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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » The Skull of Yorick: Props 101 (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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I'm always fascinated by the way so many magicians seem to obsess over their props.

I first noticed it at my local IBM Ring in the late 1960's, I've noticed it since then at various magic clubs, and nowadays I'm reading about it right here in the Café. Interestingly, what made me notice it originally was that I was doing it too.

Like many of us, I became interested in magic as a kid. Soon thereafter, I started making my first props, mostly from the cardboard the laundry placed inside my Dad's dress shirts. I was probably the only kid in the world who really cared about his Dad having freshly laundered shirts. My enthusiasm got to the point where I couldn't wait for him to open the laundry packages; I would have a list of projects in hand and was only waiting for the building materials. Sometimes it drove me nuts. But he took the whole thing in stride, and one day looked at me and said something to the effect of, "How about if I give you some money and you buy your own cardboard?"

I don't remember if he took me or if I went by myself, but that first visit to the crafts department at a local store opened up a whole new world for me. Not only did they have all the cardboard I wanted, but I also discovered ConTact Paper, vinyl tape, decals, and a bunch of other stuff. Now I could build anything -- square circles, temple screens, tubes -- in whatever style I wanted.

A couple of years later I started working with wood and power tools and, by the time I was a junior in high school, had my own workshop in the garage. I made more square circles and other box tricks, special carrying cases, flannel bags to protect stuff, tables that came apart and fit into an old Army footlocker, night-club tables, special travel bags for the tables, and lots of other items.

This was when I first began to notice I was spending more time designing and building this stuff than using it.

But I also began to wonder if I was doing magic tricks for my audiences -- or demonstrating gadgets for them, like the guy in the kitchen department at Macy's.

It was right around this time (1970) that I put together my cards-and-doves act, based on the Chavez/Pollock model, and gave up the boxes in favor of stage manipulation. This took me in a whole different direction: with no gadgets to demonstrate and hide behind, I had only my personality to get the point across. I used to get shivers thinking that I was alone in the center of a stage, picked out by a spotlight, while several hundred people were looking at my gloved hand pull card fans out of the air. I never understood why the audiences didn't appear to catch some of the steals I made right in front of them. I had no black felt, no trap doors, no Chinese dragons, and no patter to misdirect them.

There was no place to hide.

Later, in college, while training as a set designer, I learned what actors do: they act. They show us a story instead of telling us the story. Same thing that novelists do. But actors have these things called props, which they use as needed to help them show us the story. If they merely told us the story, they wouldn't need props.

But props are funny things. A good actor can make do with just about anything while showing us a story. Yes, obviously, there are styles of acting and styles of production: a movie is generally far more realistic than a play. But yet a good actor can make do with a far lesser prop than a bad actor -- because his or her focus is on the story and not on the prop.

For instance, there's a scene in "Hamlet" where the Prince of Denmark happens upon a gravedigger who has just tossed a skull out of a hole. Hamlet recognizes the skull as that of his old friend and mentor Yorick, the court jester, and tells the gravedigger about him. The scene requires a skull, and here's where things get interesting.

A good actor -- a great actor -- can walk into a supermarket, pick up a coconut or a cantaloupe, do the Yorick speech with it, and hold us transfixed while he shares with us some of Hamlet's fondest memories from a happier time. This actor will help us visualize Yorick, he of "infinite jest and most excellent fancy" as he shows us a different side of Hamlet. He'll make us believe what he's telling us.

A mediocre actor or director, on the other hand, will drive the prop master crazy as he obsesses for weeks over every detail of the skull (what color it is, whether it has the jawbone or not, how many teeth, hair or skin remnants, dust, and so on). He'll place it carefully on the prop table, dust it, and darn near pay homage to the thing. And, likely as not, he'll miss the whole point and bore us to tears. It happens all the time.

A prop isn't a story any more than a magic gadget is a trick. Sure, we can create a story about the Hope Diamond, or an anti-matter destabilator, or a cursed relic from an Amazon tribe. A good story, however, won't be about the thing itself, but about how it's affected people, or about what people go through to steal it, use it, get rid of it, or sell it on eBay. Think of movies like The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, National Treasure, and so on: these stories are about people, what people do with the objects or how they are affected by the objects, and not about the objects themselves.

When we buy "a magic trick," say a Square Circle, a Zombie, or the Professor's Nightmare, we are really buying a prop that has some kind of magical connotation associated with it -- a story of some sort. At this point we have two choices: we can use the prop to create a magical effect and show that we are magicians, or we can demonstrate a magical gadget, not unlike like the guy at the local department store demonstrating slicers and choppers.

I would like to think this is an easy choice to make.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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