Stage by Stage - John Graham
This book is one of the most important magic books to come out in the 21st century for those who want to perform a magic act on a stage. A bold statement, indeed, but one I stand by. By the time you finish reading this book, you will have all of the knowledge you need to write your own stage show from beginning to end even if you currently only perform close up magic. More importantly, you will know exactly what the next steps are once you have written the show.
We often hear reviewers exclaim, “They are handing you everything on a silver platter!” Well, in this example, it is actually true. You learn every trick in John’s show--three shows, actually. That’s not where the real value is, though. The real value is that you also learn every line, every bit, every joke, every music cue, every thought process, precisely how to set up your case before the show, what table/case combinations you can use, how to organically engineer all of the props for your show from beginning to end, and much much more.
I have genuinely never read a magic book that went so in-depth on the thinking behind creating a show from beginning to end. No stone is left unturned, and the sheer thought that has gone into John’s three shows is inspiring to say the least. It made me feel wholly inadequate with the preparations I have gone into for my shows, and it gives me all of the tools I need to make my show immediately better. This is a masterclass.
Don’t read this book for the tricks. The tricks are great, don’t get me wrong. I want to use one or two of them in my own act. However, don’t read the book for that. Read it for the vast knowledge shared on how to turn a magic show from a list of tricks into a complete performance piece.
Before we get into the content, I want to say the quality of this book (and all books released by VanishingInc) is hard to beat. The cover work is gorgeous, but the true design work shines throughout the pages. The layout is crisp and clean, and the artwork from page to page (by Asi Wind) inspires me to keep reading. Congratulations to Andi and his team for such wonderful work on this.
Now, let’s jump into the contents.
The book begins with a Foreword by Asi Wind detailing how Asi and John met working as opening acts for big name performers who were the “main act.” Asi expresses his surprise at how quickly John became the “main act” rather than the opening act. This is followed by an Introduction which explains that this book is one John wishes he had when he first ventured into stage work. In this book, John is trying to teach what Harry Lorayne deemed “unteachable” namely, how to perform and entertain with the magic you do. This is followed by a brief discussion titled The Magic Show which points out how grand it is to be doing a magic show.
Chapter 1 - You Are Here
This chapter focuses on amplifying close-up material in order to bring it to the stage.
Beginning from Where You Are - This book really meets the reader where they are at. This section encourages the reader by stating you already have everything you need to get started. You don’t have to jump straight to a huge stage performing for thousands. Instead, get there in small stages. Begin where you’re at, and search your close-up repertoire for routines that you already do.
The effects in this section are discussed as if they are being performed on a small “stage” for a group of 30 people close up gathered around a table.
Name-Dropper - You’ll quickly find that every trick in this book is John’s take on another creator’s material. There’s nothing wholly new and original, and yet, the changes John makes to each routine elevates it. It is clear that these changes came about from years of trial and error for audiences. This first routine is John’s take on Paul Harris’s “The Anything Deck.”
The changes John has made allows for a much cleaner presentation with plenty of opportunities for comedy by play. This handling eliminates all fumbling, and one of the biggest benefits is that it is instantly reset at the end of the routine with no additional work.
Continuing From Where You Are - You have now progressed to performing on a slightly larger stage for fifty people sitting in rows of chairs theatre style.
MVG - This is John’s take on Harry Lorayne’s “Magician vs. Gambler,” but this is performed FASDIU without any set up.
It may not seem like a big point, but being able to perform this FASDIU allows you to perform it at any time in your set, and the cards can be signed which makes it clear that the trick is thoroughly impossible. It follows the classic presentation of a magician vs a gambler.
The Lazy Man’s Card Trick - Another classic Lorayne trick given new life. John performs this with a presentation about what trick he shows people after the show. It allows for some great byplay and a very interesting stage picture. The biggest thing John has added to this is the ability to perform it FASDIU following MVG. This concept he has come up with does not only work right after MVG, there are several instances where you’ll be able to use this routine. I think it’s a great addition that warrants its inclusion here.
Progressing From Where You Are - The reader has now progressed to performing in a room set up banquet style for seventy people.
The Ring - A borrowed ring appears on a keychain. The ring is then used for a visual ring on rope routine that can easily play for a crowd this size. The ring is then found in a sealed envelope.
This is a great progression of effects that build in impossibility and have a great variety of mental images for the audience to enjoy. John says this is one of his most requested routines. It plays for a much bigger audience than you’d expect. The action of the routine itself is quite small, so the people in the back definitely won’t see the full effect in the same way the on stage spectator does, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s more about the spectator’s reaction than the effect itself.
Advancing From Where You Are - At this point, you are ready to begin performing on bigger stages. Now you look to adapt your current repertoire in order to get it off the table and into your hands. This section shows an example of this process by providing two versions of the same trick. The first version is for close up and the second version is that same trick adapted for stage.
