Is the cure worse than the ailment?

By now, you have undoubtedly heard Trump say, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease.” He echoed what a FOX-TV host said earlier and was referring to the economic problems caused by the various gubernatorial stay at home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am not referring to stay at home orders and the economy. I am referring to the overabundance of streaming magic polluting the virtual world and its impact on magic. It’s been a little more than a month, and magicians, myself included, who can no longer fill the real world with mystery are over-stuffing the virtual world with lackluster exhibitions of magic done in solitude, in front of their computers or cell phone and streamed to the world.

With few exceptions, most virtual shows I have seen are not the least bit entertaining. Few seem to be well designed to tell a story or have a theme, message, or character that makes them compelling to watch. And all display pretty low-quality production values with sound, lighting, and image capture far below what consumers of television today are accustomed to. This is no surprise given the performer is often the producer, director, scriptwriter, lighting director, cameraman, and computer technician, as well as the talent.

Today, consumers are very discriminating when it comes to film and video. There is no way one person pend up at home, standing in front of a webcam, and performing live is going to satisfy the sophisticated demands of a modern audience. Viewers are used to seeing well-rehearsed performances on television with multiple camera views, reaction shots, a live audience, and editing. Even the late-night hosts are struggling with the constraints of performing from home. Many of us enjoyed the One World Together at Home special, especially the finale with Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Lang Lang, Lady Gaga, and John Legend. But, even with the combined skills of many talented producers, the variation in sound and picture quality from performer to performer throughout the show was undeniable. 

Significant as the technical deficits are, they pale in comparison to the most significant drawback, the absence of a live audience. Without an audience to interact with, not hearing laughs after a joke, not seeing the look on a volunteer’s face as he or she reacts to a minor miracle or hearing applause, most performers are like fish out of water.  But it’s not the performer alone who is disappointed. The audience is as well. 

Hollywood knows all about the power of audience reactions. It was proven in an experiment to see if a comedy without a live audience fared better with laughs in 1965 with the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. The program was shown to test audiences with and without a laugh track. Not surprisingly, the show was much more successful with the laughs, and ever since, most sitcoms not shot in front of a live audience have utilized a laugh track. Those of us who have been part of a live audience for the taping of a television talk show know well that we are cued and practiced when it comes to applause.

These opinions are not mine alone. I stumbled on this video. https://captiongenerator.com/1771422/Virtual-magic-shows

It’s the famous scene from the 2004 film Downfall that depicts Hitler angry after his orders were ignored and that was used in numerous parodies posted on the Internet. In this parody, Hitler rages about the profusion of poor quality virtual magic and laments about magic performed without an audience. The parody says it clearly. “Magic needs an audience! Real people in front of you! You have to hear them react. Performing to no one is rehearsing.” I don’t know who created the parody, but I agree with his observations.

There are already plenty of reasons people don’t like magic – magic is a riddle without a solution; magic is for kids; magicians are cheesy, annoying, arrogant, and boring. And every magician has probably experienced how reluctant people can be when asked to help on stage, which is most likely the result of having seen a lousy magician embarrass a volunteer or treat them like props. If you perform strolling magic, I would be surprised if you haven’t heard someone in a group you’ve approached say, “Oh, I don’t like magic” and turn you away. I hope magic is not further lessened in the minds of the public by virtual performances.

Unless we are lucky, it’s likely to be more than a year before people feel safe enough to gather in groups to see a magic show. Aside from avoiding the issue and not streaming magic, what can you do if you insist on dipping your wand into the stream? Here are some suggestions.

  • Lighting – Make sure you are properly lit. The backlight can be a killer. More light should come from in front of you and the action. 
  • Auto exposure – Most webcams will adjust to balance the overall scene and try to average the lights and darks to a middle tone. If you can’t manually set the exposure, try to balance the scene with clothing and background. Don’t wear a black suit against a black background and expect anyone to see the pips on a playing card.
  • Camera – If you can use a DSLR or video camera. If not, use the camera on your phone instead of the one on your computer.
  • Multiple cameras – Use more than one camera so that you can have close-ups and wide shots.       
  • Software – Use software designed for streaming video. I am familiar with vMix and eCamm, but there are numerous others.
  • Background – Even a plain white wall is better than a messy room.
  • Practice – Practice with the technology, not just the magic. I saw one show where the entire show was sideways because the magician’s phone was locked in portrait mode.
  • Rehearse – You know the difference. Do your whole show with no breaks. 
  • Look at the camera – Don’t look at your monitor, look at the camera. Make eye contact with the viewers. 
  • Connect with the viewer – That’s easier said than done. Look at anything produced by Steve Valentine. He connects. No doubt that’s because he’s a professional actor as well as a magician, and he produces instructional magic videos regularly. 
  • Finally, Get rid of it – Unless it’s a great video, don’t leave it posted for all to see forever.

