SUMMARY: An essential book about getting maximum entertainment from every aspect of magic
Simply put, Ken Weber's excellent book Maximum Entertainment is a must-read for every magician. No single book is likely to have much of an impact on all your magic as this one.
When you first get into magic, it's all about the tricks. New tricks. More tricks. Getting the technique and method right. But with more experience, you start to realize that magic is an art-form that is first of all about entertaining an audience. More important than the method is the presentation. A great magician presenting a simple and easy trick well is far more interesting and entertaining than a superb trick with a poor presentation. This is why many magicians also have a background in drama or performing arts, because these kinds of skills can be applied to every routine and every magic trick, no matter what you are performing.
There are a number of classic texts on presentation and showmanship. But this is arguable the best of them all: Ken Weber's Maximum Entertainment: Director's Notes for Magicians and Mentalists (2003). It won't teach you a single trick, but it sure will tell you how to make the tricks you already know much better. And it will tell you almost everything else you need to be thinking about when performing magic. If you follow the rules and principles Ken so clearly teaches in this book, the entertainment level of your magic is guaranteed to improve.
This terrific book was out of print for some time, but fortunately is now available again. Not only can you buy it as a hard copy, but for about half the price you can pick up a digital download of an audio version of the book from Vanishing Inc Magic. I have spent the last couple of months enjoying the audio version of Ken Weber's book, and it's this version that I'm reviewing here.
WHAT YOU GET
The audio book features the entire text of Ken Weber's book, read out loud by Kent Axell. The entire recording is just under 9 hours in total. Kent Axell does a very fine job of reading the book clearly and articulately, in a very engaging way. Kent is a professional magician himself, so he understands his material, and knows exactly where the emphasis needs to be when reading, and I was very impressed by how this was done.
There are some disadvantages to an audio book of course. In the book, Ken recommends making notes in the margins as you go, which is obviously difficult to do with an audio recording. I also wasn't thrilled to discover that it was a single 540 MB file in mp3 format, which makes it difficult to find your place if you're continuing listening part of the way through - it would have been more sensible to have each chapter being a separate file. I ended up using an audio splitter to divide the file into multiple sections, just to make it easier to navigate to the part I was up to. Fortunately Vanishing Inc Magic now also makes it available as a zipped file containing 23 separate files, one for each chapter, although it's less ideal that these are in *.wav rather than *.mp3 format, which would reduce the file size considerably without sacrificing audio quality. The download would also be improved if it came with a document that listed a table of contents with the chapters and topics, as well as the time where each new section starts, although having separate well-named files for each chapter already goes a long way to assisting with that.
But there are significant advantages too. For one thing, you can listen to the book while on the move. This enabled me to maximize my commuting and driving, and I even enjoyed listening to sections while going for a jog or while laying in bed. The cost is another factor - while a hard copy of the book will set you back around US$40 plus shipping, the audio book costs only half that at around US$20. And you get to enjoy the download immediately as well, and there's no need to wait for it to ship to your doorstep since delivery is immediate.
A final surprise is a pleasant bonus at the end of the audio recording: an hour long interview that the reader of the audio book (Kent Axell) had with the author Ken Weber, recorded in mid-2017, which gives extra commentary and discussion about the material of the book.
So who is Ken Weber, and why should we listen to what he has to say on this subject? While Ken is currently a big name in the world of mutual funds, his background is squarely in the world of magic. His interest in magic and performance began in his childhood, and he went on to get an education in theater and the performing arts, before moving on to a successful career as a full-time entertainment. As a magician, he has made literally thousands of performances at colleges and universities, businesses, and associations. As proof of his success, he was awarded the Dunninger Award for Excellence in the Performance of Mentalism in 1993.
More importantly, Ken has been active in the world of magic and mentalism as a featured and regular critic of other performers at the Psychic Entertainers Association, constructively commenting on performances as a way of helping others polish their craft. He's well known and respected as an ultimate "polisher" of magic, and helping magicians raise their level. So he knows what he is talking about, and is highly regarded in the magic community, especially for his ability to identify ways to improve magic performance.
So what exactly does Ken Weber cover in his book? As I listened to the audio recording, I made some summary notes, so what follows is my own overview and summary of the key areas and points that are covered in the book, well organized under the perfectly alliterative headings that Ken himself uses.
