Oak Park magician deftly adapts 'The Magic Parlour at Home' for online audiences
Dennis Watkins had been performing five shows a week at the Palmer House Hilton for about 10 years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the hotel shut down in March.
Looking to stay connected to his audience, he promised to do a livestreamed show on Facebook on April 2. While he had no experience with online broadcasting, Watkins thought it would be easy.
"It is easy if you want to look like a 14-year-old kid livestreaming about video games," the Oak Park resident said. "It turns out it's not easy if you want to produce a professional-grade product. Trying to do that while sheltering in place without being able to hire production folks to come over and assemble a studio turns into quite a frantic undertaking."
It took about two months for Watkins to figure out a way to produce a virtual show he was happy with: He debuted "The Magic Parlour at Home" in July and it's been extended into September, with special discounts available for Labor Day weekend.
Creating the show involved working with a broadcast consultant, upgrading his computer and home internet, and learning how to integrate software into Zoom that would allow him to share the screen with audience members who were helping him with his tricks.
"I wanted the experience to be just as interactive and reliant on the audience members as the live show," Watkins said. "When we share space, when we're in the same room, that goal is a lot easier to accomplish."
While the material is entirely different from what Watkins would perform on stage at the Palmer House, he still is trying to give audiences the feel of an exciting night out. Everyone is asked to come dressed in cocktail attire and have their cameras and microphones on so that their expressions and reactions can be shared. Watkins has a partner that handles technical issues during the show, putting his volunteers on screen and dealing with issues that pop up from echoing audio to muting a household when a dog runs into their the living room.
"This is an interactive experience that we're trying to get as close to live as possible," he said. "I show you all the audience members, which encourages you to sit up, look nice and pay attention."
At the Palmer House, Watkins would meet guests in the lobby and get to know them a bit before the show, which also let him pick out a few volunteers for tricks. For "The Magic Parlour at Home," ticketholders are asked to log on 15 to 20 minutes ahead of the show to work out any technical issues and introduce themselves.
"As a magician, I watch people come to a magic show for different reasons," he said. "Some people really want to reconnect with their inner child and experience joy and wonder and they don't want to know how the magic works, and some people come into the room and sit with their arms crossed and they say 'you're not going to fool me.' It's really easy to identify. If you come to a live show, I'll involve both of those people, but I'll involve them at different times in different ways."
Beyond the technical issues, Watkins said performing for a virtual audience also shaped the sort of magic he can do since something as simple as asking a volunteer to pick a card becomes a lot more complicated when they're not sharing a space. Being on camera provided him with the opportunity to do tricks audience members might not be able to see from the back of the theater, but it also produces its own challenges.
"While I can misdirect a human eye or human brain, the camera lens is fixed and it picks up on absolutely everything," he said. "The degree of accuracy and proficiency with that super close-up magic is very different on camera than it is live."
Watkins doesn't know when the Palmer House will reopen, but until then he's happy his virtual shows have been able to keep him connected with his audience while also helping them connect with each other. He said many shows are attended by family members or friends around the country who aren't able to see each other in person.
"That's what this experience offers guests at this particular moment in time -- a communal experience that they can share with people outside of their homes," he said. "I think that is really awesome."•
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The Magic Parlour at Home
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 25
Tickets: $65 per household at themagicparlour chicago.com; tickets for Labor Day weekend are $15 off with the promo code "LABORDAY"