Eight Tips for Reviewing Magic
Reviewing magic shows is really difficult.
I love magic Ė it is my whole life. During my many years in the world of the magician Iíve read more reviews of magic shows than any single person has ever written (with perhaps just a handful of exceptions), and I thought itíd be helpful to share my experience regarding what makes for a decent review of a magic show (and I donít necessarily mean positive, I mean useful).
If youíre reviewing a magic show, I truly feel for you. Itís a virtually impossible task. To some extent all magic relies upon the audience not having any previous knowledge of what will unfold. Itís hard to give your readers sufficient context to justify your appraisal whilst also trying to ensure your readersí enjoyment is not diminished because they are too well briefed and know too much what to expect. So Iím here to try and help.
Iíve boiled it down to eight top tips that might help you to achieve the balance you desire in your review:
1) Stick to the wildly important
With other art forms, itís sometimes helpful to critique the production from several angles: the overall story, the crispness of technical elements, the true nature of the actor behind the character, etc.
With magic, generally it protects your reader better if reviews focus heavily on the single most influential element that shapes the overall experience. If the charisma of the performer is what captivates audiences, focus on that; if the routines told astonishing stories, tell readers this; if the pure impossibility of the illusions was the most remarkable ingredient, say so.
It is not required of a reviewer to be exhaustive with their statements, and the best reviews capture the big picture rather than endless detail. With magic itís best to aim to give as little away as possible whilst still writing a clear, justified review.
2) When magic is art, itís usually more than ďhow did (s)he do that?!Ē
Once magic devolves into discussions of ďhow the trick might have workedĒ (even if the secrets are impressive), the moment of wonder has passed, and it has become a logic problem to solve and a frustration. If the magician did a good job, (and if the audience arenít strangely insecure people), the overwhelming feeling will be that itís better not-knowing and enjoying the experience of mystery. Movie reviews that focus on the making-of are missing the point if the movie is a credible work of art.
3) Magic is all about the audience
Any illusion only really exists in the minds of the audience. Donít just describe what happens on stage, because then youíre just describing the mechanics Ė thatís not where this art form lives.
Part of the success and pull of David Blaineís TV shows are that more than half the time, youíre enjoying the audienceís explosive reactions to the tricks. Describe the audience, how they reacted and what emotions were being conjured inside them. Thatís probably the truest way to review magic.
4) Be VERY cautious claiming anything in magic is original or new
Just because the magician presented an illusion that seemed crazily original to everyone present, and even if they said it was a world-first, it might not be. That might just be the presentation. In fact thereís a very high probability theyíre not the first magicians to do something incredibly similar. Virtually all magic is built standing on the shoulders of giants that the public wouldnít know. Unless youíve researched a routineís history and lineage, be sure to say the tricks or routines FEEL really original, or SEEM really unusual, because thatís what you really mean.
5) Look for the differences
Virtually every magic show will at some point feature playing cards. Magicians and audiences love good card magic. Virtually all magicians who are in the premier league and are out there doing shows regularly are masters of sleight of hand, and readers are a bit bored of reading that meaningless statement. Look for what is unique about the performer you are watching Ė review them as you would a dancer or singer working within a known genre (though donít forget point 4 about claiming originality). Tell your readers what you noticed and how it makes you feel because thatís all that really matters.
6) Donít be afraid to consult
As with all art forms, some magicians are tricky to deal with (pun partially intended, apologies) but the vast majority is aware that you publishing your honest review will only make the world a better place. Donít be afraid to check some facts with them before you publish.
7) Avoid unhelpful clichťs
Magic, like everything, has baggage. Few would dream of reviewing an amazing opera and talking about fat people, nor reviewing a book of poetry and complaining some of it doesnít quite rhyme. Magic is a smaller, less mainstream art form, so youíd be forgiven for not realizing thereís incredible diversity within it. Please join those of us who believe in it, and celebrate the unique artfulness and opportunities magic offers.
8) Before you publish, cast your mind back
Remind yourself what you knew before you had seen that show. Remind yourself of what you were expecting. Re-read your review and ask yourself if thereís anything in it that could diminish the experience of future audiences? If so can you find a way to rephrase the point you are making that achieves a win-win?
To you the reader, thank you for considering my ideas about what makes for a good review of a magic show. I hope it gives you a few useful ideas that will help you write the review you want to write. Thank you for attending and talking about magic Ė itís a beautiful art form and it is home to some of the most wonderful people on the planet. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, each magician presents a show to spread his or her dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on our dreams.
© Neil Kelso, July 2014 www.neilkelso.co.uk