Monday, September 5, 2011

That's Entertainment
I studied theatre production in school.  I wasn't going to be an actor or a designer, I wanted to make things, I wanted to help create the illusions.  In addition to courses in drafting and various craft techniques, I took a number of courses in theatre history.

Before I go any farther, let me just say that I think it is important for practitioners in any medium to learn about its history and the various movements and counter-movements that wash across it like waves hitting the beach.  (I say this right up front in case there are any teachers in the audience.) 

The courses I took were taught with great solemnity and paid due diligence to Shakespeare and Moliere, Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, Arthur Miller & Rodgers and Hammerstein.  We read plays and wrote papers and discussed theory and came away with the sense that the theatre was something to be experienced from the other side of a velvet rope.  Like a painting in a gallery, or one of those performance art piece where the artist crawls across broken glass and then sells boxes of shards for tens of thousands of dollars.

What is missing from this curriculum is any sense of the popular theatre.  Sure, there were audiences who would pay for the opportunity to sit in a darkened room and have actors scream at them for eight hours, but while that was happening, there was a bigger audience in another theatre watching melodramas like "The Pursuit of Happiness" or "After Dark."  In the days before movies and television, this was where the audiences went to get their fix of moral tales featuring heroes and villains and happy endings.
I had the good fortune to work for a time with a man who was much better read in the literature and history of the theatre than I could ever hope to be and his position was that while theatre artists were writing to the history books, the audiences were supporting a very different kind of entertainment.  For every Henry Irving there were performers like le Petomane.

As we would prepare for productions of "serious" plays where some important action such as the death of one of the lead characters would happen offstage, Van would tell me about turn of the 20th Century shows that featured elaborate chases on horseback, fires and falling trees crashing into buildings. 

I guess it has always been true that while audiences will judge a production of Hamlet on the strength of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, blowing stuff up will always draw a crowd.  The real magic of the theatre is that it is an environment where both the serious and the popular can co-exist.

I have just started reading a book by the great Spanish magician Juan Tamiriz in which he writes about the responsibility of the performer to create a spectacular environment where magic can happen.  It's not about tricks and secrets and fooling and figuring out, but about an altered reality where amazing things can happen.  On the street, when you put an object in your hand and wrap your fingers around it, you expect it to be there when you open your hand, but for the period of time that you are with the magician that might not always be the case.

It's a simple statement that, like a good magic trick, disguises some very complex ideas.

The performer must not only master his technique, but he also must master the attention and focus of the audience.

Under the broad category of "misdirection" magicians are able to control where the audience looks and when.  And I think most people--magicians, or not--would agree that if you can get the audience to "look in the right place at the wrong time" then a lot of the otherwise impossible becomes more likely. 

To understand how a master can control the focus of his audience, I offer a few minutes with Slydini

I watch this and I am amazed that it works. I am also impressed by the understanding of human psychology necessary in order to attempt something like this.

Reading explanations of magic tricks is a lot like reading a cookbook:  they list the required equipment, lay out the steps and, many times, include the dialogue, or patter, to recite as you perform the effect.  What you rarely see is an explanation of why the trick works.

With the same need for certainty that informs my choice of which magic trick to buy, I have tried to understand more about how misdirection works.  I joined an online forum hosted by Genii, The Conjurors' Monthly and tried to find out how magicians talk to one another about misdirection and audience management.  (As no secrets are revealed, I will include a link to the thread here.)

My operating premise was that since this is such a fundamental part of how magic works then there had to be some sort of articulated understanding that was passed from one generation of performers to the next.  Turns out, however, that if I understand my correspondents accurately, misdirection more like comedic timing:  something that can only be learned in performance.

There was a time when I was reading a number of different books on comedy and comedians and trying to understand how they created their material.  Time and again I would read that they "wrote" their material onstage.  This was unfathomable to me because it suggested that they went up there with nothing and just started talking hoping to get the audience to laugh. 

In reality, there are many more steps involved including a significant amount of preparation.  A comic outlines topics and arranges them in a specific order.  Quite often you will see comics come onstage with a bottle of water and a notepad which contains their "set list."  What you don't see is the tape recorder that is capturing the performance.  The performer will then study that tape and listen for the audience response--where they laughed and where the sound of crickets was deafening.  This study will then inform the next performance and the whole process repeats.

Perhaps because I see magic as barricaded behind a wall of secrets and technical skills that, more often than not, seem impenetrable, find it harder to see the craftsmanship of the performer.

The recipe that one finds time and again in the literature of magic is study, practice and practice again.  It's never clear how a would-be conjurer knows they are ready to perform in front of an audience.  In my case, I made that decision way too soon.  And what you almost never see is that the process of continuous revision and improvement of one's abilities and material never stops.

Seen in this light, the role of the audience in creating the Tamiriz "magical atmosphere" comes into sharper focus.  The audience, and all of the audiences that have come before, becomes the uncredited co-author of the magician's performance.

This discussion of the ability of the performer to control or manage the audience implies a level of manipulation that is oppressive.  Perhaps, it would be more useful to think of it as a caring relationship.  Through his skill, the performer is protecting the audience's experience so that they will be able to enter a space where the impossible becomes possible.

1 comment:

  1. Having just read a couple of books about Google, it strikes me that part of their process is very similar.

    Make a change. Gather data. Determine if this improves towards the result you want. Keep the change or pitch it it depending on the data.