What I learned from Comedians, Magicians and Circus Performers
Last fall, I knew I needed to make a hard pivot in life. A couple of themes keep bubbling to the surface but I didn’t have a playbook for how my next move would truly manifest itself. Instead I knew I had to go against the definition of insanity and mix up my routine. Perhaps in the change I would find a sign. I wanted different results and I wanted to transform my way of thinking. So I made a concerted effort to go out more, especially to live performances. Spending more of my time within artistic energy would get things moving in latent parts of my brain.
I began with stand up comedy. I live in Chicago so I have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I went from big venues to small hole-in-the-wall type places. Sometimes I brought friends along and other times I went alone because apparently people needed stronger motivations on a Tuesday night than offering a $10 show with no drink minimums. I caught headliners when they breezed through town but also supported super specific local acts. And while I wouldn’t dare call myself an expert on the Chicago comedy scene, I learned several things. The biggest takeaways I gleaned from comedians were to be fearless, command the stage, own your material yet be ready to improvise. Have a specific worldview but read your audience, look for non-verbal cues and moderate accordingly, especially if you find yourself losing them during a set. On some nights there could be a sound issue. Other times there could be a drunk heckler diverting attention of the crowd. But the best comics stayed gracious, in control and ultimately brought the focus back to themselves. And once that red light started blinking, they knew how to close with a killer one-liner.
Next up were the magicians. This kind of happened by accident. It started with an adult friend’s holiday party. She had hired a magician to work the room with card and coin tricks. It was really goofy stuff but I was captivated. Somehow it still manages to amaze me how you can watch a process from inception right before your eyes but the outcome is still something totally unexpected. It is in places where the eyes and mind are not trained to observe where the real magic happens. Between sets I spent some time chatting with the magician and I learned more about his lifelong passion for magic, the regional magician market (btw, there is such a thing as “clean magic”) and how he promoted himself. He admitted most of his business came through referral. Fast forward a couple months later, I’m at another small party and what do you know…another magician. More tricks and more awe. I mentioned to this new magician the other party a few months prior and inquired if hiring magicians for non-children’s parties is a “thing”. However, before I could get an answer to my question he wanted to know who the other magician was. I couldn’t remember the competitor’s name but he did have a signature catchphrase that I did recollect and could recite. With this information, the magician immediately recalled a name that I did remember. The magician then leaned in and whispered to me “we all know each other”. It was like magic.
Finally there were the circus performers. I only went to two shows but they taught me something incredible. The first is a prominent well known French-Canadian circus with several marquee shows in Las Vegas. Not too hard to figure that one out right? The other circus was a more obscure regional group of players I found via an online deal website during a trip out West to visit relatives. Collectively, the circus demonstrated the importance of team work, high performance and professionalism no matter the circumstance. The well-known troupe taught me the power of brand and how you must exceed expectations. When you have several highly successful shows under your tent (pun intended) and you come to town with something new, you will likely sell tickets fast and draw a curious crowd. So you best be ready to deliver as the bar has been established. The lesser known circus taught me something entirely different. With them, I did a little research before buying the discounted tickets and it appeared to be a family friendly animal-free act, an item of importance to me as I would be bringing children along. When I arrived we sat in a tent that probably had a capacity for about 500. Sadly, only about 50 people showed up that opening night. It was a beautiful fall evening and this circus put on an amazing show that on some dimensions could rival that aforementioned well-known troupe. It was incredible value for money and from the energy, focus and love they projected into the air, you would have imagined the tent was bursting at the seams with fans, friends and devotees. The lesson I learned is that the best show must go on no matter what the circumstance. You give it your all and beyond even when no one is watching.
Each lesson was not one that immediately registered with me at the time, but in hindsight I can see the change in my worldview has happened. Collectively, I have been given a new perspective.