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Working With A Magician's Assistant

This article was originally written in 1990 for Society of American Magicians Assembly 206 in Austin, Texas as part of "An Evening About Magician's Assistants". The information contained herein was gleaned from six years of actual assisting and innumerable years of experience generously shared by some of the top Assistants in the business. This work will eventually become a chapter in Life With A Magician (or There's a Duck in My Bathtub!) by Valarie Cordell Bennett.

This is a topic close to my heart because I began my magical career as an Assistant back in 1973. I was The Incomparable Rosalie in my high school's production of CARNIVAL! Rosalie was the "classic" Magician's Assistant - lover, mother and box-jumper to the play's Magician, Marco The Magnificent. She put up with a lot of things from Marco - his infidelities, eccentricities and his blatant disregard for her as a human being. As I got into the "real" world of Magic, I discovered that, while some of Rosalie's problems were hers and hers alone, there is a little of Marco in most Magicians.

Eccentric is probably a polite way of describing anyone who wants to devote his/her life to Magic. To truly succeed in Magic you must eat, sleep, live and breath MAGIC. Many who are asked to become an Assistant do not understand this concept and may not be ready or able to accept life with cards on the ceiling and a duck in the bathtub.

CHOOSING AN ASSISTANT:

The most logical choice for an Assistant is someone with whom the Magician has a close bond - brother, sister, girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife. Most frequently (as Magic is still a male dominated art) this will be a sister, girlfriend or wife. They can be an excellent choice IF the sister, girlfriend or wife is comfortable in a performing situation and is willing to give up the time necessary to develop and refine the act. Nothing detracts from an act more than an Assistant who is not comfortable on stage or is not adequately rehearsed.

Look at the effects you want your Assistant to do - if you need a box jumper, your 300 pound sister may not be the best choice. If you intend to incorporate intricate dance steps into the routine, your wife who hates to dance and has two left feet may not be cooperative. If you do only wholesome family shows, the girlfriend with the great cleavage and blue spiked hair might be a bit out of place. If you need your Assistant to lift you and a box off of a platform, your brother who weighs 95 pounds soaking wet may not be the one to help you.

Your Assistant, if your act warrants one (more on this later), should be one of your best "props". He or she should "dress" the stage without detracting from the Magician and the Magic. The Assistant should compliment the Magician in appearance (costume choice, makeup, demeanor).

WARDROBE FOR THE STAGE

Costumes for illusions need to be comfortable and sensible. Beadwork is beautiful but can be dangerous if it dangles down too far. It can become tangled in a hinge, door or blade. Certain fabrics snag easily and don't last long - save them for the times when the Assistant is playing "table".

For any type of performance, colors should coordinate and compliment the equipment AND the performers. Take the time to "colorize" your act. Make sure that the colors are complimentary to both the Magician and Assistant. Be aware of the colors you will be working around (if you are fortunate enough to work with a backdrop). If you always work against a black curtain - don't have everyone in black unless you are doing a black art show OR it is necessary to conceal apparatus, etc. [If you have ever had photos taken of your act in front of a black curtain, you know that a Magician and Assistant become floating heads if they are costumed in black!]

When working with a female Assistant, don't try to put "too much" into a skimpy costume top - it can be very embarrassing everyone to have your Assistant "pop-out" at the wrong time during the church show. You want your Assistant to feel comfortable on stage and you don't want to offend a paying audience. Too much Assistant in too little costume can cost you future bookings and you may not ever know why. For the most part, trust your Assistant to choose something that she will look good in, keeping your particular performance venue in mind. If in doubt, ask a trusted FEMALE friend for a friendly costume critique.

STAGE MAKEUP/HAIR

Always adjust your makeup for stage according to the lighting you will be working under. If you are fortunate enough to work under full stage lights, remember that eyes and lips disappear if they are not properly highlighted.

False eyelashes work well for some ladies, others are blessed and don't need them. But, if your Assistant decides to try them, be sure that she rehearses in them - they can be uncomfortable is you are not used to them and nothing is more unflattering or uncomfortable than an eyelash that has come loose.

If at all possible, take a mirror out on stage with the lights on prior to the performance. Even a male Magician can benefit from a little makeup on a fully lit stage. Base can camouflage a five o'clock shadow - but try it out before the big show so you know what you are doing. You don't want to look like a mannequin.

Hair should flatter the person, first and foremost. From there, it is best to keep it out of the face - a light spritz of hairspring is essential for both the Magician and Assistant. Be conscious of what the person will be doing and how the hair will flow within the circumstances.

I have been fortunate to work with Carol Roy (Mr. Electric's partner in Magic) and Gaye Blackstone (Harry Blackstone, Jr.). Both ladies taught me that the audience expects a certain image from the performers that they see on stage. You have an obligation to your audience to fulfill that image. When you appear for a show, you must look the part (even if you will be getting into costume after you set up). After the performance, don't take your makeup off immediately. Even if you need to strike props, keep the makeup on so that your audience can recognize you - you owe it to them.

