Audience Management: A Guide for Magical Entertainers by Gay Ljungberg
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2010)
IN A SENTENCE: I wish I'd had this book when I was preparing for my first foray onto a stage.
Although at the time I felt I already possessed significant audience management skills, not only as a professional close-up magician but especially from my years as a magic bartender a job which is as much about audience management as it is about magic I was soon to discover that audience management from the stage is a very different thing. As the late Billy McComb used to say, "You have to learn to make friends with darkness." When you're up on stage, trying to influence, control, and manage what and who is sitting out there in that darkness amounts to a special skill set that only really comes from years of firsthand experience.
Fortunately, Swedish magician and clown Gay Ljungberg has that experience, and as a result, his book will help any aspiring performer save time and avoid some of the pitfalls along the path to mastering those skills. His book is a thoughtful and cogent guide to the multi-faceted dynamics that comprise a performer's relationship with his audience.
I knew I was likely to enjoy this book when I was struck by a sentence on the first page, intended to define the term "audience" beyond a mere collection of individuals in seats. "The individuals become a collective when they experience an emotion simultaneously." This is one of the best and most succinct observations about audiences I've come across.
Hence, Mr. Ljungberg addresses questions performers must ask themselves if they are to devise and execute an effective plan for creating those emotional experiences. It is a fascinating and challenging task the real work of performance arts and the author has much insightful guidance to offer that threads its way from contemplative artistry to real-world pragmatics. He writes, "If properly managed, the audience will usually act and react the way you want. And if they don't, you will be able to act and react to that in a way that benefits the success of his show." This declaration amounts to the mission statement of his book, and he attacks that mission thoroughly and artistically albeit always with an eye on the realities. Consider that he follows these just-quoted statements with this provocative and yet inspirational observation: "Shit happens, but remember that manure is a fertilizer."
Elsewhere the author appeals to the reader to reorient his priorities. "I want you to become a better performer by changing your focus away from yourself, away from your script, away from your props, away from your beloved magic tricks, and instead direct your focus towards the experience your audience will have when they watch your show." I would add that while the author writes "instead," I would suggest that all of the tasks he lists are terribly important requirements, but that very often the greatest difference between the amateur magician and the professional especially the best of professionals comes when he moves beyond these concerns of self, and recognizes that he must serve the needs of an audience, as well as those of his own.
Mr. Ljungberg spends time helping the performer to establish his or her own explicit mission statement about what we hope to achieve with our audience, posing important questions about what you want your audience to experience, to feel, to learn, and how you want them to react. He then considers all the tools we have to achieve these goals, including script, effects, routines, methods, props, stage set, lighting, music, sound, and more.
An extended section entitled "Homo Ludens" meaning playful humans is about the nature of play, and how play relates to magic. I agree that magic is a form of adult play play that is interactive, creative, and imaginative. The author explores a series of playful situations, which he conceives as games that can be played between the audience and performer.
These game scenarios may be particularly useful to theatrical clowning (that is, not merely clowns in the circus or in a birthday party sense), and also to children's performers. There are certainly examples here that will work with more traditional performance styles and with adult audiences, but one can see Mr. Ljungberg's particular perspective reflected in this discussion of games. While I don't disagree with what he offers, I would also suggest that it is far from complete when it comes to magic. The author is clearly focused on comedic and "fun" games to play, but for some of us, magic can sometimes extend to drama, and focus on the experience of mystery. These potentials of magic are not addressed, not necessarily because the author would disagree, but likely because they are not part of his own artistic orientation. Sometimes the game of magic can be provocative, earnest, and serious such is the nature of mystery, which in turn is the nature of magic. True, many if not most magicians ignore these paths of artistic potential. But that is, in my estimation, unfortunate.
To Mr. Ljungberg's credit, however, I would add that he is very explicit about the context in which he presents his opinions. "You may not agree with my views," he allows. "But please make the choice to understand the point I want to make. You are free to choose your own path anyway." To ask the reader to attempt to understand one's point, before exercising the free choice to disagree, is all any thoughtful writer can hope for.
Another section of the book considers the "invisible contract" between performer and audience, and how the performer defines his role as "magician." The author's personal definitions of his role are congruent with my own, albeit that others among us will surely disagree. But the important point is that defining what one means by magic and magician are important steps for every performer to take on the road to becoming effective conjuring artists; steps that, far too often, few ever do.
Following these significant theoretical and artistic questions, the author proceeds to address issues of craft, including the nature of stage presence, how to conquer stage fright, how to connect with people, crowd control (especially useful for children's performers), and business and administrative tasks that can help contribute to a performer's success. One of my favorite chapters concerns the management of on stage assistants. The author offers invaluable, indeed priceless advice here, that beginners can use to spare themselves much grief and on stage travail, including how to choose on stage assistants, how to get them on stage, and why you should never allow your first chosen volunteer of the program to refuse. There is no more clear sign of a beginner than when you see a magician ask for a volunteer; Mr. Ljungberg can help you avoid this and many other disasters of the tyro stage performer.
If this seems like a lot of ground covered in a mere 143 pages, perhaps it's because the author knows what he's talking about, has taken his time (several years, in fact) writing the book, spares us lists of didactic rules or self serving puffery, and waited until he'd been performing professionally for more than 20 years before he elected to grace us with his wisdom; in other words, he made certain that he actually had learned something before he saw fit to teach others.
And on the subject of teaching, a final chapter, "Learning Games," describes eight group exercises that the author has used in training sessions for other performers. Much of this will be unfamiliar territory to magicians who have little background in theater arts, and Mr. Ljungberg is generous in his provision of such tools, which the local magic club would be far wiser to attempt at their next meeting, rather than spend it on another special night of variations on ringon-rope moves. (The likelihood of this occurring, however, is extremely close to zero.) Oh, and as far as "making friends with darkness" Mr. Ljungberg recommends that, whenever possible, you should turn up the house lights.