Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

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matt16k
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Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby matt16k » March 18th, 2013, 8:42 am

Hi there.

It was suggested to me through a friend at the College of Magic in Cape Town, South Africa, that I contact this forum about a particular issue, with which I could use your advice.

I am currently studying my honours in Theatre and Performance at UCT and this means writing a thesis. My original topic for this was "Magic as Theatre: High Art or Pure Entertainment?", but was shut down by a lecturer that said magic could not be considered theatre because it does not necessitate a narrative and character development. I have to admit that I was rather upset with this view on magic, as I believe it to be immensely theatrical. I see the magician as a highly skilled actor that uses narrative to engage an audience in his illusions.

I look at Penn & Teller ( flag burning & the US constitution ) ... Siegfried & Roy ( grand epic of good vs. evil ) ... even Copperfield's vignettes were all narrative based ( seeing snow for the first time ... man's desire to take to the skies ) and cannot describe their art as anything but theatre. Where does the difference lie? Is there any?


Why is it then that magic is not (at least in academic circles) not being considered theatre worth studying or writing about? I am having extreme difficulty finding any academic writings on theatre that regards magic at all. Are there any? What are your thoughts on magic as theatre, particularly in a Western framework?

If there is any chance you would be willing to help in any way I would be very thankful.

Kindest Regards

Matthew Baldwin

MartinKaplan
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby MartinKaplan » March 18th, 2013, 9:08 am

This book might prove to be helpful. Also, you might consider writing directly to Lawrence Hass. http://www.amazon.com/Performing-Magic- ... 518&sr=1-4

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Andrew Pinard
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby Andrew Pinard » March 18th, 2013, 10:08 am

Sounds like a wonderful opportunity to engage the lecturer in a dialogue about the aspects of theatre.

If theatre requires narrative, there is one to be found in every performance of magic. It is all too often (as Eugene Burger would say) an "adventure of the props", but need not be limited to that. The same could be said for character development.

Theatre professionals often struggle with the interactive and non-linear nature of the storytelling in a magic performance. As a non-traditional theatre experience, a performance of magic casts the audience as a character in the drama being unfolded with the magician as catalyst. The somewhat limited range of response by the untrained actors serving as the audience is often dismissed by traditional theatre producers. While the performance is recognized and appreciated by the audience as a show, the trained theatre artist has a hard time drawing parallels between their limited conception of "theatre" and magic.

What is often lacking is a depth of emotional response that one expects from good theatre that is rarely seen in performances of magic.

The performing framework is another challenge to those who are used to "fourth wall" work. The inherent "challenge" aspect of much magic is antithetical to most performances of theatre. In theatre, suspension of disbelief is part of the contract with the audience. This requires some remove of the action from the audience - hence the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall and encouraging interaction takes the audience out of the "reality" created in a theatrical production can result in reduced emotional response. In magic performances, audiences need to utilize the intellectual processes of the brain to process the magic plot. This results in a large visceral reaction, but not necessarily a huge range of emotions. The emotional response often gets described as a sense of "wonder" (although I believe "awe" is more precise).

Theatre aims for a broader range of emotional response, while magic appeals more to an intellectual response. Different goals, similar settings. Magic uses many theatrical techniques to achieve its goal but is not necessarily theatre. Just like dance and other performing arts are not necessarily theatre.

This was addressed by Nevil Maskelyne himself in Our Magic:

"A magical presentation is, normally, a thing complete and perfect in itself. It has its own involution, its own climax and its own evolution. If we present magical effects in combination with a dramatic theme, we superimpose upon them a master-plot having a master-climax, and a master-evolution to be fulfilled, in order to produce unity in the final result. That being so, our magical items can no longer remain complete in themselves, without producing disruption of the dramatic theme and destroying its unity."

The fusion of two approaches (magical and dramatic) can then ultimately lead to the diminishment of one or the other, and in some cases, both.

To paraphrase Maskelyne: When you combine magic and theatre, one must ultimately overshadow the other.