Sybil the Impromptu Trick - This is Chris Kenner’s “Sybil the Trick” done FASDIU with no set up.
It’s a wonderful addition to the original routine, and it makes it instantly more practical and performable at any time in your set. I think it’s wonderful. The effect itself is powerful, and the ability to perform it any time is a huge strength. Also, John has altered the handling to eliminate the Sibyl cut.
Sybil the Stage Trick - This variation shows how a small handling change makes this close up effect suitable for stage. It’s really two small changes that take the routine from a tabletop to entirely in the hands and at chest level. It is now large enough to play for 100-150 people.
Chapter 2 - The Three Ps
This chapter discloses the three important steps towards created a great show: Planning, Performing, and Perfecting. This is an 18 page essay which breaks down each P-word with detailed accounts of all of the steps you must take to build a show and make it as good as it can be.
Chapter 3 - Tricks
This chapter contains several tricks which will be combined into three different shows at the end of the book to teach about structure and routining. But in order to know what is going on, the tricks are each explained in this chapter before being built into a show.
This section discusses four things to keep in mind when coming up with the opener for your show. What follows is two effects which can be used as openers.
Final Sale - This is John’s take on On Sale/Priceless. A named price is found on a tag on the performer’s suit jacket.
I love priceless. I have used it several times in my shows, but I wasn’t 100% pleased with the bulkiness and the handling. I tried to develop ways to hide the dirty work, but ultimately, it fell out of my show. John experienced similar feelings when he performed priceless, so he set about to create a new method. I think what he has created is absolutely genius. There’s nothing mechanical, nothing to stop working or break down, there’s just a really clever method which creates a very strong version of the “guess the price” trick. I love this. For me, this wins the WTP Award.*
The Examiner: Special Edition - This is John’s take on Al Baker’s Torn and Restored Newspaper. This version allows the paper to be examined and it ends completely clean.
You may recall this from a PHP Release in 2015. The release with Paul Harris had some minor tweaks to the method, but this is the tried-and-true method that John used long before creating the new version. It solves the problem of ditching the pieces without having to go to the pocket or having a pocket in the paper itself. There is an aspect of the handling that I imagine many people won’t like, but I think it remains invisible. The gimmick itself is simple to make up in less than 5 minutes.
This section describes four things to avoid when looking for middle pieces in your show. This essay is helpful for those developing a set, and it serves as a nice reminder to always have variety in your show. Two routines and a gag follow as examples of middle pieces.
Buffalo John - This is John’s take on Buffalo Bill/Cuff Links by Harry Anderson. This is the main center piece of John’s show.
This is not a trick. It’s an entire 20 minute routine in and of itself. It involves borrowed money traveling to an impossible location, a barcode gag with a prediction payoff, card flourishes, a card prediction with a gag using a white board that becomes a visible revelation, money transforms in a wallet that the spectator is holding, paper is torn and restored into a hat, and it ends with the classic $100 bill switch which is fully justified by the preceding effects. This isn’t just a list of routines. These tricks blend one into the other, they overlap, they set up early and pay off later, they have a rhythm which is unexpected, and ultimately, the flow is wonderfully unique and creative. It’s a great example of the power of routining before we are even in that section of the book yet! John tells and explains all.
Never the Less - This is a comedy diminishing cards gag. No magic takes place, but it provides a fun interlude for the audience, and it gives the performer the opportunity to create organic engineering later on when developing a full show.
Catch Me If You Can - A story of the magician catching food in his mouth turns on its head when a paper bag puppet catches a ball of paper that has the spectator’s hand-drawn favorite food on it.
I love this routine. It’s quirky, it’s whimsical, it’s totally unexpected, and it allows you to perform a card sword type routine without playing cards. As odd as it sounds, the routine actually has an internal logic to it which seems to make sense in some bizarre way. I love this routine, and I will use it. This wins another WTP Award*
This section provides John’s thoughts on what makes a good closer. Three closing routines follows.
Now & Later - This is John’s take on the lasso card trick performed with an ordinary piece of rope.
This would have fooled me badly if I had seen it in person. The classic lasso card trick is performed with a normal rope, and the spectator can keep the lassoed card/rope at the end. It’s great. It’s one of the rare situations where eliminating a gimmick provides no visual compromise whatsoever, and it greatly enhances the routine by handing out the rope and card at the end. I will use this routine, therefore it wins another WTP Award.* However I can safely say I would change the routine up quite a bit to make it fit me. This routine has a style of comedy which is based on taking a joke too far. For those theatre people out there, this routine makes me think of the “Oh my God” moment with Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher. It works great for John and his personality, though. It may seem like a strange trick to use as a closer, but when you see it within the context of the full show, it makes perfect sense.
The Lemon Trick - This is John’s take on Barrie Richardson’s Bill in Lemon.
