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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Magic as theater: relevance (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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“Oh, good grief… another diatribe on magic as theater. Now what in the world could this guy Ledo possibly say that hasn’t already been said a hundred times?”

I wasn’t thinking of you when I wrote those words: I was thinking of me. I was trying to figure out what I could possibly have to offer given that my life for most of the past twenty-five years has been in and around theater and the entertainment business. I’ve worked with directors, actors, choreographers, producers, other designers, theme park management, television people, and just about everyone else up to and including apprentice prop bottle washers.

During those years, I’ve seen theater presented as “an ahhhhrt fohhhrm fohr the uppahh crhust.” I’ve seen it presented as an academic exercise (“What was Shakespeare really thinking?”), as a recreational activity, as an excuse to join a mutual-admiration (and support) society, and as a profit-making legitimate business. In all cases, the product on stage has reflected how the production company saw and presented the play, musical, or whatever. I’m using the term “presented” to mean roughly what advertising agencies refer to as “position:” how the product is set up and packaged to attract a specific target market.

Production companies that consider themselves in the arts business (such as local community theaters) tend to do the old, safe, traditional shows that are attractive and safe to their tradition-minded, “patrons of the arts” boards of directors. On the other hand, companies that see themselves in the entertainment-for-profit business (like on Broadway), tend to do new shows, current shows, controversial shows, and entertaining shows that they anticipate will be attractive to the general public and entice them to spend their cash. These companies’ decisions on which shows to mount are based on the potential return to their investors.

Colleges are an interesting group: they can go either way. Theater departments that see themselves as purely academic programs lean towards the old classics, while those that see themselves as professional training centers tend to do more modern shows. One of the three colleges I attended went for the old classics, while the other two did a combination of the classics and more current shows that would be good experience for the students who went on into the professional theater world.

There’s nothing wrong with doing the classics (some of them are far better stories than the current stuff), but the problem is that too often these are presented as just that: “The Classics,” capitalized, underlined, and with an attitude. The way some of these plays are frequently produced, the original concepts and messages are totally lost, and they don’t make a statement to their modern-day audiences. They’re not relevant.

Which brings me right to the point I want to make in this article: relevance.

A play presented as an academic exploration of the main character’s psychological conflict with the political situation of his time, and how his choices are affected by the struggle between doing the right thing and literally keeping his head on his shoulders can be very relevant to academics, but it would put you and me to sleep. Okay, I don’t know about you, but I can guarantee I’d be snoring halfway through Act I. How much money this play makes for its investors is totally dependent on how many academics there are who want to sit through this.

The same play, turned into a musical and lightened up with more universal themes, a bit of spectacle, and a more cotemporary (“in your face”) approach, can become very relevant and entertaining to today’s general public, go on tour repeatedly, and make money for years.

What am I talking about? Les Miz, the Broadway adaptation of Hugo’s Les Miserables.

But then again, Les Miz wasn’t produced by academics or by “patrons of the arts” – it was produced by business people who wanted to make money in the entertainment business.

Magic works the same way.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen any number of discussions here in the Café as to how and why magic is “different,” how the rules of the world don’t apply to it, and how “pure magic” is (or should be) entertaining to the general public.

IMHO, this is baloney.

Pure magic is relevant to those who find pure magic interesting, mainly those who are interested in magic. Those we call “magicians.”

Model trains are interesting to people who like model trains: those we call “model railroad enthusiasts.” The general public sees them as a novelty.

Example: magicians have conventions. We love to go to these events, hang out, talk about the latest and greatest, attend lectures and discussions, visit the exhibits, and generally have a good time. Nothing wrong with that. These conventions, and the material presented in them, are relevant to those who are interested in magic.

But chiefs of police, plumbing contractors, brain surgeons, funeral directors, actuaries (those math whizs who figure out statistics and probabilities for insurance companies), drug reps, database administrators, archaeology professors, Trekkies, and lots of other groups also have conventions. And they do exactly the same thing at these conventions as magicians do: hang out, talk about the latest and greatest, attend lectures and discussions, visit the exhibits, and generally have a good time.

