Saturday, November 3, 2012

P is for Part 3

The advent of Internet videos has unleashed a torrent of magic and powered many a hand-wringing column, blog post and conversation.  It has also created a slew of performers who can display their relative skills to the world with concern for audience response.

Approbation has been conflated with page views.

Real performance is a bi-directional process in real time, a conversation really between the magician and his audience.  And, like any conversation, it is made up of an unending series of adjustments and refinements in response to verbal and non-verbal cues passing back and forth over the footlights.

There is no virtual simulation for this, no matter how good your Internet connection.

To upgrade your skills as a performer, you have to perform in front of a living audience.

Preparing for those performance opportunities means doing what other performance artists have always done:  prepare, practice and rehearse.

I can recall my own early days in magic and how each time I would get a new trick, I would renew my commitment to being a better performer only to tear open the package, pour over the instructions and quickly become bored with the props.  And, like most game day prayers, my commitment to practicing would similarly evaporate.

It was only when challenged to "do a trick" that I would go back to my props and quickly try to put together a program based on my sketchy memory of the instructions I had read.  It's no surprise then that I never accomplished my goals in magic.

I bring all of this up by way of introduction to the lecture of Eugene Burger at the Genii 75th Anniversary Bash in Orlando.

By reputation, Burger is one of magic's revered philosopher kings.  He is as comfortable discussing theory and history as he is performing his torture-themed take on the Card Warp.

What is less clear until you see him in person is the mischievous twinkle in his eye.  He clearly enjoys confounding his audiences.  In my notebook I wrote "The Friar Tuck of Magic."

The premise of his lecture was "how can we make our shows better?"  Not how can we be better magicians, or how can we master a particular aspect of presentation, but how can we make our shows better.  How do magicians make better theatre?

In answer to his question, Mr. Burger went on to define what he felt were the four pillars of a good show.

Pillar I:  Practice
Burger is an advocate of regular and conscious practice.

While I can't pretend to speak for all, it seems that, for many, practice is too much like dieting:  they know they need to do it, but something more interesting always seems to get in the way.

It is for this reason that so many effects are sold as being "easy" and requiring little to no skill.

While I am certain it happens all the time, I am pretty sure Burger would maintain it was a mistake to confuse the skill requirement with the mandate to practice.  It may not take a lot of skill to operate a Svengali Deck, but it does take practice.

One of the key reasons for practicing is to empower the performer to not have to think about the procedure of the effect.  In Burger's words, "thinking kills magic."

Until the procedure of a given effect can be performed without thinking, in other words, until you can name the 16th letter of the alphabet without using your fingers or singing "The Alphabet Song" then you don't know the trick and need more practice.

Burger went on to say that practice should also be conscious.  This is to say that in practice the moves should be second nature to the performer but they should never be automatic.  The performer needs to pay attention to their practice so as not to learn bad habits.  The last thing one wants is to invest hours and hours perfecting a piece of "sneaky business" only to have it not be right for a particular effect.

Pillar II:  Rehearsal
Burger differentiated practice from rehearsal by saying that while practice can and should be done alone and in front of a mirror, rehearsal should be done in front of a camera and, as in the theatre, attempt to replicate as closely as possible actual show conditions.  And, Burger was careful to caution, it would serve the performer well to not always assume that the rehearsal audience is nice, or even interested in his magic.

The camera can be a useful tool for identifying procedural and presentational shortcomings but, like the Internet video performances of so many young magicians, it can blind the performer to angle issues that can crop up in the real world.  To receive maximum benefit from these rehearsals, the performer should move the camera to less-than-ideal angles.

Pillar III:  Scripting
Like practicing, magicians have heard about scripting their effects, but it too often falls off the preparation checklist.

Too many performers, especially beginners who specialize presenting other people's magic, believe that by repeating the presentation of the person who demonstrated the effect to them they will be "real magicians."  Worse, there are far too many who believe, mistakenly, that they have superior improvisational skills and they simply make up their presentation as they go along.

Burger's position is that a magic trick is a "picture without a frame" and it is through the scripting process that the performer provides a context for the effect.

It should be noted here that the script for a given effect has to also be consistent with the performer's onstage character.  This comes back to the magician as actor playing the part of a magician notion of Robert-Houdin.

Presuming I could master the Card Warp effect, it would no more make sense for me to repeat Burger's script than it would for David Copperfield to perform the endurance stunts of David Blaine.  Scripting is how the performer makes a particular effect part of their particular show.

And, from a purely technical perspective, the structure of a script provides the performer with a way of avoiding cluttering up the audience's experience of an effect with unnecessary verbiage--what Burger calls "verbal lint."  Improvisation can add energy to a performance, but the uncertainty can lead the performer--especially an inexperienced performer--to a dead end the only way out of which is more words and more audience confusion.

Pillar IV:  Critique
By investing in the first three pillars--practice, rehearsal and scripting--the performer should be more than ready to accept the feedback of a constructive critique.  Soliciting the comments of trusted fellow magicians and civilians, the performer can continue to adjust and correct aspects of their show so that they can be ready for an audience.

ByThe processes that Burger described are not static.  Much like then final performance, the process is bi-directional with each refinement impacting practice, scripting and rehearsal.  Each critique, like each, performance, informs the scripting, rehearsal and so on. 

Burger's Pillars are foundational to the creation of strong, individual performance and essential to beginning a real conversation with the audience.

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