|Topic: Working with a director|
I stated in my previous column that understanding the basics of acting can make a major difference in how a performer of magic comes across to the audience. It has nothing to do with Robert-Houdin's over-quoted statement, but it does have to do with ensuring that the performer's character is perceived as clear and consistent. In this column I'm going to discuss the concept of doing what actors do: work with a director.
As usual in my column, this article is geared to those doing stage or platform shows, although it may be of use to others too.
Let's start with what a director does, and with what some of the perceptions are.
A lot of us have some experience in school or community theater and have seen one or more directors at work. In many cases, the primary (self-imposed?) role of these directors is to develop the blocking, i.e., to decide who moves from where to where and when. It goes like this:
Director: “Okay, John, right at the top of the scene, you come in from that door on stage right, reading the newspaper, and cross down left, six steps, looking at the paper all the time. When you get there, stop and look up, which is when you notice Mary sitting on the sofa holding the bloody knife. Then, Mary, when John stops, you look up and smile at him and then go into your line.”
John: “But the script says to cross seven steps.”
Director: “I know, but the original set was larger. We don't have that much room.”
John: “Oh, okay.”
So John crosses six steps. And stops. And looks up, directly at the audience.
Director: “Okay, no, that doesn't work. Don't look at the audience. Let's say you stop to turn the page and that's when you see Mary.”
So John stops. Fiddles with the paper. Looks up. Turns his head. Sees Mary.
I'll stop right there. It's painful. But it happens a lot.
Too often (like in this case) the actors don't have a clue why they're doing any of it, except for the fact that the director (and/or the script) says so. Taking six steps from upstage right to downstage left, stopping, and looking up, can look unbelievably mechanical and dull if the actor doesn't understand who the character is and why he's doing it.
One of the major misconceptions in amateur live theater is that the director and actors have to follow the stage directions in the script, one by one, to the letter. Not so. The detailed stage directions in the vast majority of published scripts were added by the original stage manager after the first production. They are a record of what the original director did, and not of what the playwright intended. Granted, some playwrights do insert detailed stage directions, but they are in the minority.
A good director's role is to help each actor understand his or her character and behave in ways that are consistent with the character: who he is, what he wants, why he wants it, and how badly he wants it. Certainly the blocking is important, but extremely good directors don't tie the actors down with step-by-step blocking. They outline the overall action and let the actors summon the characters and do what the characters would do. Then they (the directors) push, pull, coax, bend, and do whatever else they need to do to get the maximum dramatic effect out of the scene.
Director: “Okay, John, it's the top of the scene, and you just got home from work and picked up the mail and the afternoon paper. But you're really preoccupied because of that phone call from Sam, so you don't notice Mary sitting there until you pass her.”
John: “So I'm kinda glancing at the paper but not really seeing it. And maybe I'm holding a briefcase and the house keys along with the paper and the mail and I need to move something from one hand to the other, and maybe that's when I see her, almost over my shoulder.”
Director: “Good idea, let's get props to give you a briefcase and keys too. That way your hands will really be full.”
John: “A thick briefcase, heavy, so it's awkward.”
Director: “Noooo...I don't think so. Your character wouldn't take a lot of stuff home. The case is really just for show. I think it should be thin and very expensive. So you're always very careful with it.”
John: “Careful. Yep, gotcha. It's a status symbol.”
And so on.
Okay, so I made up this little scene on the spur of the moment. But it shows the idea: the director and the actor working together to develop that specific moment in the story when John realizes Mary is between him and the door—and holding a bloody knife. A little moment like this can create major tension and help reveal more of John's character attributes, giving us a better picture of him now and later in the story. For instance, will he use that expensive, status-symbol briefcase to defend himself if Mary attacks him?
A good writer will vary the pace and rhythm of the story, contrasting moments of high drama or horror with lighter moments, and fast action with slow action, to give the audience a breather now and then. A good director will pick up on this rhythm and use it as yet another tool in telling the story. Real people are rarely “all up” or “all down” all the time: they have good days and bad days, they laugh or cry, they are happy or angry, excited or calm. A director needs to bring this out. It's actually very tiring for an audience to watch a show where the intensity (high, medium, or low) is the same all the way through.
Even modern action movies use this formula. It works.
So how to use a director in a magic act—and who should the director be?
One of the dangers of using a magician to direct someone else's magic show is that the director may, consciously or subconsciously, want to bring out his own personal ideal in the directee. This is really easy to do. Over the past few years I've had several Café members ask me to critique their manipulation acts, and, try as I may, I always catch myself “seeing” them in terms of how I would do the same act. Because stage manipulation is one of my (two) main interests in magic, it's really hard for me to critique someone else in terms of what they're doing as a function of who they are.
On the other hand, a strictly theatrical director may get so hung up on character, or motivation, or blocking, that the act ends up looking like a one-person play. Which could work. Or not.
Another danger of using a director—magician or not—is when the director doesn't have a clear idea of who the performer is and why he or she is doing that type of act and not something else. In theater, directors and actors work from scripts, i.e., stories, which are fully developed from beginning to end. Good scripts allow the characters to change in some fashion as a result of the situation they're involved in: they discover things about themselves, or develop a point of view, or win, or lose, or change direction. As an audience, we want to be able to understand them enough to decide whether we like them or loathe them; otherwise, we have no reason to care about them and therefore have no interest in what they're doing—or why we're sitting there watching them.
