Whilst many readers and fellow contributors know much more about magic than I do, may I hope that my experience in the parallel field of the theatre may be of use? My line of approach is from the dramatic angle and is the point of view of a producer and critic.
In my job of producing plays as well as writing them, I have had to study with a very sharp eye, what is known in the theatre as Presentation. That does not merely mean scenery and costume, but the way actors project themselves and so behave dramatically that they make the best possible contact with audiences.
At the Leicester Little Theatre where I was Director of Productions, we always welcomed the Magic Circle's shows and did our utmost to ensure that they were presented with the best background and that the performers were helped to make the most of themselves. Occasionally we held auditions so that magicians could try themselves out with the right lighting and atmosphere. More than once I have seen a quite "ordinary" performer made into something electric.
So, my dear readers, it is about those sort of things that I shall write.
Let's start off with the case of the member of the Vampire Club who came up to me after I had taken part in the Club's Brains Trust and told me how puzzled he was about the timing of a climax to a trick. The old-fashioned school of magicians he pointed out, used to pause when they had brought the final object out of the hat, box, or whatever it was and then bow to the audience as a sort of "curtain". Today, many performers—especially the quick-fire variety—rush from one trick to another at high speed. Which is the more effective method?
Here we are up against two different types of "act" which are not really comparable. Each can be given its own distinction; yet each can be ruined if the timing is not carefully considered and rehearsed. The speed merchant can be just as much a bore as the gentleman whose dignity becomes embarrassingly old-fashioned. To get full value from any trick, whether it be of the apparatus, manipulative or mental kind, the miracle of it needs leading up to; and then, when it happens, sustained. In that way, the audience—not knowing (as the magician does) what is going to happen —is worked upon and allowed to get a full final surprise. It's rather like opening a parcel sent by somebody who is always unusual in his gifts.
To produce a glass of beer from nowhere and then immediately put it down and start off on a cigarette routine is plain silly, even if you are a speed performer. At least let the audience be certain it is beer. Perhaps wish them good health or "toast" a local celebrity, or take a drink. You needn't be long-winded about it, or make a conventional bow; but do hold the climax and, by this means, psychologically encourage the applause.
Cf all the effects, those with ropes are the most dangerous so far as this holding of a climax is concerned. The danger lies in the fact that the foldings, cuttings, knottings and so on are apt to become more noticeable than the finale. The ending of a rope trick is not particularly showy. It is generally a simple fact: the rope is in one long piece again. If the rope is rapidly shown, or haphazardly thrown away, there is no more climax than if, on the stage, the lovers who have been separated suddenly meet and do not kiss! A fairly sustained kiss, too— and not just a peck !
So—hold the restored rope high up and stretch it; or hold it perpendicularly and shake it; or, best of all, hold it full out against a rule or other solid object to demonstrate that the rope is the same length as when you started. In brief—punch home the fact that you have done the incredible.
All this advice, of course, is based on the assumption that you have started your act significantly. On the stage we make sure that when the curtain rises the audience is left in no doubt that they are in for something specific. It may be comedy, tragedy, burlesque or what-you-will. But we set the mood as soon as we can. So with magic. If you are doing comedy magic, come on funny—not necessarily in appearance, although that is important—but in what you say or do in the first minute. If you are a mentalist, there is need to be frightening; but do create an immediate impression that you are dealing with things of the mind and are not concerned with rabbits. If you can say "Will the lady in the charming red dress kindly lend me the green pencil in her handbag?—how did I know madam?—well, that's my job" you will have impressively set the style of your show in the first thirty seconds.
Beginnings and finales—"curtains" we call them— are of the highest importance, not only dramatically but because they defeat prejudice. It would surprise some of you to know how many times I have heard members of the audience (especially women) say when a magician is announced "Oh, now I suppose we're to have a silly little man with a pack of cards"; or "Get ready for the kids stuff". I meet many people who hate conjurors solely because they get wearied by lack of presentation or by stock patter, or by too many pauses whilst assistants are cajoled into coming on to the stage.
Magic is a highly dramatic art involving the most careful attention to speech, gesture, pace. movement, repose, facial expression and timing. These things are just as essential as the boxes and handkerchiefs and packs of cards. They make the difference between the mere mechanics and the true miracle-worker.
So—will you bear with me" Next time we will talk about speech and the human voice, those Cod-given attributes that send messages rather than statements.
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