Magic & Murder in the Media Age

Dear Friends:

Our guest author this month is John Tudor—one of our earliest participants in Mystery School events, way back when “Mystery School” was just an annual gathering at an Ashram in upstate New York! John has a background in acting and theater, as well as in magic. Enjoy! And now, I give you John Tudor!

Are You A Murderer? Magic and Theater in the Media Age by John Tudor

“Have our magicians had any training or direction in the art of magic? Have they stage presence, or can they act? No, they have not. They just got hold of a bunch of tricks, and walked out on the stage. Magic, which is one of the arts, and one of the best entertainments for the great intelligent public, has suffered terribly. In fact, it has been murdered.”

No, these words aren’t a review of amateur magicians on YouTube. They come from Magic and Stagecraft, by Guy Jarrett, published eighty-two years ago! (1936) Jarrett was a prop man on Broadway, and creator of illusions for Thurston, and all of the greats of his day. He came to that dim conclusion after seeing every act that came through theaters and vaudeville for several decades. What would Jarrett think of the stage magic shows of today?

No doubt he would be impressed by some, and appalled by others. The excellent TV show, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, has given us a unique cross-section view of international magic talent. The magicians have been some of the most polished professionals around, as well as what a friend calls “inter-changeable guys with cards. Fool Us has had a democratizing effect, where clever hobbyists appear along with top pros. The acts that stand out, to me, and probably to Guy Jarrett, are those that could do their act for that large studio audience without the benefit of cameras and close-ups, or even a microphone.

Some performers are “naturals,” of course, but for the most part the better acts you see on Fool Us are the result of the training and direction that Jarrett found missing. They have developed a stage presence, and learned to act, at least a bit. Yes, I am “preaching to the choir” here, but you can really see the difference if you watch episodes on YouTube. Some acts know what to do in terms of theater, while some seem to relate mostly to the camera.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Nothing, I suppose, but in a larger sense, the artist is severely limiting him or herself. They are more likely to become “interchangeable” with everyone else, and to limit their own imaginations. For those of us fortunate to be older, our heroes were Mark Wilson, Doug Henning, Thurston and Blackstone. Magic was something big and expansive, especially when it came to David Copperfield’s tricks with world landmarks. I remember an article in the science magazine OMNI asking what magicians of the future would be doing…? The author imagined we would we be sawing Manhattan Island in half, or levitating the Eiffel Tower. Instead we had the deconstruction of magic with the coming of David Blaine. The focus shifted to small magic, which has been solidified in the current YouTube era. I feel this may create a somewhat stunted vision of the art. Many think of magic primarily as something small, to be done for a camera, watched on a computer screen, or a projected video. They are much less likely to learn the skills that theater work requires: stage presence, direction and training that Jarrett saw as lacking.

Of course the issue is not the size of the venue or the props. Close-up and parlor magic are just as viable as forms of the art. And, it’s not even the technical aspects of stage work; like voice, posture, facial expression, and so on. That’s all the outer part of what actors call their “instrument.” Stage training is also very much about the inner part of the instrument: the imagination, visualization, memory, life experience, and so on. Acting is in many ways a spiritual exercise, an expression of who you really are, understood by playing someone else.

Let’s set aside the metaphysical, and speak in more practical terms. A theater manager once told me, “We (theaters and performing arts centers) are all doing these mind-reading and card trick shows, on projection screens. We do good business with these too, but they all seem the same.” The magicians seemed interchangeable to her, and she wondered whether they would grow an audience. My opinion may seem obvious, but I truly believe it. The better trained you are (aside from with the use of media) the less interchangeable you will always be (even projected on a big screen). I think the stage presence/acting aspect becomes even more crucial in a TV or media heavy production, than in a “normal” magic show.

The buyer also asked me why there weren’t more artistic magic shows, like the artistic puppet and juggling shows she’d presented. I told her about Jeff McBride & the Mystery School scholars, and the one-man fringe festival shows, like Ricky Jay’s. She said, “I would love to offer a magic show that’s different, something more robust.”

Robust, she said. Robust… I confess I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what she meant by that choice of words! Perhaps it is different for everyone, I don’t know. I am sure, however, that you, the reader, would prefer to seem “robust” than to seem “interchangeable,” wouldn’t you? Then don’t just watch YouTube, or Fool Us. Think hard about Guy Jarrett’s words. Get some training, some direction, work on your stage presence, take an acting class…or a Master Class. You’ll find yourself much happier, to be a champion, rather than a murderer of the art.

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