Learning to do consciously what you once did unconsciously……..
I want to introduce you to an insight that has been very helpful to me over the years and I hope that it might be of some use to you as well. I have touched on it before, but will go into a little more detail in this column.
I started performing magic (like most of us) at about the age of eleven, doing kids shows. I always consider my real performance career to have started at the age of 17 when I left school. I went on to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and study film at USC in Los Angeles, but was performing magic professionally while I attended both schools.
I like to break things down as saying it took me 20 years to learn what to do onstage and then another 20 years to learn how to make it look like I wasn’t doing anything onstage. Once you have acquired the knowledge you need it is then very important that you then let it get out of the way so it doesn’t interfere with the audience’s enjoyment of what you do. Learn what you need to do and then make how you achieve it invisible.
I feel strongly that you should never let the audience see your technique but just watch your magic and enjoy your comedy. You don’t want to make your show look like you are working to hard at making it work. Certainly there are moments when you want to focus their attention and highlight a reveal by emphasizing the skill needed, but a little of that goes a long way. The law of diminishing returns also applies—big time.
It is not an easy thing to obscure your technique onstage, but it begins with knowing what you are doing so thoroughly that you don’t need to think about it for a single moment. This allows you to ‘be in the moment’ while you are performing. Any actor or comedian will tell you that ‘being in the moment’ is the most powerful skill that you can acquire in mastering your art form. It allows you to make the best of each and every situation.
We run the risk as magicians of upsetting a part (sometimes quite a large part,) of our audiences by appearing to be merely in the business of fooling people. Some people like to be fooled but never forget that many do not. The audience members can think we are being smart-ass or condescending if we are not very careful.
Being in the moment, and removing the unnecessary static of technique, from our performance can free up the appearance that we are performing ‘at’ an audience. The mark of a strong comedy magician is usually that he/she appears to be just having fun onstage and that the magic happens on its own. This is a fairly subtle state of affairs to fully grasp and is tough to fully define, much less achieve.
Curiously enough this idyllic condition tends to occur fairly naturally when we are first beginning to perform shows. You just get out there and do the show without thinking to much about it. After a while you start to think about it, and the early naturalness and freshness disappears like morning dew in the sunlight.
Once this has happened you then have to re-create that earlier state of innocence—a state that is often highly appealing to an audience. Bob Dylan made a wonderful statement that is very relevant to this process. He was asked about the infamous ‘lost decade’ in his career when he really seemed to lose touch with his audiences.
Dylan stated that it took him that ten-year stretch (of almost constant touring and performing) to learn to do consciously what he used to do unconsciously. This is a powerful concept and one that is well worth reflecting and meditating on for a while. Often as performers we are blinded from seeing what the audience are really seeing. We have a vision of how we are that doesn’t always have much to do with how we actually are. Sometimes it is ego, and sometimes we need that ego to power us through our shows. We have a vision of us in our ‘mind’s eye.’
For every performer, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, a certain cosmic something clicks and we realize that we have actually become the performer that we always thought we were. It is a magic moment indeed, and from then on there is no looking back.
To reach this point you sometimes need to re-structure that old saying, “Practice, Practice, Practice,” and realize that the time for practice is over and what you really need to do is to, “Perform, Perform, Perform.” It is the way to reach the next level of achievement—learning to do consciously what you used to do unconsciously, and then letting everything unnecessary fall away from your performance.