Bullwhip Performance…

Bullwhip Performance…

You may or  may not know that my full time job is as a Professional Magician, and I perform over 300 shows a year!  I’ve been thinking a lot about performing with a bullwhip and recently saw where an “expert” recommends being yourself and not a character.

Being yourself not exactly the best advice if you intend to perform professionally.  It’s fine for an informal backyard show, but not if you intend to make a living.  I can’t think of any successful performer is 100% themselves on stage.  When you are onstage and you are playing yourself, there are things you don’t mention, or embelish or just plain ol’ make up.

Before I go any further, if you asked the general public (people with little or no knowledge of whips) who are the most well know whip crackers in the USA, who do you think they’d say?

I’d bet that at least 9 of 10 times they’d say Indiana Jones, Zorro or some other movie character.  Wait a minute the most famous whip crackers are movie characters, that someone dreamed up, then an actor figured out a way to play them.


Here’s an example and I’m not going to name any names but there is a very successful stand up comic that I’ve opened for who is very much the same on stage as off…but the version of himself on stage is single where the real world version is married.  Before stepping onstage he takes off his wedding ring and makes no reference to being married.  He doesn’t do any material about being single either.  I asked him why he does this and he says he audience laughs harder when they perceive him as single…and yes he says he’s tested his show both ways with the ring on and off.

So basically my point is you have to think about what  you want to portray to your audience and write a show to with that character in mind.  Oh yeah, you need to sit down and write out your script as well.  Why is that important?  Well once you’ve decided what you are all about, you need to convey that to the audience.  That may mean leaving out jokes or whip tricks that don’t advance your character or general plot.

Now you need to think of Reactions Per Minute or RPM’s (I took this term from Stand Up Comedy that has Laughs Per Minute).  A reaction can be anything from and Ohh/Ahh to a laugh, to applause…it’s like the name says a reaction.  How many do you need?  Depends on your character, if you are comedy based your reactions will probably be higher because if you tell a joke and put two tags (a tag on a joke is something related to the joke that is said after the punchline) on it the RPM’s will skyrocket.  Where if you are a doing a more technical demonstration your RPM’s might be lower than a comedy act.

RPM’s is another place where me in real life differs from the me on stage. Whenever I do something at home I don’t “sell it”.  I don’t have a huge build up to me staining the deck, I just go to home depot, buy what I need and stain the deck…but if I were tell you about staining my deck in a show it’d look way different!

There’ probably be more jokes and hurdles in staining the deck, like (I’m just writing these jokes off the top of my head so they are probably horrible!):

“My wife asked me to stain the deck, so I got drunk and spilled wine all over it.”

“I went to Home Depot to get some stain…why don’t they call that store by it’s real name…Not In Stock?”

“Did you know they have clear stain?  Makes no sense, like having hot ice cream.”

“One thing the Home Depot is good at is upselling me to things I don’t need on the way out.  I ended up leaving with a diet pepsi, batteries, and two Mexican day laborers!”

“They tried to sell me an ergonomic brush…I didn’t know what ergonomic meant, so I looked it up on my iphone.  Ergonomic is latin for 30% more expensive.”

Now look at the ergonomic brush joke, while it’s not the best joke in the world, there is something important in it.  Did you notice the lie?  Probably not…I don’t have an iPhone.  But saying iPhone is a much easier way of saying that I looked it up on my Samsung Blackjack II smart phone.   Now if I was to “be myself” that joke would be a lot clunkier!

Also above are just jokes, then you have to sell why it’s soo hard (whip cracking is a skill act).  So during the build up you would might say/do things like:

Demonstrate a crack as part of the build up to a trick, and after the crack (with no audience reatcion) say, “You act like you see this every day…come on” and start clapping to begin to train your audience the appropriate way to repsond.

“Not only am I going to make the tip of the whip break the speed of sound and knock the flower out of this lady’s mouth…but I’m doing it into the wind.”

