March 23, 2020
When federal and local governments suggested closing colleges, universities and other institutions to help fight the spread of COVID-19, many of my friends and I found ourselves at home with no more income. March 10, 11 and 12 were only three days, but they felt like three months for me because that’s how many months’ worth of previously booked shows were canceled or rescheduled.
For entertainers who focus on the campus activities market, the spring semester is when we earn the income that pays our business and personal expenses through the summer. Ultimately, I’ll be fine. I’ve performed steadily for 16 years and have tried to be financially responsible. Nevertheless, this loss of potential income and, just as important, the loss of in-person social interaction, had me reeling.
Fortunately, I soon found a way to turn the situation into an opportunity. Deanna Wagner, a forward-thinking student affairs professional at Capital University (OH), asked me to consider doing a “virtual” magic show via their campus-wide Zoom account. The idea made my heart race, and that made me love it.
As my agent frantically fielded calls to cancel and reschedule shows, I wondered, “Is this something people would want?” “What would this look like?” We knew higher education institutions were used to offering online content, both pre-recorded and interactive, so the infrastructure was already there. And students are already used to the concept. I quickly distributed an email offering a virtual magic show. Online magic shows are not new, as there are many well-known magicians on YouTube. But not much of it happens in real time with live chat. That was the part I needed to figure out.
I have a small production studio in my basement I thought would be perfect for live broadcast. I decided my virtual magic show could be interactive with live chat. I could single out a screen name and ask the person to name a card, a color, or a country and perform magic with their input. It’s not the same as performing magic in person, but I felt it just might work in this time of “social distancing.”
By the time we started receiving responses from colleges, I saw on Facebook that other artists and agents had the same idea. We were all racing to offer online content. I talked to a few friends in the industry and we shared notes on what we were doing. More crucially, we checked in on each other. I’ve been texting artists recently that I usually talk to only a few times a year at conferences or in passing through an airport.
As a result, I’ve learned a lot in a very short time about converting a live performance to a virtual format:
Choose the best online streaming platform. There are a ton of options, but I chose YouTube Live.
Get the hardware and software you need for high production value. For me, sitting at my desk with a webcam and doing card tricks wasn’t going to cut it. I want production value equal to my live show. I called a few friends who live-stream for a living. Their advice initiated a three-day crash course in the software and hardware I needed to offer a professional production. Consequently, the past week has been full of 18-hour days, last-minute tech buys on Amazon and way too much screen time.
Ask friends and colleagues for help. The career success I’ve enjoyed has been possible due to the help of others who were willing to give me their time, and when aspiring magicians or other performers ask me for advice, I tell them to find someone who does what they want to do and ask questions. That’s exactly how I’ve pursued going virtual, asking countless questions of friends and other experts. They’ve been extremely helpful in creating my virtual performance space, which consists of:
- A 9-ft. paper roll backdrop,
- A 3-point lighting system with softboxes, and
- A camera.
It’s simple, but looks great on screen and, with a little dressing up, it’s ready to stream. I repurposed an old TV from my basement as a monitor to moderate chat while performing.
A virtual show can’t be your normal show. For me, the end of a routine won’t lead to applause. A joke won’t lead to laughter. The timing and style I’ve honed throughout my career is suddenly irrelevant. Things that play well on a live stage may seem uninteresting, or just won’t work at all on screen. For example, in my live show, I might be able to hand an item to an on-stage volunteer to have them verify to the audience that it’s normal and unprepared. In a virtual show, will the audience simply take my word for it? I’m in for a period of adjustment.
Collaboration is key. Fortunately, we have many tools to make our online presentations dynamic and engaging, with video and other graphic support. And I’ve been extremely impressed to learn how student affairs professionals have been coping during this pandemic. Much like my entertainer friends and me, they’re asking each other for help in locating resources and virtual programs. They’re thinking creatively to find solutions they may not have discovered otherwise. Most of all, everyone – activities professionals and performers, alike – are dedicated to continuing the programming experience for students. And that’s fantastic!
Michael Kent is a comedian and magician with 16 years of experience in the campus activities market, which has honored him as Entertainer of the Year and Magician of the Year. Learn more at
Related Professional Competencies: Networking & Business Relationships, Event Support, Technology.