A man in a suit balances himself atop a ledge. In the background are buildings and skyscrapers.

Adding Suspense to Your Kids Routines:

Part 2 of the 10 Essential Techniques That Kids Entertainer Professionals Do Not Share

In my previous article, I wrote about putting a surprise element to your performance. Now we come to another must-have that you need to incorporate in your show: suspense.

I find that many children’s entertainers rush over the magic effects as if they are everyday happenings, hence they lose those precious ‘magic moments.’ Many magic theorists have spoken about the subject at length, so I won’t go into its inherent value but rather discuss some techniques you can use to create suspense.

First, you have to look carefully at your current routines. Break down the main magic moments that happen along the way. To do this, I usually use video footage, which also allows me to critique my own work.

Every routine will have various magic moments so take care not to labour on just the final effect and the many sub-effects along the way. For example, the trick ‘Coins through Table’ where you use four coins would seem to have only four magic moments—when each coin appears from under the table. But think about this: if you count every instance of the coin vanishing, you will have eight moments. A coin vanishing is a strong moment in itself. You don’t need to focus only on its reappearance.

Once you’ve broken down and highlighted all those magic moments in your routines, you are now in a position to use the various techniques I will cover here.

Pause

Suspense, as defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is ‘a state of mental uncertainty or excitement as to a decision or outcome.’

With that said, how do you inject a dose of uncertainty and excitement into, say, the ‘Dove Pan’ routine?

Here’s a simple, but very important technique: the Pause. Stop for a few beats and verbally recap what has taken place. This allows the spectators to think about and absorb what happened.

Going back to the ‘Dove Pan’ routine, you can mention we need to cook the ingredients by adding heat. Here you have the chance to do what I discussed in my previous article. Bringing out either an extremely small lighter or a huge Bunsen-type burner will not only make your audience laugh because of the ridiculous size of the objects; it will also add the element of surprise to your act.

Dramatize

Another thing you can do to create suspense is to ‘dramatize’ the moment. You might need to use your acting skills here.

When you add drama to your act, you will realise that the children you are performing for are on your side. You’ll see them fully engrossed with all your dramatics. And the adults? The worry you might understandably feel about how they will perceive you is due to inexperience. As you get better at acting, the adults will be as engrossed as the children with the character you are portraying.

Now let’s go back to the plot of ‘Baking a Cake.’

A boy and a girl under a blanket looking scared. Silhouettes of scary trees and bats are in the background.

Suspense adds interest. Add a little bit to your kids routines.

To add suspense using drama, you can choose to not just light the lighter. You can pose your whole body in such a way that it looks tense. You can focus on the lighter and, most importantly, you can lower your voice to almost a whisper. Do that and you will have everyone’s attention. Of course, you can now react to the flame appearing by pretending to get a fright. And because of the suspense created, you will give the audience a good laugh.

Now repeat the action and slowly advance to the pan. Imagine a cello player playing dramatic chords in the background. (If you are doing a long-term stage show, you can add appropriate music. More on that later.) You now light the pan and, if you have large flames, you once again react to this. Once you have recovered, quickly place the lid on the pan. Pause for a moment and then slowly (too many magicians rush the climaxes) lift the lid. You can peek through a thin gap and give yourself another fright. All this will add further tension as the audience will now certainly want to know what’s in the pan.

Ask the kids if they want to see what’s inside—a silly question, yes, but it adds to the entertainment. You can even do a panto-type banter of “Oh no, you don’t. Oh yes, we do.” And then when you’ve built up enough excitement, finally open the pan and reveal the rabbit, rubber chicken, cake, or your grandmother’s ear muffs.

Add Music

Other techniques that children’s entertainers can use are theatrical in nature and can be used effectively when working in a theatre-like environment. One of these techniques is music.

Music is a very strong tool you can use to increase the intensity of the moment. You can use it to enhance the emotions in a happy climax or to create nerve-wracking tension.

Lighting adds to this effect, too. Think of horror movies which are always depicted in the middle of a rainy night. We all know that just as the poor victim is about to be chopped up, the lightning will strike. You get the point, I think.

A face of a scared-looking woman lit up from below

Your lighting does not have to be this scary, but you get the idea. Dramatic lighting can add oomph to your act.

Another thing that I do is use a clapping technique. I get the audience to clap in unison to each footstep I take (a lot of gags are possible here). At some stage, I pretend to take a step and the audience claps out of time. This gets a good laugh. Finally, the reveal takes place. I usually use this technique when I need to move quite a far distance across the stage to open a box or to reveal something in a cabinet. Street performers use this, too, when they run and jump on a unicycle.

Now though it is important to build up tension, it is also necessary to release it during your routine. Using tension is like doing a dance between extreme focus and relief. During those times when the audience is relaxed, you can do the secret magic move—but that’s another topic altogether.

I suggest you take the time to watch live pantomimes and comedy horror movies and observe the techniques I mentioned in play. All of these techniques will work only if you are fully in the moment (and not thinking of the shopping you have to do or the dental appointment you’re dreading tomorrow morning), so try to focus if you plan on using them.

Next time we see each other here, we’ll discuss how to react to the action. Ciao for niao and remember: pump up some suspense and surprise into your routine and have fun with it.