Art of Magic

Character in Performance by Eric Mead

I heard an interesting story about Trevor Nunn. For those that may not know, Trevor Nunn is head of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, a theater director, and probably knows more about Shakespeare than anyone alive. So Trevor Nunn is at a party with a bunch of theater people, and there is a young director there who is pontificating about his upcoming staging of Othello. He’s going on and on about character and themes, how Othello is a man clinging to chivalry in an age when chivalry is dead etc. etc. etc. After a while Trevor Nunn holds up his hand, and everyone stops to listen. He says, “Othello is Shakespeare’s play about jealousy. If you make every scene about jealousy in one form or another, the play will work on stage.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think there is an important idea here for the construction of magic shows. The idea of distilling something down to its essence, and focusing on that. I want to return to this idea in a moment.

I live in Aspen where we boast one of the largest Fourth of July fireworks displays in the country.  Some years ago I was enjoying the fireworks when I was struck by the notion that most magic shows have the same structure as a fireworks display. Boom. (Wow.) Boom. (Wow.) Boom, boom, boom. BOOM. (Ahhhh…wow.) Boom rat-a-tat-tat, boom, boom, boom…BOOM. “Wow, that was great. Let’s get something to eat.

One of the reasons for this is that we tend to study magic in terms of “tricks”–individual units of performance. We learn a new trick, maybe write a script for it or give it some loose context, and then we drop this isolated thing into our repertoire. Thus, we end up with a “show” that is a random collection of tricks we like. The tricks might be great, the performance might be entertaining, and the “show” such as it is may work just fine. However, it doesn’t tell a story, doesn’t take the audience anywhere really, and it’s structured exactly like a fireworks display. Boom. For my next trick…boom. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but because it’s the easiest way to “be a magician,” it’s what we see most of the time and we become conditioned to think this is “the way.” I believe other approaches to show structure can lead to more interesting theatrical experiences. I’ve written and talked a lot about the importance of transitions, about how tying the end of one piece to the beginning of the next is a crucial part of presenting a coherent and professional show. But today I want to take that a step further, and explore the idea of consciously making your show, as a whole, be about something specific.

This is supposed to be a talk about character, and it is. I don’t think you can make decisions about character without also deciding what your character is trying to communicate. The two things are inseparable, so the question of character is tied to the question of theme, or the character’s intent. Knowing the “who” and the “why” means being able to answer two questions very clearly: 1. What is my character? And 2. What is my show about? Or to say it differently, Who am I in performance? And Why am I performing? Answering these questions will go a long way to giving you an original point of view, and a reason for an audience to watch.

I’ll tell you an interesting story about this: I was leading workshop sessions on these ideas last year at Luke Jermay’s Mentalism Workshop. Each student would get up into the hot seat at the front of the room and stay there until they could verbalize a clear and succinct answer to these two questions. What is your character? What is your show about? And it was really difficult for them, and started to look like group therapy. They would talk about why they do magic, what they want an audience to think, what tricks they like and why, etc etc–always talking around the questions without being about to answer them directly. Then, after a painful public soul searching they would have a breakthrough–or many of them did anyway–and see clearly for the first time who they were on stage, and what they were trying to say in performance. Well after the first couple of students struggled with the exercise, I thought a concrete example might be helpful. There were a number of name professionals in the room–Max Maven, Michael Weber, Mac King–so I went around the room and asked these men to answer the questions: What is your character? What is your show about? And each of them could answer the questions instantly, directly, and succinctly. It was a powerful and revelatory moment.

This then is the work I want to encourage all of you to do. To put aside tricks, to stop thinking about the individual “units” of your show for a while and instead focus your efforts on answering these two questions about your show as a whole. What is my character? What is my show about? And to understand that you don’t just answer these questions once and call it good–you revisit them constantly, revising your answers as you grow and change and develop.

Once you understand who you are as a performer, and what you are trying to communicate with your show, you’ll find you can no longer just drop random tricks into the middle of things or use patter written by someone else. This is a good thing. The answers to these two questions will dictate what effects you choose, how they link together, what kind of script they need, and your show will become exponentially more effective because it’s no longer structured like a fireworks display. It cannot be random snatches of effects you like and stock jokes that work cobbled together to fill the time. This patchwork approach that is 95% or more of what we see in magic today simply will not work if you get serious about character and theme.  Your show will start to have meaning, and content, and intent, and it will take us somewhere because whether or not it has a standard narrative structure, you are now telling a story. And stories are how we communicate ideas in performance.

Which brings us back to Trevor Nunn. If you know who your character is, and what your show is about, you can see how Nunn’s formula for Othello can be applied to your own work. Othello, said Nunn, is about jealousy, so you make every scene about jealousy in one form or another. In the same way you can work to make each individual effect you choose speak to some aspect of your theme, from your character’s unique POV, and you’ll find that your magic is stronger, and your show, as a whole, begins to resonate and to connect with the audience at a deeper level. Because it has become a real show, a performance, and not just a demonstration of tricks.

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