I’ve trashed virtual magic because most of what I have seen has been disappointing. But, as Eric Wilzig, an excellent young magician who is doing some of the best virtual magic I have seen, says, “If done correctly, it’s really cool and fun to watch. It’s just like when magic was probably first seen on TV.” And he is right; virtual magic is in its infancy. It remains to be seen whether it will mature and elevate the art or be completely forgotten when COVID-19 is a distant memory.  

Has COVID-19 Killed Live Theatre?

The coronavirus has severely impacted many industries. Virtually, every non-essential business has been closed weeks. The airlines and big enterprises will likely be bailed out, and people much to their discomfort will again take trains, subways, buses, and taxis to move about when we begin to go back to work, albeit donned with gloves, masks, maybe even gowns. Hand sanitizers will be attached to everyone’s backpack or key chain as the workers return, and the economy fights back to health. Sadly, many small businesses, especially the ones that were struggling before the virus, may never reopen. Even a low or no-interest loan from the federal government won’t help them. It will take many months for those forced into unemployment to find work. 

As an entertainer, who works in front of live audiences, I wonder if live theatre will ever bounce back. Will anyone ever pay to see a revival of their favorite musical, the newest avant-garde play, a concert, or a magic show until everyone feels safe sitting in a crowded theatre fighting for the armrest with the person squashed into the seat next to them?  Or instead, will they continue to shelter in place at home on Friday and Saturday nights resolved to watch another old sitcom or made for TV movie? Except for pop concerts, it’s the older crowd, those most susceptible to the worst complications of the virus, that attend live theatre. Will anyone enjoy Hamlet, Hamilton, or a modern-day Houdini if the person in the row behind them coughs, sneezes, or even clears his throat until they are 100% sure that herd immunity or vaccination is protecting them from COVID-19?

Charlotte M. Canning writes in American Theatre, that in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic, “Theatres were so important that people did not lightly forgo attendance. Their closure remained a great public frustration, even as people were dying.” She writes that “The Seattle Daily Times observed on Oct. 6 that ‘Theatre Patrons Find Doors Shut, City’s Influenza Prevention Edict Results in Thousands of Disappointments.’ Even when people knew in advance, the closures were imminent, and that deaths were surging, they didn’t relinquish theatergoing easily.

According to Canning, “And then it all seemed to end as quickly as it had begun. And as life resumed, people seemed to forget just how horrific it had been.” Theatre attendance rebounded.

But in 1918, there was no TV, no HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, YouTube, Facebook. Heck radio didn’t become a popular form of entertainment until the 1920s. Back then, if you wanted any form of entertainment other than a good book, it was in a theatre with a bunch of other people watching a silent movie or some form of live entertainment. But that is no more. Times have changed, and shows are streamed right into the living room. There is no need to travel on a crowded train to the city center, sit in a cramped seat next to a large gentleman manspreading. That leads me to believe that live theatre will not climb out of the hole for at least a year, maybe much longer. 

Performers like me who entertain at private parties may get back to work sooner because the groups are smaller, and the affairs we perform at are often family gatherings. More than likely, relatives will be getting together as soon as the number of infections and deaths reported in the news subsides. Corporate parties however, will likely be on hold much longer. Instead of a holiday party or loyalty event, companies will find other ways to thank customers and employees and new ways to get new clients in an effort to avoid the potential of lawsuits that could result if a guest gets infected. So, recovery won’t be like a light switch was turned on.

We magicians will likely face added challenges that will require significant adjustments. Much of the magic we perform is interactive and involves contact with a stranger. Whether it is close-up where spectators are often asked to pick a card or on stage where spectators are invited to the stage to assist, it will be harder to find volunteers from the audience who are not concerned contact will present some level of danger. At one of his Monday night virtual gatherings, Jeff McBride said, “For a while, magic will be no-touch. Then it will be low-touch before it’s back to normal.” That is back to the way it was before the pandemic. He didn’t offer a timeline.

Pick a card. Any card. Hand reaching for a playing card. Horizontal.

What do you think? When will you return to the theatre? When will you be ready to sit elbow to elbow with some stranger from the suburbs in the concert hall? When will you feel comfortable picking a card? 

I would love to know what you think. Take this brief survey.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/3WLHNTM

Social Distancing is Not Good for Magic

COVID-19 is dangerous. The virus is spreading, and people are dying. Like all response citizens, I am hunkered down at home, only going out for the shortest time to get groceries. Hopefully, it will all be over soon. But at this point is seems endless.

I’ve been getting very acquainted with my old computer trying to upgrade the system, then having to downgrade the system, and in the process, losing lots of files. I’m learning a few new programs too. I did accomplish something, I finally, completed a new magic routine that I am offering to other performers. I’ve attached a video. Have a look.