1. Preamble: To underline his credentials, the opening chapter features Ken explaining some of his own story and experiences. Sharing some of his background is not only interesting to learn, but helpful to appreciate his perspective and give legitimacy and weight to what he has to say in everything that follows.
2a. Precursors: In this chapter Ken explains the difference between a puzzle, a trick, and a magical moment, and highlights some of the things that will turn a puzzle into a trick and a trick into a magical moment. Amateurs show lots of tricks to the same people, while pros show the same tricks to a lot of people, but know how to do it well. Weber constantly reminds us that magic is about entertaining, and everything must be geared toward maximizing that. What really counts is the audience reaction, and emphasizing the moment of magic and mystery.
2b. Pillars of Entertainment Success: Having established his basic premise and goal, Weber draws on his own extensive experience to elaborate on six pillars of entertainment success that he believes are critical to the successful entertainer:
1) Master your craft: Even though what really makes magic successful is the performance and presentation, you still need to master the skills of sleights and patter.
2) Communicate your humanity: Your audience is only going to be truly interested in what you're doing when they see you are a fellow human like them; Weber gives numerous helpful suggestions to communicate this.
3) Capture the excitement: Magic is a moment of astonishment, and Weber suggests ways that you as a performer can convey that.
4) Control every moment: As a performer, you are in charge, and there are important ways to maintain control, even when there are interruptions or mistakes.
5) Eliminate weak spots: Weber shares helpful tips about what elements of your performance to eliminate, so that everything counts and contributes to the entertainment of your spectators.
6) Build to a climax: There are many mistaken ideas about climaxes, and this section explains how to develop this correctly and why it is important.
3. Preparation: One area of performance that many magicians fail to give enough attention to is preparation - not that they don't know the sleights down pat, but rather the presentation and patter. Weber explains how writing a script and careful rehearsal will force you to give attention to all the important details of your act, and gives valuable suggestions for how to do this, including the benefit of recording and critiquing yourself. Also covered in this section is the importance of choosing the right material from the myriad of tricks available, and how best to string several effects together as part of a larger act.
4. Performer: Under this topic, Weber first covers how you need to present yourself as a performer. He makes some valuable remarks about your appearance, including some fairly common sense suggestions about how to dress and even practical tips about wearing glasses and attention to details like manicured fingernails. As a public speaker, I found the next section about using your voice particularly useful, especially the advice about how to speak naturally, use pauses, and add appropriate emphasis. He also offers practical guidance about the use of language, including several very helpful pages about commonly used phrases and words of meaningless magic-speak filler that should be avoided - a much needed corrective for many of us. Finally, there's a section about humour, and Ken doesn't hold back his punches about bad ways to try to create a laugh, and the need to avoid excess words and sarcasm. I especially appreciated how he makes you think about everything you say - all patter needs to have a purpose, otherwise it doesn't belong and is excess fat that should be trimmed.
5. Paraphernalia: For the spectator, magic is both seen and heard, and too many performers focus all their efforts on their presentation and sleights, and fail to give sufficient attention to the essentials of lighting and sound. Weber offers lots of practical advice about microphones and sound systems (including reasons for his own preference of a hand-held mike), all the while emphasizing that these elements of a performance must not be overlooked but require careful consideration, and especially how important it is to check the equipment beforehand to avoid a disaster when performing. Lighting also receives attention, as well as how to prepare yourself to look good under lights. A small part of the section on audio gear is somewhat dated, and sounds like Weber is doing a commercial for the specific features of his favourite sound equipment, but for the most part all the material here is very helpful, even in an era where technology gives us more and better options, because the principles he highlights still apply. He also gives some terrific advice about how to prepare for a show, giving practical suggestions about small details that most of us might never even think of.
6. Performance: Ultimately magic is about performance, and Ken Weber first addresses some of the things that close-up workers need to consider that are unique to their setting, including those of us who do card magic - probably a biggest slice of the pie. His own expertise lies in the area of mentalism, and the chapter devoted to that has some great tips about finding ways to perform in a way that does justice to the fact that the mentalist has a different role to play than the typical magician. His section on dealing with spectators gives a lot of excellent advice, since they are an integral part of magic, and often become part of the performance; rather than blame them when things go wrong, Ken explains how to control a situation and be so prepared that very little can go wrong in the first place!