Thus a strong magic trick in a theatre piece can take audiences out of the narrative "flow" while an attempt to add "meaning" to a magic trick can diminish the visceral response associated with the moment of revelation. The comparison could be compared to the ocean in this way: a magic reaction is the slamming of one wave into the audience's cognitive processes while a theatrical piece is the series of waves as the tide recedes and then ultimately returns.

I hope this is helpful!

matt16k
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby matt16k » March 18th, 2013, 11:51 am

Fantastically helpful! Thank you so very much. Much appreciated!

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Andrew Pinard
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby Andrew Pinard » March 18th, 2013, 12:27 pm

My pleasure. I look forward to reading your thesis when it is done!

Andrew

Eric Fry
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby Eric Fry » March 18th, 2013, 12:50 pm

Given that Matthew's proposed thesis was precisely to examine whether magic is theater, you'd think the professor would allow it as a legitimate thesis. A thesis is supposed to be about an open question.

The professor seems to have peremptorily closed the question. It's a good thing he doesn't teach science, because scientists learn by getting wrong answers as well as right answers.

Even if Matthew concluded that magic isn't theater, the thesis would compel him to deal with meaty issues.

Plus, I'd think that by now there's a whole body of modernist plays that doesn't have narrative or character development.

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Joe Pecore
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby Joe Pecore » March 18th, 2013, 12:51 pm

You might want to check out Charles Pecor's Doctorial dissertation "The Magician on the American Stage" (1977) http://www.geniimagazine.com/magicpedia ... s_J._Pecor
Share your knowledge on the MagicPedia wiki.

R.E.Byrnes
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby R.E.Byrnes » March 18th, 2013, 1:22 pm

Magic seems to have a natural inertia toward being lower art, and it appears to be much harder to make magic legitimate high art; harder than other performing arts, which seem to have a larger elite realm but smaller groups of non-elites than magic. While not as intrinsically a pure skill demonstration as something like juggling, magic can easily fall into the same low order, or even lower, a mere cuiosity, when skill and dexterity are removed and it's just the pageant of props alluded to above. Magic also lacks the independent critical sources that things like movies and literature have in abundance. Because the most well-informed critics/thinkers in magic -- Ricky Jay, Max Maven, Jamy Ian Swiss, etc -- are also practitioners, there's not the same apparent objectivity and diversity of viewpoint as with movie and literary criticism. Magic is unique with an exemplary knowledge of its method/'secrets' being perhaps essential to fully assessing a magic performance, even as those methods are no part of a lay audience's experience. Magic has never had a Pauline Kael or a Jacques Derrida, critics who aren't practitioners in the field their criticism focuses on, but who nonetheless know the fields' hidden techniques as well as directors and novelists do.

At its best magic is plainly theatre or art or highbrow -- or whatever designation accords it elite status. But there seems to be the odd circumstance in which that elite status is harder to achieve than in other performing arts, wheras it's easier to achieve a marketable mediocrity in magic than with other things people do on stage, perhaps owing to magic's secrets having some allure, as puzzles to solve, even when embedded in the most incompetent performance. 'Magic as puzzle' has been copiously derided;but more often than not, that's what magic is, often despite attempts to graft theatrical elements onto the performance, character elements onto the performer, and a fatuous narrative around the whole event.

Most attempts at art come up short. For some reason in magic a lot of those failed attempts seem to happen in public. Perhaps it's because the secret can still be concealed and engender audience interest despite the most execrable performance. There is no analogue in, for example, music or literature; something worth listening to or reading despite the singer or author's general incompetence.

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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby matt16k » March 18th, 2013, 4:28 pm

R.E.Byrnes, I have to thank you very much. Your comments are incredibly insightful. The need for independent critical sources in order to elevate the status of magic is something I have been grappling with for a while now and you have provided some very educated commentary on the subject. Magic's 'marketable mediocrity', as you put it, is somewhat of a revelation to me. I had not given it much thought until now. I shall investigate further.

