Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” -- Pogo, on an Earth Day poster, 1970
I have written here many times about how I often find the solution to a problem by thinking about something totally different and then connecting the dots. Sometimes I wonder if I should write a book on this, say three hundred pages or so of fluff and padding, and become the next millionaire self-help guru.
But don’t worry -- it ain’t gonna happen.
Anyway, I caught myself thinking about theatrical design yesterday, and then I had a dream last night, and then this morning I saw a resurrected old thread about “getting into illusions,” and the gears started turning. So I’m going to talk about stage illusions, but (with a little inspiration from Pogo), start off by paralleling the world of illusions with my own world of theatrical design.
Live theater in the US can be sorted out into four main groups: professional, regional, amateur, and educational, and of course there are overlaps and combinations. I’m going to focus on amateur and educational theatre.
For the most part, amateur theater groups (mostly community theatres), are made up of people who love theater, but have day jobs in other fields. For them theater is somewhere between a hobby and a passion, but it’s a part-time thing. And, although there are exceptions (sometimes notable ones), most of these people have no formal education in theatre and don’t want to quit their day jobs and try to make it in the professional world. So a community theatre is home, sometimes for many many years.
Educational theatre consists mainly of schools and colleges, everything from “the school play” to productions mounted by training programs at universities that offer masters’ or doctoral degrees in theater. There are also dedicated acting schools and teachers (such as the late Lee Strasberg in NYC), which tend to be utilized by those who want to pursue a career in professional theatre; I’m not counting these in educational theater.
So, just like in magic, theater has professionals, part-time professionals, and hobbyists. And, just like in magic, there is no consistent, standardized “training system” or protocol that people have to go through before practicing (or teaching) the craft. In professional theater, you have to join a professional organization, with its rules, regulations, and admission procedures, before working in the field. Actors and directors have to join Actor’s Equity, SAG, or DGA, and designers have to pass a portfolio review before joining USAA. But you don’t need to do any of this to hang out a shingle as an actor, director, set designer, or anything else in amateur theater; you don’t even need any formal education in theater.
Case in point (and I’m getting closer to talking about illusions), let’s look at scripts.
A fair number of published scripts include a floor plan of the set, plus detailed stage directions and things like cue lists, prop lists, costume plots, and such. What a lot of people don’t realize is that most of this material wasn’t put there by the playwright, but by the original stage manager as a record of the first mounted production. With very few exceptions, there is absolutely no contractual requirement to use any of it. Professional companies tend to ignore most of this material, but lots of amateur companies and school teachers seem to think it’s gospel: those are the instructions, and that’s how you have to do it.
“When I was touring India several years ago, I met a fakir who taught me the ancient mysteries housed in this vase… “ That may have sounded right in the 1920s or 30’s, coming from a person who looked like he might have travelled -- and when India was still considered an exotic, mysterious place – but, if presented “seriously” today by a high-school kid who obviously bought all his props (including the plastic vase) at the local magic shop, it sounds silly.
But let’s look a little deeper. Let’s take a look at those floor plans included in the scripts.
Below is the plan for a show I designed some years back, Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. I just now re-drew it from my original, in the simplified sketchy style generally seen in published scripts.
At first glance, it’s pretty clear: a few walls and doors, stairs to the second floor, a kitchen, and some furniture. The sketch works just fine for its intended use, which is to provide an idea of what the original set looked like.
The problem, however, is that it doesn’t say anything about the amount of detail that went into the set to create an environment for the story and the characters who inhabit it. The sketch is not intended to do that, but it’s very easy (and it happens a lot) for someone to say, all I need is a few flats, a couple of doors, stairs, and some furniture, and voila, I have the original set.
Is that wrong? Bad? A heresy? Will the TSA (Theatrical Security Administration) come looking for you? No, not necessarily. But if you don’t know any different—if nobody tells you otherwise—you’re liable to think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and to act accordingly.
Here are a couple of photos of the finished product.
A bit different from “a few flats and a couple of doors,” isn’t it?
And that, finally, is where I’m going with this column.
To the public, the most visible thing set designers do is design scenery. In many amateur theatres, they are also expected to build the scenery. But what the public doesn’t see is the many hours of research, sketching, meetings, thinking, sketching some more, and really getting inside the heads of the characters and into the story itself. The public also doesn’t see the specialized knowledge we need and the skills we constantly try to improve. So, unfortunately, in many amateur theatre groups, anyone who knows anything about building flats can end up “designing a set.”