7. Postscript: So what about when your show is done, is it immediately time to wind down? Ken gives some wonderful tips about the kinds of reactions you can have as a magician to help cement the impact of astonishment that your audience feels, and also the need to have a personal post-mortem in which you reflect on your performance and find ways to improve it. In the final section, there is a helpful recap of the key points that have been emphasized throughout the entire book.
8. Interview: I was pleasantly surprised to discover an extra bonus following the recording of the audio book: an hour long interview that Kent Axell (the reader of the audio book) had with Ken Weber in the middle of 2017. Considering that it is more than a decade since the book was written, it is great to hear what the author's thoughts are today. The interaction between the two is excellent, and Kent asks Mr Weber to clarify and comment on various statements from the book, and expand on them, as well as share other insights in areas not covered in the book. It's a wonderful hour that helped reaffirm and consolidate some of the content in the book, and it was nice to hear the author's own voice and passion for the craft of magic and entertainment.
Author: Ken is very well qualified to speak on this subject. He's knowledgeable and very well organized in his materials, giving lots of helpful examples and specifics to illustrate his argument. He's also not afraid to mince his words, and at times he states his viewpoints very strongly. But he's a man who is speaking from a wealth of experience, and he genuinely has the best interests of his fellow performers at heart. When he does have something to say, it's worth listening to. He himself readily admits that you can break his "rules" and still be successful (although not if you break all of them at once!), but that whenever you do depart from what he recommends, you need to have good reasons for doing so, and it needs to suit your own style and objectives.
Reader: As mentioned already, Kent Axell is a seasoned magician and mentalist himself. So he's part of the magic community, and is well-equipped to be an excellent reader, and understands what is important and what isn't. The sound quality is excellent, as is Kent's clear and articulate reading.
Content: From the overview I've already given above, you'll get a good idea of how comprehensive Ken is in covering everything you need to consider when performing magic as entertainment, and all the areas you need to give attention to improve small details of your performance to make it more entertaining and successful. Weber constantly reminds us that magic is about entertaining, and everything must be geared toward maximizing that. What really counts is the audience reaction, and it is essential for the magician to be thoroughly prepared and control every moment with that goal in mind. The breadth of content is very wide, and all the important aspects of presenting magic are covered.
Contemporary: Throughout the book Ken makes extensive reference to popular magical acts and magicians, including David Copperfield, David Blaine, Mac King, Kreskin, Michael Ammar, Criss Angel, Siegfried & Roy, and others. He's not afraid to criticize them, as well as highlight what makes them effective. I found it really helpful that he doesn't just speak in generalities, but gives real life examples of specific effects and performances, many of which we have seen on TV or online. It also gives the book a fairly up-to-date feel, even though a couple of his comments on recording and audio equipment are slightly dated. But overall this is a work that still speaks strongly to the current generation of magicians, despite first appearing more than a decade ago.
Benefits: I came in with very high expectations, and Maximum Entertainment didn't disappoint. In fact, this is the kind of book that you can read multiple times, and get new ideas and insights from it every time; being reminded on a regular basis of the points that Ken Weber raises is tremendously helpful. In real life I do a lot of public speaking outside of magic, and I learned a lot of useful tips that I can apply to my general public speaking as well.
Many consider Ken Weber's Maximum Entertainment to be the very best book there is about entertainment and showmanship in magic, and how to raise the level of your performance, and I have to agree. I can only compare with similar books by Henning Nelms and Darwin Ortiz, which are rightly highly regarded and considered among the best on the subject of showmanship. Darwin Ortiz's book is perhaps more useful when it comes to giving attention to the small details of organizing and structuring a particular effect in order to make it more magical, and his focus on card magic will especially appeal to the close-up magician. But Ken Weber's book is undoubtedly the very best there is on the overall subject of showmanship and performance, also because of the wide range of details that he gives attention to.
Almost every magician will find ideas here that will help them polish their performance, and increase the entertainment value of what they do. There's a wealth of material, tips, and advice, that comes from a man who has solid experience with magic as a craft, and sincerely wants to help his colleagues improve and grow. Especially if you are a working pro, this book is an absolute must read.
I'm very pleased that this wonderful, wonderful book is back in print and readily available. And I'm all the more pleased that besides making it available as a hard copy, it is also available as an audio version for half the price, which includes a bonus hour long interview and discussion with the author, interacting with the material and content of the book. Highly, highly recommended!
- BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame