Make No Small Plans with Steve Cohen
February 1st, 2019
audience, brand, branding, business, creating, developing, marketing, public show
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The “Millionaire’s Magician” Steve Cohen joins Jonah on Episode 148 to discuss branding, developing a show, and how to shape a career. Steve is best known for his long-running weekly show, Chamber Magic, but has also appeared on numerous television shows, produced a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall, and has performed all over the world for esteemed audiences.
Ever since he was six years old, Steve’s life has been driven by magic. As an eight year old boy, he was attending school dressed in a three-piece corudroy suit because he was convinced he was meant to be a magician. Doug Henning was his inspriation, and he wanted to give that magical feeling to others.
Throughout elementary and highschool, Steve would perform at birthday parties. He continued to perform during his time at Cornell University, performing for the likes of Carl Sagan and the Board of Trustees. Eventually, he decided he needed to put on his show, so he rented out the Black Box Theatre and put ads in the college paper. The shows sold out and this was his first taste of the entrepreneur side of magic which made him realize it was all worthwhile.
Finding your Brand
Steve wants to capture the elegant side of magic, with the hopes that he can elevate it beyond a comedy bar act. With this desire in mind, when he was searching for venues, he knew he had to find a place that would emulate the feeling of an old-style, salon show. The National Arts Club, the Waldorf, the Lotte New York Palace Hotel are all venues that have captured the feeling of the show that Steve wanted. After finding the venue, it became a matter of meshing the show to the environment by changing the clothes he wore, building props with the room in mind, choosing the right colours. These little touches all highlight Steve’s belief that you are trying to deliver the audience an experience.
His tagline “Millionaire’s Magician” was a phrase that he worried about using, believing it would isolate people even though he was already performing for millionaires. However, his friend assured him that it would benefit him, and he was correct. As he used this handle for his shows in London, the media started running with it, which eventually led to the media in New York covering it. The press continued to feed into this, making it a reality. Steve says that he won’t turn away people who aren’t millionaires because his purpose is to give people the experience of the 19th-century drawing room; he wants his audience to feel like the elite.
Giving an Experience
People will only talk about the experience of the show, so your show needs to be solid. Last October, Steve passed his 5000 performance of his show Chamber Magic. However, it has evolved over the years with his audience and his goals. While his goal is to melt the audience’s brains, he primarily wants them to leave to tell their friends and family about the experience.
When you’re putting together a show, you need to consider the material you’re putting into it. If you simply do the material everyone else is doing, you’ll become an interchangeable performer. People come to a show expecting to see something they’ve never seen before, so it is your job to deliver that experience. With this in mind, Steve often searches old publications for tricks that haven’t been seen in decades; he’ll then adapt them to his style by updating the methods and techniques.
In Steve’s book Win the Crowd, he covers the idea of maxims in magic, simple rules you can apply to take control of any situation. When writing the book, he wanted to remain true to what magicians are doing without tipping off non-magicians to the secrets. This led to him creating chapters around key concepts in magic, using magicians as examples of how these concepts can be applied. These maxims are:
- Be Bold
- Expect Success
- Don’t State, Suggest
- Practice, Practice, Practice
- Be prepared
Steve applies these concepts not only to his magic but to any venture he approaches. Going on to quote Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the Chicago’s World Fair, Steve says he follows the motto “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Steve views his career as one large experiment which he has the ability to shape. From his book, to his graphic novel, to the shows he puts on, every project he does is meant to shape a career that he can proudly look back on in his old age.
Steve first came across Max Malini when he was a young teenager reading Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay. The chapter dedicated to stories about Max Malini was a revelatory moment for young Steve. The primary appeal of Max was that he didn’t travel with a lot of equipment; he took a minimalisitc, almost improtpu approach, to his performances, which added more to the magic due to the seemingly unprepared nature of the effects. Steve highlights that Malini had a balance betwen planning and spur of the moment inspriation; by having an understanding of effects in his toolbox, Malini was able to make magic happen whenever he was presented with a situation.
When you do the same show over and over again, it can begin to feel stale or repetitive. To Steve, however, each show is a chance for him to improve and put on the best show of his life. Additionally, while it may be his 5000th performance of the show, it’s the first time for somebody in the audience; if he were to go on stage and blow off the performance, he is potentially crushing somebody’s excitement in the audience. Every show is a chance to make it fresh for yourself and the audience.
In terms of creating and scripting the show, Steve lays out his process in two layers: the procedure and the emotional hook. While the procedure is the instructions necessary for the specators, the emotional hook needs to be there so he can connect with the audience and leave them with something memorable. He doesn’t necessarily have a formula for creating hooks; he just free writes for three minutes and then chooses concepts and ideas that resonate with him. His major goal is to make it seem like he isn’t just reading a script on stage, so he carefully selects the words he uses on stage, knowing that certain language suits him and his show best.
What do you love about 2018 magic? What do you hate about 2018 magic?
Steve likes that people are attending magic shows and that there are more going on around the country. He notes that several performers have taken inspiration from his show, and he is glad that he has inspired so many people.
Steve is not a fan of videos that are made just for the sake of showing off moves. As a performer, he sees magic as being an interplay with the audience. He encourages people to still learn sleights, but to also look down the line of how you could apply these sleights to a performance.
Take Home Point
Jonah liked the idea of trying to make everything feel fresh and putting on your best show each time.
Steve likes the encompassing idea of just doing your best magic because people are interested in magic now. They find joy in it so if you can do the best magic possibly, you can bring them that joy.
- Evergreen by Steve Cohen is a book that will be released by Vanishing Inc. in the coming year
- Millionaires’ Magician
- Win the Crowd
- Chamber Magic