Experiments in Magic Theatre, by John Tudor • The online version of the column from The Linking Ring magazine, the journal of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. This blog is to expand on the articles, except that no secrets will be revealed.
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Click here for the magazine, with excellent illustrations by Tony Dunn.
(Corrections follow the articles.)
From The Linking Ring magazine, February 2014, Volume 94, Number Two.
What if you were called on portray a magic toymaker, who does parlour tricks and travels to fantasy worlds, in a gigantic dance spectacle to a live orchestra, that people see every year and know by heart?
And to do it with one eye covered?
Last month we looked at going into a semi pro troupe as a guest artist, to portray a magical character that some in the audience knew already. This month we will cover working with a professional ballet company, in a huge theatre, to a live orchestra. Also, to plat a character every person knew, and had seen for years and years. No pressure!
This month’s experiment is with another great magical character, Uncle Drosselmeyer, from the classic ballet, The Nutcracker. It’s the story of a young girl who dreams of a handsome Prince, fights a battle against the Mouse King, and becomes Queen of the Land of Sweets. In all these adventures, he is led and protected by her uncle.
In our version, Drosselmeyer transformed a living dancer into the wooden Nutcracker doll, changed a ball to a cloth to mend the doll, flirtatiously produced a rose, made a sword appear for the battle, and produced dancers from his cape, and from a pyramid.
Drosselmeyer flirts with the Merry Widow.
Synopsis: The ballet opened in a workshop, with three dancers posed as lifeless automatons. One awakened (the Prince) but hid when he heard footsteps. An older man wearing an eye patch rushed in. He tested the dolls one by one, finally uncovering his precious Prince, and bowed to him. They shared a friendly moment, then he bewitched the Prince and covered him again. They crossed down to center stage, the cloth was stripped away, and he’d changed to the wooden Nutcracker doll. Drosselmeyer rushed off into the night with it.
The next scene was Christmas Eve, with family and friends gathered for a big party. The mysterious Uncle brought gifts for the children, including the wooden Nutcracker for his niece, Clara.
There was much dancing and merriment, but Clara’s naughty brother broke the Nutcracker, then runs to the side, bouncing a ball. Drosselmeyer took the ball, transformed it into a scarf, which he gently tied around the doll to fix it. When the party broke up, Drosselmeyer had been charming a woman all in black lace. He asked for her handkerchief, and produced a red rose which he gave her. He walked out backwards with his head bowed.
Later, Clara snuck back to the parlor, just at midnight. Her Nutcracker was now life-size, and then the Christmas tree grew to an enormous height. An army of mice filled the room, and a battle broke out between the mice and toy soldiers (led by the Nutcracker)! Drossleymeyer appeared, throwing balls of flame, and made a sword appear for the Nutcracker’s fight with the Mouse King. The battle was won, but at the cost of the Nutcracker’s life. Consoling Sarah, Drosselmeyer opened out his cape. Behind it, the Nutcracker transformed into her handsome Prince, and they escorted Clara to the beautiful Land of Snow.
Finally they journeyed on to the Land of Sweets, with dances from around the world (Spanish Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, etc.). A more whimsical Drosselmeyer made the Spanish dancer appear with a flick of his cape, and produced a Chinese dancer from a giant teacup. In an elaborate Egyptian scene, he made two temple dancers appear from a Pyramid. Clara was crowned Queen, and all danced and rejoiced!
Soon, however, we are back in the party house. The Christmas tree was normal size again, and Drosselmeyer brought the sleepy girl back home. Clara awakened with the Nutcracker doll beside her.
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816) inspired the ballet by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1892). Annual Christmas performances of the Nutcracker are a tradition with ballet companies internationally, and it’s popularity is still growing after more than a century. I had the privilege to work for three seasons with the Columbia City Ballet, with William Starrett, Artistic Director.
The call came after Starrett saw me do the Book of Life illusion, producing local celebrities at a fundraiser. They had used magic before, but nothing really special, and never with a magician in the role.
