I Need A Volunteer, Please!

Choosing a volunteer from the audience may seem like a very miniscule aspect of your performance. After all, you have enough things to worry about. Are the props set, is the 3 of diamonds in my left pocket, is the sound system working, is my fly zipped? You know from experience that there are plenty of things that could adversely affect your performance if you aren’t prepared. If thinking about selecting a volunteer from the audience is on your list of priorities at all, it’s probably way down at the bottom. My performance relies very heavily on interaction with the audience and individuals that I bring on stage. Therefore, I have put a lot of thought into the so called selection of “volunteers”. Actually, when I perform, there are no volunteers. Even though I have plenty of people on stage during the show, none of them have actually volunteered. I know, that doesn’t make sense now, but I will explain it in detail later.

First of all, let me tell you a couple of my pet peeves concerning the selection of volunteers. I know that this first one is merely my personal opinion and I know that many or probably most stage performers will disagree.

Lost & Found

This first scenario has taken place at probably every magical stage performance I have ever attended and therefore my thinking is probably all wrong. If everyone does it, it must be right… Right? I don’t understand it. I don’t like it. I think it’s ridiculous, but it’s the accepted norm.

Imagine, if you will, the magician is on stage and announces he will need a volunteer for his next effect. The music begins to blare, the magician struts into the audience, and begins strolling up one aisle and down the other occasionally stopping to survey the audience. The expression on his face indicates that he has possibly lost his car keys, his dog, or possibly his mind.

What the hell is this guy looking for? A whole audience full of people and he takes 5 minutes to find one volunteer. Has his flash pot blinded him? Is he thinking of organizing a dodge ball game and looking for the biggest and strongest? Wait…. I think he’s found one. Nope false alarm…keep looking. Perhaps he can’t remember where his stooge is sitting. Or my favorite theory is that this traditional way of locating a spectator was started by a magician that was a geek during his school years and never got picked first for anything. It’s now payback time. I’m the big time magician. I have the power to grace you with the privilege of joining me on stage. The rest of you are not good enough….so there.

If there is any benefit to this ceremony, I suppose that it would be that you have a bunch of kids jumping up and down screaming “pick me! pick me! Obviously that does create some degree of excitement in the show However to me it appears to be a rather shallow and cheap response and not at all related to your ability to entertain. If the audience is predominantly adults, I see absolutely no benefit at all unless you just want to waste time, rather than entertain.

The Side Table Volunteer

Fortunately, I haven’t observed this on near as many occasions as the above. However, I have seen it more than once and once was too many. I will relate one such occasion that occurred while taking the family on an outing to a theme park. The park has been closed now for several years and the magician was a young college student that is probably now an orthopedic surgeon or CEO of an e-commerce company.

It was a hot humid summer day and my wife and I were dragging 5 kids around an aging but cheap theme park. One of the free attractions was a Magic Show. Great! After putting up with 5 kids on a sugar high from all the cotton candy, snow cones, and all the other goop that goes along with such an event, I was looking forward to sitting down and enjoying the show. Although the seating was benches with no backs, there was no shade and I had the remains of a candy apple stuck to my ass, the little theater was like an oasis under the circumstances.

The show begins. The magician rides in on a motorcycle after being introduced by a dance routine by two young sexy girls in somewhat revealing costumes. Cool, this guy had obviously seen his share of TV Specials or perhaps been to Las Vegas.

The show progressed very smoothly. It was a good show. Not great, but good. It was the run of the mill theme park illusion show. The magician was doing a fine job and he had the typical Metamorphosis, Zig -Zag , Dancing Girls, etc. He did have one problem. Not much of a response from the audience. In all fairness he was working under very adverse conditions. It was hot and humid. The audience was spread out and since it was late afternoon I’m sure most of the adults were thinking of how good it would feel to go home shower and sit on the couch.

Seeing his predicament and being a fellow magician, I immediately tried to spur the audience on by responding to his effects with energetic applause and sincere enthusiasm. Knowing that enthusiasm and applause is contagious I figured it was the least I could do for this guy that was doing a good job and sweating like a pig. I like to think it helped him out a little. Who knows?

His show was basically an illusion show that required very few volunteers to come on stage. However towards the end of the show he did at one point ask for a volunteer from the audience. Yes, he did the “Lost & Found “ bit as described above, but as I said previously , that’s to be expected (I still think it’s stupid).

He finally picked a young man that was overjoyed with the opportunity to assist the magician on stage. The kid was ecstatic. Once they returned to the stage, he asked the kid his name and ………that was it.

He proceeded to perform the silk to egg routine. The routine where you apparently let the audience in on the secret hole in the egg. Just when they think they’ve got it figured out, the egg is now shown to be a real egg by cracking it into a glass. Which is a pretty good effect. However, he basically ignored the kid on stage. If I remember correctly, the kid got to hold the silk for about 10 seconds and that was it. He directed all his comments towards the audience. The kid wasn’t a volunteer at all. He was basically a “side table“. His presence on stage had absolutely no relationship to the effect. The magician did not relate to the kid at all.

At the end of the effect, he thanked the kid for his assistance and motioned him off stage. The kid (bless his heart) shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, “But I didn’t do nothin”. the magician ignored that comment and proceeded to his next flashy illusion. The young man returned to his seat , which was close to where we were sitting. I could hear him repeatedly telling his mother, “ But, I didn’t do nothin” . His mother was trying to get him to shut up and quit embarrassing her, but the kid was right. “He didn’t do nothin” and the magician is the one that should be embarrassed for disappointing the young man.

