Stage Magic / Screen Magic :
observations on the illusions of stage and screen
occasioned by the 41st annual It’s Magic touring production
"But this rough magic I here abjure."
-- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, V, i
In considering the differences between stage and film productions, it is critical to realize first their primary similarities, i.e., they both have as their object the suspension of the audiences disbelief and, therefore, the audiences willing acceptance of and participation in the world of the play or movie. Only after this suspension has been achieved can the production’s other effects - the persuasion of the audience to the author’s point of view, the artistic presentation of the human condition, even the poetry of the words, images and situations - be considered. Given this perspective, it is interesting to consider the theatrical form which requires the most severe test of an audience’s disbelief: the magic act. In comparing how the realms of ‘magic’ are conceived on both the live stage and in the film or television production, it may be possible to draw significant conclusions about the more general presentation of stagecraft as opposed to cinematography.
Magic, the supposed performance of feats of the impossible, could be considered the oldest form of entertainment or stage production known to man. Long before western theater was codified by the Greeks, early cultures beheld spectacles of divination, alchemy and outright legerdemain as part of both their entertainments and religious rituals. It is curious, therefore, to observe just how similar modern stage productions are to their primitive forbears, from their reliance upon atmosphere, ‘stage-setting’, and the powers of suggestion, to their intimations of the mysterious. However, there are significant differences as well, and interestingly enough, much of this recent change of the stage productions competition and interaction with its modern cousin, the film and television production.
Unlike the religious and quasi-religious magic of the middle ages and previously, the modern audience is unlikely to believe in the literal reality of what is presented to them on stage. They are aware that the magician’s assistant isn’t truly being cut in half, just as they are aware that Shakespeare’s Prospero isn’t truly summoning up powerful spirits. Furthermore, the comparatively educated (or jaded) modern audience is aware of how many of the tricks are performed - leaving the magician with the difficult task of sustaining their attention with constantly new illusions, or at the very least, new presentations of familiar illusions, much as stage play directors are constantly called upon to present fresh interpretations of classic texts in order to sustain their audience’s. This brings us also to the issue of spectacle: when compared to the riotously dramatic and explosive presentations available in film and television, a stage magic act or play must be able to offer some unique stimulation in order to attract an audience - an audience used to the fiery car crashes and explosions available on nightly television will scarcely be impressed by the relatively small flames available to most stage illusionists.
Chief amongst the modern stage magician’s arsenal of attractions is the element of risk. While pre-cinema magic shows were often replete with ventriloquists, hypnotists, and other such ‘passive’ acts, the modern stage show is increasingly dependent upon the attraction of danger - during the course of a recent two-hour production, magicians and their assistants gave the illusion of being stabbed with swords, dropped from heights, electrocuted, set on fire, as well as being cut in half no less than three times. Even in the least hazardous individual act, a successive series of materializations, the act involved gouts of flame and a wickedly large knife, brandished to the audience in order to show off its glittering edge. The audience, while not so jaded perhaps as to want an injury to occur, is drawn to the fascinating possibility that it may occur - a possibility given reality when one of the puffs of flame briefly ignited the magician’s tuxedo shirt. In a stage play, there exists, though not to the same degree, a similar element of risk which is attractive to the audience - yes, Mercutio and Tybalt duel with fake swords (or, in at least one recent production, guns firing blanks), but there is the possibility, despite safety precautions and rehearsal after rehearsal, that an accident will occur and real blood may be let...or at least that Mercutio may take a sudden tumble into the orchestra pit.
Not all risks of a live production are so dramatic, of course, nor is it meant to imply that the modern stage audience is so singularly bloodthirsty: there is also the tantalizing possibility of simple production mistakes. This hazard is present in every stage play of course, and it adds much to the sense of the immediacy of Romeo’s emotions that he may, at any moment, forget his lines. For the stage play, part of the audience’s pleasure in a fine production is the mere fact that everyone remembered their lines, that scenery was moved correctly and in a timely manner, and that the snow machine called for in act three didn’t suddenly roar to life during act two. However, for a stage magician, these risks are purposefully intensified. Aside from forgetting their intended patter, a stage magician is inviting an audience to try to pierce the veil of his illusion, see the aces up his sleeve, in order that his triumph may be the greater when that proves impossible. The magician’s courting of his viewers, practically challenging them to denounce him, is a dramatic presentation of the way in which all stage productions must flirt with the hazards of live production, from power outages to forgotten lines, in order to engage their audience.