Researching one hundred years of Nutcracker productions, the phrase most often used to describe Drosslemeyer was “magician-like”. The basic description is that he was older, was Clara’s uncle or godfather, and always wears an eyepatch. And he was a toymaker…what fun!
Beyond that, his character is open to any interpretation: kind, scary, handsome, ugly, etc. In recent decades a darker, more menacing Drosslemeyer has appeared. Like the Sandman, he escorts the character into and out of her dream worlds (see last month’s article), and knows things the others do not. Unlike the Sandman, these audience know Drosselmeyer by heart, and see the Nutcracker year after year.
I imagined Drosselmeyer like one of my biggest heroes, Robert-Houdin, the clock maker turned magician who merged magic with his astounding automata. His clockwork figures performed actions no machine could possibly do.
Over the decades since The Nutcracker was written, the fascination of clockwork figures has declined, and Drosselmeyer’s description of being a toymaker means something less than it did. In the 1890’s, clockwork toys meant would have meant automata, and Drosselmeyer the magical inventor would have been a more topical figure.
The common bit about turning a large windup key in the back of a living person to awaken them, was likely to have been created in the first Nutcracker productions. But Drosselmeyer is something more.
Like the Sandman in last month’s article, he leads the main character, Clara, to her dreamworlds and carries her back home again. He is both a trickster/mechanician, and a traveller in supernatural realms.
I played him as dashing and mysterious, with courtly manners, fearless in the battle with the mice. Drosselmeyer reflects the mood of the scenes he is in, experiences the awe the audience feels, and shows his love for his niece.
Drosselmeyer, Clara, and the Prince in the Land of Snow.
Little has been written about magic effects used by Drosselmeyer, mostly references to dancers produced from oversize present boxes. In the company I worked with, the magic had a weak reputation. They informed me that seeing the appearing cane year after year ceases to be amazing, and “the audience sighed when the old trick box was rolled out again”.
Ambitiously, I decided to create a whole new range of effects. How hard could it be, I thought?
It was the hardest thing I ever did! Multiple meetings later, I found myself in the rehearsal hall with the big dance company. It was very intimidating. I felt out of shape, clumsy, and clueless around the professional dancers. Exhausting though it was, eventually the role and the magic came to be.
I carefully reviewed the script, looking for places where effects could be placed. The magic was created with my dear friend and longtime collaborator, magician Henry Pettit, and technical director Barry Sparks.
The main theater we played, the Koger Center for the Arts, has a very high third balcony. A team of friends were recruited to watch from all over the theatre as (with stand ins) we carefully adjusted the motions, lights, colors, gimmicks, etc.
At the opening of the Youtube video you’ll see the Girl From Cape production of a Spanish dancer (which we will expand on in a later column).
At the opening of the ballet, we created a new scene in Drosselmeyer’s workshop.Usually the Nutcracker opens with the party scene, we wanted to open with magic. This proved challenging and scary, as you’ll see.
In the workshop, the audience saw the dancer playing the Prince come to life, and then hide when his maker entered. Drosselmeyer revealed him, and the Prince danced. He was covered, and transformed into the wooden Nutcracker doll.
This illusion was adapted from the Dracula Vanish, from Jarrett’s Magic and Stagecraft, by Guy Jarret, Jim Steinmeyer, Editor (Magic Inc., 1981)
Transforming the live dancer to the Nutcracker doll.
This was played behind a scrim, painted like a Victorian street scene. A scrim is a special drape, which is opaque when lit from the front, and transparent when lit from sides and back. This allowed the scene to fade from the town into the workshop, and have a slight hazy texture.
We used a painted drop from the dollmaker’s shop scene (from the ballet Coppellia). This is why the video and photos have such a hazy quality.
At the open of the the scene, the Prince dancer is covered with the gimmicked cloth, with Nutcracker in the pouch. He uncovers himself and two other dancers, then covered them all again as Drosselmeyer entered. He uncovered the Prince, interacted with him, then bewitched him.
