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George Ledo
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Late last night (or was it early this morning?) I caught myself thinking about a couple of recent threads here on practicing, and how much to practice, and so forth, so I thought I'd put down a few thoughts on this, again from the perspective of a guy in the theater business.

I don't know that there's a definite dividing line between the terms practice and rehearsal. Sure I could split hairs and say that “this” is practice and “that” is rehearsal, but, in the long run, it doesn't matter. In theater, we refer to it as rehearsal, so that's the term I'll use here.

In theater, rehearsals generally follow a specific format. If we take a two-act play that will be in rehearsal for six weeks, the process goes something like this:

Prior to the rehearsals, the director will prepare a complete rehearsal schedule and issue it to the cast and the stage manager. The director will also indicate when the cast is expected to be “off book,” meaning they will have their lines memorized; this is usually around the second week. The director will also have a good idea of the blocking, and some have it all written down by this point.

Week 1: Read-through, discussion, and blocking of Act I Scenes 1 and 2. Some directors like to have the actors do a bit of improvisation here to get them to understand their characters better.

Week 2: Blocking of Act I Scenes 3 and 4. Run-through of Act 1.

Week 3: Blocking of Act II Scenes 1 and 2.

Week 4: Blocking of Act II Scenes 3 and 4. Run-through of Act II.

Week 5: Run-throughs of both acts, focusing on timing and smoothness.

Week 6: Dress rehearsals, culminating in Opening Night.

This is a very rough outline, but the idea makes a lot of sense: you work on one thing at a time, but you keep in mind how the whole thing is going to fit together, because that's the important part. Usually, a director will break out a day or so each week to work on important scenes, or to work with the principals, or something similar. After each rehearsal, the director will generally have the cast sit down for notes and discussions.

If the production happens to be a musical, then you also have a choreographer, musical director, and vocal director involved, so the rehearsals will go longer to give all these people a chance to do their jobs. But you still work on one thing at a time, keeping in mind how it fits into the end product.

How does this apply to magic? It can work the same way.

We've all seen too many magic shows where one trick just follows another, with absolutely nothing to hold it all together. Based on my own experience back when I was starting out, I can say that this comes from practicing the individual tricks, but not working on the show as a whole. You have a show coming up, and you decide what tricks you're going to do, and you do them. That's how most of us did it, and it's probably still how most do it.

It was only later, when I decided to put together one act (my cards-and-doves act), and stick to it, that I began to focus on the routining, and how one effect led to the next one. So now I was working on the individual effects, but I was also working on the transitions – and suddenly it became possible to walk through the entire act in pantomime and work out the little things that really tied it all together: my blocking, my gestures, my pauses to look at the audience, my posture, and so forth. This was a silent act done to live music, so I didn't need to think about verbal communication and could focus entirely on visual communication.

Actually, on that note, I want to say that I was blown away by how well rehearsing the act in pantomime worked for me. It freed me from the props, and the birds, and the setup, and allowed me to be spontaneous and to focus on the audience (my mirror). In fact, some of the nicer details and moves I came up with happened as a result of this. I had a clock nearby, so I could time the routine and make sure I was keeping it very tight.

This also allowed me to work on, say, my split fans while watching TV or even reading a book. That part was all mechanical. I had developed a way of producing huge fans, almost a full circle of cards, so I would sit on my bed or on the couch for hours and work on them.

How much time did I spend on the mechanics versus the run-throughs? Well, I seem to remember it was 42.1025% mechanics and 57.8975% run-throughs.

Just kidding. Smile I don't have a clue – I didn't think about it in those terms.

That all happened in 1970, when I was nineteen and before magic went on the back burner, but I remembered it later, around 1988, when I was putting together a different act. This time, after studying theater in college and grad school, I knew how to put together a rehearsal schedule, so I prepared one. And it kept me right on track.

This time I also bought a video camera and set it up in my home office so I could sit there and practice and see myself the way the audience would see me. I remember I would get up around 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., grab a cup of coffee, and go into the office, put on my gloves, and sit there in front of the camera for an hour or so working on those split fans and other sleights. Sometimes I'd turn on the radio and listen to music or the news. Then, evenings or weekends, I would turn the camera so it would face the far side of the room, and then I'd run through other parts of the act, taping them and playing them back in slow motion to see what worked and what did not.

And, lo and behold, doing it in mime worked beautifully again. For instance, I was working on a bit with a Topit, but I didn't want the device to drive the effect. So I improvised repeatedly, without the props or the Topit, until I was happy with how it looked – and then I began to work with the device. The result was a totally natural move that made sense in the context of what I was doing.

Again, how much time did I spend on this or that? I don't have a clue. I'm guessing an hour or so in the morning, before going to work, and another hour in the evening, and maybe three or four on Saturday and Sunday. I did keep a rehearsal log and notes on what worked, what didn't, what I wanted to do next, the timing, and so forth. This act also had quite a bit of tap dance in it, so the notes were essential.

I recently responded to a couple of threads on how and how much to practice, and said basically that rehearsals are not an end in themselves. They're a means to an end. The goal is not the rehearsal itself, but the performance. Rehearsing can be very boring if you just think you're doing the same thing over and over until it's right. What worked for me was thinking about the performance, all the time.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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