Thank you all for your contributions. I am most appreciative.

Kind Regards

Matthew

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Tom Stone
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby Tom Stone » March 18th, 2013, 8:08 pm

My original topic for this was "Magic as Theatre: High Art or Pure Entertainment?", but was shut down by a lecturer that said magic could not be considered theatre because it does not necessitate a narrative and character development

That's a stupid argument. While I agree that magic isn't theatre, it can certainly be discussed in context of theatrical and dramatic techniques, in a way that would benefit both areas.
No, the argument is stupid because it isn't true. Theatre does not necessitate narrative and character developement either. It is not difficult to find plays to illustrate that.
And magic has its own kind of narrative, it's just a different kind than theatrical narrative.

And that can be illustrated. Make up a couple of routines with no, or broken, narrative. That will be most illustrative:

Borrow a watch and make it vanish. Point to a box hanging from the ceiling and say: "That box has been hanging there the whole day". Open your wallet and remove a signed playing card. The end

Let three people select a card each. Say "And those are the cards you selected!" Take a bow. The end.

Jot something down on a piece of paper. Ask someone to name a three digit number. They do, and you turn the paper around to show a drawing of a banana. The end.

Pour cold water into a mug. Write "fire" on a piece of paper and carefully put the mug on the paper. Wait a few seconds then pour the content out, showing it to be a handful kumquat instead of water. The end.

...and so on. No narrative involved?

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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby Jonathan Townsend » March 18th, 2013, 9:37 pm

? IMHO there is a necessary narrative - where after being assured of "play" the performer engages the audience in forming a belief in what is shown as 'real' even though all present were sure at the onset that none of what would be shown is 'real'.

I can agree with the lecturer in that presenting this craft as "music video" for passively attending audiences lacks the basics of rhetorical engagement beyond "oh look at the pretty colors and attractive people on the stage in sparkly costumes"...

so, have at. Do you believe your performances are designed to argue for absurd beliefs? Just what do you want the audience to accept, expect and believe about your character in performance and what happens during a performance?

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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby Max Maven » March 18th, 2013, 10:17 pm

I agree with Tom and others. The lecturer you spoke to seems to be an idiot. At the very least, he has no understanding of theater. (I shudder as I wonder what his lecture topics are.)

To insist that theater must be linear is to ignore much of the history of theater. It's as simple as that.

If your lecturer doesn't like, say, Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, so be it. If he doesn't understand it, so be it. But to proclaim, from a position of supposed authority, that it "isn't theater," is nonsense. Same with that person's distorted (and likely uninformed) perception of magic.

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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby P.T. Murphy » March 26th, 2013, 10:39 am

Do yourself a favor. Stick with your idea. Make your argument. Don't let this person's ignorance discourage you. This is a great exercise for what awaits you in the real world. I think you will surprise yourself and your lecturer.

You may be the person that helps to change this lecturer's point of view.

Please don't give up on this idea.

Along with the other resources mentioned in this thread, try and get a copy of "The Death and Resurrection Show" by Rogan Taylor. The university library may have a copy.
"Those who do not believe in magic
will never find it. " -Roald Dahl

John Tudor
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby John Tudor » March 26th, 2013, 11:20 am

Matt,
...the book that Andrew quoted from, Our Magic, would be a good first step in your academic quest, if you haven't found it already...

Nevil Maskelyne's first part, The Art In Magic, has a chapter titled Three Degrees of Art that deals specifically with some of these issues.

http://books.google.com/books/about/Our ... MLAAAAIAAJ

Congratulations on tackling this topic!

John
"Ars longa, vita brevis." (Life is short, the art so long to learn) -Hippocrates

John Tudor


matt16k
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Re: Magic as Theatre: An Academic Struggle

Postby matt16k » March 29th, 2013, 3:33 am

Thank you all so much for your imput. I am definitely going to be perusing this topic. I'll keep you updated as I go along,

M


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