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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Magic as theater: spectacle (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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Holy smokes! I started this piece back in late December, and here it’s ‘way into March, and I still haven’t finished it. I don’t have a clue where the time is going nowadays... must be old age creeping in. Like the beaver said to his friend, "It’s one dam thing after another!"

Anyway, here’s the first part of this piece. This time, instead of waiting until I finish the whole thing, I’m going to post it in several parts.


Something really interesting happened while I was writing the pieces on magic as theater and magic as art.

My original intention had been to present some arguments as to why and how stage magic shows should be presented as theater. So I discussed some elements of theater and said, basically, that we could make magic theatrical by focusing on the performer and by making what he’s doing relevant to the audience.

Then I started writing the piece on magic as art...

...and suddenly a huge light bulb lit up over my head. Just like in the cartoons.

I realized that if we can define theater as being "this" and art as being "that," then we have the information we need to present magic as either theater or art. Which also means we have the information we need to present it as neither theater nor art. Therefore, we can make a conscious choice: we can make our magic either theater or art. Or both.

Or neither.

That sounds deep, but it’s really very simple. If I want my chicken wings very spicy, I put hot sauce on them; if I want them wimpy, I don’t put hot sauce on them.

As I said before, my stage sets aren’t art. I don’t try to make them art because that’s not the point. Yes, they make a statement about the show, and yes, they’re well executed technically -- but no, they’re not self-contained works, and no, I don’t expect art critics to rave about them (theater critics yes, art critics no). In fact, I don’t call myself an artist: I’m a designer.


In the first part of "Magic as Theater" I spent quite a bit of time discussing the idea that we, as human beings, are generally more interested in other people than in things. The basis of storytelling, literature, theater, and many other forms of entertainment (including sports and reality shows) is people: what they want, how they face the obstacles, and how they grow or are destroyed by the experience. Therefore, in order to be "theatrical," a magic show needs to focus on the performer instead of on the props, and make the audience care about why the performer is doing what he or she is doing.

I also pointed out that, since my interest in magic is pretty much focused on illusion shows, my comments were geared primarily towards this specialty.

Now I’m going to focus on another facet of theater, the one that makes things bigger than they really are for the sole purpose of making them more exiting. Aristotle called it "spectacle," and that’s good enough a term for me.

But spectacle is a funny thing in that very often it gets overused or misused and pulls the audience’s attention in the wrong direction. Say I’m doing a Sub Trunk, when suddenly ten beautifully attired dancers come out from each side of the stage, doing a tap dance number while singing "In the Trunk." Live orchestra, of course. Meanwhile the automated spotlights start picking out the scenery as it rotates and changes color, and the trunk and I start rising above the stage on an elevator. Wow! Lights, music, action! Spectacle!

What’s up with this?

Sure, it could be spectacular, but where’s the focus now?

Actually, that’s one of the hardest things that people in my line of work do. We work very hard to create a gorgeous stage set that shows off our talent and skill, while still fitting within the scope of the show. Sure we want to get the rave reviews and the phone ringing off the hook, but we don’t want to compete with or undermine the show itself. Most of us don’t, anyway.

Luckily for those magicians who don’t have bottomless pockets, however, spectacle doesn’t have to come in six 53-foot trailers. Something fairly simple can create a sense of theatrical spectacle and still be appropriate. Books like Fitzkee’s Showmanship for Magicians cover this very well, although sometimes they tend to look at everything through a magic-colored filter: this is magic, so it has to be this way.

We’ve all seen the budding illusionist who, with two or more assistants, spends several minutes "dancing" around a box before somebody finally gets into it. Okay, this is a good attempt, but if the dancing isn’t related to why the box is there in the first place, it doesn’t add anything to the number. In fact, it’s a distraction.

And, going back to what I said about relevance Smile , even a beautiful dance number choreographed by a top professional could very well fall flat at a magic convention, where audiences want to see magic, not theater.

