Turn Up the Light

November 14th, 2011 by Jeff McBride

Magic is the shadow cast by the fire of the soul.
— Michael Fraughton

Dear student of the art,
There are some who say that magic is a dance between shadow and light. There must be darkness to create mystery, true, but there must also be light in order to perceive it. One of the practical problems of darkness and light is encountered onstage.

A PRACTICAL PROBLEM

I often get asked by young magicians, “How do you manage to see the audience when the stage lights are on and the audience is in total darkness?” Well, there are a few tricks of the trade here. Often, you can see reflections from eyeglasses, but the best thing you can do to see the audience is turn up the house lights.

WHO SAID TURN OFF THE LIGHTS?!

In all my years onstage, I have never found a reference or a source of why magicians must turn off the house lights all the way. I can totally understand that in the theatre, it is a convention to turn off the lights because the audience is not connected to the action onstage. In fact, the darkness reinforces the “fourth wall,” or boundary, between the actors and their actions, and the audience and their reactions.

In a theatrical play, the reactions of the audience are, for the most part, ignored by the actors, until the final curtain call. This is not the case in most magic shows, where the audience is personally addressed by the performer, and members are often part of the show, literally breaking the fourth wall.

Constantine Stanislavsky, in his book An Actor Prepares, recounts the horrifying feeling actors often experience as they stare past the footlights into a darkened cavern of unknowingness, where the audience watches and judges in silence. For a young magician taking the stage, staring off into the darkness can create a sense of terror. There is no need for this pain.

PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS

I understand the classical formality of the theatre fading to black at the top of the show to create a sense of anticipation and mystery. When the theatre fades to black, we get the sense that we are between the worlds of the mundane and the magical. Total darkness, however, does not enhance the much-needed audience connection during the continuation of a magical performance, especially if the audience is part of the show. After the performer addresses the audience (usually after an opening effect during a welcoming talk), I would suggest they should consider turning the house lights up a bit, so they can see the faces of the audience members.

When you can see the audience, you can connect your scripts and direct your personal eye contact more effectively to individuals, than if you are simply “shooting into the dark.” Some extraordinary performers have developed the ability to make the audience feel that they are getting direct, personal attention from the performer, even when they are sitting in a totally darkened theatre.

I have not depended on developing this technique. I start out my show in total darkness. My opening number establishes my territory onstage. During the next part of the show, I directly call to the light technicians to turn up the lights to let me see the audience. I create a personal connection with the audience and then have the house lights fade down to a level where I can just make out the faces of the audience. This technique helps me connect with the people in the back of the theatre and the balconies, who often go unseen and ignored in a darkened theatre. During the course of my show, I use many different levels between “total darkness” and “full house lights up.” This permits the audience to have a varied and textured experience during the show.

Delicacy and discrimination must be utilized to determine just how much is enough or how much is too much. Too little light, and you will not be able to see the audience reactions, or establish a connection. Too much, and you run the risk of disturbing the audience’s comfort and making them wince and squint in reaction to the sudden brightening of the theatre.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

There are occasions when you can utilize audience directed light to your advantage. This is often seen in stage shows that use black art principles. Lighting can be directed at the eye level of the audience to decrease the pupil dilation, which makes black art effects more effective, as it temporarily eliminates the eye’s ability to see contrast. Discretion must be used to effective make use of this technique. Nobody wants to have super-bright lights blasted into their eyes more than once or maybe twice during a show. Sometimes, during a finale of a show, it can be exciting and effective to have stage lights sweep the audience, shining the light on them. This creates an exhilarating effect, where the audience gets to feel the power and excitement of the lights.

LOOKING AT THE FIRE IN THEIR EYES

The major benefit I personally have received from working with the subtle dynamics of illuminating the audience in the theatre, is not only the rapport I gain, but also the ability to see the emotional reactions that the audience displays during the course of the show. In truth, one of the great joys of performing magic is experiencing the wonder and astonishment that appears on the faces of the witness of the mystery. Perhaps this is why close-up magic is so appealing, because the performer can experience, up-close and personal, the emotions and feelings of the participant. Why should this great part of magic be lost to the stage performer? Recently, television magicians have shifted the major focus of the magic show from the performer’s execution of the effect to the audience’s reaction to the effect. This, I feel, was a needed step in the evolution of magic. So, dear student of the art, I encourage you to turn up the light, not only on the audience, but also in your heart.

Originally published for Wittus Witt’s “Magische Welt” magazine in Germany.

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