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George Ledo
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Last week, Donna and I were talking about my “Experience” column, and she suggested I write a bit about what we do in live theater, and maybe post some ideas as to what could be done to enhance the experience of a magic show. So here goes.

Again, my background is in stage magic, so that’s where my focus is going to be.

The establishing shot

In the movies, we often see a long shot of a city or town at the beginning, and frequently with a caption that says, “Los Angeles, 2014,” or something similar. That’s called an establishing shot and it’s intended to clue us in as to where and when the story takes place, in order to set up the context. Many times the shot zooms in on a house or a building before we cut to a character or scene to start the story itself. Those establishing shots are planned very carefully—the location, camera angle, time of day, weather (is it sunny, rainy, snowy, stormy?), and so forth—to set us up for what’s to come.

In live theater, we don’t always have the luxury of those long camera shots, but sometimes we use production photos or posters in the lobby, or maybe copies of props from the production, or furniture pieces or costumes from the period. Some theatres post set and costume sketches, construction drawings, and similar items on a board (theme parks sometimes do this too). A common practice is to not use the house curtains at the top of the show, but let the audience see the set and begin exploring it visually as they settle in and wait for the show to start. With proper lighting, this can be very effective. I designed a production of “The Woman in Black” a couple of years ago, and the stage (a modern one which we turned into a Victorian stage) had pieces of furniture, a road trunk, crates, and other items scattered all over it. Downstage, lighting the scene and creating some great shadows, was a ghost light (a bare light bulb on a rolling stand). The furniture, trunk, and other pieces were later used in the play, but, up front, they made you wonder what was going to happen. And, since I tend to be a stickler for detail, we bought a replica period light bulb for the ghost light.

The reason I avoid the stage curtains whenever possible (and when it works for the show) is that there’s really no time for the audience to get in the mood if the curtains open and the action starts immediately: there’s no “establishing shot.” It can be argued that in a magic show the closed curtain builds anticipation and mystery, but, in this day and age, and especially with younger audiences, it can look old-fashioned and static—or, even worse, like nobody cared.

There are various ways this “establishing shot” can be used in a magic show. For instance, Walt Anthony’s San Francisco Magic Parlor, which operates out of the dining room in a hundred-year-old hotel, is completely set up as a late Victorian parlor. The tables and chairs are arranged for each performance, there are nice “period” tablecloths and decorations on the tables, and there is soft lighting and music. The small stage is all set up with period props, carefully arranged and spotless. The person at the door, checking guests in, is in costume, and Walt is also in costume, greeting the guests, chatting, and generally setting up the expectation. Turning that hotel dining room into a Victorian parlor takes two people the better part of four hours, but, for the guests, it’s a complete experience from the moment they walk in the door.

Another way, if it works for the show, is a short video that the audience watches as they come in. Movie theatres do this, both to make money by showing commercials and to avoid having the audience sit there in a vacuum for fifteen to twenty minutes, which can feel like hours to a younger audience. Again, it’s the overall experience that people remember.

Music can work too. Many musicals, ballets, and operas have overtures, which are mainly a collage of pieces of music from the show itself. It gets people excited before the show begins.

If I were doing a stage show today (and I’m thinking out loud here), I would start with the curtains open to show the set, or one of them. As curtain time gets closer, I would have a “visual overture” going on, with a couple of the dancers walking across, maybe rehearsing a move, someone else rolling a piece on and off, maybe the stage manager coming on and checking some lights and effects, and so on. This would be carefully written and choreographed to show bits and pieces of what’s to come, even with a little humor. Some background music, the “orchestra” warming up, stuff to get the audience going. But all having to do with the show itself, like a real overture.

Be in character from the start

Being in character from the start can happen in several ways. Several years ago I designed a production of Kander and Ebb’s “The World Goes Round,” which is a musical revue incorporating songs from some of their better-known shows. We wanted to create a very theatrical feeling, so the set was basically a number of flats and road crates set up “at random” (ha!) with the names of the shows painted on them. The cast came in shortly before the show started, from the back of the house, in street clothes, chatting among themselves, and walked right down to a callboard set up on the side of the proscenium wall, where they signed in prior to heading backstage. The whole bit looked spontaneous, but it was very carefully choreographed and timed, and the audience loved it.

As I said in my previous column, back when I was doing my clown act one summer, I would get to somebody’s house in full costume and makeup, and then, in effect, break character to set up my table and props. It never dawned on me that that’s what the kids were seeing. So, for them, was I a clown or a guy in a clown costume?