Drosselmeyer again covered the Prince with the cloth, and turned him around to lead him to center. At center, Drosselmeyer pulled the wooden Nutcracker out and up, letting the empty cloth fall to the floor.
I held the Nutcracker up triumphantly. It produced a gasp from the audience, and after a moment came big applause.
Why do I say it was it scary for me? The lead dancer (also director/manager, etc.) wouldn’t rehearse with me till about fifteen minutes before the first performance! We’d conceived it weeks in advance, but in the end we had just a couple of run throughs, that was it. I thought I might be ending my “magic theatre” carreer right at that moment! Thankfully, the show received standing ovations and great reviews.
The Pettit Purple Pyramid Production.
For the Egyptian scene, we used something Henry built that I called the Pettit Purple Pyramid Production. A purple and gold pyramid sat on a raised platform, above a square bevel base from a Chalet “Stack of Boxes” illusion.
The pyramid was opened out, a dancer stood up, posed, and stepped down. The Pyramid was shown around and closed, and the foulard covering the middle section was removed as the prop was spun around. The Pyramid was re-opened to produce the second dancer.
I wanted to “magic up” Drosselmeyer’s entrance to the party and reveal of the Nutcracker, which happens right after our new scene in the workshop. Several things were tested: puffs of smoke, a flash of fire, a vanishing silk cover, etc. All seemed like good ideas. But, I discovered I had to cross around backstage at a dead run just to make my entrance from the previous scene! So all that was cut.
Two smaller effects did make it into the party scene, and as in any grande illusion show, they played surprisingly big.
A Ball to Silk effect taught by Vito Lupo was done after Clara’s naughty brother breaks the doll. He runs off to the side, bouncing a ball. Drosselmeyer took the ball away from him and transformed it into a long silk scarf. Then Drosselmeyer tied the silk around the doll, symbolically mending it.
Drosselmeyer flirts with the Merry Widow, another stock character, who dances with him. He produces a rose for her (a Duscheck Appearing Rose).
Drosselmeyer repairs the doll for his niece, Clara.
Besides learning to see really well through the slits in the eyepatch, what did I learn from this show?
First, strong illusions can be created with just cloth, cardboard, wire, etc.
Second, don’t assume the star will give you much time for your creations.
Third, the role and the show are so much bigger than you are, still, you have to somehow find yourself within it.
This was the most beautiful show I ever did. Uncle Drosselmeyer is a wonderful character who will live on forever. He presents endless possibilities, especially with our current “steam-punk” aesthetic, and I feel he deserves attention from magicians.
Especially because you get to rock the eye patch.
See the video on my Youtube channel (youtube.com/johntudormagic), read more on my blog (tudormagic.com/blog).
Next month we will feature an original ensemble magic act, “Clink, A Quintet for Miser’s Dream.”
Click here for the Linking Ring magazine, with excellent illustrations by Tony Dunn.
From The Linking Ring magazine, January 2014, Volume 94, Number One.
Enter the Sandman…
What if you were called on to play a magical character in a video, film, or play? To be a vampire, for instance, in a Halloween show? Or Merlin? Or Willy Wonka? How about a scary demigod from a comic book, with an edgy modern circus?
Or, what if you just want to try something new? To find a new style? To grow as a performer and experiment..?
I did, and still do!
I call these routines experiments because the material herein was all created for short runs, or one time events. All were stage shows, and all were collaborations. There’s much to learn from working with other artists, even other magicians.
I’ve been asked why I do these projects, and can only say that it’s an artistic calling. I’ve done a number of other “magic theatre” productions (as Merlin, Nostradamos, the Tarot Emperor, etc.), but will keep with those that I have video of. Obviously, some of these experiments were more successful than others! Hopefully, I can share something of what I’ve learned.
To outline in general terms, I’ll be asking these questions:
What was the project? • Why did I do what I did? • What was my challenge?
What was my reasoning? • How well did it work? • What did I learn?
