Routining – The Formal Side of the Equation

We have looked at the multi-dimensional world of routining for the informal performer. In that world there are fewer formulae and fixed ways of looking at routining, because informally one is not doing long routines for captive audiences, but at most linking tricks individually or in pairs for people and groups who may not have asked for or expected a magic show. As mentioned there, we might produce the four Aces and then do a trick with them, but we won’t do a five-minute routine of Ace tricks if we know what’s good for us (and our spectators). To do so would be to end up ‘putting on a show’ and dominating a situation where, probably, all people wanted to see at most were a couple of card tricks as part of the broader social interaction. It’s equivalent to someone asking ‘How are you?’ and then using them for the next half hour as a surrogate therapist.

Informal routining is improvised, based on a reactive and creative synthesis of tricks, audience and working conditions at that moment. Under those conditions one needs more an intuitive understanding of pace, rhythm, choreography and methodology and less a fixed way of doing things. Perceptive and interactive improvisation is key. Nonetheless one needs to know about the standard formulae of routining in order to maintain some kind of underlying structure.

As Hugard and Braue mention in Royal Road, we routine tricks both to help us remember and perform them, and also to create an effective sequence, ending on a high note.

The magic bore

We have probably all witnessed a magician friend at some time or other (or found ourselves doing this) putting on a 10-minute informal show for someone who – it was clear to everyone else present except the performer, lost in their own world of patter and routines – was watching out of politeness but was actually desperate to get back to the office. The world of magic seems to attract people prone to being ‘lost in magic’ and unaware of their audiences. Maybe such people should focus on formal performing!

A formal show is usually longer than an informal demonstration of magic, and the audience is usually captive in some way (often unable to leave immediately without disturbing the show). To perform a fixed routine – a set, act or whole show – in a formal setting, we need to understand the same elements mentioned, such as rhythm and choreography, but they are implemented to greater or lesser degrees in advance of the actual show; the improvisation is the precise tailoring-to-the-moment of those otherwise fixed elements.

Although there is no definite dividing line between formal and informal ‘shows’ – we can routine tricks informally as we saw before, and we can improvise and interact under certain formal conditions – it can help to think of them as two different types of performing. In a formal setting the audience follows us; informally, we follow each other in a natural ebb and flow of interaction.

At the table

One possible scenario involving a formal table routine could be at a house party where we are invited either as a professional entertainer or as a friend, to perform ‘a magic show’ (that’s usually the phrase to watch for). We arrange with the hosts to set up a table and cloth in a side room to the main party where people can come in (en masse or in groups) to watch our show. Hence our audience comes to us and fits in with our conditions rather than the other way around. Because of the formality, people are more inclined to sit still and watch as an audience (crowd behaviour) than act and react as individuals (as in a coffee-shop magic demo).

Let’s take a look at how the various elements of routining are applied to a five- to 10-minute card-table set. As we shall see, there is an interplay between methodological necessity and choreography on the one hand, and theatricality and effect on the other.

The design stage

First things first, we think about which tricks we want to perform. Just as writing a book doesn’t normally involve sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and then trying to think of what to say, we normally start with an idea. An author usually starts with a burning desire to say or write something, to communicate a message in some form, before sitting down at the typewriter. In our case we have a desire to link certain tricks because (a) we like those tricks and (b) believe they will work well together. We may believe they will form a synergy greater than the tricks individually. We may have only two tricks for now but these form the basis of our routine.

Let’s say we want to do a gambling-themed act and we currently have the ‘Lorayne–Gardner–Marlo Poker Deal’ and an Ace-cutting trick that we’d somehow like to link together (let’s say the latter is Frank Garcia’s ‘Riding the Aces’ – substitute any other Ace production you know). Methodwise, the challenge is to do the routine with a shuffled deck. This is not an academic exercise but a methodological necessity when we are repeating our show several times for different audiences and they want to see that the cards are mixed at the start.

So we have a challenge, because our two desired tricks both involve set-ups (one involves cutting the Aces, the other, producing a royal flush). Clearly we need to c**l the Aces and royal flush to do the routine. While we can c**l all eight cards in one go, we would then need to separate them out which is possibly more cumbersome than doing two separate c**ls. For the sake of argument let’s say the two-c**l approach is simpler. We now set about routining the two tricks.

An act can only be put together in theory at the beginning. – Ken de Courcy

The core routine

We need a ruse to cover the c**l, especially in a formal show where tinkering with the cards between tricks would create undesirable dead-time. Those reading this should know a simple ruse involving a f**** and then looking through the deck for the selection while c**lling the four royal-flush cards minus the Ace of that suit (let’s say Spades – the Ace we will c**l along with the other three Aces later). We then reveal the selection: we’re already halfway through the set up.

We now need to c**l the Aces, so we use a different ruse this time: we pretend to memorise the deck. Once the deck is ‘memorised’ we do the Ace revelation. With the four Aces in play and the royal flush set, we can now go into the poker deal.

Breaking things up

So much for mechanics, but theatrics must also play a part. We try out the core routine privately but something is not right – the pace of the two ‘set-up’ procedures is too similar; they are both quite drawn out due to the nature of the c**ling itself. We need to break up the two tricks to allow a change of pace. So after the initial revelation of the selection we decide for now to add a short ambitious-card phase.