So let’s look at a few ways to create this thing called "spectacle:"

Dance. Sure, absolutely. But the dance has to be part of the routine, not just tacked onto it. For instance, if I wanted to use dance during an illusion, I’d have a choreographer work out the entire movement of the number, from the time the box gets rolled in, throughout the effect, and until it gets rolled out. Some of this movement would not be dance – it’d be walking, and a director could certainly help here – but every step and turn would be worked out for maximum effect.

By the way, choreographers come in different flavors. Some specialize in musical theater, others in ballet, modern dance, jazz, or something else, and, to make life even more interesting, some work better with kids than with adults, and vice versa. If you’re going to use one, make sure he or she has solid experience in the type of dance you want. A good choreographer can help with the music selection too, making sure it works with the illusion.

Also, make sure you are very clear on what you are trying to do before getting with a choreographer. Otherwise he or she could come up with a wonderful routine that’s dead wrong for you.

Back around 1988 I was working on a routine in which my cane took on a life of its own and actually danced with me. The dance itself was less than a minute long, but I spent months studying every dance movie Fred Astaire ever made, along with Eleanor Powell, Gene Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers, Gregory Hines, and a number of others. I worked with my dance instructor to pull it all together, and then I sat down with a composer and commissioned a piece of music for the entire seven-minute act before doing the final choreography.

By the way, the first half-hour or so of the meeting with the composer was devoted to watching video clips of several magic acts. I wanted to make sure he understood where I was going and where I wasn’t going.

That act had some interesting ideas; maybe some day I’ll publish it and show how I went from the inspiration, through the development process, and to the final product.

Costumes. Another area that’s often neglected. The sad fact of the matter is that an audience will perceive every piece of attire you’re wearing as part of your persona, whether you intended it that way or not. The expression, "We only get one chance to make a first impression" couldn’t be truer than here. Your wardrobe may not make you or break you, but it will definitely make an impression on your audience.

What you wear needs to fit your act, your personality, and your body. Some people look good in white tie and tails, and others do not. The same is true of tuxes, business suits, jeans, the "rock star look," and everything else. At the risk of sounding sexist, I’m going to state flat out that women, in general, have a far better understanding of this than men do. It’s not guesswork or "an instinct;" women use specific techniques, which they’ve learned over the years, to figure out what looks good on them. We guys can learn a lot here, but we have to be willing to do so.

Define your on-stage persona first ("Who is this magician that I want people to think I am?"), and then figure out what he or she would wear in front of an audience. Professional costume designers use a very methodical approach when they work on a show. First they study the script to understand the characters (who they are, whether they’re good or bad, what they do, their social status, quirks, self-image, and so on). Then they sit down with the director to compare notes. Then they research the period. Then sometimes they start all over again before starting on the sketches. At some point in the process they’ll meet with the cast and take detailed measurements. And sometimes they’ll find that a costume that looked appropriate and gorgeous on paper looks terrible on the actor. Back to the drawing board.

The next part of this will cover sets and light.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
George Ledo
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Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
2992 Posts

Profile of George Ledo
Sets. Okay, here we go – a set designer talking about sets. Whee!

I’m going to do a separate column on how to design a set for a magic show, but, in the meantime, here are some thoughts on the subject.

A set is nothing more than an environment that’s appropriate to the show and that helps the action develop. It can be as simple as Lance Burton’s lamp post in front of the black curtains or as magnificent as what we see at the Metropolitan Opera, or anywhere in between. Back when I was doing my cards-and-doves act my set was nothing more than an open stage, with the lights fading out from the center to the outside, and a spotlight on me. That, plus my “night club table.” It all focused the audience’s attention exactly where I wanted it: on moi.

On the other hand, a couple of years previously, I had been using a large backdrop (about seven feet high by twelve across) for my “Magic from the Land of Fantasy” act. The show had a loose “Persia, Arabian Nights, and India” theme, and the backdrop was made of two bedspreads from Pier 1, made out of a multi-colored, striped fabric with a Middle Eastern flavor. It served a purpose, but every time I think of it nowadays, I cringe.

