The Act, and some thoughts about it….
I thought it might be interesting to talk a little bit about a topic that most of us spend a great deal of our time talking about and learning to do, without ever thinking too closely about our relationship with. That ever present and forever changing aspect of our being is our “act.”
Here are some of the definitions of the word act from the dictionary.
Verb [ no obj. ]
1 take action; do something
2 [ with adverbial ] behave in the way specified: they followed the man who was seen acting suspiciously | he acts as if he owned the place.
3 take effect; have a particular effect: bacteria act on proteins and sugar.
5 perform a fictional role in a play, movie, or television production: she acted in her first professional role at the age of six.
1 [ in sing. ] a pretense: she was putting on an act and laughing a lot.
2 a main division of a play, ballet, or opera.
- a set performance: her one-woman poetry act.
- a performing group: an act called the Apple Blossom Sisters.
That is a lot of descriptive word power for a tiny three-letter word. Especially when in the magic world we normally just mean a list of tricks that we perform in a particular order, most of the time. I think those definitions above are rather interesting and are worth quietly meditating on for a moment or two.
It is the role of any novice performer to just throw a few tricks together and hope that they function as an act. Once the act has been performed enough times they begin to make some changes and improve the impact of what is being presented. It is important to experiment until something is achieved that is really effective and coherent. When this begins to occur it is vital not to freeze up and mistake the process of success for the result of success.
It is very easy to get mentally stuck just as the act really begins to click. The actions and words we employ “onstage” begin to coalesce and form a cohesive identity and we perceive of an ‘act’ as being complete and finished, instead of a permanent transition towards something different and better. It is human nature to be satisfied when what we perform achieves a smooth life of its own, however it isn’t the place to stop, or slow down, if you want to achieve your maximum potential as a performer.
We have all had the experience of watching a magician who has performed the same act for so long that the lack of variables and risk have just sucked all the life out of his show. He may not know it but we do. On the other hand it is usually very exciting to watch a performer who is comfortable enough in his own skin to spontaneously re-invent himself. It doesn’t matter if his malleability leaves a rough edge or two; it is only by exposing, exploring and experimenting in this way that one can turn a rote action into a work of art.
It is a good thing to occasionally remind ourselves that our “acts” are not something separate from us, which we perform at specific times. Our “act” is an aspect of our being that extends a very specific window into who we are —-at that very moment we are performing it. Every show we must search for a way to do something a little different and better. It is selling oneself short to have some “frozen” checklist of what we are going to do and fail to realize that our audiences do not have that same goal in their minds. They enjoy being along for the ride and not just arriving at the destination.
I always like to generalize the difference between a comedian and a variety act by pointing out that just when a comic gets a joke perfect—he drops it from the act. A variety act gets something perfect—it stays in his act forever! I think this is one of the factors in making comedy as vibrant and vital as it is to audiences, while magic remains perennially a more niche entertainment.
The goal of evolution (whether in life or art) is not perfection but to keep evolving. Perfection is a goal and can never be reached or it ceases being a goal. I always think of the wonderfully funny/sad moment in the seminal showbiz movie “Mr. Saturday Night” when the old veteran performer, played by Billy Crystal, after a lifetime of performing says to his brother, “I never got the act quite right…” None of us do.