This week, Jonah sits down with Stuart MacDonald to discuss storytelling, effective methods for practicing, and what to consider when changing your act. In 2017, Stuart made history at the IBM-SAM Combined Convention where he claimed all 5 top awards with his unique performance.
If you haven’t seen the performance, we highly recommend watching it before listening to the episode:
Stuart’s love of magic started in grade three when he received a magic kit. As he grew up in Michigan, he eventually learned that he was only 75 miles from the Magic Capital of the World, Colon, Michigan, where the Abbott’s Convention is held. It was here that Stuart learned magicians came together to share their ideas and love for magic.
It wouldst’ be until college that Stuart started going full time. Each time a performer would come to his school, Stuart would interview them to learn how they were touring. Through these interviews, Stuart was inspired to go full time and sent out brochures to the booking group MACA. They signed him on for five years, but it quickly turned into a fifteen year contract.
At the end of his initial magic career, he and his wife had grown dead tired of driving around. They had grown so tired of it, they decided to build a haunted house which accidentally became the largest haunted house in Michigan. This project took them out of magic completely, causing them to vanish from the a scene they were fairly hot in during the 90s.
Stuart proceeded to work a number of jobs over the years, primarily producing and working in advertising. When he eventually was just selling ads, he realized how depressed he had become and worked backwards to where he was most happiest: performing magic. Knowing that if he wanted to make a splash, he would need to go the FISM route once more.
How Competitions Changed
Stuart had competed on the FISM circuit before when he entered into the 1985 competition in Madrid. However, his understanding of the competition circuit was immediately shattered when he discovered that there had been in a steep rise in the level of skill and talent being showcased. His act flopped.
However, he had expected this to happen; his competitors had spent years on their acts and he had only put in six months. Competing gave him an idea of where he stood in relation to them though. After the competition he met with Gene Anderson who told him that the mirror was simply a concept. He wanted it to be a story.
Bringing in a new take on his act with the advice of Gene, Stuart swept the competition. He was flabbergasted that one simple change to his act could have a whole new impact on the audience. Since then, he has constantly been improving and reinvent the routine.
Intertwining Story with Magic
When Stuart was changing his act, he realized that he needed to complete change his understanding of magic. By bringing in his background in theater and script writing, Stuart was able to take a more story driven approach to his magic.
Stuart explains that he views each of the individual props in his routine as suitcases. He is constantly asking questions about the objects which allow him to branch down new avenues with his routine. These questions has brought his act to such a defined point that one change has the potential to change every other aspect of the overall routine.
To actually develop storytelling skills, Stuart recommends learning how to write scripts and follow proper story structure. You need to understand how to write conflict and how to justify the choices you’re making in your magic.
You also can’t be afraid to “kill your darlings.” Being able to edit out parts and recognize where aspects of the routine need to be changed is a large part in developing a stronger routine.
Stuart is constantly putting his work into the world for feedback. There have been a number of people who have had input into the routine and have driven him towards improving his act. However, the person who set him on the right track was Tobin Ost, a Tony nominated production designer, who sat down with Stuart and questioned every little aspect of the act. These questions were what set him on the path he is currently taking with his routine.
One innovative method Stuart uses to receive feedback is Facebook Live; he tells people when he’ll be going live and proceeds to perform for whoever has tuned in, requesting advice from his viewers.
However, it ca be difficult to get feedback. Most people don’t want to hurt or embarrass you, so Stuart recommends the changing the question you ask to: What bothered you? People are more inclined to tell you what aspects of the routine they felt stood out and could use work rather than the usual “it was all good.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
After winning the Combined Competition, Lance Burton told Stuart “Good luck at FISM. All you have to do is perform it in front o people on thousand times.” But, Stuart didn’t have a thousand times to perform it in front of people between then and the time of FISM. So, he decided to rehearse it 1000 times and make 1000 changes.
To keep track of his 1000 rehearsals, Stuart had a jar of 1000 pennies. Each time he rehearsed, he would move one penny from the jar to a similar jar. He could see the jar filling up; he could hear a penny going in; he could feel the weight of the jar. It gave him a motivation to keep pushing for the 1000 rehearsal goal.
Take Home Point
Jonah liked the idea of constantly asking “What if?” and going deeper when considering the choices you’re making in your act.
Stuart reminds the listeners to continually improve.