We’ll begin with magic in character, performing as a guest artist with a troupe. Then we’ll explore an ensemble magic act, the mentoring of young magicians, and magic stories (with four guest performers). Some classic magic comedy, and a literary magic drama will follow. Also, I’ll feature some media misdirection, and two, three, and four person multiple exchange illusions. I hope you enjoy!
Our first experiment was the most recent, a fire circus/dance fantasy called Dreams. I got to play The Sandman, a mystical character I’ve always loved.
In the play, he foresees the fiery aspect of a coming dream, and pours forth the endless sands of time to lead us into it. Later he saves an innocent dreamer by transforming his attackers, before leading him back to the “real world”. It was especially great fun to play a scary gothic guy, for a local audience who know me as a nice kidshow guy. Here’s how it came to be…
The huge international trend of cirque/sideshow/burlesque performance manifested where I live (Columbia, SC) in a group called Alternacirque. They featured tribal/belly/street dancers, hoop spinning, fire tricks (fire eating, poi spinning, and fire staff), and spoken word poetry. I was a fan, and I wanted to experiment.
I attended their shows, got to know the cast, and did some guest spots at their home venue, the Art Bar. Eventually, I was invited to a creative brainstorm. They wanted to go beyond the vignettes they’d done, and create a new show with a storyline all throughout. It was conceived by the whole group, then honed by the writers and the acts as we went along. Choreography was by Artistic Director Natalie Brown, and the book was by Kendal Turner and Nick Dunn (who played the Bard and the Jester, respectively). The Dreamer was played by actor Tony Warden.
Plot summary: We see an ordinary guy, drifting off to sleep with a book in his favorite easy chair. A black cloaked figure emerges from the darkness, observing the sleeper. The man in black grimly opens the book, and flames rise up! He quietly closes it.
Picking up a salt shaker, he taps a few grains into his fist. An endless stream of salt pours from his hand, that compels the Dreamer to rise, and follow him. The two mysteriously move through layers of painted curtains through which we see fires blazing.
The curtains open on a large cast: dancers, actors, jesters, hoopers, and fire spinners. The cloaked man leaves the Dreamer at the spectacle.
There the Dreamer begins his journey, on which he meets a variety of characters. He keeps finding a child’s toy boat in different places as he journeys, which reminds that him he may be dreaming. In this strange place, he slowly learns that his guide was the eternal Sandman, and that he is now in the Dreamworld.
A few adventures later, the Dreamer is taken to the Royal Court, and the dream becomes a nightmare. Different factions scheme to capture and claim his soul! A mystic battle of fire and dance breaks out, that threatens the entire Dreamworld.
The Dreamer is in peril, too, for if he dies in his dreams he may really die in his sleep!
The Sandman storms in, furious, and transforms his attackers to save the innocent Dreamer (a true deus ex machina). He sets things right in the Dreamworld, and gently leads the Dreamer back safely to his easy chair, before drifting into the darkness.
The Dreamer awakes alone, and finds the toy boat from his dream there in his easy chair.
We are left to wonder, was it all just a dream?
L. With Tony Warden as the Dreamer, R. with Aaron White as the King.
The Sandman (also called Morpheus, also called Dream) is from the hugely popular graphic novels written by Neil Gaiman, published by Vertigo Comics. The immortal Lord of the Dreamworld, his metaphysical role is to guide us into (and out of) our dreams. He is a figure in folklore and nursery rhymes of many cultures. The Sandman sprinkles sand into the eyes of children, to bring on sleep and bring them lovely dreams. The grit or (“sleep”) in one’s eyes in the morning is identified as the residue from the Sandman’s visit.
His earliest name is Morpheus, the god of sleep and dreams, who appears in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (about 19 B.C.E.), which was built on many much older legends. He can take any form in the dreamworld, though he often is pictured as a winged daemon.
He is referred to in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), sleeping on an ebony bed in a dimly lit cave, surrounded by poppy flowers. The drug morphine is named after Morpheus, about 1805.
