What I Learned from 5 Years of Magic at The Limelight

I recently finished a five year stint performing close-up magic at The Limelight Club in Belfast every Tuesday. Even though I’m a self-employed contractor and perform at many other events, 5 years is the longest period of time I have ever worked for a single company. During this time I also spent over a year working every Saturday at The Academy – a similar club run by the same company.

The name of the club night is ‘Circus.’ I was one of many performers including jugglers, fire breathers and acrobats.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned and observed over those five years.

When You’re a Magician, Most Customers Are Lovely

We’ve all been in a job in which we hate the customers. They complain. They can be rude. You start the job with a positive mindset, but over time you become aware of consistent patterns of behaviour from customers that you know are not malicious. Despite this, these behaviours irritate you to the point of insanity. I remember working in a cinema years ago developing an irrational, fuming anger at patrons who asked for ‘a drink’ and not having the gumption to state which drink in particular they wanted.

When you’re a magician, the customers are your best friends. They’re polite. They try to buy you drinks. They even tip you generously. (Pro-tip: if you hear an American accent and you’re a magician PERFORM A TRICK FOR THEM IMMEDIATELY. Those guys love to tip).

Yes, occasionally you’ll get the occasional drunken lout giving you grief, or insecure brat who can’t handle not being the centre of attention in their group for 5 minutes. However performing magic has taught me to be more positive about human nature.

Perhaps when I was getting annoyed at customers all those years ago, the problem was with me and not them.

An Astonishing Number of People Think All Magic is Camera Tricks

I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard this sentence or variations of it after performing a few tricks:

“This is insane, I thought all magic was just TV editing or camera tricks.”

I always assumed that everyone knew that magic is a form of live entertainment. Yes, some magicians unfortunately cheat on their TV specials with clever editing and actors – but we all know that they’re a minority. Everyone knows magic tricks can be performed in front of a live audience, right?

To my surprise, I frequently meet people who have no idea this is the case. They are almost always teenagers or young adults, so it stands to reason that they’ve just had fewer opportunities to see magic in their lifetime.

I have another idea though. By the time I was 10 years old I had seen several magicians at birthday parties and holiday resorts. A fellow performer on the local magic scene was telling me his bookings for his children’s birthday party show have been drying up in the past few years.

He believes it’s down to a new form of kid’s entertainment – hiring some guy to show up dressed as a superhero. These costumed heroes can obviously undercut the price of a magician who has spent years honing his craft and spending a small fortune on props and instructional books/DVDs.

The end result is that fewer young people have experienced the art of magic in real life. This is great for the nightclub performer like myself; we get to enjoy the enthusiastic reactions of many adults who have never seen a magic trick in their life. Not so great for the childrens’ magician however.

Engineering Students are the Most Skeptical Audience

If somebody gets visibly frustrated at their inability to work out how a trick is done, there’s a solid chance they study engineering.

I’ve even had a few guys say to me before I begin, “sorry mate, this stuff doesn’t work on me. I’m an engineering student,” as if studying this degree somehow makes you impervious to sleight of hand.

Not all engineering students say this kind of thing, but everyone who said it was an engineering student.

Naturally they’d be in total shock when fooled by the most basic sleight of hand coin vanish.

There’s nothing wrong with this type of reaction. Everybody enjoys magic in different ways and we magicians can become hooked on the more visibly emotive audiences. Drama students spring to mind.

The analytical engineers typically react quietly, their minds deep in thought trying to work out how the trick is done. I learned to adjust the energy levels of my performance based on how I anticipated they would enjoy magic.

Social Media Could Destroy Society

Smartphones and social media are in ruining our ability to function. When I first started at The Limelight, I’d do some tricks and people would watch. Phones would stay in pockets and then maybe once in a while somebody would ask to take a photo when I was finished. No problem.

By the time I left, I couldn’t get through a night without a group of at least four people all watching an entire trick through their screens. Often their hands would instinctively glide into their pockets or purses without conscious thought. They’d often start filming without asking. It many other groups at least one or two people would record or take selfies as I was performing. The social network of choice was increasingly the most disposable of all – Snapchat.

It would be easy to blame these teenagers for being rude or obsessive about broadcasting their status, but I’m seeing it more and more across all age groups.

It’s also hard to blame them because these apps are designed to be addictive. Facebook has been in the news a lot lately about what they do with our personal data. That’s an important issue, but a bigger one is what are they doing to our brains?

Are you one of these people who can’t sit through a 90 minute film without feeling that pang of discomfort? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but your hand just seems to move by itself to grab your phone. You could be living in the moment and experiencing an incredible work of art, but for some reason you find yourself anticipating that sweet, reassuring red notification icon.

Many people worry about inequalities in society. The gap between rich and poor, inequality of opportunity, of ability etc.

My prediction that the real crisis ahead of us will be inequality of willpower and attention. Those capable of sitting and concentrating for long periods of time will surge ahead in life. Not just financially, but mentally and physically too. Many who can’t will be quick to attribute their unhappiness, lack of success or status to other explanations – polarising even further the arguments about personal responsibility.

Not only have I watched this unfold in magic audiences, I’ve lived it. I’ve slowly been lowering my usage of social networks for years and will continue to do so. It’s surprisingly difficult.

I’m aware that when I bring this up I sound like a pensioner sitting on on a rocking chair complaining about the youth of today. I’m also aware that I started this post by saying that most customers are lovely. That’s still true – customers on their phones aren’t doing so maliciously and it has to be said it’s often a compliment to my ability as an entertainer. However my worry is about the negative effects of phone addiction on the addict and society, not on my enjoyment of performing magic.

Yes, smartphones, Facebook and other apps are fun and allow us to be social.

So is alcohol, yet nobody thinks it’s a good idea to take a sip every 10 minutes of every day.

Be careful. Get on top of your smartphone and social network use TODAY.