MY SCARIEST 8 SECONDS ON STAGE – Bo from the trenches by Bo Gerard

In my long career, I have been burned, bleeding, semi-conscious, and completely unconscious on the stage; but the “scariest 8 seconds ever” happened like this.

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Gretchen and I were approached by Rogene Russell, founder and driving force behind The Fine Arts Chamber Players, to appear with a woodwind quintet at The Kennedy Center’s Imagination Celebration, at the Dallas Museum of Art.  They had in the past used two dancers to liven up a part of a classic woodwind quintet suite, and thought it worked well.  So, she thought using two movement trained actors would work as well.  We agreed and were given a cassette tape of the piece we were to write and choreograph a piece to.  It was Malcolm Arnold’s “Three Shanties”.  We wrote three vignettes that took place aboard an ocean liner and featured three sets of couples in various stages of love and sea-sickness.

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When the performance date arrived, we showed up at the DMA, and waited for our slot in their program.  We had never actually rehearsed the piece with the musicians, but we knew the music cold from the tape, and were just hoping they would take the same tempo.  It was going to be their second piece, so we waited until the first piece ended, and then took our opening positions, upstage center with our backs to audience.  This is when the scariest 8 seconds occurred.  The quintet stared playing, and Gretchen and I quickly shot a horrified glace at each other.  We didn’t recognize the music.  We had never heard this music before, and it certainly wasn’t on the tape Rogene had given us.  While we both stood there, with our backs to the audience, unable to speak to each other, and trying to find a way out of this nightmare, it seemed like we were frozen in time, and that at least ten minutes went by.  In reality, only 8 seconds had passed before we finally heard some music we recognized, and we jumped into the piece with grateful vigor.  It turns out that the first few measures of the piece were omitted from our cassette tape.  Somehow, we kept our composure and performed the trio of vignettes without a hitch.

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It went so well, by the way, that the piece was voted “Best Live Performance” of the festival.  Based on this success, we went on to form a theater music collaborative, with Rogene and other musicians, called the “Dream Collectors”.  The Dream Collectors have performed at literally hundreds of schools, conferences and festivals for the past 29 years, and are still going today.  So, it was worth those scary 8 seconds, after all!

Tell me about your scariest 8 seconds!

INNUENDO, AND OUT THE OTHER – Thoughts from Bo by Bo Gerard

I am currently suffering from PCSD.  (Politically Correct Stress Disorder)

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PC, in the corporate performing world, has reached new heights in the last few years.  Maybe it’s a Texas thing; or maybe it’s an “I don’t want to lose my job, so don’t challenge anyone in the audience’s sensibilities” thing.  Whatever it is, it seems that the gap between what people will watch and enjoy on TV, and what they feel comfortable enjoying out in public, has widened considerably.

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Now, there are many kinds of comedy magicians.  Some use humor merely to punctuate and lighten their material, some use silly humor, some use dry humor, and some present a comic character that has a point of view.  I consider myself in this last category.  I don’t just use jokes and one liners.  I craft my comedy, based on my stage character’s personality, and the relationship I want to have with my audience assistants.

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My stage persona developed during the 80’ and 90’s, when there was a lot more latitude as to what was “acceptable” in a corporate show.  So, when there is a major shift in corporate decorum, it gets my attention.  Now, I’ve never done blue material, or any explicitly sexual or political material, or even humor that was anti-men, or women.  I did however do adult humor, that contained allusive or oblique remarks.  Yes, that lovely thing called Innuendo.  And audiences ate it up.   The title of this blog is a perfect example of what I mean.  (Although I never used it in my act.)  It’s clever, suggestive, but not crude or offensive.

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I am now sensing that adult audiences are less comfortable with these kinds humorous remarks, so I have started deleting them from my act.  My act will not suffer at all, and my audiences and I are still having a blast, but it does give one pause.  Maybe all of this hyper-PC stuff is just a phase.  Or maybe it’s just the beginning!  What is your experience?

THE MOMENT I TURNED – Bo, from the trenches by Bo Gerard

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As performers, we can all probably remember the moment we turned.  The moment we saw the career we were going to pursue from that day forward.