STAGE PRESENCE

If you are comfortable on stage, the audience will be comfortable. If you are unsure and ill at ease, the audience can pick up on that, too. Have you ever been to a comedy club where the comedian is failing miserably? You begin to feel embarrassed for him - you don't want your audience to react the same way if you or your Assistant are not comfortable on stage. If you do not do a lot of full stage shows, it would be helpful to your Assistant to go with you on your smaller shows and help with set-up, etc., in order to become more at ease around audiences.

TAKING A BOW

Have you ever told someone that they looked good in a certain outfit? The classic response (from a woman, anyway) was, "This old thing?" Didn't you feel awkward and wished that you hadn't said anything? Your audience can feel the same way. If you and your Assistant have completed a dazzling illusion or effect and you don't give the audience a chance (or a cue) to appreciate it, both you and your audience lose out. Frequently an audience is so in awe of an effect that they don't know to applaud. Your Assistant can help here. Even if not involved in actual effect, the Assistant can lead the applause with a gesture (the good old "Ta Da!"). You've worked hard for your "pay" - accept it graciously.

PRE-SHOW SET UP/PREPARATION

Pre-show set up begins long before the curtain opens. Props should be properly put away after each performance - but we all know that isn't always possible. So, check your props carefully prior to leaving for the performance. A checklist of each item for the effect is most helpful. If you have a responsible Assistant, ask him/her to go over these items for you (but nothing replaces the Magician's final responsibility for the performance). Silks should be pressed and hemmed. Animals must be clean and groomed. Touch up nicks in the paint job (a paint pen works great). All of these things go to making the show (and the Magician) look more professional.

Set up at the performance can be touchy. If you work in nightclubs, you frequently do not go on until midnight (or later) and you may be working directly on the dance floor. Props and tables must be set up on the side and watched constantly - not just to be sure that someone doesn't tamper with them, but the lighting may be such that they cannot be seen and people don't always watch where they are going. The public is used to being able to put drinks on any available surface (your $1500 vanishing bird cage!?!) and expecting any thing in their way to be sturdy enough to lean against (a loaded doves to rabbit!?!). Your Assistant should stay with the props until the actual performance. He or she may be the only thing between you and broken disaster.

REHEARSAL

A Magician may work an effect out in his/her mind for days, weeks, even months before actually bringing the Assistant into rehearsal. Remember that your Assistant must have some idea of what you expect to accomplish before he/she can be where you need them at the appropriate time. This is especially important when working with music. If you have rehearsed by your self for weeks and then three days before the big show you want the Assistant to step in and do all the things you've had her doing in your mind - just be aware that a real person must move from one place to another - not just vanish and appear where you need them next. Be patient and allow time and adequate space for rehearsal.

Plan rehearsal times - and give your Assistant your full attention during these times. Carol Roy says that when she and Mr. Electric rehearse, they work for 7 hours straight and she's lucky to get a break for a coke. But this kind of dedication is needed to make the act work and make everyone look their best. If you don't take the time for rehearsal, then you don't take your Magic seriously - so why should your Assistant?

ILLUSIONS

As a former Assistant, I know that the Assistant is usually the one who really makes the illusion works while the Magician directs the action - a lot like a musician being lead by the director. The music comes from the musician's instrument and talent, but the director brings it all together and frequently gets the big hand for the number. I always yell "Brava" for the female Assistant when she emerges from the zigzag or sword basket. The audience salutes the Magician - I know who really did the Magic!

If possible, choose your illusions for your Assistant (if you have one you will be working with all the time). If your Assistant is afraid of the dark - make sure the head is always exposed. If your Assistant is short (or tall), make sure the boxes are suited to their height.

The illusion needs to be comfortable or your Assistant will come out with a grimace instead of a smile. Check the interior for sharp edges - not only can you hurt your Assistant, but you can ruin an expensive costume! If at all possible, step into the illusion yourself. See what it feels like, be aware of what a sudden spin of the equipment can do to your balance, or how loud a slap on the top can be in tight quarters. It is important to remember that some illusions are potentially dangerous if not done correctly. If you've got a personal problem with the Assistant - DO NOT TAKE IT ON STAGE. If you (or your Assistant) cannot behave like professionals, don't do the illusion.

YOUR ASSISTANT IS AN INDIVIDUAL

Work with your Assistant. Let him/her know the overall effect you wish to achieve. You are the boss - but a good boss knows to listen to their subordinates. Allow some room for the individual - as long as it does not detract from the overall effect.