Needless to say, I lost all respect I had for the magician. I immediately thought “OK buddy, your on your own now” and I joined the rest of the audience with a ho-hum attitude and less than enthusiastic applause for the remainder of the show.

The moral of the story is that if you invite a spectator onto the stage, you should make them a part of the show or effect. You had better be willing to share the spotlight. You must interact with that volunteer and develop a relationship that is entertaining for the audience and your volunteer.

Now that I have enlightened you as to what I think is deplorable in the way of selecting volunteers, I suppose that I’m obligated to tell you how I think it should be done. Is my way better than yours? Possibly not, but all I can tell you is this is what works for me and that when I do perform, my performance relies heavily on audience participation. Also a very important fact that you must take into account is that I am not a full time professional magician. I don’t rely on income from performing magic and I don’t even consider myself a “magician”. I am an entertainer that performs magic. Sure, I practice my routines over and over to assure that it will baffle the audience, but my interaction with the audience and ability to make the effect entertaining is far more important to the success of the show.

First of all, I’m a stalker. That’s right. I admit it. I stalk the audience prior to the performance. If at all possible, I will be peeking out from behind the curtain, through a crack, or around a corner. I want to see the audience in it’s natural habitat. I immediately start eliminating people and making mental notes of those that appear to be suitable volunteers. You can tell a lot about a persons personality by watching them without their knowledge. It’s not a big deal. I don’t write it down. I just pick out the ones I like.

I suppose that this would be a good place to fill you in on the criteria I use. Who I eliminate and who I keep on my mental list of potentials.

My first choice is a women. It has nothing to do with sexual preference. It’s simply a more pleasing picture on stage. It’s more balanced and natural. I may use up to 5 or 6 spectators and usually only one will be a man.

I try to avoid the beautiful shapely babe in the tight skirt and low cut blouse. Chances are this person has been the center of attention ever since she outgrew her first training bra. She enjoys attention and has come to expect it. Although she may be a wonderful person, her presence on stage will be overpowering and the other women in the audience may resent her. (Sorry ladies, it happens).

I do try to pick an attractive person. Again, it simply makes for a nicer picture on stage. Given the choice everybody prefers pretty over ugly.

Children and senior citizens are a different story. Male or female makes no difference. I prefer a more subdued child rather than the over exuberant one. If I am selecting a child or a senior citizen, I make certain that they are capable of performing the tasks that are required. I wouldn’t ask a four year old to remember a card and I don’t ask a senior citizen to climb stairs to the stage unless I am absolutely certain that they can do it easily. That’s where checking out the audience prior to the show comes in handy. I very seldom ever do a strictly kid’s show so I can’t say that my technique would always work in that situation. Children are no where near as predictable as adults especially when they band together and feed off of each others exuberance and excitement. They can become a pack of pit-bulls if not handled properly.

I have done a few retirement homes and I always arrived early and set up before the audience came into the room. By watching them enter, I knew which ones had trouble walking, which ones were alert, who had problems hearing etc.

Once I am introduced, the first effect is designed to make the people like me and to put them at ease. It’s usually something more silly than magical. I do use audience members in the first effect, however I don’t ask them to come on stage. I think that you need to get the audience to accept you and trust you before you start trying to drag them up on stage. The first few minutes that I am on stage, my goal is to convince the audience that I am not a threat, I’m not going to embarrass them, we are all here to simply have a good time.

Although I try to connect to the entire audience, I make it a priority to establish eye contact at some point with those people on my mental list of prospective volunteers. What is their reaction? Do they smile? Do they look away? Are they enthused? Are they having a good time? I am constantly and somewhat subconsciously changing the order of the people on my mental list based on their reactions.

Earlier, I stated that I do not use volunteers…. and I don’t. By the time I get to the point where I need a volunteer on stage. I already know exactly who it’s going to be. They are not volunteers, they are draftees. I have the control. I pick the person that I think would be the most appropriate for the effect and I can’t remember the last time I was turned down. I’m not saying that it works 100% of the time, but for me, I would say 99.9%.

Here’s what I do. “I am going to need someone to help me out with this next effect you’ll do nicely come with me.” That’s it. One sentence, no commas , no pauses, all in one breath and as I am saying this I walk directly to the person. I’m not asking, they haven’t had time to think about it. They already trust me, I’ve already got their approval through eye contact and I haven’t made a big deal out of it. If it is a lady I usually extend my hand to escort them to the stage. If it’s a man I usually motion for them to join me and turn to walk back to the stage and they follow. If not, I turn around and motion again as to say “ hurry up, let’s go”.

Have you ever asked a person to volunteer and have them say No. I have many years ago, but not any more. No one likes rejection. It’s kind of embarrassing. Also, once that first person has said no, it’s easier and more likely for the second person to also reject your invitation. The solution is pretty simple. If you don’t want a negative response, don’t ask the question.

Although this technique works for me, it may not work for everyone. You do have to have a commanding presence on stage. You can’t be wishy washy or meek and you do need to pre-qualify the person.

At first glance, this may seem almost rude to you, but if you pull it off properly, it really doesn’t appear that way to the audience. If you have the trust and acceptance of the audience, it actually comes off as being humorous and it usually gets a laugh.

If you think that choosing volunteers is unimportant or if you think my technique ridiculous I have one more suggestion. When all else fails, survey the audience and pick the lady with the biggest ……….…….smile.

By Ed Williams

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