The difference is that these other groups don’t go around believing that what is interesting to them, within their own group, is also interesting -- in the same way -- to the general public.

A funeral director who learns about a new way to introduce a trocar, and which he considers brilliant and innovative, wouldn’t go back home and demonstrate it for the next family that comes in. He would think it would be of interest to his co-workers, but not to the general public. Sorry if that sounds gruesome, but I think it proves my point.

In my own field--theatrical design--we trade techniques, war stories, ideas, complaints, inside jokes, innuendos, and lots of other stuff that would go right over the general public’s head. But we enjoy doing it: it’s our own little world and it makes our work more enjoyable. And we learn from it.

But let’s get back to magic as theater.

As I said in my introduction, my primary interest in magic has always been in the big stage shows in the Kellar/Thurston/Dante tradition, nowadays exemplified by Copperfield, Lance Burton, S&R (until recently), and a few others. Magic that’s presented on stage for the general public. Magic that competes with other live entertainment for the public’s money.

In order to compete for the general public’s money, magic needs to offer the same thing that other live shows offer: entertainment and relevance.

At the risk of offending a large number of readers, I’m going to state that audiences at venues like The Magic Castle are not made up of the general public. People go to the Castle to see magic: it’s a special-interest audience, and magic is very relevant to them. But what works at the Castle may or may not work for the general public in terms of making them want to spend their money watching it instead of going to a concert or ball game.

Do I sound like my interest in magic is purely mercenary? Sorry if I do, but to me, growing up, magic was a future career. That’s how I ended up in my present career, on the other “other” side of the footlights.

So how to make magic relevant to the general public?

The same way that theater, the movies, and popular literature do.

These forms of entertainment are about people: their wants, their problems, their conflicts, and ultimately how they resolve things and either grow from the experience or are destroyed by it. Even stories based on technology (2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Apollo 13, and so on) don’t focus on the technology, but on how the characters relate to it, are influenced by it, and resolve their problems. These stories have enough emphasis on the technology itself to make it clear why it’s important to the characters, but then the stories go back to focus on the characters.

In contrast, a lot of magic is based on things. These cards go from here to there. These balls appear and disappear inside these cups. This box does this or does that.

So what?

Sure, it’s a momentary novelty, but where’s the human element? Why would the general public care?

We can make them care by introducing the same elements found in other forms of entertainment, and by changing the focus from the object to the person relating to it.

I’ll have more on this over the next couple of days.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine
www.georgefledo.net

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
George Ledo
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Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
2871 Posts

Profile of George Ledo
Okay, so let’s talk about theater for a moment, just so we can be on the same page as to how magic can be presented as what I’m calling “theater.”

Theater has been defined many ways, but one of the simplest is that it is basically a dramatic presentation on stage. Theater is about stories about people, but the magic of theater is that these stories are presented in such a way that we (the audience) believe that we’re sitting there when the events are actually happening for the first and only time. We’re not watching a replay: we’re watching the events as they develop.

A good theatrical presentation, whether it be drama, comedy, suspense, horror, farce, or any other genre, has a sense of spontaneity, of the immediate, that pulls us into the story right along with the characters. We’re there when the detective discovers whodunit, or when the relatives barge in, or when the Phantom of the Opera appears for the first time, or when Cavaradossi is arrested. The actors make us believe this is real and now.

But, as I said before, theater is about people. All the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the first recorded piece of literature in existence (and dates back almost five thousand years), stories have been about people. Not about things.

Remember sitting there for a couple of hours while Uncle Bill or Aunt Jane showed five packs of pictures from their vacation? “This is the boat; this is our stateroom; this is the pool; this is our waiter…” Was it fun?

Pass the eyelid retractors, please.

Why was it boring? Because there was no story: no events that involved them or anyone else and that made us want to ask, “And then what happened?”

A lot of the patter that comes with tricks, or that we find in magic books, falls into this category. It’s not a story; it’s just relating an event about an object. There’s no human interest, no suspense, no mystery, no “And then what happened?”