Some dreams are nightmares, of course, and the sinister side of the Sandman appears in Der Sandmann, by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1817). This Sandman threw sand in the eyes of sleepless children, which made their eyes fall out to become food for his children, at his iron nest on the Moon. “Der Sandmann” is extensively interpreted by Freud in a famous 1919 essay, The Uncanny (“Das Unheimliche”).
Hans Christian Andersen interpreted the old folk tale (1841) with his story about dreams the the Sandman (called Ole-Luk-Oie) inspires in a little boy. This early Sandman is a loveable character with a coat of many colors, that loves the children and brings them beautiful stories (if they are good, bad children don’t get any dreams). The same year “Wee Willie Winkie” was published, from a Scottish nursery rhyme, with another loveable version of Sandman.
Neal Gaiman’s Sandman is not a loveable dream, however. He’s usually brooding, always in black. The Sandman is a goth icon; with pale skin, dark eyes, and wildly unkempt hair. He was referred to several times by the characters in the Dreamworld (with fear and dread), but we only saw the Sandman twice. First, as the play opened, then again at the very end. He’s a bit like Uncle Drosselmeyer in the Nutcracker (as we’ll see next month), as he leads the main character into another world and back again.
The Sandman is drawn as gaunt and skinny, which I am not. I dressed all in black with a long cloak, with white makeup on my face and hands, and shadows around the eyes. I gelled up my hair and rubbed and twisted it all around.
For creative interest, I tried to show different sides of him, not just the morose ennui of an immortal. He was quite angry when being forced to save the Dreamer, then he relaxed and became calm and welcoming. When the lovers were re-united, he acted with old-world courtly gestures; and showed compassion and protective concern when returning the Dreamer home to his real world easy chair.
The play began: “An ordinary guy, in old timey nightshirt and cap, is seen falling sleep with a book, in his chair. A black cloaked figure emerges from the darkness. He compels the dreamer to follow him into the Dreamworld…”
That’s about what I had to start with. The director said for me to be “doing something”, preferably with fire, as I entered. I had free reign to do whatever I wanted. Visions of sugar plums danced in my head of all the fire tricks and special effects I ever knew about or daydreamed on. My mind swam with possibilities.
One inner guideline was obvious: the Sandman is a supernatural entity, so his works wouldn’t look like tricks.
After pulling out every fire gimmick and gadget I owned, I chose to have the Sandman open the Dreamer’s book, and flames rise up. Next the Sandman tapped a few grains of salt into his fist, and a stream of salt poured out as he led the Dreamer away.
I felt that the troupe expected something more elaborate from me. Why choose the Hot Book, and Salt Pour?
The play was full of fire performers, so it seemed natural that Morpheus would ‘read’ the sleepers’ coming dream by seeing fire in the book he was reading before falling asleep. The long sustained pouring action of the salt led into our “journey” in the following scenes. But really, it was a matter of time and space!
My stage time got squeezed even shorter than I’d expected, as the score was created. Had to be quick!
The performance space was a outdoor riverfront amphitheatre, and the weather was rainy and damp. Also, the previous summer’s show had a big flash effect someone did that never worked! This had to work!
The obvious choice was that most trusty Bev Bergeron invention, the Hot Book, which is a prop book that bursts into flame when opened. My idea was that the sleeper was reading something about a fire, and the sleeper’s thoughts were revealed by the fire from the book when the Sandman opened it. The Hot Book served as a prelude to the fire acts seen later in the Dreamworld. (The book had the cover from The Edge of the Unknown, about the paranormal experiences of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)
I chose for the Sandman to show a blank response to the flame, to reflect his usual dark mood. In hindsight, the Sandman should’ve shown a definite reaction (of some kind), that would clarify the meaning, and strengthen the connection. As it was, the flash of fire from a book at the opening became more of a magic show cliché.
What else to do? For inspiration, I went back to the source, and re-read some of the Sandman comics. There it was, right in front of me the whole time.
He’s the Sandman, after all, and he’s always manipulating sand. The sands of time…that bring sleep and travel within the nighttime realms. In the comics he either poured it from a little bag, or created sand from something around him: dust, crumbs, etc.
