What I Think About Before I Go Onstage
By Joshua Jay - Tuesday, December 20, 2022
I don’t pray or do yoga or take drugs before I go onstage. My only pre-show ritual is decidedly less colorful; I read a list. It’s three little lines, and it takes me about twenty seconds to get through it each time. Three tiny pieces of wisdom I’ve picked up from wiser, smarter friends.
Other bits of advice have fallen away, but these three have become my mantra and they are the twenty words I fill my head with just before beginning a performance. I have a little card printed with this list, and I keep it tucked into the lid of my case for easy access. I’m surprised how often magicians and laypeople ask about my preshow ritual.
When my show Six Impossible Things was running, I would give away cards that had this printed on it to anyone who identified themselves as a magician or stayed after to chat. If it was a young magician, our team would help create a little moment where I would discuss this little list and then gift them a special printed card with the list on one side and the logo on the other. This card is now available as part of the "Six Impossible Things Box Set" we just launched.
In case it’s helpful, here is the list and what it means.
Tonight is part of the process.
Perform like it's the first time and the last time.
Enjoy the show.
Tonight is part of the process
I’m hardest on myself when a performance or a trick or a line don’t do what they are supposed to do. I blame myself because I think, sometimes correctly, that it’s my thinking or judgment that has failed me. Why didn’t I come up with something funnier? This isn’t knocking them over like I had hoped. Or the dreaded onstage realization when I think to myself, vaguely, something isn’t right.
But when I remember that every performance is part of that same process, it gives me comfort. Tonight won’t be perfect, but it will get me one performance closer to it. “Tonight is part of the process” also reminds me of the upside of honing the performance in real time: the thrill of a mid-show insight that can become a hard-won, permanent detail of a piece.
Perform like it’s the first time and the last time
When I read these words, I think about this old musician’s parable. An orchestra is about to begin a performance of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” arguably the most famous piece of classical music. Backstage, the conductor says, “I know all of you have played this piece innumerable times, and the audience has heard it many times. But tonight, I want you to play for two distinguished guests. One is a little girl who is hearing Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’ for the first time. The second is an old man, who will be hearing it for his last time.”
Enjoy the Show
I don’t believe in rules for performance, because I can usually think of exceptions and discrepancies in the arbitrary lines magicians draw. But, to me, this is the one unbreakable rule: audiences can always tell when a performer is enjoying themselves(or when they’re not). These are always the last three words I say to myself before I walk onstage.
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