If you’ve read this far, hang on – this is where things get interesting for two reasons:

First, as I said above, the magic of theater is that we are drawn into situations while they are occurring: we are there right along with the characters as they face their questions, their problems, and their conflicts. So a story, when accompanying a magic trick, doesn’t have to be “about something that happened during my last visit to India.” The story can be occurring right then and there.

Second, a story is about people, not about objects. A story can feature an object, but what we as human beings are interested in is how someone interacted with the object, how it affected them, and how they ultimately resolved whatever the conflict was. How the object affected their lives.

Houdini made a career – and a lot of money – with this. As an escape artist, he didn’t focus the audience’s attention on the manacles, cells, straitjackets, boxes, and other restraints. He focused their attention on his ability to escape from them, sometimes at the (supposed) risk of his life.

In Houdini’s presentation, there was something important about his getting out of whatever-it-was: something the audience could relate to. He wanted them to feel the fear, cold, heat, weight, water, lungs running out of air, and so forth. He set it all up so it was important for him to escape.

How many other escape artists then and now have missed this point? They push the handcuffs, not the suspense of whether they will get out of them. There are no consequences if they don’t get out. So who cares?

How many illusionists miss this point? Take the good old Sub Trunk as usually presented. Where’s the suspense? What’s so important about her getting out and his getting in? What happens if they don’t? Why the handcuffs and the bag? What do they mean?

I’m going to digress from magic for a moment and talk about one of my pet peeves in theater... because it’s exactly the same thing. Have you ever seen the Nutcracker ballet? Remember when the tree starts to grow and mommies and daddies turn to Junior and go, “Wow, look, Junior, the tree’s growing! Ooohhh, aaahhh! Isn’t that the coolest thing since diced carrots?”

Why does that tree grow? Really, in the context of the story, why in heck does the tree grow?

Well… in the context of the story… it doesn’t.

In the story, Clara falls asleep after the grandfather gives her the Nutcracker doll and the party is over. She dreams about the doll. In her dream, the Nutcracker becomes real and she can interact with him. Which means she becomes the size of the doll.

The tree doesn’t grow. She shrinks.

Which is why, when the mice come in, they’re Clara’s size. They’re not the biggest mice in the galaxy. They’re regular mice… who just happen to be able to wear uniforms, dance, and do military maneuvers.

But, in your typical presentation of the ballet, the tree is perceived as growing. This is partially the doing of the set designers and technical directors who get so hung up on the cool mechanical details of how to make the tree grow that the tree takes over. So the presentation, the lighting, and the audience’s attention are focused on the tree and not on Clara.

See what I mean it’s the same thing? How many illusions are focused on the box? Sure, maybe the box has a drop-dead-cool mechanism or brilliant new principle, but so what?

I’ll explore some examples in the next post.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine
www.georgefledo.net

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
George Ledo
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Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
2871 Posts

Profile of George Ledo
Okay, so how do we focus the audience’s attention on the performer instead of on the trick? How do we create human interest instead of demonstrating a gadget? How do we create importance and relevance?

Again, I say, we do it the same way the rest of the entertainment industry does.

Did you ever watch Star Trek: the Next Generation? Take this little scene:

Geordi: “LaForge to bridge.”

Picard: “Go ahead, Mr. LaForge.”

Geordi: “Captain, the antimatter destabilator is fibrillating. It needs a new proton pump inhibitor.”

Picard: “How long will that take?”

Geordi: “About six hours, Captain.”

Picard: “Make it so.”

Funny how this always seems to happen when the Romulans are attacking, doesn’t it? Never when everything’s hunky-dory out in the boonies of interstellar space. It’s what’s known in fiction as a story complication: things were already bad, and now they get worse.

But we don’t see Geordi go to the food replicator, order up some Nexium, and feed it to the destabilator, do we? Nope. We go back to the bridge and see how these people deal with the attack now that the destabilator is kaput. That’s what creates suspense. Will Geordi repair the machine before the... Romulans finish them off?

The focus here is on the characters, on their strengths and weaknesses, their skills, and their bravery, and not on the technology. All that techno-babble is there just to create a sense of urgency, of why it’s important that the machine get going again. We can relate to our car breaking down at night on an unfamiliar road in the middle of a huge rainstorm. We know how that feels, so we can understand how the crew feels. It’s relevant.

