By Margaret Steele
From the Dece,ber 2001 issue of The Linking Ring, reprinted with permission.
In the last few years, there's been a growing trend towards master magicians helping other magicians improve their acts. A number of well-know performers now offer coaching, direction, master classes and feedback sessions. These have been valuable to a lot of magicians because many professional performers have learned, through instinct and experience, essentials of routining, timing, choreography, and of course, excellent magic skills. Offering this knowledge certainly can help magicians improve in many ways.
This approach, however, is limited in two important aspects. First, magicians see magic differently than do lay people. Second, and more importantly, all of this work is from the outside in rather than from the inside out.
I'll explain what I mean. Imagine a house that needs some sprucing up. You paint, put in new carpets and maybe some nice new drapes. It looks great! But if the house isn't structurally sound, it doesn't matter what you do. You still have a shaky house.
Enter Bob Fitch, veteran Broadway and film performer, magician, director and choreographer. Over the years he's coached many magicians, with excellent results. Yet he was often frustrated because he felt he was just painting the house. Most magicians, however talented, lack the skills that all trained actors learn, to use their voices, bodies and imaginations to effectively communicate to audiences. These are the skills that form a strong foundation for any performer. In 1999, Bob decided to try an experiment to see if teaching magicians these skills would make a difference, and the Bob Fitch Performance Workshop was born. The experiment succeeded beyond all expectations.
For the workshop's third year, in July, 2001, ten professional magicians assembled in the Canadian woods for an incredibly grueling week of theatre and performance classes, all of which were required attendance for all participants. It was painful. It was exhausting. Egos were in shreds. Everyone suffered major sleep-deprivation. Everyone wants to come back.
Several magicians returned for the second or third time. Bob Sheets was back as a third-year veteran, this time dragging an impressive group of top magicians along with him. They'd cleared extremely busy schedules to spend an entire week working on theatre skills. All had received the week's schedule in advance, but as in previous years, they arrived not knowing exactly what to expect. Some of them weren't convinced that some offerings, such as yoga class and speech class, would be of much value to them.
Enter Edwin Bordo, veteran Broadway and film actor, director, acting teacher and vocal/speech coach. The workshop is actually a teaching partnership between Bob Fitch and Edwin Bordo, who met as performers in the Broadway musical, "Annie." Ed's participation was absolutely crucial, not only because he's one of New York's top acting/speech teachers, but also because he's a layman when it comes to magic. He sees what a real audience member would see...OK, he sees what a hawk-eyed, theatrically sophisticated, brutally honest audience member would see. Ed reminded us that a hat tear is a "BIG surprise" and that scripts that appeal to magicians may be meaningless to a lay person. One of his oft-repeated mantras was, "Love me or hate me, but don't think I'm nice or cute."
So what really happened in these classes? Much of that is a secret. Actors have their secrets just as magicians do. I can tell you that these classes were specifically tailored to magicians. We learned that, according to Ed, "acting is having real experiences in imaginary circumstances." We did exercises in real and imaginary senses. We learned how, for example, to vanish an object so that, instead of pretending the object was still in our hand, we really believed ourselves that that object was still there. This is an extremely important distinction, and the essence of acting. We were truly making our magic real for ourselves, and, therefore, for our audiences.
Speech class was a surprise to most of the participants. They hadn't expected it to have such a profound and immediate effect. When you next see these magicians work and wonder why they suddenly seem even better than before (and you will), a significant part of that will be the result of speech class. We communicate through our voices, and by increasing clarity and vocal range we suddenly communicate much more effectively.
Each morning started with yoga at 8 am. The pain of the early hour was somewhat mitigated by the beautiful setting, lakeside at L'Auberge du lac Morency, a resort in rural Quebec. To their great credit, all of the magicians were troopers. Nobody was ever late to any class, and they always gave every exercise their best shot--a reminder as to how disciplined professional performers are. We stretched and breathed, and as the day went on, we realized how important this physical warm-up was to all of the work.
Yoga, speech and acting classes occupied every morning. Afternoons were a mixed bag. One day John Boni, an Emmy-award winning writer spoke about writing. But usually, it was a get-up-and-do-it class with Bob Fitch, who taught basic stagecraft and stage movement. One of the most enthusiastically received exercises was Entrances, Bows and Exits. One at a time, each particpant learned what worked best for his individual personality and character. Because of the number of performers, some afternoons (as well as all evenings) were devoted to performance class.
Several of the participants told me that even without performance class, the experience would have been well worth the price, but performance class was where the real magic happened. Magicians might have trouble imagining how such classic signature routines such as Paul Gertner's "Unshuffled," Bill Malone's "Sam the Bellhop" or Gene Anderson's newspaper act could possibly be improved.
Actually, performers of this caliber are perhaps the most ideal candidates for the workshop-- world-class magicians poised to take full advantage of world-class direction. The fact that they had already taken their repertoire to the highest level of which they were capable and that they knew their material inside out and backwards, made the work an exquisite collaboration between masters and already masterful students. It also provided an incredible learning experience for those observing, especially since the workshop shop was comprised of both stage and close-up magicians.
The work was painstaking. Inch by inch, line by line, each participant was directed through his routines. Each magician received two ninety-minute directing sessions over the course of the week, and often the whole ninety minutes was needed to get through one routine. Sometimes the work was subtle, with simple changes in vocal inflection, slight turns of the body, or what seemed like small script changes resulting in profound improvements. At other times there were major insights that resulted in dramatic changes and perhaps even a complete rethinking of a routine. Often, the work referred back to the supporting acting, speech and movement classes--the foundation of the house. And since it's hard to remember details of what happened when you're on the hot seat, all sessions were videotaped and each participant given a copy of his sessions.
Bob Fitch and Edwin Bordo were constant inspirations. Over and over again I found myself wondering where they got their unflagging energy, concentration, enthusiasm and compassion. Even after each fifteen-hour class day was over, they would stay up till the wee hours, discussing the day's work and exchanging ideas on how to further help each participant. Everyone knew how incredibly special this was, and it will be a challenge to live up to their expectations of us.
For those of us "putting on the show" it was again a learning experience. As always, the undersung heroine was Operations Director, Pauline Bernier Fitch, whose months of behind-the-scenes work made the week run smoothly. (And she also taught an amazing outdoor acting class!) Most of the bugs from previous workshops were worked out, but we had a major new one; with ten participants, the class was simply too big. (Including me, it was really ten and a half; I took the daytime classes but became videographer for performance class.) In order not to shortchange anyone, there was almost no free time. When we weren't at meals, we were always in class, from 8am to 11pm, for a whole week, and by the end of it we were fried. Not that it wasn't fun! After seven days with the likes of Bill Malone, Bob Sheets and Giovanni, with choice contributions from the others, my face hurt from laughing. But subsequent workshops will be limited to eight participants.
Now that so many of magic's "heavy hitters" have discovered the workshop, all of whom have said they want to come back, it will be interesting to see how it evolves in the future. Since space is so limited, it will become increasingly selective. But experience has shown us that only a small percentage of magicians are interested in subjecting themselves to a search for excellence as demanding and self-examining as this. Are you one of them? If you are, the rewards are great and lifelong.