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Performance Art Magic…with No Secrets to Hide

by Helen Aldous

Performance artist Kerry Kistler shares some of the ways you can enthral a live audience with your art and a little showmanship.

Who can forget the Masked Magician? Back in the late 90s he appeared in four TV specials on the Fox Network exposing many trade secrets behind dozens of magic illusions – many of which were still being used on stages across America. During my days as a touring variety performer, it was not uncommon for some smirking spoiler to corner me after a show and make a snarky comment about the Masked Magician and triumphantly proclaim with a wink that they knew how our illusions worked. They were usually wrong.

But, there is one routine in my bag of tricks that never fails to enchant and mesmerize the audience, and no one ever says “I know how you did that.” It isn’t exactly self-working, but at least I’ll never have to worry about exposure by the Masked Magician, or tough angles, or difficult sleights, or exposing methods, or dropping gimmicks…although I do sometimes drop sticks of chalk.

That’s right. People actually view my performance at the chalk art easel as the REAL magic show. One day I figured out that my magic routines were the appetizer, and my chalk art was the main course – complete with loud gasps and standing ovations. And I’m not even that good. Seriously, I am not being modest, humble or ridiculous. If I HAD to hide one big secret about chalk art, it is this: you don’t have to be a virtuoso artist to “chalk and amaze” an audience.

This truth was proven to me again recently while watching “speed painter” D. Westry on YouTube. Speed painters and chalk artists are considered kissing cousins, because the main difference is the medium we throw on the canvas – their pigments are wet paint and ours are dry oversized pastels (from EternityArts.com). And more than a few performers have mastered both mediums. True, speed painters don’t have the element of surprise that chalkers enjoy with UV black light and hidden pictures. But many of them employ a secret weapon that works just as well. Curious?

I was watching D. Westry’s act in a talent contest on a TV talk show. In 90 seconds he created a large, sketchy painting that looked like a deformed vegetable. I’m not taking anything away from D. Westry – he’s a very talented performer. But even the main host later quipped, “I gotta say, I thought [the painting] was a weird potato…I think that’s amazing!” What amazed the host?

At the last second, Westry turned the painting upside down, and a portrait of the talk show host was clearly recognized. It took only a beat to sink in, and then the audience burst into a thirty-second standing ovation. Magical?? You be the judge, but I can’t remember ever seeing a magician get that kind of response with a $10,000 stage illusion!

Oh, and Westry even won the Grand Prize trip to Costa Rica with that simple potato-portrait. Astonishing, if not magical. Now, try to imagine the power chalk art can have when sharing your message.

To repeat: You don’t have to be a virtuoso artist to “chalk and amaze” an audience. If you have a solid grasp of stage craft and showmanship, I invite you to give it a try, even if it means doing a little pre-show work like tracing faint guidelines to follow. And please don’t howl, “That’s cheating!” A few spectators will always assume there is some “trick” to it. I’ve actually had a few teens come up to me after a show and ask if I use a special high-def, smart board technology that simulates live drawing – as if there MUST be some sort of digital “iChalk” magic behind it all since actual, live drawing seems impossibly hand-crank. I ask these doubting Thomases to reach out and touch the chalky surface of the drawing with their own fingers. Then I watch their expressions change, assured they will never yell out, “I know how you did that!”

Seriously, how is that NOT magical?

Kerry Kistler lives in Springfield, Missouri where he publishes Chalk Illustrated, a FREE quarterly magazine for performing chalk artists. Contact Kerry at chalkillustrated@gmail.com or subscribe today at www.ChalkIllustrated.com.

 



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