Now let’s go back to the Sub Trunk. How many people in the real world can relate to putting on handcuffs, climbing into a sack, and getting locked in a trunk?

Not too many.

But this is theater, right? So we can manufacture a totally bogus and artificial reason for someone to go thru this little experience. We just need to make it appear important so the audience can relate to it and care about it. Why does the assistant go in the trunk, and what happens if they don’t switch? We want the audience to root for the magician and the assistant; we want the audience to want them to succeed.

One approach is to create a piece of fiction – a playlet – about a pirate, or a sorcerer, or even a stagehand getting locked into an ATA case. Some of Copperfield’s early TV specials tied stories into the illusions, and others have done the same thing. But if this is going to be a piece of theater (and not just “patter”), there has to be a character who wants something really badly, and one or more complications, and a resolution based on the character’s own determination, effort, and abilities.

Those abilities can certainly be “magical powers,” but why on earth would somebody get into a trunk just to show he or she has these powers? In a story, there has to be more than “just because I can;” there has to be something important. This is what theatrical directors call “motivation,” and is what drives characters to do whatever they do.

Another approach, instead of creating a piece of fiction, is to set up a situation wherein the magician and assistant have to switch places before something happens. Maybe (and I’m just thinking out loud here) the curtain is on a timer, and, if they don’t switch in time, the secret will be revealed. How’s that for motivation? Or the trunk will fall into a tank of water. Or maybe instead of handcuffs, the wrists are wrapped with duct tape.

A third approach would be to use some kind of device or container where a person could conceivably get locked up for some reason. A car trunk, or a closet, or a refrigerator, or a chest freezer, or something similar. Show the audience something that they can relate to, that they can understand, and where they can therefore feel the claustrophobia. Or make the device so hard to get into that the only way to switch places would have to be real magic.

I’d love to do a sub trunk effect with two or three nested mummy cases, where the assistant is first wrapped in bandages head to foot on a turntable, then covered with a shroud, and then placed in the coffins. No place to move around in there – so how would I wrap myself up after the switch and while the coffins are being opened? But that’s another story.

We can use any of these approaches, and many more, with just about any effect or illusion. Asrah, Aga, SuperX, and all their variations. Sawing in Half. Disembodied Princess. Shadow Box. Square Circle. Rabbit Box. And so on.

Then there’s Zig Zag, a device that looks like nothing else in the galaxy, and that could therefore only be a magician’s prop. Sure, we can continue doing it as “an illusion” (and it’s usually very effective that way), but how could we make something like this relevant to an audience by using the approaches above? I’m only using Zig Zag as an example, but, just thinking out loud again:

The playlet approach: think Frankenstein, or medieval torture devices (like the Iron Maiden), or a futuristic world, or a medical machine (move the skin and leave the bones behind) or even a Rube Goldberg scenario. Remember what Tina Lenert did with a push broom and a set of coveralls?

The “time’s running out” approach: maybe a horizontal circular saw or laser beam. Think about the old movies where the heroine was tied to the railroad tracks and the hero had to rescue her before the train showed up.

The “what if” approach: an operating table (yep, turn the illusion horizontally), or a set of three gym lockers one on top of the other, or a computer cabinet with three compartments.

Or, if you want to do this at a magic convention, do two Zig Zags side by side. Push the center section of one cabinet into the open space of the other one, then open the “center” door and one whole girl walks out, leaving the “other” girl in three pieces. Of course, they’d wear different colored costumes, so the girl who walks out has part of her costume and part of the other girl’s. I doubt that a “lay” audience would get any more out of this than out of the original presentation, but an audience of magicians might think it’s relevant.

As far as I know (and I may be wrong), Zig Zag is not in the public domain. So, if you want to do a variation on it, please check into this. A search here in the Café might be all you need.


So far I’ve discussed mostly how to focus a trick on the person doing it instead of on the gadget itself: how to make the audience care about the magician and why he or she is doing this in the first place. In the next post, I’ll discuss another element of making magic theatrical, and that’s spectacle.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine
www.georgefledo.net

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
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