, as modern society is filled with all kinds of little distractions. Magic is a way to get children to learn how to direct their energy onto a single activity, and to encourage them to read and understand directions.
Performing magic well requires being able to understand and then perform a series of distinct tasks. Some tricks are easier than others, of course, but many require special shuffles or techniques completed at the exact right moment to be truly effective. If a child has trouble following directions, giving them a magic kit with numbered instructions and visual diagrams can aid their working memory by helping them logically connect multiple actions together.