One of the best examples of being in character from the start I’ve ever seen didn’t even happen in a theatre. Back in upstate New York, Donna and I used to attend a Catholic church. It was a very modern building in a small suburb, and most people knew each other. The service would start with the priest entering from the back of the church (the main entrance) and walking in a small procession to the altar. So, both of the priests at the church used to get in their vestments a few minutes ahead of time and come out by the entrance and hang out, chatting, greeting people, laughing, and generally “just being there.” It set the tone for the whole service.

Make sure everything fits together

I mentioned Walt Anthony’s show in San Francisco above: every prop, every piece, the music, the lighting, all of it, fits visually and thematically into the “Magic Parlor” theme. And I know he worries about it—he’s asked me to build a couple of pieces for him, and we’ve had long discussions about the design, the details, the handling, and everything else. What that does for the audience is it keeps them from thinking, even for a split second, “Huh? What’s that have to do with everything else?” and breaking the spell.

So what happens if you don’t do a character act or a period act? How do you make stuff fit together visually? It all depends on your character, and the act’s makeup and theme.

When I did my cards-and-doves act many years ago, I used a number of silks, but they were all white. I didn’t see any reason to use green and red and yellow silks just because everyone else did, and I thought white would look more elegant with my white tie and tails. That was one way to tie things together: a color or a style.

But then you run onto something like Carl Ballantine’s act, where his character was a magician who could never get anything right. In his case, whatever props he used were fine because of his character and the nature of the act. It fit together thematically.

But think for a moment: what if Carl and I had switched props but tried to do our acts the same way as before? Here I am, in immaculate white tie and tails, coming across as a sophisticated serious act, and my props look like something the cat dragged in, and nothing works. And here’s Carl, going for laughs, and his props look polished and elegant and everything works perfectly. There’s something jarring there: the audience would have a hard time understanding it. Sure you could re-work both acts so they would make sense, but they would not be the same acts any more.

Can you use props from different periods and styles, some comedy and some serious material, just a bunch of stuff you find effective, and pull them together into a coherent act? Sure. Just tie the act together in some fashion so the audience can understand why you’re doing it this way. Maybe you’re going thru grandpa’s trunk, or you just came back from an antique store (or even a magic shop), or you want to show a cross-section of magic thru the years, or one effect leads into another, or there’s a story tying it all together, or something similar. That way the audience won’t think you’re just doing a bunch of tricks at random.

One of the things they teach you in writing courses is that you need to “say” something with your writing. Generally, it’s your point of view, how you see the subject matter, or how you feel about a situation. They say basically the same thing in studio art courses. It’s the difference between a carefully-composed landscape painting and a snapshot of the same scene: one says how you feel about it, the other may be pretty, but it doesn’t say anything about you. That’s why so many travel photos taken by friends or relatives are so boring to plow through, and why so many photos in National Geographic can really grab us.

Remember: if they think you’re just doing tricks at random, that’s what they will think you wanted them to see. That will be their experience. That’s the act they will remember.

Develop a “voice”

Going right along with having something to say is how you say it, which is what writers call a “voice.” A lot has been written and discussed and argued about voice, so I won’t rehash it here, but basically your voice (as a writer) is what makes you an individual. Stephen King has a different voice than Tom Clancy did, or Robin Cook, or Dan Brown, or JK Rowling, or any other author. It’s a combination of how you use the language, how you set up sentences and paragraphs and chapters, how you lead readers into the story and the characters, and a lot of other factors.

Cardini had a voice. Channing Pollock, who also dressed in white tie and tails and did card productions, had a different voice. Some guys who followed Channing’s lead developed their own voices, but a lot of them just looked like bad knock-offs because they “copied” his basic routine without paying attention to what he was saying and how he was saying it. Harry Blackstone Sr. had a different voice than his son, or than Thurston, who did basically the same type of show. Houdini had a voice all his own.

According to books and magazines on writing, developing a voice doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s something that successful writers all have and that prospective successful writers need to develop. Reading a Stephen King book is a whole different experience than reading another horror writer, even though they can both scare the pants off you.

Audiences nowadays are used to seeing some very high-quality products and some… well… not-so-high-quality products. And they can tell the difference. So it’s really worth it, as performers, to give them the best experience we can.

Like I said about the Disney parks in my previous column: it’ll keep them coming back for more.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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Great stuff! I wish I would have started reading your forum earlier. Thanks and please keep it up.

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