Ten magicians brave mosquitoes, thunderstorms and their own fears for a transformational experience.


By Margaret Steele

From the November 1999  issue of The Linking Ring, reprinted with permission.

On July 16th, 1999, I was one of ten magicians who converged deep in the Canadian woods for a week at the first ever Bob Fitch Workshop--a rigorous program of speech, acting and movement classes, plus individual direction of our acts. The setting was spectacular. Bob and his wife, Pauline (Polly) Bernier, own a lovely bed & breakfast on forty acres on a pristine Quebec lake . A large tent with a plywood floor at one end had been set up in the backyard as our "theatre" for the week. Bob and Polly had also rented the next house on the lake so all of us could be accomodated.

Although we'd all received the daily activities schedule in advance, no one knew exactly what to expect. The first night we were treated to a welcoming party and were introduced to Ed Bordo, a highly-respected actor and teacher from New York. We were also each presented with a camp logo t-shirt and a workbook which contained pages on character, acting, communicating, stage definitions and lots of blank pages for our own notes. Bob Fitch then told us that we were guinea pigs in a first-time experiment, that of teaching craft, the tools of the theatre, to magicians. We would be expected to attend all classes and activities. Some of the reasons for some of the exercises we'd be doing might not be immediately apparent, but we should trust our teachers and try to do them to the best of our ability. "Don't ask why " became one of the mantras of the week, along with, "Stop talking and DO it!"Finally, Bob told us we had permission to fail; indeed, here there was no failure, just discovery. We were then all sent to bed at the absurdly early hour of 11pm to be fresh for our first class at 8am.

We were all more than a little nervous, but nobody inspires trust more than Bob Fitch. He has vast experience as an actor/dancer/singer on stage and screen, and his knowledge of magic is awesome. He'd prepared for the workshop by viewing participants' videos and had already spoken with all of us by phone prior to the event. He'd previously confided to me that he felt a great burden of responsibility, "these people are trusting me with their LIVES." His caring shone through constantly. Throughout the week he was available for private conversation and coaching during every spare minute, day and night.

Each day began with yoga class at 8am. We spread mats on the dewy lawn, and to the throaty voice of our French Canadian instructor Michel ("leeft yoor harms een zee hair") our sleepy, motley group stretched, breathed and energized for our demanding day. After breakfast was speech class with Ed Bordo. We discovered our diaphragms and did voice and diction exercises, adjusting for different size theatres and distances. We spoke together and individually, with Ed correcting us till we got it right. After speech class came acting class, which, as the week went on, I looked forward to with a mixture of anticipation and dread. It was both thrilling and scary because we had absolutely no idea what we'd be asked to do that day. Pauline Bernier's class the first day began with us chasing her around the house, screaming like banshees. Later in the class I was asked to sing a song while skipping around the stage. It was rather mortifying, but each of us had to do something equally revealing.

Ed Bordo taught acting for the rest of the week. It was tough, challenging and wonderful fun, especially since the course had been designed specifically for us as magicians. Ed told us that "acting is doing something real in imaginary circumstances--making discoveries onstage." That seemed so vague until we began the exercises on how to do this. We did sensory exercises with both real and imaginary objects, learning to "discover" them and make them "real." We learned how to "endow" a prop with meaning. We also learned how to take space onstage, how to think on our feet, how to work in ensemble. We learned how mime differs from acting; mimes "show" or "indicate" action, while actors have an experience which the audience can observe and share. We became actors!

After lunch and relaxation (canoeing, swimming, napping....), afternoons were a mixed bag. One day, as we huddled under the tent during a horrific thunderstorm, we learned about scriptwriting with John Boni, an Emmy-Award winning TV writer. Another day we spent an entire afternoon with Bob learning how to make an entrance on stage; we each walked on over and over and over. We learned how to play to our entire audience. We learned how to sense our angles, to project energy, to understand what audiences really see. We learned how to bow.

The classes alone would have made the week worthwhile, but the real magic happened in the evening performance class. Here, each participant actually performed his or her act and received personal direction from Bob and Ed, who worked together as a brilliant team. It was amazing. Each and every person transformed right before our eyes. Everyone didn't just get better; they got a LOT better. We were an extremely varied group, and it was thrilling to watch Bob and Ed work with each performer's unique personality.

Although it's tempting to bask in the glow of our transformational week, it was a learning experience on many levels. There were challenges. Our work tent was not screened, and we were constantly besieged by mosquitoes. We huddled in the tent during several terrifying thunderstorms. Thinking that magicians could be convinced to go to bed at 11pm was a mistake. I chuckle now thinking about it. The result was an increasingly bedraggled bunch at 8am yoga. We did it (if 68 year-old Ed Bordo could do it so could we), but it was really hard. In addition, afternoon class often ran overtime, as Bob talked and we hung on every word. We lost our nap time, and we became increasingly sleep-deprived and fried. It took days to recover after I got home.

I really hope this event happens again. Bob gave up lots of performing work to do it, but hopefully the enthusiastic response and amazing results will convince him to continue with it. It could truly change the course of magic.