By Mark Phillips
From the December 2000 issue of Genii, reprinted with permission.
Five professional magicians spent July 7th through 13th at the first session of Bob Fitch's Magic Performance Camp, my partner Karen Beriss and I being two of those five. Over the past year or so, Karen and I had hired Bob to direct us with several new routines and we decided to go to the camp to dedicate an entire week on our act. Bob's past work with us had been incredibly productive, so we had very high expectations. What we didn't anticipate was the pervading and cumulative influence of the acting classes in which were the core of the curriculum.
We all know Robert-Houdin's quote, "A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician." In spite of this, most of us remain solely in the world of magicians. Our tools, judgments, imitating and emulating rarely extend to other branches of theater and performing. If something is not in a magic book, magazine, video or lecture; then why bother with it? Change is scary, and discipline is no picnic either. Submitting one's act to a new and possibly more critical point of view is not done lightly.
Karen and I come from "close-up" backgrounds, but our current focus is developing and polishing our two person, comedy-magic show. We knew we needed direction with blocking and moving on stage, and on performing with a partner instead of solo. Having been dubious of most magicians who offer their services as acting coaches or directors, we felt the best way to learn about stagecraft was from a trained, successful stage actor.
At Bob's camp we actually got three successful actors as teachers. Bob Fitch has had an amazing career; including dancing, singing and acting in 27 Broadway productions. His list of industrial, nightclub, film and television credits literally fills pages on his resume. Bob has also been involved in magic for most of his life. He studied at the Chavez School as a young man and developed into an expert coin worker and acknowledged innovator with both the topit and Jack Miller's holdout. The second primary instructor was non-magician Ed Bordo, whose acting credits include on and off-Broadway shows, television and even two Woody Allen movies. Ed also worked for years with the acclaimed voice instructor Tamara Daykarhanova. Bob and Ed have been friends since they both had major roles in the original Broadway cast of "Annie.'
Participation is the key at Bob's camp. "Don't think about it, just do it," became our working motto. Each day commenced at 8:00 am with an hour of yoga. Skeptical at first, I felt extremely relaxed and focused after our first yoga class. Of course, the tranquil surroundings of Bob's lakeside Bed & Breakfast also contributed to that feeling of peacefulness. Throughout this week of hard work, there were many opportunities to relax and enjoy the beautiful lake and the wooded surroundings.
Breakfast followed yoga, and then Ed led us daily in an hour of vocal exercises for actors. Prior to camp, most of us felt little need for improvement in this area. We were all surprised at the dramatic improvements each of us made in vocal power and clarity. Ed also taught us how to keep from straining our voices while performing. In retrospect, this one class was probably worth the entire registration cost of the camp for me. These voice lessons were a nice foundation--the first layer of Bob's multi-layered approach to performing.
Keeping a routine fresh and natural, especially one that has been in the repertoire several years, is a constant challenge. When performing an effect for the thousandth time, the routine can easily sound mechanical or "canned." Likewise, newer routines are usually learned in front of a mirror performing only for one's self. Practicing actions and memorizing lines is not necessarily communicating. Ed's second class of each day was basic acting techniques and exercises to help us address these issues directly.
In this class we practiced genuinely thinking about what we were doing onstage, and we worked to create a believable, spontaneous reality. Instead of simply pretending--going through the motions that accompany our tricks - we learned to use our real and imaginary senses to actually "believe" in what we were doing. This kept us from falling into a repetitious monotony and infused naturalness into our performances. Later sessions included exercises on timing, listening to our partners and being aware of what is actually happening during our performances.
After lunch, Bob would give a lecture and then lead us in exercises that were more directly related to performing as magicians. We practiced basic stagecraft (entrances, exits, bows, posture, how to angle our bodies for best visibility and vocal clarity, etc.) and learned about motivation, purpose and communication. Each participant performed every exercise on stage for Bob and the rest of the class, giving us an opportunity to put those lessons into action immediately. Other sessions included analyzing our characters, dealing with performance anxiety or stage fright, non-traditional thinking when approaching our performances, and ways to improve and clarify vocal inflections in our scripts.
We had special guest lectures as well. First was an afternoon session with television, film and stage writer John Boni. John's experience and insight were very helpful in showing us the importance of narrative and story in our scripts. We also enjoyed two acting sessions with Madeline Sherwood, acting teacher of Kevin Spacey, James Spader and many others. Although it dates me, I personally remembered Madeline from the TV show The Flying Nun, in which she played the Mother Superior. Madeline's favorite saying to us was, "Get out of your head, and come to your senses." Her exercises helped us focus on what we are doing in the moment by experiencing it with as many senses as possible. "Don't think about it, just do it" began to take on more meaning. The stream of thoughts running through our heads as we perform is not necessarily conducive to a convincing performance. Madeline also encouraged us to take risks that we likely would not have taken otherwise. Bob's wife Pauline Bernier-Fitch assisted Madeline in her classes. In addition to being the mother of six and grandmother of six, Pauline has an impressive theater resume.
