Magical Staging

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Where’s the Proscenium?

Science is (theoretically) conducted in as close proximity to evidence as possible. Kleptocracy is managed: evidence is managed: by the management. Science bypasses magic, kleptocracy bypasses science. Government, whether of church or state, is raddled in management: schools and universities too.

To test Einstein’s theory of gravity Eddington’s team set up to observe light either bending of not bending around a star: the observation made possible during an eclipse.

Eddington measurement
thanx nasa

Eddington did not ask a union of magicians to take the measurements. “Science” believes that the star, along with the rest of nature, is free of the social magicians’ manipulations: that no demon is forever repainting the scenery. Eddington’s team did not entrust the equipment to some court or police evidence team: who knows what they do with evidence behind closed doors?

In theater tradition the proscenium is the border between performance and audience. But the proscenium drifts throughout the evolution, whether progressive or regressive, of the theater. Andy Kaufman devoted his considerable talent to blurring the proscenium. note Some theater people have simulated interaction between performers and audience. But as long as it’s theater, the proscenium is there: somewhere. I remember being taunted directly into my face by a Genet performer in The Blacks. This “child” knew nothing of my history. My real reactions lay outside the epistemology and set of assumptions Genet assumed for the audience. I attend theater as a “Martian”; not as “audience”: at least I work toward that accomplishment. Rather than queer the play, I maintained a hostile silence: the “play” ruined for me. (What should the monogamous man do when a naked actress descends from the stage and starts groping his balls?) (What should the satyr do when the play’s “virgin” stands immobile, stage center? vault the proscenium and ravish her?)

Magic: lying as a form of art

More and more stage illusionists follow suit (or is the “legitimate” theater following suit from the mountebanks? David Copperfield’s mega-illusions depend on the audience misperceiving the proscenium.

thanx flashcardmachine

But the answer to my previous sentence must be the latter choice: the sorcerers for kleptocracy have always blurred the proscenium.

I offer a stage illustration where the illusion was explained for the TV audience by Penn & Teller, the Mutt & Jeff illusion team: you know, the loquacious fat guy and the mute nerd. They did a series of tricks on the sound stage, elevated stage, curtain, recessed audience and all: the TV cameras stationed with the audience. Their climactic act burst through the theater’s back doors and onto the New York street. (I presume the obedient audience was offered a big TV screen to monitor.) Penn placed Teller on the sidewalk, lying on his side, his head protruding an inch over the curb. A huge truck was beckoned forward, its huge tires kissing the curb as it came. Close up of the nerd’s face, professionally disguised with regard to either intelligence or cunning, as the tire rode up the back of his skull. The truck paused right there.

Teller’s skull didn’t burst like a melon. His eyes didn’t pop out into the gutter, didn’t explode from the pressure. Penn’s narration detailed the truck’s tonnage, how much force was delivered to the ground by each tire … and then he explained the trick. The tires on the curb side of the truck had been replaced by black, flexible Styrofoam. The truck itself was counter-balanced so that the curb side bore no weight. The truck advanced, precisely balanced on the road-side edge of its road-side wheels. Anyone could have had the curbside “tires” ride over s/his face without discomfort: provided they had faith in the trick.

For this illusion the proscenium had expanded to the curb. The truck and the massive counterbalance were “backstage.” The camera showed the action from the audience side. On that side the audience sees the illusion. Any mark on the street side would have seen the trick, not the illusion.

But my favorite explanation from this team came at the top of the show. The pair were interviewed in close up before the curtain rose. (The illusion here is that the TV audience is in on the gags: it’s the theater audience which is the gull.) The pair were seated on a scaffold suspended by ropes above the stage. Penn previewed the illusion for the opening. The scaffold was concealed; the two stars were not: the curtain would open and the team would magically float down to the stage from the air. In a moment, the camera changed perspective to that of the theater audience, and that’s exactly what happened. The TV audience knew what it was seeing, but the illusion was effective anyway. But: just before all that happened, Penn explained that the theater audience wouldn’t notice anything “impossible” where they expected to see curtain. Teller stuck his hand through the curtain’s center and waved. Light from the hand registered on what ever eyes were looking that way at that moment, but that light was not interpreted as “hand waving”: because no minds were looking that way. The curtain was off-limits for perception. Thus, illusionists practice not only legerdemain, not only mechanically gimmicked illusions, but apply audience psychology.

I find Penn & Teller to be a great team, genuine artists, though their humor is routinely too sadistic for my taste. But for honest lying I make them peer to Houdini. I put them above the Amazing Randi in that respect simply because I believe they’re reached a broader audience. Randi’s revelations come in a classroom, or book, or via a documentary film: not via pop TV.

Everybody’s honest, when they can afford to be.
Benny Binion, casino owner

Still, Nathaniel Schiffman is the only illusionist I know (other than myself) to try to goad the audience into seeing analogies in the political world: throughout society as a whole.


Blurring the Proscenium:

Mentioning Andy Kaufman reminds me of John Cage’s “musical” inventions. Cage blurred the “proscenium” of music. What constitutes a musical sound? What constitutes legitimate space between sounds? Rhythm, harmony, chance, intention … all mixed up. For myself, I always preferred his lessons as theory: let me read about it; don’t make me listen to it.

Which reminds me of what Tom Wolfe wrote about the action paintings in The Painted Word: a twentieth-century retrospective should frame the criticisms and illustrate the painting only with a 35 mm slide. Except that I love those paintings; don’t love much of the music.

John Cage was persona-non-grata in my (married) family. He’d rented the apartment cum piano. When the folks got back, they found that he’d rigged the piano quite beyond piano-hood. But that’s better than what happened to the composer who’d loaned his house to my college friend for the summer. Got home and found peanut butter and grape jelly all over the Picassos.

On the other hand, my in-laws didn’t play. Why should they care what Cage did to the living room’s vestigial organ?

Cage made an appearance at Colby when I was teaching there, 1969 or so. The event was held in the chapel. I kept slipping outside to avoid the “music.” The “talk” was followed by a “meet-the-artist” in the adjoining room. Big silver coffee urn centering some pastries. I make for the urn before I see anyone else near it and find nothing but a few cold dregs muddying the bottom of the Styrofoam cup. Ah ha! Best part of the evening: Cage got there early and rigged the coffee urn?

That reminds me of an “experimental” film festival held at Colby probably the same year. One of the films featured a half hour zoom across a SoHo loft while incomprehensible things happened off camera. I spent the meet-the-artist hour aching to creep down the aisle toward the auteur cocking a baseball bat. He might have gotten it!

Magic Menu

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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