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.
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.
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.
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).
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.