I've been performing close-up magic commercially for some years now, and I've worked in a variety of venues, from restaurants and private house parties to clubs and pubs, and basically doing the same eight minutes per table at every show.
I didn't sit down and actually work an act out, it just evolved over the years; in fact, when I first started, I used to busk with all sorts of tricks and material and in time, by trial and error, the act just came together naturally.
Experience has taught me several things; the most important thing is to be extremely versatile, and to be able to perform at a high standard whatever the conditions. The act must be one that can be done standing up or sitting down. It's not always possible to stand up no more than it's always possible to sit down. I've done quite a lot of entertaining round the tables of dance floors and disco's, and there are people who would prefer to watch what's going on on the dance floor rather than have their view blocked by a conjurer standing up doing tricks. So here's a situation where you can't really stand. Personally, I would prefer to sit down with my audience at their table and simply become one of them, it's much nicer, more intimate and disposes of any barriers between audience and performer that often occur. After all, close-up entertaining is a friendly, fun business.
The act should never rely on gags and lines. Most places I work these days seem to feature a pop group or a disco, the close-up magician being an added attraction. Pop groups are loud and so are disco's and invariably patter becomes impossible, so the choice of material is important in this situation. The tricks must be visual, and audience participation is important as well. The act must be as entertaining performed without saying a word, as it is with gags and lines, and the performer must 'seir himself really strong and look at his audience all the time.
The act should be one that can be shortened without appearing to be chopped. If, after the first trick, you find yourself dying then there's no point in prolonging the agony and struggling through the complete thing, start strong and finish stronger. The material should also be angle proof, as very often the performer will find himself surrounded, and it's not really on to ask your audience to move, in fact it's usually impossible for them to move anyway.
If a performer is working in a 'going round the tables' situation, it's advisable to have material that can be reset with the minimum of trouble.
The biggest problem is 'getting on' or working at a table cold. The way to overcome this problem is for the performer to make sure that the situation doesn't arise. The audience at the restaurant or wherever must be aware that' there will be a magician entertaining at their table. This can be done in several way, an 'action' photograph in the foyer, or perhaps local press coverage. A good idea is to have table tents printed with the performers name on one side and all other relevant information on the other.
Now it's important for the performer to place the table tent on each table himself, when the people are already seated. This allows the audience to meet him and gives the performer the opportunity to sell himself and what he does and also, of course, the chance to weigh up the potential 'good' tables. And don't forget that you're not obliged to work every table and if you come across an obvious awkward group of people, you merely say (politely) that of course magic isn't everyone's cup of tea and that they're under no obligation to invite an entertainer to their table.
Another good point is to become friendly with the head waiter and his staff. You must be Mr Nice Guy and must not be at all arrogant. The performer should explain to the Head Waiter exactly what he does and stress that under no circumstances will he hinder him or his staff. Experience has taught me that the majority of Head Waiters take their job very seriously indeed, so if the performer keeps on his good side it will certainly be to his advantage.
Sometimes the performer will find himself in the awkward situation of approaching a table, and then realising that he's not really wanted. There are two ways to get over this problem. Firstly to apologise and simply walk away and secondly to actually attempt working. What I do is to state that I realise they're not really ,
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