Reading and studying the script is what allows a director and the actors to understand the characters well enough to interpret them. If the director and the cast know up front that the butler did it, the director can help the actor playing the butler to come across as the last person you'd suspect throughout the story.
In the case of a magic act, however, even a script may not be enough for a director—if the script doesn't clue the director in as to why the performer is levitating an elephant instead of a house cat. In cases like this, a detailed discussion (probably several of them) between the performer and the director is needed before the director even starts directing. Part of the director's job then becomes to help the performer define and clarify the character in terms of what he's performing and why he's performing that and not something else. Only then can the director help the performer behave consistently like the character they both created.
But what if the character is you, yourself, personally, the guy who gets up every morning and sees himself in the mirror? Why should a director need to help you develop your character?
Part of a director's job is to see things from the outside, as the audience will see them. If there's a problem in consistency, timing, pacing, stage presence, or whatever, and the director doesn't see it and correct if first, the audience and the critics will certainly see it. Can you do it yourself by watching a video of your own performance? Sure, but remember that we tend to see what we want to see, and not necessarily what's really there.
Then there's the little matter of “time invested.” I went through this repeatedly when I was starting out in magic, and it took me forever to realize it. Today, in my field of theatrical design, I often see other designers get upset when they turn in a fairly complete design very early and the director wants to make a change, or the technical director wants to simplify a structural piece, or the producer says the company can't afford it. This is where the prima donna gene really takes over: “I've spent all this time creating this masterpiece, and now you tell me you want me to change it. Fine, if you knew what you wanted, why didn't you design it yourself?” And so forth.
My suggestion here is that if you're going to work with a director, start early. That way both of you have a chance to develop something bigger and better than either one of could have done by himself.
And here's a tip, a technique used by a lot of professional designers. Start with the forest and then work inwards to the clumps of trees, the trees, the branches, the leaves, the veins, and finally the chlorophyl. It seems so easy to design anything—a theatrical set, a building, a piece of furniture—by starting with the tiny little details and then trying to put them together, that we very often work this way. That's how I put my magic acts together for years. But very often it doesn't work because the details have nothing to do with each other. As I found out the hard way.
Designing a magic show this way (with the help of a director or not), doesn't require weeks of reading about theory, or analyzing emotional curves, or doing complex spreadsheets. It can be very straightforward. For instance:
Say I want to do a forty-five minute show geared towards middle and high schools (and this is totally a hypothetical situation). I want to do this because I believe there's money in this market, but also because I believe my personality is suitable to this type of audience. So what do I already know about this type of show? For one thing, I know it wants to be forty-five minutes. That means I have forty-five minutes to get the kids and teachers riled up to the point of giving me a standing ovation. Okay, so chances are that won't happen, but it does give me something to shoot for.
I also know that I'm going to be on that stage for that amount of time, so I need to get them sold on me early enough to sit through the show and love it. So a persona begins to take shape: me, either as me or as a fictional character.
See how this is already beginning to create a picture? That, right there, is the overall preliminary view of the forest. It's that simple.
Now let's get a little more detailed. How big is the show? Let's say I have an SUV—a Honda CRV—and want to limit the size of the show to what I can pack in it with the rear seats folded down. That's a fair amount of space and leaves the front seats open for my assistant and myself. Now – is my assistant going to be on-stage or backstage? Is this a one-person show or a two-person show?
After a bit of thinking, I decide it's going to be a two-person show. So, now, what's the relationship between my assistant and myself? What's the on-stage dynamic? What does he or she add to the show? See how the forest is beginning to take on a little more shape—and I haven't even begun to think about tricks yet?
This article is about working with a director, so let's say I've decided to use one. But, for me, it's still too early to do so. I need to define that forest some more before a director can really help me.
So, at this point I sit down and visualize, in my mind, a forty-five minute school show with myself and one assistant, and I see a theme beginning to take shape: the magic of imagination. A show about not taking things for granted, but letting our minds go beyond what we see and asking, gee, what if? A show about the same type of imagination that makes explorers explore, and scientists do experiments, and artists create, and so forth. A show with some educational content, presented in a sort of historical context, but feeling more like an adventure movie.
That forest is really beginning to take shape now.
At this point I can begin to outline the show: a nice opening, a monologue, some audience participation with a bit of comedy, an illusion or two, then something really cool, and a big finish. The rhythm begins to take shape; heck, maybe some music begins to go thru my head. But I still haven't decided on which tricks to do. This is where I sit down with paper and pencil, and a mug of coffee, and begin to fill in the blanks. How do we enter the stage? What's that nice opening? What's the big finish? Five or six sheets of paper later, I have the outline for the show itself. How does it tie in with my imagination theme? With our on-stage personas? With the forty-five minute limit? With the amount of space inside my car? With my target audience?
What I like to do at this point, when I design a stage set, is to walk away from it for a while, go do something else, and come back to it maybe the next day. That's when I can see it with a fresh eye and pick up on things that I didn't see the first time. Try it sometime: it really works.
Now, after seeing that outline again and working on it some more, I'm getting close to having something to discuss with a director: I know where I want to go, but I haven't locked myself into any of the details yet. There's still lots of room for revision, addition, deletion, improvement, streamlining, and tightening. For being creative. And for making that forty-five minute show the best it can be.
As usual, please feel free to drop me a PM if you have any thoughts or comments on this article, or if you have any ideas for future ones.