After dinner, we worked directly on our respective acts. Each night two participants gave a performance of a work in progress, followed by direction from Bob & Ed. This was in-depth work, and the toughest of all. I'm proud to say that our group was open to trying virtually anything Bob and Ed threw at us. Some ideas didn't work and we'd keep trying until we hit the right one. Instead of just telling us to do this or that, Bob & Ed asked us why we were doing something, then told us to do it again. They asked questions from an actor's perspective, ones I had never before considered. We were challenged repeatedly to defend our actions, movements and scripting. We became much more facile at recognizing what worked for us. In justifying our work, we found ourselves communicating more clearly, with more purpose and a better "story" to tell. These master classes were videotaped for us to use after camp. The videotaping was an ideal solution, since most of us got so many ideas and changes we couldn't possibly remember them all. While all of this was hard work, it was also a stimulant to keep our senses of humor well tuned. We had as many laughs during these sessions as we did breakthroughs.
While we are all professional magicians, the participants of our class come from extremely varied "markets." Karen and I are trade show magicians, Stan Davis gives anti-smoking and anti-bullying educational programs at schools, Chris Pilsworth is a "speaking" stage magician and illusionist with a humorous edge, and Margaret Steele performs silent stage routines that are highly choreographed to music. Though each performance style was very different, we all learned from watching each other. We began see our characters and ourselves more clearly and to put more of "us" into our performances. We searched for ways to make our routines more interesting and memorable--after admitting to ourselves that our audiences may not share our inherent interest and enthusiasm about a deck of cards or a set of linking rings.
As the camp progressed, our improvement became more and more apparent. Performers whose voices regularly "dropped off" at the ends of sentences were now easy to hear and understand. Routines and performances took quantum leaps and we found ourselves asking the kinds of questions Bob & Ed had been asking all week. We contributed ideas and started helping each other find solutions. Whether someone had a technical problem, a line that didn't work or a move didn't seem quite right, our pooled resources produced some wonderful results. We were experimenting and discovering what worked best for each of us individually.
Before camp began, Bob had mentioned a unifying characteristic he found in all the performers at last year's camp. He realized that every one of them was somehow "hiding." Some hid behind their tricks or their props, some hid behind their scripts, some hid their true personalities behind a self-imposed image, but each hid. Our teachers never directly addressed this reluctance to make contact with the audience and to actually communicate. Simply telling someone to stop hiding would have been of little help. Instead, Bob, Ed and the others provided tools that gave us the courage and comfort to take risks and "expose" ourselves. As our teachers led us through our exercises or encouraged us to experiment with new ways of doing things, each of us came more out into the open.
If all of this sounds "touchy-feely" - well, I have to admit, it was. I expected to learn techniques; tools and "tricks" that would help me give better performances. I didn't expect what I learned to affect me personally, to motivate me, to energize me and to give me a new way of looking at performing. Every time Bob or Ed had us "Do it again," I could feel improvement! We spoke louder and more clearly, our timing clicked, and we sounded more natural and spontaneous. It wasn't that we consciously thought about each of those things, it was that the exercises we did each day were already paying off.
Did the others feel the same growth? Chris Pilsworth, a full-time professional for the past 13 years, says he was truly inspired by Bob and his dedicated team of coaches. "From voice and acting lessons to movement and performance sessions, the program imparted an incredible amount of information in a short period of time. All of the techniques presented are directly applicable in real-world situations. I noticed an immediate improvement in my shows after attending the workshop." Like Bob Sheets, Chris has become a vocal advocate of Fitch's camp. "If you are seeking a way to generate a greater response from your audiences, I highly recommend the Bob Fitch workshop. The money paid to attend is, without a doubt, one of the best career investments I ever made!"
Stan Davis agrees, saying, "After last year's camp I shifted from performing TO my audiences to performing FOR them. After this year's I shifted from performing for my audiences to performing WITH them. What helped me is learning to see my magic from the audience's point of view and learning the skills to affect what my audience experiences during a show."
I'm glad to report that the results I've gotten are also very concrete. Shows I've done since the camp have generated more laughs, more gasps, and more compliments. Venturing into the world of actors made an impact in my act and life. I do Ed's vocal exercises every morning and take yoga classes at my gym three times a week. I'm looking into acting classes here in Washington to keep my self in shape. Best of all, I'm doing instead of thinking.