When The Room Is Shaped Like A Barbell

I posted this on my personal Facebook page a few days ago:

For Magicians:
At a country club gig tonight.
People seated to right and left, no one in front.
What’s this mean?
Gonna be a good post at Dixon Magic.

And this is that post. (And I’ll end this with a Facebook post from nine years ago.)

I arrive for the gig. It’s an after dinner stand up show for about 100 people. My contact tells me, “In the past day we had thirty more people sign up, so we had to change the set up. It’s different than what we discussed.”

Like the “dance floor of death,” the “barbell of death” is one of those classic seating nightmares.

Here’s a rough idea of the layout of the event. Looks a little like a barbell, doesn’t it?

People seated to the left.
People seated to the right.
Me, looking straight ahead at an empty (and well stocked, thank you for asking) bar.
No riser.

Before I get into how it worked out, let’s set a few ground rules for the discussion:

Rider Schmider

Be Kind & Patient

So what did I do?

There were stools in front of the bar. There was room for two rows of ten chairs in front of me. I suggested chair moving to the client before the show started and, surprise, we were on the same page. Between the bar stools and chair moving, I can have about a third of the audience in reasonably good position.

But how to get the people there?

While people were arriving and waiting for the meal to begin, I walked up to several of the tables and introduced myself and chatted. I placed a priority on the tables that would be farthest from me. Before I left each table I said:

“By the way, because the layout of the room is a bit challenging, we are inviting a few people to come up and sit in chairs that will be up front. And the reason I’m asking you is that we are only asking the most attractive people.

Then ten minutes before my show, the host invited people to come up front.

It worked.

And there was a surprise benefit. The group that came forward were self-selecting. They were the most eager to be close to the fun. And they were fun.

OK, so the audience is seated as well as possible in this barbell-shaped setting.

What else helped?

The biggest visual element of my act is ME. My face. My movements. Easy to see.
The audio element is the script and the situations created. A script is something that is heard, not seen.
What needed to be seen in the act was easy to see in this challenging setting.

Related to that, I’m not doing a manip act. Again, the visual element is made up of myself and the volunteers.

Sometimes I do the chop cup on stage. Not for this gig. Nothing that is a table tied routine like the cups.

I am 6’4″. Being tall helps.

I made sure I played wide. Several times I might have looked like I was watching a ping pong match. I walked into each of the side sections (lobes?) for some of the bits, trying to do all I could to maximize engagement in a challenging setting. I addressed people from the deep sections of the audience.

In one of my routines I have two people come up and sit in chairs. In this show they sat on barstools. This routine being the longest one in my show, the bar stools were a big plus.

I was booked to do a 45 minute show and did, but I had props for about 80 minutes of material in my case. It’s nice to have options.

So what would not have helped?

Saying things to the booker like, “But we said …”
Saying things to the booker like, “I can’t do the show because …”
Telling anyone to move. I asked them with them with a flattering joke.
Calling attention to the challenging seating during the show.
Shoehorning in material (like the chop cup mentioned earlier) that had no chance of working.


This is far from the worst room layout I’ve had to deal with. Once the show started, it was very manageable. And I’m sure you’ve probably had worse, too. I get that. I’m just the old man here sharing a road story.

Do what you can before the show to bring the seats in closer and to make the show a success.
If this involves furniture moving, just do it.
My client is the client. Not the room. Not the venue. Move seats.
Moving chairs is better than a great classic palm.

A related situation happened to me a few years ago. Nice proscenium stage. Great tech. Big room. Oh, and the front row was 10-20 feet away. Ugh. Thankfully, the chairs were movable. So having arrived about four hours before show time, I moved dozens of chairs from the back row to the front row until the front row was an acceptable distance from the stage. While I moved the chairs the meeting planner didn’t think my furniture moving was necessary. After the show she said, “You were right.” Good for her. She got it. I don’t write that with an “I told her so” attitude. I write that with a “It’s not her job to know why the chairs should be close. It’s mine. It’s her job to allow me to do the best work I can, even when she doesn’t completely understand.” And she did. Kudos.

It’s about the show, not the “I told you so.”
Don’t spend a moment saying, “But my tech rider said …”
Could that be a conversation for after the show? Maybe, especially if you still have a great show. But before and during the show that energy is better spent dealing with the challenges in front of you.

Finally, as I finish up this post let me say there are times when you have to be firmer than I have written about on these pages. This is especially true when it’s suggested you do anything that involves risk — “I know it’s a low ceiling, but we still want the fire eating routine” — or when it will ruin the entire how — “Set up in front of the giant wall of floor to ceiling mirrors.”

Here’s a Facebook post I wrote about nine years ago, when I was feeling some rant vibes.

A rant for my fellow magicians. Forgive me, this one’s been a long time coming and I’m writing it as a reminder to myself as much as anyone else…

I see/hear/read magicians whining about less than ideal show conditions.


It’s kind of like a plumber complaining about a pipe that’s hard to reach. So what? Do your job. It’s not the pipe’s job to make the plumber’s job easier. And the homeowner doesn’t want to hear the plumber whine about the pipe. The homeowner has one job: pay the plumber. The plumber has one job: to fix the sink.

If you’re a plumber, fix the sink.
If you’re a performer, rock the room.

Yes, I know bookers can fail in the critical ways — bad sound, bad lighting. This ain’t my first rodeo. But if we take the approach of “I will overcome,” we have a better chance of delivering the goods than taking the pretentious prima donna approach of “oh, the pain”. (Those last 3 words are best read in the voice of Dr. Zachary Smith.)

If you can’t do the job, don’t take the gig. Or put more eloquently, when the show conditions are sub par or even subterranean and you ask yourself, “What can I do? What can I do?” look at what one wise man told this singer when he started whining.

Until Next Time,

Doc Dixon

PS: As always, be sure to visit the store. You’ll find several routines, like Invisible Knots and Maweege, that ever kill in “barbell shaped rooms”



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