But building and placing a bunch of scenery on a stage is no more “designing a set” than buying or building an illusion and doing it on stage is “performing magic.” Yes, the most visible external physical thing is there in both cases, but what makes one “a set” and the other “a feat of magic” are very often missing.
Every time I see a post asking about the best illusion for a beginner, or how to get into illusions, or something along those lines, I cringe. It’s like asking, what’s a good box to demonstrate? Performing a feat of magic, by doing something impossible with a person (who, most of the time, just happens to be in a box) is totally different than demonstrating a kitchen gadget. One leaves the audience thinking, wow, this guy is good; the other leaves the audience thinking, sure, if I had that box I could do that too.
See the difference? One is about the magician; the other is about the box.
I went through this. Many years ago, before I learned what magic is all about, I wanted to have and perform illusions too. I wanted to roll them out on stage, have the assistants jump in, fold, spindle, and mutilate them, and then have them jump out intact again. The assistant did most of the work, the box helped her do it, and I got the credit.
Ahhh, show biz: ain’t it grand?
I really believed I was doing my homework: I saved up and bought books from Tannen’s and Abbott’s, I haunted used-book shops, I devoured the SF Public Library, including the main library which is now the Asian Art Museum, I joined IBM and PCAM, went to meetings, conventions, exchange shows, and all that. Man, was I learning magic! I was a sixteen-year-old walking encyclopedia of tricks and illusions. I was getting ready for the big time.
This was in the late 60s, by the way. Yup, the late 1960s. The previous millennium.
One day I found a book about magicians at a used book store. I think it was Inside Magic by George Boston, but it may have been a different one. It was a revelation. The magicians profiled in here, including Thurston, Houdini, Carter, Nicola, and Blackstone, were far more than two-dimensional illusion presenters in white tie and tails: they were real-life businessmen with real-life worries and real-life problems. They were showmen of the old school, engaged in a career that required self-promotion, maintaining character, keeping up with their times, lots of travel, and thinking about their future. Suddenly I realized that life as a magician was far more than presenting illusions.
I looked for and found similar books, including The Master Magicians by Walter Gibson. Same story: they were real people engaged in real careers that required far more than cutting the girl in half. I read books on Carl Rosini, Karl Germain, and others, and found the same story everywhere.
Eventually the question began to form in my seventeen-year-old mind: did I want to do tricks and illusions, or did I want to be a magician? It took some thinking, but I figured out the answer. That was when I stopped buying books on tricks and started buying books on showmanship, presentation, and promotion. I even bought a subscription to Variety, the show-biz trade paper.
It was also when I decided to start learning about theatres: the places where I would be performing. I read about stages, rigging, scenery construction, lighting, projections, and all that stuff. Ironically, that was my downfall as a future touring illusionist, since I eventually realized I liked the design and construction end more than the onstage end. So I ended up hanging up my white tie and tails and picking up a T square, triangles, and lots of pencil and paper – and learning what a set designer really does besides drawing scenery.
So (to cut to the chase), every time I see a post here about how to get started with illusions, or what’s a good first illusion, or something similar, I want to get on a soapbox (remember those?) and ask the poster whether he or she wants to be a presenter/demonstrator of boxes, or a magician.
Because the answer will be different.
Bear Lake, Michigan
"When I was Skyping in to meetings with our IT guys in India several years ago, I noticed the new hire who always kept his mic on mute. He never asked questions. And he always pointed his webcam towards the same window and the same, sagging particle-board shelving unit. At one point, he was gone for three straight weeks. I thought maybe he got canned. When he showed up again, he still kept to himself. But I noticed something on the top of the saggy bookshelf. A vase. I sent him a PM while the lead coder diagrammed our 18th system overhaul. Nothing else to do. Maybe he'd say something. Nice vase. Got any flowers to stick in it?
I watched his face to see his reaction. He leaned in to the camera and stared into it-at me, really. He looked down. I could hear him typing, very slowly.
It is an urn, he wrote. Then:
What is your postal address, please?"
(Thank you for the great column, George! The wheels are turning!)
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