Although a big magic show can usually afford several professional sets or drops, a smaller show, or one that plays mostly in school auditoriums, can’t always have them. I started to say, “doesn’t have that luxury,” but changed it very fast. A good set is not a luxury: it’s part of what the audience perceives as your show. It adds spectacle and it makes the show look bigger and more exciting.

Which is exactly what was wrong with the striped bedspreads I was using. Sure, they “felt” Middle Eastern, but they were bright and distracting and really had nothing in common with my show. It was all just a big seven-by-twelve-foot multi-colored rectangle behind me. If I had draped the fabric like a tent, or introduced other elements, maybe it could have been more effective, but even then it would probably have been too distracting.

An interesting idea I saw years ago in one of the Karl Germain books was to have the magic table and performer on a small Oriental rug. Granted, this was a posed photo, but the effect was nice: it created a classy little area for Karl to “be” when doing his show. I’ve seen the same idea used by Middle Eastern dancers (aka belly dancers), and it really focuses attention on them, even when dancing in front of a nondescript wall.

I could see this idea working for some types of magic, including manipulation and clown acts. Of course the rug would have to be different in each case... Smile

The worst thing anyone can do is to buy a backdrop because it looks nice in the showroom or in the photo. You really need to stand back and see your show in front of it from the standpoint of a spectator – which isn’t really all that hard nowadays with Photoshop and similar programs. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way with my bedspreads.

Lighting. The purpose of stage lighting is to help the audience focus on what’s important in the show, and to see it exactly the way the director intended. Proper lighting is not about the instruments and the cables and the control systems: it’s about putting light where you want it for a specific purpose and not putting it where you don’t want it.

A really good example of this is in the first Alien movie. Some of the areas in the ship were so dark that we could only see a little bit of what was in front of us. It added greatly to the suspense -- and that’s a major understatement. Lots of other movies and TV shows use this principle too (I’m thinking of The X Files and similar programs), but in some cases it’s overdone to the point that you can’t see anything and start wondering why the characters don’t just flip the switch and turn on the lights.

Just like with sets, it’s too easy to buy a bunch of equipment and gels and set them up with no idea of why. You end up with multiple shadows, unfocused lights, hot spots, dark spots, funny-looking skin, too much light, not enough light, and every other distraction under the sun.

Back when I was doing “Magic from the Land of Fantasy,” I tried using floor-mounted floods (PAR-40 lamps with gel holders) to light the show. I even had them on a dimmer. What I didn’t realize, because I couldn’t see it, was that the up-lighting was putting the shadows on my face in unnatural places – kinda like in the old Frankenstein movies. They were also putting very distracting shadows up on the wall.

Ah, man, those were the days… blissful ignorance to spare.

Stage lighting is a highly specialized field, where you’re dealing not only with creating the proper effect in terms of telling the story, but with how to select the proper equipment to do it. The color temperature of a lamp, for instance, can make the difference between a tragic figure looking tragic and looking hilarious. So can the gel colors. Incorrect colors can make an outdoor scene look like it was shot in a warehouse under cold fluorescent lights, and they can make the crypt scene in Dracula look like it was shot at the park on a Sunday afternoon. Winter can look like summer and vice-versa. It can all be very surreal.

Working with a good lighting designer can do wonders for your show. You can find them at local colleges and theater groups, or through theatrical supply houses, or on-line. Just do your research and make sure you’re working with a “designer” and not a “techie.”

How can you tell the difference? Easy, just like with a set designer.

If he or she spends the first hour discussing your show, your style, your persona, why you do it, the magic, the audiences, the venues, and similar things (and listening more than talking), then chances is you’re dealing with a designer. On the other hand – and I’m being a little facetious here, but only a little – if he or she even mentions an instrument or a dimmer in the first half-hour, then chances are you’re dealing with a techie.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
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