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My turn towards Magic came considerably later than most.  As a teen I had always dreamed of somehow being involved in music.  Not necessarily as a career, but just as a life choice.  I loved music.  I listened to albums over and over again, analyzing them and mining them for the secrets of their structure, dynamics and emotional content.  This love of music led me to a short and not so illustrious career as a recording artist; singing, writing and recording with a band that got signed to a label and then fell apart a few months later.

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My love for music led me to audition for a new Off-Broadway Rock Opera, and I turned and saw a new possible direction for myself – Theater.  As I was transitioning from playing in bands to acting in theater, I was given a birthday gift by a friend.  It was actually intended as more of a joke than anything.  It was a TV Magic Kit.  Having spent the last few years singing and performing on the stage, I immediately saw this magic stuff as another possible tool in my performing belt.  Performing magic for people reached them in ways I had not known before.  So, I would perform for my bandmates and fellow cast members, experimenting with form and style.

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My interest finally took me to the famous Tannen’s Magic Shop in Manhattan, where one could spend hours watching the greats and near-greats of magic talking and performing for each other in the small showroom space.  I was further influenced by some performers I worked with, who incorporated magic into theater, and visa versa.  That was the moment I turned.  I saw a way to combine my energy and passion, into an art that viscerally effected its audience.  An art that could be used to make statements, both political, and social.  And it was a perfect vehicle for my comedic instincts, which I had been honing since childhood.  It has been a wonderful journey, and I am glad I made that turn.

What was the moment you turned?

DALLAS’ TOP, #1, BEST, WORLD-CLASS MAGICIAN’S BLOG – Unverifiable Claims by Bo Gerard

When it comes to modern advertising and promotion, “Hyperbole is King!”  Nothing beats hyperbole!  IT’S THE BEST!

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Before it had anything to do with Geometry, Hyperbole, from the 1640s Greek hyperbolikos , meant "extravagant" - literally "a throwing beyond".  We’ve all been guilty at some point of using hyperbole and unverifiable claims in our marketing, but how do you know if you’ve gone too far?  Since modern advertising is rampant with hyperbole, it doesn’t seem out of place for Magicians to make claims that they are the “Best”, “#1”, and “World Class”.  And these kinds of claims certainly aren’t new.  Performers have been making them over 200 years.

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Some opt for the somewhat milder forms of “hype” like “Simply the Best” or “Premiere”, or “Most Sought After”.  Some petition friends and family to vote for them in a local newspaper’s “Best Of’ polls, so they can claim that they were voted “Best Magician in Wherever”

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There are still some among us that would prefer to make only verifiable claims, limiting themselves to phrases (if appropriate) like “Award-Winning”, “Audiences Love…”, “Professional”, etc., while continuing to hope a prospective client will take the time to read some of the testimonial letters or view a video clip or two.  But in today’s fast-paced, buyer-entitled world, Old-School might just be, well, OLD.

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Nowadays, it seems that if you can craft your hyperbolic rhetoric so that it cannot be proven to be false, (or true), you’ve got the perfect modern advertising!  Take it from me – “The most Sought After, Award-Winning, Professional, Comedy Magician in the country!”  (Just try and prove any of it wrong.)

Answers to image puzzles:  I could eat a horse; This bag weighs a ton;  You could have knocked me over with a feather;  My feet are killing me.

THE QUALITY OF LISTENING – Bo in the trenches by Bo Gerard

We’ve all performed in less than perfect performing situations; actually probably more times than we care to remember!

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After you have spent the required time “on the boards”, and your show is strong and ready, you can still have the rug pulled out from under you by a bad venue, bad lighting, bad sound, bad placement in the evening, or all of the above combined!  All of these production issues have basically the same effect on your audience.  It hampers and diminishes their ability to listen.  If you have too many shows of this sort occur in a row, two things can happen.  One - you begin doubting your ability to make an audience listen, and Two – you start making changes in your show that make it less crucial for your audience to give you their undivided attention.