Listening to the news, watching Netflix, and playing scrabble is growing old quickly. It seems like forever since I’ve had the pleasure of performing magic and making people laugh. The virus is infecting magic now.

But I have a remedy. It won’t cure COVID-19. Nor will it ensure that you won’t get the virus if you don’t follow social distancing and good hygiene, but it will take the sting out of staying home all day. It’s a streaming magic trick. What’s that you ask? Well, if you contact me, we’ll make an appointment to FaceTime, meet with Zoom or video chat on Facebook for a few minutes, and I will perform a trick with you. Just one and then we say adios. You may be asked to think of a time of day or to think of a card or pick a word from a page of text, and I will try to read your mind. Sound like fun?

If you’re interested, send me an email at maione@sillymagician.com, and we’ll set a day and time to connect.

Mike at the Mohegan Sun

I had a great time this past weekend performing at the Mohegan Sun. I was the featured guest at SPINNATO’S MAGIC MATINEE – Comix Mohegan Sun. The audience was great and the show was dynamite. I can’t wait to go back.

Here are a few photos of me performing my favorite routines.

The Parlor of Mystery Holiday Show

So very much looking forward to performing at the Parlor of Mystery show with master juggler, Lou Johnson. on December 29 at the South Shore Theatre Experience. The show is perfect for the whole family. So, bring the kids, bring the grandkids, bring the uncle Jim who still acts like a kid. Special family pricing is available. Call 631-669-0506 for information and to make reservations.

Curious to see more about Parlor of Mystery Holiday shows. Check out this video.

Magic and Macaroni​

On Sunday, November 17, Steve Rodman presents a dinner magic show starring the incomparable, award-winning magician Eric DeCamps. The show will also feature Long Island’s Silliest Magician, me, and strolling magic by Bill Krupskas. The show takes place at Mia’s of Valley Stream. $50 covers the cost of a scrumptious Italian dinner and show. Call 516-825-2117 for information and reservations. 

Mark Your Calendar

I am really excited to be performing with these great guys on October 27.

Peter Samelson 
Christened the “soft-spoken conceptualist of sorcery” by the New York Times, Peter Samelson has performed all over the world. He has performed atop the Great Wall of China, in the jungles of Bali and the universities of Tokyo, for peasants in Mexico, and even for Grand Prix race car drivers on the World Cruise of Queen Elizabeth II.

He has entertained Princess Stephanie of Monaco, the jet-set of Paris, and the fishermen mending their nets on the beaches of Cartegena. From Kenya to the Magic Castle, from television to trade shows, college campuses to commercials, the New York stage, night clubs, and celebrity events, Peter Samelson has distinguished himself not only as a magician but as an artist.

Peter performs and lectures at colleges, universities, and Theater and Performing Arts festivals. Peter has staged two one-man Off-Broadway shows; “The Magician” and “PaperWork.” He also performs and designs for television, film, and theater including: “What About Bob,” “Whispers in the Dark,” for Kraft Salad Dressing, host on a syndicated 13 part series on Magic, CNN’s “Sonya Live!“, Mabou Mines, The Bermuda Theater Festival, the new musical “Houdini” and the PBS Special, “The Art of Magic.”

Michel Huot 
Michel Huot is one of Montreal’s busiest corporate magicians. With over twenty years of professional experience, he has over 4000 performances to his credit. Michel has been an invitee at the FFFF for decades. He has performed and lectured in Algeria, Mexico, USA, Canada, France, the Magic Circle in London, Switzerland, Italy and more! He is a regular in comedy clubs and, in his downtime, he has been co-organizing an international magic festival in Algeria for seven years. He is the creator of two of today’s best-selling tricks’ Priceless’ and ‘Socks.’ His creations have appeared in numerous magazines (Genii, MAGIC, The Magic Menu) and many books by David Acer, John Lovick, Paul Rohmany and others. 

Jeff Miller 
Jeff is a regular at the Parlor of Mystery and has thrilled Parlor audiences during intermission on several occasions. Join him in the lobby during intermission for some wine and to see some of his amazing close-up magic. Please do it, or Jeff will have to drink all the wine himself and it’s not pretty when he’s had too much. 

Another Great Review for Celebrity Presage

Okay full disclosure: Paul and I have worked on projects together so while we’ve never met I consider him a friend. However, I don’t think that in any way contributed to his highlighting the updated version of Celebrity Presage in the October 2019 issue of Vanish. In his words, “One of the easiest and most entertaining book tests I’ve ever seen!! The combination of methods makes this a game-changer.” Here’s the link.

Kitchen Renovation

Well, I’ve had little time to update this blog. We’ve been undergoing a kitchen renovation. For four weeks the whole house was a mess, with construction workers moving in and out and nearly every room in the house impacted in some way or another. The construction impacted my office which had to be moved to one of the kid’s former bedroom. I am still trying to find a place for everything.

It’s finally finished. Here a photo of the finished kitchen.