“If I’m 1/8 of an inch off she could lose a finger, so if I can do this and she keeps all her digits give her a big round of applause”

“Alright on the count of three”

In your regular “being yourself” life you don’t do build up.  I don’t bring my wife into the kitchen and sell me doing the dishes:  “On the count of three I’m going to load the dishwasher…and if I can do it without shutting your finger in the door give me a huge round of applause!”

The advice to “be yourself” onstage is very misguided from a stagecraft point a view as well.  For example when I talk to someone in real life I usually stand looking them and they will stand facing me.  However onstage if you do that you are closing off audience and being very selfish.  It’s be better for you and your assistant to stand at angles to each other to while talking.  It’s a very unnatural way to stand…but it looks soo much better on stage.

Then there is costume, where the “be yourself” ideas is horrible!  Me in real life I wear a Tshirt and Jeans…which is fine for normal life.  But that’s not what I want to sell onstage.  So I wear jeans and a formal western style shirt that I have the sleeves shortened on.  I have a variety of these shirts so that I have options to stand out from whatever background I have.  A good example of a bad costume and background combination is the color black.  If you have a black background and wear a black shirt, my torso will be very difficult for the audience to see.  So if I was being myself and showed up in whatever T shirt I threw on that morning, it can seriously alter how the show is viewed by the audience.

In the world of magic there is a line about your performing character from the a very famous (but long dead) magician Robert-Houdin that goes like this:  “He is an actor playing the part of a magician”  So to tweak that to the whip world, “You are an actor playing the part of a skill act”. Now you need to figure out how you as an actor would interpret that role.

So to sum it all up I think that the “Be Yourself” advice is decent for someone that wants to do informal shows (and doesn’t really aspire to anything more) or is very lazy and doesn’t want to think about how they can have a top notch show.  Also I think the person giving the “Be Yourself” advice is trying to make performing seem easier than it actually is, or has very little experience performing onstage.

Don’t be lazy…be an artist.


5 thoughts on “Bullwhip Performance…

  1. Hey Louie. This one is a very interesting article and so true on many levels. At first glance I thought “Well, that’s about performing, so I have no idea exactly what Louie is talking about, so I’ll take his word for granted”. I then remembered that I did exactly the same, but on a different venue: college. I teach now and then at the university I studied, and found myself being very young and inexperienced. To make a long story short, the big difference between my early years and now, is that currently I teach classes by means of this “character” I created. It is a more “self confident, extrovert, caring and involved person” (I do throw a joke or two now and then, getting some big laughs). It doesn’t mean I’m not all those things, but in everyday life they are waaaay watered down! Just as you illustrate in your examples.

    Thank you and ATB,


    1. Aldo,

      Glad it made sense! When I wrote that I was worried that no one would be able to understand it. Your example is totally correct! Most people don’t understand that “being yourself” in front of a group while performing isn’t being yourself. My brother is a college professor and we talk a lot about his classes and how he looks at it like a show, complete with his “professor” character.


  2. Whenever someone tells me to “be myself”, under any context, I always have to remember to mentally amend the statement to make it something other than “the worst advice ever given by someone not actually trying to destroy everything I love.”

    See, when someone says “be yourself”, they’re really saying “don’t be some other jerk.”

    So, when I hear “Be yourself”, I think “Be [the awesome version of] yourself.”

    1. Mark,

      That’s exactly my point!! In this instance I called the “awesome version of yourself” a character. However the Be Yourself advice stops people from exploring a character or performing persona that is drastically different from them in real life, and an amazing artistic expression of whatever they were going to do would be lost. You need to be true to your vision of whatever think your performance should be…but you need to have a clear vision of it!

      A good example is Chris Camp, I don’t think he walks around in cowboy gear all day in his regular life, but from what I’ve seen of him on youtube he has a defined character and a vision for what he wants to accomplish with his show. If he took the generic “be yourself” advice I really don’t think he’d be as strong of an act…but that’s my opinion.


  3. Excellent article Louie! I found it very interesting. I think that you are right, on stage you are not unlike an actor in that you create a character, and use parts of yourself to create it.

    We must remember that the advise of “just be yourself” comes from a self-appointed “whip expert” who has now expanded his expertise and have suddenly become a “seasoned stage performer” in order to sell his instructional DVDs.


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