Magicians have a long history of stagecraft. There are those who believe magic should only be performed on stage. In the past, theatrical technique was as important as sleight of hand. Today, however, the popularity of closeup magic has produced a vacuum. Lets get back on track, with one of the most important theatrical elements, closeup or on stage.
In February of 2016, I co-directed and acted in The Shadow Box, the Tony Award-winning play by Michael Cristofer. The Shadow Box is the second play I co-directed with Phillip Shamblin at the Coleman Theatre. We had an excellent cast who immersed themselves in their roles. It was a family affair; the first time all four of the Smith’s shared a stage together.
Shamblin is an artist in a number of ways. He is a skilled actor with hundreds of roles under his belt, and his talents as a director are extraordinary. In this article, I am going to focus on Phillip’s blocking skills—a theatrical element often ignored in the magic industry.
According to Wikipedia, blocking is “the precise staging of actors in order to facilitate the performance of a play, ballet, film or opera.”
The word originates with Sir W. S. Gilbert, of The Pirates of Penzance and Gilbert and Sullivan fame. In the late eighteen hundreds, Gilbert staged each scene of his plays on a miniature stage, using blocks to represent actors. Hence, “blocking a scene.”
Today, blocking has become a loose term used erroneously to describe any or all action by an actor. This is a misnomer. Blocking may include movement, but blocking is position.
Phillip and I had some time to talk after build-out for The Marvelous Wonderettes this weekend. I decided to pick his brain on blocking, so that I could share his special insight with my fellow magicians.
In the future, I will conduct this type of essay/podcast in a live interview format with the guest on the show with me. However, since this article was written before I started podcasting theSTUDY, you’ll have to bear with me as I quote Phillip instead.
First, I wanted to hear what blocking was in Phillip’s own words. He said, “Blocking is placing the actors in the most effective position they can be in to tell the story.”
There are hundreds of articles on storytelling published in the magic community, but you rarely hear about blocking even in industry-specific technical essays. If blocking comes up at all, closeup magicians often incorporate it as an afterthought—trudging through it at their first performance.
One of the reasons magicians might overlook blocking is that we perform the same act in so many different venues. We assume specifics are venue dependent. Whether you are a stage magician or work walk-around at restaurants, blocking is an important part of rehearsal from the very beginning of routine construction.
“Blocking for me begins very early,” Phillip said. “As I’m reading the script for the first time, I am already blocking scenes, picturing where people should be—their movements and gestures—where they should cross on a certain line.”
Scripts, though recommended to magicians, are overlooked in the trenches. Without a script, performances are experimental rehearsals. An emphasis on blocking illustrates the need for a script—something solid in which to refer back during an evolutionary process.
“Blocking develops and continues to develop and change. It progressively falls into place. Even after the show is put together and people are placed and blocked, it continuous to evolve. Blocking begins with the first reading of the script, and continues through to the last performance.”
Last year, a magician sent me a routine he created. I noticed in the outline there was little time for movement, for the character to become dynamic. During the creation process—the dreaming process—this magician had not envisioned where he was in relation to his audience and his props. There was zero movement. No life.
When Phillip directs a play, he may first read the script a year or more in advance. From the very beginning, he envisions the characters interacting with their environment. “It’s like watching a movie in my head,” he said. “And I can see the characters using their props and their physical contact with the other actors.”
As magicians, we are usually the solo performer. We rarely work side-by-side with another performer in the same act. However, we still have the burden of thinking like a director in a play. We have to picture life, and then bring it out in our performance.
“It’s just a matter of transferring it from the brain, to the mouth, to the actor, to the stage.”
Often, the only pieces of a magician’s environment that is the same from venue to venue, is their tables and clothing. Phillip likes to incorporate dressing in the blocking early on his planning.
“If a character is of a certain type, envision them in a costume . . . it becomes a prop. Something they use. If you have a woman who always wears a great big hat, you are going to envision that the whole time. It’s going to become part of her.”
For me, blocking has always been a source of comfort as I visit new venues. When everything else is strange, I still know where to stand. My blocking is familiar. In The Shadow Box, which we only had five weeks to rehearse (a week of which I was in California visiting friends at The Magic Castle), we blocked both acts the first week with a skeleton set already in place.
“I think blocking is the foundation,” Phillip told me. “You give the actor a starting point, an ending point, and maybe a point here or there in the middle, and the action is what fills in the gaps. Telling the story is a combination of what the director sees and what the actor sees. Without blocking, it is chaos. There’s no organization.”
Where you are and how you stand can have as much impact to a magic routine as what you perform. These elements can alter your words too—the storytelling itself.
“A tweak to the blocking—a movement here or a step to the right or left—may enhance your dialogue. Blocking can give your words new meaning; make your script more effective. Simply having an actor turn a certain way can change the delivery. It can change the character, good or bad.”
Phillip starts with blocking, and then adds each of the other layers on top of this foundation. The action, the dialogue, all comes back to blocking. And the results he gets are phenomenal. The positive reviews from actors, audiences, and even critics are a product of his skillful blocking.
Position has a lot to do with x and y on stage—where your feet are at any given moment—but every aspect of your body is influenced by the placement. Performing, whether it is acting or magic, is a full-body exercise.
Phillip offers this advice: “When a magician performs closeup directly in front of an audience, they can incorporate eye contact into their blocking. Eye contact draws people into the story. It isn’t intrusive. You don’t have to touch someone for them to feel your presence. You don’t have to get in their space.”
Magicians new to blocking might begin overthinking it at first. “Keep it clean and simple,” Phillip said. “Otherwise, blocking can look messy. Consider working with a director. Even if that is just another person with fresh perspective. A director can help clean up those spots that need tightened up, that may need a little work. A director can look at what the magician already has, and make suggestions. Tweak it a little. Make it more effective. Cleaner. Smoother.”
This is one of the reasons Phillip and I work so well with each other. We both place primary importance on a clean performance. I wrote about this in depth recently in my whitepaper, Clean Magic.
“Nobody likes a sloppy performance, whether you are a magician, actor, singer, or dancer,” Phillip said. “The audience wants a clean, nice performance. Sloppy looks unprofessional. Sloppy looks like you are unprepared. So the cleaner it is the more prepared, the more professional you look. The more magical you look.”
For more information, you can hit the books, hire a director, or join a local community theatre group. The latter is quite rewarding, and as a magician, you may have special skills to benefit the troop.
As always, I would like to hear from you. Was blocking new to you before this episode? If so, how do plan on using the information. If not, how have you used blocking in your closeup performances? Let us know in the comments.