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I will share two experiences I’ve had that speak to the idea of “Quality Listening”.  I had been working with a certain local agent for 15 years, and he always seemed to put me in challenging situations when hiring me for a platform show.  But one time he hired me to do a half hour spot in a show that included musical numbers and speeches, at the Palace Theater in Grapevine, TX.  My spot went really well, and the audience had a great time.  After the show, this agent came up to me with a quizzical look on his face, and said, “What is it, Bo?”  I said, “What is what?”  He said, “What magic happens to make an audience respond that well to your show?’  I very politely explained, that if you put people in theater seating, in a semi-darkened house, and put me up on stage, with great lighting and sound, I will always connect with the audience that way.”  He had never seen me “kill” with an audience, because he had never booked me into a situation that made it conducive for the audience to really watch and hear me.

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The second story is about a pianist in Bar Harbor Maine.  Gretchen and I were walking home from dinner, and passed a hotel on our way back to our B&B.  We spotted a piano player through the hotel window and decided to stop in and have a listen.  It was a typical hotel lounge, and he was playing to a group of 4 or 5 people.  We sat and joined the audience, and then more and more people started to gather, until the lobby lounge was full of people – all sitting and actually listening to the pianist.  The pianist seemed delighted and started playing and singing pieces he hadn’t played in a long while.  Pieces that would have been wasted on the average talkative lounge bar crowd.  He also started talking about the pieces and the composers between songs, drawing us in even more.  After his set, we went up to thank him and he explained that it had been a very long time since he had an audience that was really listening, and I could see how much it meant to him.

Therefore, my wish for you all, is that you should  having at least enough great shows, to help get you through the rough patches!

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BREAKING THE ICE -The art of intrusion by Bo Gerard

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Walking up to a table full of strangers, who are busy talking with each other, and convincing them to stop what they are doing to watch you perform is a daunting task.  And the first words out of your mouth can make or break you.

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I’ve always disliked walking up to a table full of guests at a banquet and saying, “Hi, I’m Bo.  I’ll be performing magic tonight.  Would you like to see something amazing?”  First, let me be crystal clear, I don’t object to other performers using this approach.  If it works for you, great.  Knock yourself out.  But, the reason it doesn’t work for me is threefold.

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1) The statement is outside of your act.  It’s a performer ASKING an audience if he may perform for them. 
2) It gives them the opportunity to say no and leaves you (and them) feeling icky!
3) You probably have to ask that question in a style that is out of character with the way you will be soon, hopefully, be performing.

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So, what actually has to happen when a performer approaches a table of guests?  For me, the selection of the table is paramount.   I always case each table and look for either a group that is engaged in light hearted (non-business) chatter, or a group that is just sitting there and not talking at all.  These two are my best bets for not becoming an unwelcome interruption.  Actually, I usually prefer a table that has at least two women at it, for I have discovered that women decide just exactly how much fun everyone at the table is, or is not, going to have.  (This I have learned from 39 years of experience, and I will leave the explanation to sociologists or psychologists.)  Your opening line has to engage and excite the guests, while simultaneously letting them know that they are being approached by a professional performer (and not some weird Uncle).

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Whew!  Complying with all of the above is quite a tall order.  But trial and error have led me to an approach that not only engages them with my performing character immediately, but makes it very clear that they are safe and in good hands.  If the table is lively and talkative, I step up and say, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but they said there was some trouble here.”  Then I turn to a nearby guest (usually a woman) and say, “There it is, right there!”  The group invariably agrees that I have indeed picked the guest who is trouble, and we’re off!  I then say, “Now there’s good trouble and there’s bad trouble.  Let’s see what kind of trouble you are.”  Without skipping a beat, I am taking her hand and placing a sponge ball in her palm.  I then ask the guest next to her if I can borrow their hand, and I place another sponge ball in their hand.  I proceed with my opening trick and they don’t even know that I am a magician until the tricks’ payoff.

And just like magic, I’ve done it!  I’ve started my act immediately, and in character.  And I didn’t ask their permission to perform.  And my rejection percentage is almost nill.  I do occasionally have to resort to the “Would you like to see some magic” type opening, if the crowd is very stodgy or standoffish, and I still don’t like it.  But sometimes ya gotta to do what ya gotta to do.

