Monday, November 06, 2006

The Last Sideshow? Final(ly)

Developing a show is a delicate alchemical process. A pinch of this. A dash of that. The formula is deceptively difficult to disinter. The variables so numerous, the combinations so exotic, and the blends so varied, there is no universal panacea. Yet, just as the alchemists were forced to follow a few immutable rules of nature, so must we performers do the same. To disobey is to create poison.

But there are different levels of poisoning, we ingest poisons every day. Most cause little to no damage, a few we embrace willingly. A show can be good or bad for many reasons: script, timing, emotional temperature, lighting, effects (choice of magic tricks, gags, etc.), costume, diction, acting, set design, price, marketing/promotion, or blocking. This list is just a broad overview.

You may even question some of these things, but the one wrong note could damage everything. There were two magic movies out this summer, The Illusionist and The Prestige. I liked both. Yet, while The Prestige may offer a better overall film, I liked The Illusionist better. Why? I believe it is because the two magicians in The Prestige were so loathsome I didn’t want either to have a happy ending. You might ask how marketing and promotion could damage a show, but perform the right show for the wrong audience and prepare to close early.

At this point, you are wondering what is this have to do with the wonderful sideshow previously described on this blog. I just want to remind my dear readers that developing a show is an art, not a science. It can happen by accident. It can happen by conscious choices. It can be great or it can suck. Sometimes it all comes together, sometimes it doesn’t. You might as well give your best try. A little honest self-examination goes a long way.

The problem is the show of our beloved sideshow doesn’t look honestly at itself.

I wanted it to be good. I dreamed it would be good. It is not good.

What frustrates me is that the mistakes are basic.

Step One, the personalities:
All the performers in the show are likable. That is the first hurdle. I made some specific critical remarks during my earlier narrative. The biggest problem is the worst talker is right up front, Prof. Chumley. He speaks with no energy, no excitement. He cannot hold the audience’s interest and get out the information he needs to get out. None of the inside performers are served by the sound system, which sucks.

Step Two, the script and blocking:
The words, when understood, don’t service the audience or the actions. There are several illusions in the show: Spidora, Headless Woman, Serpentina, the Four-legged Girl. These hoary old illusions are lame. It is especially confusing to the audience because the illusions are presented as real. They are not. If the audience could understand (or stand) the opening remarks, they would not have these confusions. If the illusions were presented with historical information in their individual introductions, there is no problem. I believe they might be more interesting if the audience knew their context. I had a customer in my store who loved Ricky Jay’s 52 assistants show. He said that is was special because not only is the magic good, but you also learn something.

The second problem here is the blocking. The main stage is fine, but the side stages are well below the standing audience’s line of sight. The first couple of rows can see the rest cannot. The wonderful fire manipulation act of Madam Tea-Lee is marred because no one can see it. Sometimes the lack of direction causes the audience not to know where to look.

Step Three, the effects:
Perhaps we are not shocked anymore. Have the “reality” shows on TV ruined that? The danger effects in the show elicit a “ho-hum” from the audience. The tension of these thrillers does not exist. Some of this can be cured by proper blocking. When Prof. Chumley pounds the ice pick into his nose, he does it straight on. Instead, he should turn to the side or tilt his head down so the audience can see the ice pick’s journey into his face.

Nobody ever proves the Bed of Nails and the Sword Ladder is dangerous. Drop an apple on the fuckin’ thing, will ya’? Show us why we should care that you are doing what you do. Most of the illusions shown suffer from not being performed with the most basic of plot.

The guillotine never worked properly. BJ juggled knives and in every show dropped them.

Sideshow SideNote:
Let’s face it. Reading the various books on the sideshow gave me a romantic notion of the great sideshow performer, weaving a web of words to captivate and con their loving audience. The outside talkers do that. I have to put the performers in perspective. If they were any good, they wouldn’t be in the sideshow. I am sure a few fall through the cracks, a very few. I say this, all the while thinking I want to perform in the sideshow, but do it better. I know I can.

Step Four, the time:
Twelve acts. Thirty minutes. Slightly over two minutes an act. There is no time to properly present the individual acts. The show is destroyed in the process. The audience is cheated. The audience is disappointed.

It appears the presenters of the show do not care about their audience past getting their tickets at the door. Half the acts, presented well, would make a happier audience. Even P.T. Barnum knew to give the audience more than their money’s worth without cutting corners. Cutting corners cuts satisfaction.

In the old days of the sideshow these corners were not cut. When the Headless Lady was presented, all sorts scientific apparatus surrounded her. Today, a few ill-fitting pipes.

Why has the sideshow died? Forgetting what makes a show; they cut out their own art and amputated themselves to death.


The Magic Utopian said...

Regarding The Last Sideshow? Final(ly):

Great blog.


Andrew Wilson said...

Hey Bill,

If ever you have the opportunity to meet Todd Robbins and, better yet, see him perform - DO NOT MISS OUT!!
Todd lives in NY and is a producer of Monday Night Magic with Jamy Swiss. Todd is the chairman of the board of the Coney Island Sideshow Association, didicated to the preservation of said sideshow. They even run a siseshow school out there! Todd's show, Carnival Knowledge, is FANTASTIC. The night I went Heidi and I sat next to Penn Jillette and right behind David Copperfield...need I say more. Further, Todd and his wife, Christa, are genuinely nice, interesting people.

chgomagic said...

I do know Todd and have spoken to him. He puts on a wonderful show. His show corrects the mistakes made in just about every other sideshow type show.