Blog # 1 – Don’t Get Lost in the Lights
Last week was the 35th anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley. Many cable channels were showing his movies and concert footage. One documentary I found particularly interesting was Elvis on Tour. What I found so interesting was the simplicity of his concerts. No special effects. No explosions. No computerized lighting or lasers. Just Elvis. Then again, they didn’t have those effects in the 1970s. Even if they did, Elvis didn’t need them.
A few nights later I was watching “America’s Got Talent”. I usually don’t watch the show, but a good friend of mine was on it and I wanted to support him. By comparison, this show uses a multitude of high tech bells and whistles to “support” the acts. This particular night, they had two professional, non-contestant, celebrity recording artists on the show to promote their latest CDs. To be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference between them and the other finalists that WERE the contestants. “These two are supposed to be the pros?” I said to myself “I’d love to hear Howard’s critique of their stage presence, or Sharon’s opinion of their computer enhanced voices.”
All of this reminded me of a couple of magic conventions I attended a few years back. There was a performer working both conventions, which were only a few weeks apart. It’s important to note here that this performer did the exact same show at both conventions. The first was a smaller regional convention and only had minimal lighting available. The second was in a larger venue, so this performer was able to bring in his own intelligent lighting and lasers. After the show at the second convention, I overheard two people commenting about this performer. “I saw him at the ______ convention and he wasn’t as good there. He was much better tonight,” said the first conventioneer. “That’s because he didn’t have his own lighting,” replied the second. “Oh, that explains it,” said the first.
Personally, I found this particular performer mediocre at BOTH shows. His personality was stiff and flat. He was plastic and insincere. His rhythm and timing were forced. He needed the special lighting to give his show the boost that he lacked as a performer. Instead of investing money in props and lighting, he should be investing time in improving his stage presence.
In contrast, I learned that a big name illusionist was performing at a county fair a couple of hours from where I live. I’ve seen this couple on TV many times performing under ideal conditions in beautiful theaters. I was looking forward to seeing them perform in the “real world” at a county fair.
Waiting for the show to begin, I looked at the makeshift stage. It was barebones; carpet covered plywood and scaffolding. The lighting was just a row of PAR cans to create a general wash. But since we were outdoors in bright sunlight, they had little effect on the stage. The wings were just pipe and drape that fluttered in the breeze. “This is going to be interesting,” I thought.
And then the show began. They performed several illusions that I’ve seen them do dozens of time on TV. They performed several audience pieces I’ve never seen them do before. At one point the wind picked up which made one routine a little challenging. They did a one-hour show under difficult conditions and they ROCKED! It was simply because THEY connected with the audience. THEY took center stage, not their props or their lighting. THEY had charm and presence.
Now, I don’t have a problem with high tech special effects per se. The problem occurs when a performer relies too heavily on them and then gets lost in their own show. These effects should be used to enhance a performance, not make or break it. An audience will enjoy a good performer whether they have high-tech bells and whistles or just a single follow spot. And when you perform in the “real world” sometimes that’s all you have to work with… that’s all Elvis had.
Opinions expressed in the blogs are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Society of American Magicians.