When I began producing theatre shows in San Francisco I became interested in the reviews of the top acts in our field. I’ve perused through the yelp pages for Penn & Teller, Copperfield, Mac King, even Paul Vigil to try and get an understanding of what audiences expect from a night out at a magic show.
Instead of covering all of the different magicians, I’ve chosen to focus here on just Criss Angel’s show as I’ve found it to be the most informative. For the uninitiated, Criss Angel’s BeLIEve show has stumbled its way through a delayed opening, underwhelming early critical and audience reception, several technical mishaps, and a complete retooling of the show. The show currently sits at an aggregated one and a half stars on Yelp.
I have not seen the show and provide no speculation or commentary on Criss Angel’s work. I
am simply interested in what we can learn from the feedback to his show.
Time Is Just As, If Not More, Valuable As Money
A consistent theme among Angel’s reviews are people complaining not only about spending money, but also the wasted evening. I touched upon this as a part of my Vonnegut article and Angel’s feedback shows strong support for my statement: the most important resource you take for your audience is their time.
This applies to any performance, but especially ticketed shows in destination cities. Your guests, likely on vacation, are choosing to spend one of their precious evenings seeing your magic show. They may have passed on a concert they wanted to see, or perhaps they cut their dinner short in order to make your curtain. In an entire city of new experiences and exciting adventures they chose you!
That is a great deal of responsibly. Can your show hold up?
Several reviews say they wouldn’t go to see the show again, even at _____ price. Many others lament that they should have seen _______ instead. They’d rather have spent more money to do other things. Even if your show is free, make it worth your audience’s time.
Another aside to this: many of the most heinous reviews mention their tickets being for a special occasion such as a romantic partner’s birthday, bachelor(ette) party, anniversary, etc. It is likely many in your audience have chosen to spend their special evening watching you. For many of us, we’ve been imported to their event especially for this occasion.
People Are Highly Sensitive To Children In The Audience
Angel’s show apparently features several dick jokes and potty humor. One review recalls Angel bringing an awkward fifteen year old onstage to get a surprise lap dance from one of the dancers. Reviewers report that there is mature language throughout.
Some people are into these artistic choices while others find them lowbrow and uninteresting. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that it is awkward to watch such material while simultaneously being aware of how many children are in the audience.
Here’s morality according to magic show audiences: sawing a woman in half is kosher but cussing in front of kids is an unforgivable sin.
I find this highly applicable to my own show. The more kids are in my audience, the less laughs many of my bullet catch jokes get. This has forced me to create three separate scripts: one when there are some kids, one for no kids, and one for lots of kids. Somehow it is okay for me to tell a small handful of kids that it’s okay to try this trick at home, but if the audience senses a higher child to adult ratio, this facetious invitation becomes less acceptable.
Be wary of how adults will perceive your show knowing that children are watching. Even if they don’t have kids themselves, they show a great deal of empathy for both the kids and their parents.
Your Advertising Matters
The show is listed as being ninety minutes but apparently clocks in at around an hour. People noticed this.
The material on Angel’s MindFreak television series is starkly different than what the show’s material includes. People noticed this too.
BeLIEve is billed as a Cirque du Soleil show, but features little, if any, elements which the world famous theatre/circus company is known for. People really noticed this.
The Whole Experience Matters
Reviewers begin their stories way before curtain. They recall their excitement to see the show, the ticket buying process, what they ate and drank before they arrived, their impressions of the lobby, how comfortable the seats are, everything!
They are also highly sensitive to how full the house is and what the general pre-show vibe is. I’ve often said that I would rather sell no tickets to my show than sell fifteen. As a guest, it is awkward to sit in a theatre without music or other people. The reviews for Angel’s show, which seems to average a 1/3 to 1/2 full house nightly, reflect the uneasy buzzkill which can befall upon an audience before a show with lame ticket sales.
You can’t control every moment your audience will experience before and after your show, but put some thought and effort into what you can do to heighten their night out. A solid pre-show playlist is invaluable. Friendly and educated ushers are key as well. Many of my failings for my first few theatrical outings were not paying enough attention to these aspects of show business.
People Recognize Tricks. Like, Alot
Angel has positioned himself as being on the cutting edge of magic. This means when audience members recognize stock tricks such as doves, razor blades, even sawing- they express disappointment and even a feeling of being deceived.
They also recognize the repetition of a single effect within the show. Many of the most recent reviews complain that much of the show consists of Angel vanishing and reappearing over and over again.
The standards for us on the lower end of the entertainment spectrum are undoubtably less lofty: I don’t believe the public expects the magician at the fair or birthday party to have 100% original material. But that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to show them things they haven’t seen before.
And I would argue that if you are selling tickets you need to be staging something beyond what audience can recognize off a shelf.
Words Which Frightened Me
To close things out, here are two reviews which really gave me pause. These aren’t even reviews of my show, but I feel like they easily could be if I’m not careful. I feel like they might apply to others in our field as well.
“I didn’t sign up for a comedy show ya know.” -Janet S.
“He expects you to adore him and assumes the audience finds him charming, attractive, and mysterious. He actually comes off as awkward, douchy [sic], & frustrated that we don’t explode in rapturous cheers.” – Patrick M.
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