When I see a performance I like, I often look for lessons I can apply to my own performances. Last month, I accidentally saw a performance that stunned me.
I was only looking for a music concert on Netflix to play in the background as I did some mindless job. But, the minute Taylor Swift’s Reputation concert started, I couldn’t stop watching the amazing visual spectacle that filled the giant indoor stadium with music, dancers, huge video displays, lights, confetti and fire.
Here’s seven lessons I learned that I’ll try to apply to my shows:
1. High Production Values:
On the main stage, behind Swift and the dozen dancers, two movable 50 ft video screens loomed over them like a building.
The X-shaped stage was a walkable video monitor that flashed and pulsed images as the dancers moved along it.
Fire cannons high above the stage shot flames and fireworks in sync with the music at various times throughout the concert.
Fitting with the song she sang at one point, giant snakes, as high as a house, emerged from the front stages and the back stage.
Dozens of dancers, taking several costume changes throughout the concert, added to the visual, mesmerizing spectacle.
At one point, Swift entered a tethered gondola and sang a song as she was slowly flown to the stadium’s forward stages.
Question: How does your show look? Is it pretty, attractive, and uncluttered? Do you ever use a backdrop simply for aesthetics. How does your show sound? Do you use high quality sound equipment? Do you ever use music or sound effects? How do you look? My friend, DJ, lives the philosophy that the performer should be the best dressed person in the room.
2. Awesome Opening:
Taylor Swift had two awesome opening songs. This is what immediately caught my attention. I’d never heard one of her songs. The last I knew, about a decade ago, she sang country songs. I was wrong. Most of her music was high-energy pop/hip-hop/dance tunes. I liked it.
Question: Do you have a fast, killer opening routine? I’ve seen some performers start their show with “Does anyone have a hundred dollar bill I could borrow?” Then the audience waits while someone makes their way up to the front so the show can start with borrowed money. That is not fast or engaging. An opening routine is a great time to do a non-speaking routine with music, or a fast manipulation act.
3. Personal Connection:
Taylor Swift took time between some songs to make a personal connection to her audience. She gave the audience praise and thanks. She expressed her love and admiration for them. She let her audience know she was glad they had chosen to spend their evening with her.
Besides being a performer for most of my life, I’m also an author. I’ve learned that readers don’t just want a great story, they want characters they enjoy spending time with. The character’s response to the plot is what humanizes the story. And the audience’s connection with the performer humanizes the show.
Question: It’s the same for our magic shows. Do you have a time in your show when you connect with the audience, share something about yourself, and interact in a way that seems personal and unique to the current audience?
Copperfield did this when he shared that as a boy he dreamed he could fly, or when he spoke of his grandfather. What’s your personal connection story?
4. Change in tempo:
Swift took time during her techno-pop production to play some slower-paced songs. In one set, she played a couple songs on the guitar. In another, she played a song on the piano—just her and the audience. The change in tempo allowed her to get personal with the audience and give them a breather from non-stop frenetic performance.
Question: Performers should probably follow this example. What can you do to vary your production? What would change the tempo or focus? When Copperfield was performing his annual TV specials, they were laden with illusions, but he always included a close-up effect in the audience or in front of the curtain.
David Blaine, who specialized in close-up magic, varied his shows by occasionally doing a mega-trick—if you can call turning yourself into a human popsicle a “trick.”
Ideas to add variety to your show: Do a routine with music, or a volunteer, or an animal. Offer your clients the option to add a pre-show close-up performance during the social hour before dinner.
5. Multiple Locations:
I was also impressed that Taylor Swift used multiple locations during her stadium performance. Her Reputation Tour was only performed in stadiums, so it would be easy for audience members to feel like they were a quarter mile from the stage (because some of them probably were!) But she did several things to make up for the huge space, besides the 50 foot projection screens.
Two smaller stages were positioned as far forward on the main floor as possible. These were the stages where she changed up her performance and did some mellow songs, and a dance song, and a song with a pair of guest musicians.
How she got to those stages was the most interesting part. To get from the main X-stage to one of the front small stages, she entered a tethered gondola and sang a song to her fans as she slowly flew over them. The golden-illuminated gondola made a stunning visual spectacle as it transported her through the darkened stadium.
After performing on the first front stage, she walked to the second small stage through a corridor of cheering fans reaching over the barriers and the shoulders of the security guards to touch her. It was another example of her personal contact with her audience.
After a song on that stage, she sang another song as the gondola whisked her back to the big stage for her final super-set.
Question: For us performers, this may be an example of how we can add variety to our show by performing in different locations, if possible. Yes, you may have to stay on a stage during your entire performance, but do you always have to stand in the center? Can you move during any routines?
6. Gifts and Souvenirs:
I was impressed that she gave a gift to every audience member. Each person received a light-up bracelet that was controlled by her tech crew. So throughout the entire show, their bracelets flashed in multiple colors in sync with the music. I saw light patterns flash and spread based on the attendees' location in the stadium. Each audience member became part of the show. And they loved it! Plus, Swift told them the reason they all have a bracelet is so that she can look across the stadium and see every single person. She gave them a gift and used it to make a personal connection.
Question: Can us magicians give our audience members gifts? We should probably present a small gift to each of our on-stage volunteers. But how can we gift the entire audience? A client asked me, and paid me, to create an easy magic trick to each of their employees in the show. So I put together a set of Two-Card Monte tricks in small envelopes to distribute to them all. A gift can also be used as a promotional item.
7. Mix of Styles:
Ms. Swift’s show included a mix of styles. Her music variety included pop, rap, mellow, and dance. But the show also included a mix of two video-only presentations without music, guitar solo, piano solo, drum solo, dancing, and conversation.
Question: Does your show include a variety of routines?
When I attend magic conventions, the routines that stand out to me are the non-magical ones: the juggler, the spin-painter, or the pick-pocket.
This is one reason I usually include a super-memory demo in many of my stand-up acts.
I’ve seen magic shows that include a cut and restored rope trick, followed by an arm chopper trick, and then a sword basket trick. Is that variety? No, because they are all the same type of trick: restorations.
If your show only has magic tricks, does it include all eight types of magic trick types: Production, Vanish, Levitation, Prediction, Restoration, Transposition, Transformation, and Coincidence?
Those are some lessons I accidentally learned from the Taylor Swift concert.
How do you increase the production value of your show? Do you have an awesome opening trick? How do you make a personal connection with your audience? Do you switch-up the tempo of your routines? Do you use the entire performing area? Do you give the audience a take-home souvenir? Does your show include a variety of trick types?
Have you learned some examples from other performers?