The Climatic Payoff – Make the Green Lincoln Appear on Stage

I once saw David Copperfield perform on stage.  In one feat of magic, he made a classic convertible appear on stage.  Impressive, yes?  About ten seconds before he pulled that sheet away, the pieces fell together in my head and I knew what he was going to do.  I saw the appearance coming and it was awesome.  Having your payoff be too visible too early is a concern, however, I feel that if the setup is right, the tension created by anticipating the payoff elevates that payoff from impressive to incredible.

The illusion started when I bought the tickets.  By his mere reputation alone, I began to suspend my disbelief.  I was paying to be mystified.  Before the show, a sealed Plexiglas box was casually raised on a chain above the audience by stagehands.  Chekov’s gun was placed on the mantle.  Copperfield opened the show by appearing astride a motor cycle inside a seemingly empty cloth box.  His stage presence and a knowing smirk promised the audience that we were just beginning.  He began to craft our disbelief, putting the elements he would need into play and establishing ability and credibility.  He made an audience member levitate, disappear and reappear.  He predicted details about a chain of people who would catch a ball thrown around the auditorium.  He told us a story about a girl named Gretta and turned a poem into a butterfly.  Step by step, he lead us further and further into the setup.

Then, he told us a story about his grandfather’s dream to use old license plate numbers to win the lottery and use the winnings to buy a green Lincoln Continental convertible.  He established that he was a storyteller with Gretta.  He had talked about dreams earlier in the show.  I could buy into this.  He asked three audience members for two numbers each and a detail about themselves.  I trusted that the numbers would fit in later, that he would pay off his promises.  He had the Plexiglas box brought from the rafters.  Aha!  The gun was taken from the mantle.  He opened it and pulled out a thumbdrive and an elaborately folded piece of paper on which he had predicted not only the six numbers, but the audience members who would provide them.  A rectangular cloth bag that had also been locked in the box the entire time and it held his grandfather’s license plates with the predicted numbers.  All the elements were present, the only thing that was missing was that car to fulfill his promise.  He was going to make the car appear, he had to make it appear.  And then he did it.  He paid off on my trust and suspended disbelief.

The feat, which would have been impressive, was incredible because of stagecraft and setup.  His reputation prepared us.  His set up crafted our disbelief.  He put the elements into play and brought them together in an interesting way.  Then he paid off.  Bravo Mr. Copperfield, bravo!


3 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    Hi I just came back from Vegas and was very fortunate to be one of the people to be picked for this illusion and be on stage for the entire thing…if anyone can tell me where I could see this video to show my friends that would be amazing!

  2. Patrick Sullivan says:

    This post makes me think of James A. Owen’s Eggs Benedict talk around pitches. But if you think about it from the PoV within the tale itself, it almost takes on another meaning. When you build up the elements to come, as they pay off the reader gets more excited to experience that payoff in book.

    Though one difference from the pitch perspective goes back to something I believe I heard Brandon Sanderson say on WE, where you want things to fall together such that the details all click about a page before they hit the revelation in the book itself. But to get there you have to keep them wanting more with that Eggs Benedict buildup of showing them “this awesome stuff to come, and it is going to BLOW YOUR MIND.”

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