COVER ME – Imitation vs Inspiration by Bo Gerard

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Magicians, like musicians, often perform material that has been previously released and made famous by another artist.  So, the question is, what kind of “cover artist” are you?  Do you re-create other magician’s effects, or do you use them as a leaping off point to create an effect that is so personal, so idiosyncratic, that no one else could copy it.

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I am always intrigued when I see magicians looking down their noses at other magicians that use props like a Vernet Tip or an Egg Bag, tacitly implying that the harder a trick is to learn, the better the trick is.  But it might be a mistake equating “difficulty level” to “entertainment value”.  Maybe it’s not the move, or slight, or prop at all; maybe it’s what you do with it.  And how about why you use it?  From where inside your character does using a particular slight or prop come from.

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A lot of bands have released cover tunes over the years, but the one’s that really resonate with me are the versions that reveal a very personal take the artist has on the song.  Like Bobby McFerrin’s cover of the Beatles “Blackbird”; and Joe Cocker’s “A Little Help From My Friends”; and my all-time favorite cover, Earth Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”.  They didn’t just reproduce the original version, they were inspired by it and made it their own; and in an unforgettable way. (Coincidentally, all Beatles songs!)

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My “magical moment”, when it comes to realizing how this related to magic, was back in 1979, when I saw a friend and fellow performer, R.J. Lewis, perform Fraidy Cat Rabbit.  I had seen the prop before and dismissed it as the type of trick only a beginner would perform.  But, when I saw R.J.  do it, I was bowled over!  He had that audience in his pocket, and by the time he got to the blow off, they were howling.  I learned a lot that day about making a trick so much a part of your character, that it seems you were actually the one who invented it.

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And, by the way, if you think you can’t thoroughly entertain an adult audience with an egg bag, check out Jeff Hobson tearing it up with his version; done in his own inimitable style.  

The lesson here is: Inspiration always trumps Imitation.

ONLY SHOW THEM ENOUGH TO WIN – Part Two by Bo Gerard

Last week, in Part One, we learned of a time in show business history, when it was not only OK to have more than one performing skill, but it was actually advantagous.  We also learned how the title of this blog refers to a certain body part belonging to the great comedian, Milton Berle.  But more on that later.  First a true story.

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The dark ages for the "Triple Threat" were still raging when I was chosen to be the "Marlboro Magician" for the State of Texas.  The ad agency that came up with the idea of putting magicians into thousands of bars and nightclubs around the country, to promote the idea that Marlboro loved its customers, brought all 20 of magicians they had chosen to Chicago for a training/hype meeting.  After our first session, we all retired to the hotel bar, and there I found a piano.  I started playing and singing and encouraged the others to sing along.  Between songs, one of the other magicians came up to me and said, “You play pretty good!  You must be a lousy magician.”  He was obviously of the opinion that you could not do more than one thing well in show business.

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Even some incredibly talented performers had to downplay their other talents to make it big.  For example, no one knew that Ben Vereen was an amazing singer and dancer, when they fell in love with his performance in the mini-series “Roots”.  And Ben was just fine with that.  Only show them enough to win.

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In case you didn’t read last week’s blog, the title of this blog is a reference to the famous story of when a newcomer to the comedians’ lunch table at the Beverly Hills Country Club, challenges Milton Berle.  The newcomer had heard all of the stories of the allegedly enormous size of Berles’ member and thought he could out measure him.  As they got up from the lunch table, heading for the men’s room to settle the bet, George Burns told Milton, “Only show him enough to win!”

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When I started doing corporate after-dinner shows, I was still occasionally performing for family audiences as my clown character, and I had to be very careful not to let either my corporate clients or my family clients learn that I did both.  I would have lost both sides of the business.

Strangely enough, I think the tide started turning for the "Triple Threat" when it finally became acceptable for film actors to do television, without expecting to never to do film again, as it had been the case for decades.  And as the years progressed it is not only perfectly fine for actors to jump from TV to film and back, but they are actually admired if they can not only act, but write, direct, sing and dance as well.  The "Triple Threat" is back, and we’re all the better for it.