The other primary advantage which live productions exercise over television broadcasts and films is the element of audience trust. Film is, in many ways, a more intimate presentation of events than a stage can manage, since it allows multiple viewpoints of a scene or event, primarily effected by the use of camera angles, and sometimes by the re-presentation of scenes from different perspectives. However, for suspension of disbelief, this can actually present a significant drawback, since part of an audience’s willing participation in the stage performance is the assurance that they may move their eyes wherever they wish, focus selectively on various portions of the stage, and thus be assured of the reliability and continuity of their fictional surroundings - the stage can present a more or less complete environment for the audience, depending upon theater architecture, use of props and scenery, and other elements. In stage magic, this takes the form of the audience’s assurance that no ‘camera tricks’ can be employed in a live performance. A television production or film, on the other hand, can cut away from a scene, and, while no time has taken place in the storyline, several days may have passed between shots. While scenes may be shot on more realistic locations than can be recreated in a stage setting, the camera is a controlling influence, dictating where and when the observer may look - the audience cannot see the missing fourth wall of the bedroom, where the lighting technicians sit, nor can they see the many days of special effects production which make the car appear to explode. Given this limitation, an audience is apt to see a stage performance as more ‘honest’, an element which is particularly importance to the illusions of magic shows.
Some television productions attempt to escape this audience distrust by providing them with a studio audience - a proxy witness for the home audience, to prove that no camera tricks or similar special effects are used during the taped production. In televised dramas and plays, the studio audience can also act as a ‘cue’ to the home viewer, laughing, exclaiming, and otherwise reacting to on-stage events in order to foster the sense of community with fellow audience members which is necessarily missing from televised performances. While this technique has been used less in movies, filmed versions of stage plays, operas, and other productions will still occasionally include a studio audience in order to ‘authenticate’ their production and provide the viewer with an audience community they can relate to.
Of course, even when the studio audience is filmed, the film or television viewer knows that the element of risk and immediacy which characterizes a stage play or show will be absent. Flawed productions or films are not released, they are re-shot; given the possibility of eliciting a troupe of actors’ best performances for every scene and production, what director or film producer would decide otherwise? The illusion of intimacy gained in a film production is just that - an illusion. The audience is always subconsciously aware of the ultimately staged nature of filmed action, and they are denied the possibility of improvisation and impromptu behavior which exists in even the most strictly produced play. Only by denying the possibilities of hyper-realism inherent in film ,and attempting to evoke the feel of a stage production (for instance, Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth), can the film or television show achieve the stage’s intimacy and trust with its audience.
If the movies must return to the stage in order to promote the sensations of immediacy and intimacy, the stage, in turn, has learned from Hollywood how to express itself expansively. Stage plays are often designed and produced with a spectrum of special effects, set and lighting changes, and extravagant costumes in mind, in order to better approximate the richness available to a movie or television show which has hours of time between camera shots to change locations, don costumes and makeup, or prepare effects. Current Broadway musicals may be the type of stage production most dramatically influenced by film values, but the modern magic show is also definitely a child of the Hollywood era. Its most popular proponent, David Copperfield, includes lasers, dry ice machines, multiple costume changes and complex sets in his stage act, and it is not surprising that this has made his show a natural for transition to film and television, a disposition he indulges with frequent televised specials.
However, even Copperfield takes note that one of the greatest strengths of the live stage production is still the possibility of direct involvement with the audience - between set pieces, he often quits the stage in order to circulate among spectators and perform the classic illusions of the vaudeville era ("pick a card, any card") which require that age-old standby, "a volunteer from the audience". While not even the audiences of yesteryear could be certain that the chosen assistant wasn’t a pre-selected compatriot of the stage magician, it still evokes the feeling of physical interaction, immediacy, and improvisation which is the hallmark of the stage play, rather than the film or television experience.