I added a salt shaker on the little table, and from a few grains the magical sands poured forth.
You can find many versions. I used a variation of the technique found in Roy Benson by Starlight, by Levent and Todd Karr (The Miracle Factory, 2006).
I just wish you could see it better! On the only video of the play I have (a dress rehearsal), the falling salt is washed out after a few seconds. Why?
That night footlights had been added, and the fire acts behind the curtain (dyed silk veils) had lit their props earlier than in rehearsals. (Someone said it looks like the set was burning up!)
Replacing about half of the salt with silver glitter made all the difference. (The stage “floor” where walked was a gravel patch in front of the platform, so no danger of dancers slipping on salt & glitter.) The audience could clearly see the “salt” falling as we moved, and I was told it looked “magical”. I look back and see that I over-used the switch back and forth.
I liked this choice because the Salt Pour is kind of a soft effect, from an intimidating character.
L. with Tony Warden, R. with Kendal Turner.
‘Dreams’ also featured an exchange illusion, Charles Waller’s Transmogrification, from Greater Magic, by John Northern Hilliard (Kaufman and Greenburg, 1994). It is also in the Tarbell course, the Mark Wilson course, etc.
To briefly describe it: Person #1 stands at center stage. A long cloth is held up by two assistants, standing at either side. The cloth is just over a person’s height, with poles on either end for stability. The assistants on the ends walk in a clockwise motion to wrap up Person #1. In the act of wrapping, the cloth is reversed front to back, the assistants ending up on the opposite sides.
When the whole thing is unraveled, Person #2 is standing there at center. Person #1 is gone.
We staged it as happening at the Sandman’s command to save the Dreamer, switching two people for two others. In magic show terms it was not completely deceptive. However, it went over much better than I expected.
These “wraparound” illusions require the people to be produced to get on and off stage unseen. This was very difficult on an outdoor stage, as the wings (sides of the stage) were partly open to the audience view. And it must be very well rehearsed, which this was not.
The suspension of disbelief was very high, as the audience was really into the story. Like the opening, it wasn’t presented as a trick, but as a device to move the story along. The audience chose to accept, rather than analyze, which made the effect pleasing. To my surprise, the crowd applauded wildly for it!
The entire show got a big response. The audience was full of friends and fans, and were very receptive. Many in the young, hip audience knew and recognized the Sandman, which really helped. The salt pour, especially, made perfect sense to those who knew the character. To those who didn’t, his actions probably made no sense at all. (even though the Sandman and his powers were explained at length later in the play).
Max Howard pointed out how easy it is to be deep in playing a role, unaware that the audience might not “get it” at all like you think that they do!
Some expressed disappointment that I didn’t do more magic, or go all the way with the Sandman’s wild hair.
Brief though it was, this role was really one of my favorites I’ve ever done. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you look up the Sandman graphic novels, they are very intriguing. They are all collected in The Absolute Sandman, Volumes 1-5.
As described by the Bard, Kendal Turner…
“One has no choice but to obey the verdict of the Sandman’s power.
His voice is the sound of centuries unfolding, a million ancient pages simultaneously turning…”
And so, besides the opportunity to “guest artist” with some talented young performers, what did I get out of this?
First, remember that the answer you are seeking probably is right in front of you.
Second, try adding some glitter to your salt pour so the audience can see it better.
And third, my friends were right, I should have worn the wig!
Next month we will feature another magical character, Uncle Drosselmeyer, from the Tchaikovski ballet, The Nutcracker.
Corrections: 1. The Bard’s name is Kendal Turner, not Kendall. 2. In the description of the handling of the gimmick, the open end goes against the fingers, not the palm.
PHOTO CREDITS: Roy Benson photo by Irving Desfor, performance photography by Catherine Brown, poster photography by Scott Bilby/Bilbytron, still shots from video by Kevin Oliver.
Blog is ©John Tudor, Copyright 2014. The Sandman©Vertigo Comics, Copyright 1989-2014.