While I was fuming and furiously writing my own response to the Giobbi column, Dustin posted first. But perhaps mine hits some notes that he missed. Here it is.
It absolutely stands to reason that Robert-Houdin's oft-quoted, "A conjurer is an actor playing the part of a magician," might not always be interpreted in the manner the author intended. However, Mr. Giobbi's counterargument to the generally accepted interpretationthat effective acting is essential for effective magical performancesprings from a fallacious starting point and arrives at an equally erroneous conclusion.
Mr. Giobbi states, "...if you try to act in the sense of the actor...you have the best chance not to be a good magician, for to act in the actor's sense, you will very likely appear contrived, unnatural, and uncommunicative because you will seem artificial."
Since Mr. Giobbi admits that he has "instinctively stayed away from any type of acting," let's address some of the mistaken assumptions he makes about this craft.
Words like "contrived," "unnatural," "uncommunicative," and "artificial" are informative, because the picture they paint is that of the poorly trained actor. Hamlet's advice to the players echoes through them. However, good acting is, by definition, none of these things. It is honest and believable.
"The best actors do not let the wheels show." Henry Fonda
Mr. Giobbi believes: "Acting is essentially about playing a part and that's what magic is not about, at least as a general rule...Actually playing a part, as an actor does, is in my opinion detrimental to good magic."
But let's be honest: when we are performing as magicians, we are playing a part. Mr. Giobbi admits this when he says that the role of the magician is "to take man's world of dreams...and show how it can be lived by a super-hero, a God on earth, who is the magician, the maker of wonders." Yes, that role often possesses a personality that is based mostly on ourselves, but it's a role nonetheless.
Furthermore, acting is not, as Mr. Giobbi suggests, always the act of transforming yourself into something you are not and hiding behind roles. Quite the contrary. Even in situations where the role seems far apart from the actor's daily life, the actor must strip away pretense and find what is real and honest within himself that he can bring to the role and make it feel genuine. Otherwise, it is bad actingall externals with nothing believable at the core. And that, I'm sad to say, is what I've seen in poorly performed magic.
"Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." Sanford Meisner
Do you maintain that you are just "being yourself," yet reacting to magical things that happen at your fingertips? Do you give the impression of reading minds? Do you pretend that your wand has a magical power? I hate to break the news to you, Mr. Giobbi, but that is acting. You don't have to be Dustin Hoffman, shiftting chameleon-like from role to role. Many professional actors do not.
"I'm not an actress who can create a character. I play me." Mary Tyler Moore
More quotes of Giobbi: "The actor is an instrument, albeit an artistic one, of the play and its director. Essentially the actor is a figure within a play that theatrically interprets a story as it could occur in real life, with its plot, conflicts, and final resolution...The actor interpets a text written by the author of the play and it is his job to creatively inhabit this to emotionally and intellectually involve the audience and make them 'live' the story."
He contrasts this with the magician, who "is the direct source of his art, unlike the actor who is an 'instrument' of the play and its author."
Unfortunately, Mr. Giobbi's definition is outdated. It only applies to actors who appear in plays written by others, but in this day and age, that is no longer the only theatrical option. Some actors are very much "the direct source of [their] art" and are creators or collaborators of their performance material. In many current instances, theater is created without playwrights at all, but through the spontaneous theatrical improvisations of the actors, who dare to live in the moment without knowing where it will take them.
To shore up his argument, Mr. Giobbi cites: "An example where acting would be detrimental to a situation, as Juan Tamariz once pointed out to me, is in most kinds of sucker effects. Acting out the situation with a text and gestures as it would be done in a play won't pass as sincere, whereas if you simply keep quiet and don't say anything it is much more likely to be believed."
The fallacy: it suggests that acting is "acting out with text and gestures." But those who have studied acting know that a good actor is one who remains alive on stage (or on screen) when he is saying nothing. Some of the greatest moments on film were moments of silence. These weren't accidents perpetrated by the untrained. And I see no coherent reason to believe that the context of sucker effects constitutes a special exception.
"I think it's probably honest to say that there's a certain powerful stillness that I remember admiring tremendously as I grew up. And that would be Spencer Tracy... and Bogart and that particular approach to the work. The stillness, the economy, the grace of that work, so they would have been then, my heroes on the screen." Ben Kingsley
Mr. Giobbi ends his column with an example that is irrelevant. In it, a professional magician performed an effect that was less than convincing because he had been directed by a theatrical director, but without the help of a magical consultant. This is to prove that theatrical directors might be helpful in clarifying dramatic construction and interpretation, but they "haven't got a clue of the psychological construction used in magic...." So? Having both would have helped, certainly, but what has this to do with the importance of learning acting in order to be a more effective magician?
To project the image you want through voice and movement, to execute sleights more deceptively, to relate to events onstage and off with spontaneity, to gain a better sense of dramatic structure for your performance pieces, to connect with an audience on an emotional level, to keep your material fresh no matter how many hundreds of times you perform itthese are all benefits that come from actor training.
Can a performer do good magic without acting training? Sure. Mr. Giobbi states that several world-class magicians he knows have done without it. But there are just as many (if not more) on the other side of that coin. (Ask Bob Fitch, John Lovick, David Regal, Tom Stone, etc.) And it begs the question: might the performers he cites be cheating themselves of reaching their full potential?
To conclude, as Mr. Giobbi does, that one doesn't need to learn effective acting in order to be an effective magician is ill-reasoned at best. At worst, it could dissuade those who might be on the fence about furthering their artistic development through acting classes.
If Mr. Giobbi wishes to use faulty arguments to rationalize his own lack of training, that's his business; but to use his column as a platform to preach such ignorance to our brethren is simply irresponsible and potentially damaging to our craft.
Neil Tobin, Necromancer