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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » "It's all about the experience" (2 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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This column actually began to take form after a discussion I had with a director recently, so it’s really geared towards live theater. However, since magic is a form of live entertainment (and you could even argue it’s a form of theater, but that’s a different topic), I believe it applies to magic too.

Something they never taught us in theater school, but which I’ve seen more and more in the entertainment industry, is the idea that going to a live entertainment – whatever it is – constitutes a complete “experience” for the customer. And this complete “experience” is there whether you intend it that way or not.

Theme parks figured this out long ago and created environments which would keep you in the mood, and excited, all the time you’re there. For instance, the E.T. ride at Universal Studios generally had a long line; you could wait fifteen to twenty minutes to get on the bikes. So, instead of making you wait outside the building looking at cement blocks and posters, the designers created a winding path through a forest inside the building. Not only were you looking at huge trees, but there were also “snippets” of what was to come, such as a jeep loaded with equipment, or a record player with a coat hanger antenna, or something similar. It built the anticipation. Not only that, but the winding path was designed such that you never saw the few hundred other people in line with you: you only saw a few in front and behind. You almost felt like you were in the forest by yourself or in a small group.

The very long queue area to get on the Harry Potter ride in Orlando (the original ride, not the new one) takes you through the castle. It keeps you in the mood and builds anticipation. Same for many other rides.

Disney parks are fantastic at this. Even approaching the park at Orlando, you begin to see mouse ears while you’re still driving there. You’re “immersed” in the concept even before you arrive.

Theme park operators and designers call this immersion concept an “experience,” and they spend lots of money to make that experience memorable.

But many theaters haven’t caught on to this, especially the non-professional ones.

When Donna and I go to the theater, which often includes dinner first, my memory of the evening includes the whole nine yards: getting to the restaurant, maybe waiting for a table, waiting to get the food, how the food tastes, how friendly or otherwise the staff was, and how much the bill was. Then we get in the car or walk to the theater building, where we encounter the ticket window, the lobby, the greeters, the concession people, the ticket takers, and the ushers before ever sitting down. Then we sit there as the theater fills, people talk with friends or on their phones, and so on. Finally the show starts . . .

. . . and too often, just as we’re getting into the story somewhere in Act I, the stage lights go out (sort of) and we watch as the crew comes on to change the scenery, pretending nobody can see them. Or maybe the curtain closes for the shift, and we either sit there looking at it in silence, or there’s some music to cover up the noise. In either case, the momentum is gone. We might as well sit there watching commercials.

Somehow, for some reason, many theater people insist on believing that the audience doesn’t see scene changes, or that they just tune them out, or that they accept them as part of the performance. I rarely if ever see this in professional theater, but it’s way too common in non-professional theater. Even a lot of opera productions have gotten away from closing the curtain for scene shifts, and instead incorporate them very carefully into the action (backed up by music) to keep the momentum going.

For me, it’s the difference between doing a professional job and just saying “the audience will never see it.” It’s laziness.

Magic works the same way. The audience sees everything up there: the stage, the scenery, how you come on, how you change props, where stuff goes when you’re done with it, and so on. As far as the audience is concerned, it’s all part of the performance they’re watching, and part of their experience.

A few weeks ago, we hired a local magician – a friend of ours – for my niece’s twins’ birthday party. It was outdoors in a park, and the magician set up his table under a tree facing some picnic benches. This was a character act (a “professor”), and I loved the way he did it.

While setting up the table and props, he was in everyday clothes, being himself – friendly, chatty, everything. Just a nice guy. When it came time for the show, he walked over to the men’s room, which was about a hundred yards away, to change. The second he came out of that men’s room, a hundred yards away, he was in character. And he did not break character for a second until he went back to the men’s room to change back to everyday clothes and pack up his table and props.

It would have been so easy to get in costume and makeup before he got to the park and change character only for the show. But he wasn’t lazy. That professor was there for the magic show and then vanished. His magic show was a complete performance, without distractions or mood-breakers.

Needless to say, a number of people asked him for a business card and one talked with him about an upcoming event at a library. He made an impression. And got more business.

Unfortunately, it brought me back to when I was a teenager and created a clown magic show for birthday parties one summer. I studied everything I could find about clown magic (even real clowns), had a name, costume, makeup, gags, the proper props, all of it. But I would show up at the client’s house in full costume and makeup and then proceeded to set up the table and props, often in front of the kids. It didn’t occur to me that they were watching, and that a real clown wouldn’t set up the stuff the way a non-clown would. I didn’t know any different at the time, but it would have been so much more effective to incorporate the setup as part of my clown character.

BTW, I gave up the clown act after that summer: it just wasn’t my style, and I’m very glad I recognized it in time. The sad part was, the money was good.

Last week we went to see a high-school production. My expectations weren’t very high, but, in spite of that, I thought the play was well done. There were some good performances and a couple of spots where the chemistry between the characters jumped off the stage. But there was this one bit, reminiscent of a classical Greek play, where three characters (the “chorus”) look at the moon and talk about the theme of the play. It could have been so effective, so to-the-point, so poignant, but they delivered those lines like they were reciting them, like they didn’t hear what they were saying. It broke the spell.

Years ago a local community-theater director received a not-very-positive review in the local paper about a play he had done, and he was furious. He wrote a scathing letter to the critic, arguing that a community-theater production “should not” be judged by the same standards as a professional production—that the performers were amateur actors and did it for the love of theater, and so forth and so on. The critic actually responded, indicating that the theatre promoted the play as a play (not as an amateur production), that it charged admission, that people went there expecting to see a play, and so forth; in other words, as far as the audience was concerned, they were paying money to see a play, and the critic was there to review the play. So he (the critic) had to use the same standards to review it as any other production.

The director eventually saw the point and recanted.

I’ve written for years about magic performances I’ve seen, which were nothing more than one gadget demonstration after another. That’s what the audience experiences: a gadget demo. They see what’s really up there, not what we want them to think is up there. And, unfortunately, they assume that that’s the experience the performer intended them to have.

Read that again: They assume that that’s the experience the performer intended them to have.

Just like Disney World with the mouse ears on the side of the approach road.

It’s easy to be lazy—very easy. But, like I’ve been saying to production crews, technical directors, and others for many years, everything we do—everything we do—has our signature on it.

Whether we intend it that way or not.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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Brent McLeod
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Great article, makes so much sense to create the mood for the show, liked the piece on the magician setting up then coming out in character
which is what we have to do many times regardless of childrens or company shows due to where the show is being seen. Quite often as a corporate performer setting up sound system etc you are seen before the show but changing into good clothes bit of bling jacket just sets the scene when the intro music starts..
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