This is purely for purposes of breaking up the two c**ls: we are inserting a short, snappy effect between two longer ones. Remember that none of this is cast in stone: we are adding a short ambitious phase, but this may or may not stay. Everything in the routine can be regarded as a placeholder for something more appropriate, but we will only know what is appropriate over time.

The ambitious phase also gives us an idea for a presentational theme for the whole routine. We can say that the first phase (finding their card) is about body language; we ask the spectator to lie or tell the truth as we question them about the colour, suit and value of their card during the first c**l. The new, in-between phase with the ambitious card we can use as a demonstration of ‘card control’ (whatever that means – like most themes, an abstract one allows spectators to interpret the theme however they wish).

Nearly there… for now

The routine is now starting to come together in terms of effect, method, and presentation. After the ambitious phase we can go into our second c**l, the theme of which has already been established: memorisation. After the pseudo memorisation we produce the Aces. We’re now ready to segue into the poker deal.

Or are we? Because the poker deal is itself quite long, we decide to insert another, shorter routine after the Ace production, again to change the pace and maintain attention. The classical ‘Red and Black Aces’ fits the bill perfectly, both in terms of effect and presentation: we can introduce it as an example of distraction.

Again, this may or may not be a placeholder for something else once we have tried the routine live. But we are breaking up the longer phases with shorter ones, somewhat like the black notes of a piano ‘breaking up the white notes’, and we are doing this because the theory for variety of effect and pace is well established in magic. We’re following a formula, and until we know how to override formula, we stick with it.

Lastly, after this second segue effect, we do the poker deal, the theme of which is cheating.

You will build a number of [routines], using different types of tricks – those performed at the table, those for use when standing and surrounded by people, and so on… – Hugard & Braue

The full routine

So with our embryonic routine created, let’s list the effects in order and look at their presentations and see how they come together:

  1. ‘Body language’ – duration: medium – reveal chosen card.
  2. ‘Card control’ – duration: short – quick ambitious phase.
  3. ‘Memory’ – duration: medium – pretend to memorise the deck. (This is not an effect itself but segues into the next phase.)
  4. ‘Sense of touch’ – duration: short – ‘Riding the Aces’ (or ‘HaLo Aces’, depending on conditions).
  5. ‘Distraction’ – duration: short – ‘Red/Black Aces’.
  6. ‘Cheating’ – duration: long – ‘Lorayne–Gardner–Marlo’.

Our embryonic routine is nearly ready to try. However, something is still not quite right. We need to look at the routine in terms of theatrical highs and lows or peaks and troughs. In particular we need to check the beginning and end to make sure it starts with something eye-catching (an ice-breaker) and ends with something that announces ‘The End’. In particular we need a ‘wow moment’ right at the end, which for now we are relying on the royal flush to achieve. Will it carry its burden in performance? The only way is to try it out.

‘M’ patterns

When we apply the ‘M’ pattern discussed previously we see that the routine does not start with a surprise or ice-breaker. This needs to be fixed. A quick fix would be to add something like the John Cornelius ‘Shrinking Card Box’. Although it doesn’t have a gambling theme, it is certainly an ice-breaker, and until we can think of something more appropriate we put it in as a placeholder. You never know, it might stay the course.

While the process seems simple on paper (and with experience it does become so), in reality the above process may take weeks, months or years. In fact, the routine above is referred to as embryonic because it never really starts to take shape until after we have performed it lots of times and applied feedback (ie, assessed audience reactions). Making notes after each show and applying lessons learned is vital to successful routining.

Contradictory rules

Here are a couple of rules about routining:

  1. Routine similar tricks together into a sequence.
  2. Avoid routining similar tricks together into a sequence.

Confused? It all depends how you define similar. For example, let’s say you know a couple of ‘sandwich’ card revelations such as ‘Quick as a Wink’ and ‘Black Widow’. Instead of treating them as separate effects, have two selections made together and lost in the deck. Now reveal the selections one after another using the two, normally individual sandwich revelations in succession. This is what is meant by routining similar tricks together. They share the same theme and give an impression of repeating ‘the same trick’ for the spectator’s benefit without actually doing so; you’re giving them another chance to see how the magic happens.

Where you don’t want to routine similar tricks together is, for example, when you have two different effects with no relation to one another but which have visually similar endings. For example, in the ‘Slop Shuffle’ you end with the selection face-up in the middle of the face-down deck. In the ‘Biddle Trick’ you end with the same condition, even though it was arrived at in a totally different way. Another example: in ‘Remember and Forget’ you end with one card changing into another; in ‘Lucky Penny’ you (also) end with one card changing into another.

Linking tricks

As a general rule, at least until you develop an intuitive sense of when repetition either works or doesn’t do any harm, and when it doesn’t, you would link tricks together with different endings. So if we have to look at things in a fixed, limited and formulaic way until we develop such an intuitive understanding, we would link say ‘Biddle Trick’ with ‘Remember and Forget’, and ‘Slop Shuffle’ with ‘Lucky Penny’, or vice versa.

It’s difficult to give examples which on some level don’t come across as random and logically undefinable. The double-edged sword of routining magic is that we can link most tricks together if we want to. When we know what we’re doing, we will know when we really cannot link certain effects and when we really should; but there’s still a pretty large grey area in between which is both our solution to and problem with routines.

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