This is already such a strong method. Pair this with the additional subtleties John has added and the strong presentation, and suddenly, you have a showstopper that couldn’t be topped. I particularly enjoy the stage picture John has created with this; it is unique and memorable. This is the best version of bill in lemon I’ve ever seen/read.
Square Deal - This is John’s take on Harry Anderson’s “The Brain Shows Off.” John’s routine eliminates the full deck memory stunt.
How many times have you seen a magic square routine where the number isn’t said out loud, isn’t written down, isn’t peeked, isn’t forced, and the magic square is created before the number is named? I can’t think of anything like this other than Anderson’s original. It is fabulous. I had never seen Anderson’s original, but I can safely say it is the best I’ve ever come across. The staging is unique and more interesting to watch than a performer circling numbers on a whiteboard like a mad scientist. I have never wanted to do a magic square routine in my act; I’ve simply never enjoyed the presentations I’ve seen. They always feel like the performer is showing off with no real purpose, and I’ve found it to be anything but magical. This routine changes all of that. John’s additions and changes to the original allow this to feel like a spur-of-the-moment impromptu demonstration while making the routine easier to perform than Anderson’s original. I can’t believe I’m doing this but here goes: another WTP Award*
Chapter 4 - Structure and Routining
This chapter builds three shows out the tricks discussed in the book and lays out the organic engineering of the props for each.
Three main principles are discussed: Keeping it Consistent, Organic Engineering, and Building Bookends. Each section gives plenty of examples to ensure the reader fully understands the concepts. From this moment to the end of the book is where the true value lies. These are the chapters that turn your string of tricks into a show. This is where you begin to see that John is a class act with years of real-world working experience. This is a masterclass in structuring and routining. These are the tips that you rarely read, and even then, I’ve never found it explained so clearly and practically.
Chapter 5: Beyond the Tricks -
Once you have the order of your show set, and you know how to organically introduced your props, what’s next? That’s exactly what this chapter covers.
Jokes, Lines, & Bits - This section provides examples of each and teaches the reader how to say the joke, line, or bit as an organic part of the show rather than as a random thought that comes from nowhere. These jokes, lines, and bits are all very funny and could be fit into many shows.
We now get a second look at the three shows created in the last chapter. This time, the shows now have jokes, lines, and bits added in to begin to make the show feel more full. We even begin to see how the jokes can be used to set up a running gag or a callback later on in the show. This shows us not only what jokes John inserts, but why he inserts them and how even these jokes can be used to create a show that feels like it goes together.
Music - This section teaches the reader when to use music in the show, what type of music to use, and how to use music most effectively.
We take another look at the previous three shows this time with all of the music/tracks in place, and all of the cues which show precisely when each track begins.
Tables & Cases - This section discusses three options of a table/case design that would be effective for any show. We learn about a custom made table/case, an easily accessible aluminum case/table, and a cloth box/table. We also learn the pros and cons of each.
Prop Management - This section assigns one of each type of table/case from the previous section to each of the three shows we’ve been studying.
We then get an in-depth look at the entire table/case set up for each show. It may not sound like it, but there is real value here. You can see the detailed level of thought that goes into John’s shows. Not only can you see exactly where everything goes, you’ll also learn why he puts things where he does. This is another example of how you know John is a working pro. These are the things hardly any other resource is covering in such detail.
This entire chapter wins a WTP Award*
Chapter 6: Putting Everything Together -
We have three shows that could each be performed for an audience. Now what? Now we get a look behind the curtain into John’s thinking process to see exactly how he takes his show and continues to analyze it to find how it can get even better.
Show #1 - For the first show, we are given the questions John has asked, and we are given the answers he has come up with which make this show even more incredible. The show now has a phenomenal full circle/bookend moment three times in a row at the end! This is the show everyone talks about when they talk about John’s show.
Show #2 - For the first show, we were given the questions and the answers to how to improve the show. This time John just gives us the questions he would ask about this show. It’s up to you to come up with the answers of how you would answer those questions.
Show #3 - For the final show, John leaves the reader to ask the questions and answer them. This step-by-step digression allows you to slowly take more responsibility for how to ask the right questions to take your show to the next level. This is a pursuit which never ends.
Last Word - This is the one word John would use to describe what it is like to perform magic: fulfilling.
This is one of the best books on developing a stage worthy magic show that I have ever read. Vanishing Inc has been knocking it out of the park lately. This is no different.
This is the first time I’ve EVER given out 5 WTP Awards in one review, and it deserves each one of them.
This has immediately made its way to my number 2 spot on the best items I have ever reviewed on this blog.
See the full list here: https://www.magicreview.org/top10
*The Worth the Price Award, or WTP Award for short, is a new system I will have in place when reviewing books. Look out for the WTP Award(s) to know which routine(s) or principle(s) is my favorite