Everyone wants to feel that they are needed - your Assistant is no exception. Give your Assistant as much advance knowledge of the booking as you can. If you need someone in four hours and you've known about the show for 4 weeks - you deserve what you get if the show doesn't go off as well as you hoped.

BE CONSIDERATE of your Assistant as a human being. If you cannot relate to them as people - get a dog, bird or rabbit. They at least have the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to protect them. Have you ever noticed that when the bird is vanished by fire or appears to have been flattened, the audience is instantly worried and so concerned. But when the Assistant is being bisected, stuck with swords, cremated, or otherwise mistreated, everyone talks about how wonderful the Magician is! There is not yet a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Assistants!

After the performance, take a quiet time to critique the performance. Keep it away from the public eye. You don't load your props in front of the audience - don't "unload" on your Assistant in front of them. After the performance, go over everything that happened. Consider each step of the performance, from introduction to final applause cue, operation of equipment (does something need repair/replacement), music cues, how the particular performance space worked (or didn't and what could have been done to correct it - you might end up in a similar performance situation again). If there was a problem with equipment/prop placement - state positively that it should be changed to the proper (or new location). Remember positive reinforcement goes much further than ranting and raving (and may save a personal relationship). And, if the mistake was yours, own up to it - don't blame the Assistant!

PAY FOR THE ASSISTANT

For most, the position of Assistant is a "what I did for love" situation, even though more of our fellow Magicians are being well paid for THEIR labors of love. Look at the time and effort that goes into your Assistant's appearance with you and pay in accordance to what you are receiving. Carol Roy says it doesn't matter if your name is on the billing as long as it is on the checkbook. If your Assistant doesn't sign on your checkbook and you get $25.00 for the show - your Assistant would appreciate a coke afterwards. If you get $2500 and your Assistant put in three weeks rehearsal time and took time off from "the day job" to do the show - pay accordingly.

Most of all, remember that your Assistant (related to you or not) needs to know that you appreciate the time and effort put into the performance. Don't be greedy with your thanks.

DEFINE THE ROLE OF YOUR ASSISTANT

Ask yourself the following questions to determine why you need an Assistant:

1. Does my existing act need an Assistant? Would the action flow better if I had someone on stage with me or am I just looking for someone to make a mediocre show look "bigger"? Be honest with yourself and your Assistant on this one!

2. Do I need an Assistant all the time or just once in a while for special shows? Am I willing to take the responsibility to keep the Assistant "up to date" on scheduled performances or will I expect him/her to be able to "read my mind" and be available at a moments notice? [I once worked with a Magician who thought nothing of calling me an hour before showtime and then expected me to do an illusion I had never seen before!]

3. Will the Assistant be an equal or nearly equal partner (on stage and/or where income and responsibility is concerned)? How will the act be billed? If you are not permanently attached to the Assistant (by way of blood or marriage), work this out ahead of time.

Let your Assistant know what you need and what you expect from them. Sometimes an Assistant is a "table" and only holds or gets rid of items for the Magician. If you have been fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Petrick and Mia, you saw an excellent example of how an Assistant can keep the action flowing smoothly. Mia also performs her own effects, but many times Petrick looks to her for setting and ditching props. When I saw Joseph Gabriel (JOSEPH at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas) perform in 1989, he used an unnamed female Assistant. If it were not for this unsung heroine, Joseph would not be as wonderful as he is. She completed effects and provided the means to appear those beautiful parrots. But Joseph got the applause!

An Assistant can be a "foil" or friendly adversary, or comic relief and "Miss Direction" (like The Great Thomsoni and Company). Assistants can also be partners in the act to the point that the roles of Magician and Assistant merge - who is the Magician and who is the Assistant in The Pendragons or Siegfried and Roy?

Define your persona and that of the Assistant. Remember, someone needs to play the "straight man" in a comedy routine. Allow the Assistant leeway to develop - if you cannot work with someone who is spontaneous, make sure your Assistant has no imagination or initiative and be willing to take all responsibility when things go wrong. Some Magicians refuse to work with an Assistant who "thinks for themselves". Remember, that same "thinking" Assistant can pull you out of a bind when a thread breaks, bird dies, etc.

I once had a discussion with a British Magician who had been working cruise ships with his wife. I was describing a cute bit I had come up with during a performance - on the spur of the moment. The Magician listened politely and then informed me that he would never work with an Assistant who deviated from the rehearsed script. If this is your thought on the matter - be sure to lay it out in the beginning.

The role of Assistant is multi-faceted and can enhance your performance 100-fold if you use her/him to the best advantage. Don't be afraid to ask their opinion and take their advice. Remember - the show is the thing. Don't let ego get in the way of your most excellent performance!


Links to Assist You

The Magic Lady: More about Me
Magican's E-Mail List: How to contact magicians across the country

Contact me at valkenb@yahoo.com


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