For Budding Illusionists: Choosing Your First Illusion

If you perform a stage magic show, you might be interested in adding an illusion to your show as a first step to building a fuller illusion show. You will no doubt be wondering what a good first illusion should be. It makes no difference if you are new to performing magic at all or have been performing other types of magic shows for years. If you are new to illusion performance, this entry will be useful.

I think the first thing is to do is to identify the level of your performance of this first illusion. For lack of better terms, I will distinguish between a professional and an amateur performance For purposes of this discussion, I define a professional performance as a paid gig where you are engaged as a professional entertainer to perform for an audience. For an amateur performance, you may be paid a token sumo money but not a professional fee. This performance might be for a friend’s function, wedding, school show, church event, magic club show or charity event.

This is by no means to look down on amateur performances but it is to highlight the necessity for a stricter criteria when choosing your first illusion for a professional gig as expectations from the client/ audience are different.

For professional performances, you have a certain expectation to fulfill of your client who booked you or your paying audience if you do your own theatre show. They will be more critical of your material, performance and overall show production value. Overly common illusions performed with little original style may not be enough to impress your paying audience. Your illusion (and rest of your show) should look professional. I am not saying that it has to have to be a chromed industrial-looking prop or a painted box, but an old card box put together with fraying duct tape will not make the cut for most professional performances. The exception would be if you are using a ‘beat-up’ prop amidst a professional illusion set to create contrast.

If your illusion is for an amateur performance, you will have slightly more latitude in the look of your props, standard and originality of performance, not implying that artistic quality and standards should or need to be compromised. Makeshift props fabricated with careful detail out of cardboard ala ‘ Grant’s ‘Victory Cartons’ or Andrew Mayne’s ‘Voodoo Box’ will be good enough.

After taking into account the level of performance that you are staging the illusion, basic and practical considerations when choosing your first illusion include:

  1. The illusion must complement your performing style and character
  2. Your performing venue & conditions – Angles, sightlines, audience distance
  3. Your mode of transportation – car, MPV, van, lorry, public transport
  4. Your illusion budget
  5. Your support crew – availability of illusion assistant(s), stage hands, secret assistants

Here are some of the most common first illusions that many contemporary illusionists launched their careers with:

  1. The Sword Basket/ Box
  2. Sub Trunk
  3. Robert Harbin’s Zig Zag Girl/ Gunther Puchinger’s Mini Cub Zag/  Jim Steinmeyer’s ‘Modern Art’ or equivalent
  4. Robert Houdin’s Broom/ Robert Harbin’s Chair Suspension

If you do intend to purchase or build any one of these illusions I suggest doing so only if you have a radically different and enhanced presentation or variation. Because of their commonality and the fact that they are featured in over hundreds, if not thousands, of illusionist’s acts, many in your audience may have seen the illusion before. Though it is not crucial to the development of your magic career, since this is after all your first illusion, it will not hurt to present the illusion differently.

When I performed the ‘Sword Basket’, it was staged to an oriental theme (logical due to my Chinese heritage) with a ‘basket’ with an oriental design. It showcased a short Chinese ribbon-dance, fire-eating and a martial arts swordplay sequence. The illusion also featured a costume change of my assistant’s ‘Cheongsam’ (elaborate Chinese dress).

My traditional ‘Sub Trunk’ was (still is) fairly unique as it is a toxic-themed presentation. It features a crate covered with radioactive warning labels and was performed with gas masks (to create a timed-misdirection transposition). It also featured a double costume change instead of the usual one. This prop is now owned by an award-winning young magician from the UK. I currently perform an original-designed “Crystal Metamorphosis” with Ning described in “Urban Illusions”.

In place of the sub trunk, I recommend checking out Steinmeyer’s ‘Through a One Inch Hole’ illusion from ‘Device & Illusion’. I perform my interpretation of the illusion but with the a different presentational method. It somewhat retains the feel of the sub trunk effect but the actual illusion effect is very different from the ‘Sub Trunk’.

Here are some other first-illusion tips and resources to consider:

Paul Osborne’s books are a great place to start with illusions that your can build or have built. Andrew Mayne’s ‘Solo X’ details several practical illusions for the one-person illusion. Some of Mayne’s illusion booklets and other books are also popular with amateur performers.

I detail several one-person and two-person illusions that are powerful and fairly inexpensive in my book ‘Illusionary Departures’ that would work well as a first illusion.

If you are performing in a theater-type setting, you might have some luck with Black Art illusions. Check out Gary Darwin’s book ‘Inexpensive Illusions’ for tons of ideas on Black Art routines and other inexpensive illusions. While good illusions can be created by Black Art, you have to have strict control of lighting and the staging to create a deceptive illusion. Also, checkout Don Drake’s ‘Black Art Breakthroughs’ for more info on this subject.

Some inexpensive illusions on the market include, the ‘Chair Suspension’ and the ‘Tube & Spear’ Illusion. The ‘Ring Illusion’ is quite uncommon and packs small. It is a substitution effect and quite unique. Paul Daniels performed it as an escape of the girl (instead of an exchange) and the girl had changed her costume when the curtain dropped.

Don’t get short-duration illusions as your first and only illusion. If you are performing your first illusion, it will likely be the closer for your show so it has to have a substantial effect in content and duration.

Appearance illusions of your assistant who has been helping you throughout your show also does not make ideal illusions. Quick productions like a ‘Flash Appearance’, ‘Fire Cage’ or ‘Shadow Box’ are not good starting illusions as well.

Though not major illusions, illusionettes like ‘Dagger Head Chest’, ‘Head Twister’, ‘Arm/ Head Chopper’ are time-tested favourites that are affordable. I cover building a professional illusion show (specifically for events) and illusion selection extensively in my book, “The Event Illusionist” – A Guidebook to Building & Marketing an Event Illusion Show, and suggest you obtain a copy if you are looking to select your first illusion for a professional show.


About J C Sum

International Headline Entertainer, Content Creator and Investor
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