Experiments in Magic Theatre

Enter the Sandman…

What if you were called on to play a magical character in a video, film, or play? To be a vampire, for instance, in a Halloween show? Or Merlin? Or Willy Wonka? How about a scary demigod from a comic book, with an edgy modern circus?

Or, what if you just want to try something new? To find a new style? To grow as a performer and experiment..?

I did, and still do!

Welcome to Experiments in Magic Theatre. I call these routines experiments because the material herein was all created for short runs, or one time events. All were stage shows, and all were collaborations. There’s much to learn from working with other artists, even other magicians.
I’ve been asked why I do these projects, and can only say that it’s an artistic calling. I’ve done a number of other “magic theatre” productions (as Merlin, Nostradamos, the Tarot Emperor, etc.), but will keep with those that I have video of. Obviously, some of these experiments were more successful than others! Hopefully, I can share something of what I’ve learned.

To outline in general terms, I’ll be asking these questions:

  • What was the project?
  • Why did I do what I did?
  • What was my challenge?
  • What was my reasoning?
  • How well did it work?
  • What did I learn?

We’ll begin with magic in character, performing as a guest artist with a troupe. Then we’ll explore an ensemble magic act, the mentoring of young magicians, and magic stories (with four guest performers). Some classic magic comedy, and a literary magic drama will follow. Also, I’ll feature some media misdirection, and two, three, and four person multiple exchange illusions. I hope you enjoy!

Our first experiment was the most recent, a fire circus/dance fantasy called Dreams. I got to play The Sandman, a mystical character I’ve always loved.

In the play, he foresees the fiery aspect of a coming dream, and pours forth the endless sands of time to lead us into it. Later he saves an innocent dreamer by transforming his attackers, before leading him back to the “real world”. It was especially great fun to play a scary gothic guy, for a local audience who know me as a nice kidshow guy. Here’s how it came to be…

The huge international trend of cirque/sideshow/burlesque performance manifested where I live (Columbia, SC) in a group called Alternacirque. They featured tribałbelly/street dancers, hoop spinning, fire tricks (fire eating, poi spinning, and fire staff), and spoken word poetry. I was a fan, and I wanted to experiment.

I attended their shows, got to know the cast, and did some guest spots at their home venue, the Art Bar. Eventually, I was invited to a creative brainstorm. They wanted to go beyond the vignettes they’d done, and create a new show with a storyline all throughout. It was conceived by the whole group, then honed by the writers and the acts as we went along. Choreography was by Artistic Director Natalie Brown, and the book was by Kendal Turner and Nick Dunn (who played the Bard and the Jester, respectively). The Dreamer was played by actor Tony Warden.

Plot summary:

SandmanWe see an ordinary guy, drifting off to sleep with a book in his favorite easy chair. A black cloaked figure emerges from the darkness, observing the sleeper. The man in black grimly opens the book, and flames rise up! He quietly closes it.

Picking up a salt shaker, he taps a few grains into his fist. An endless stream of salt pours from his hand, that compels the Dreamer to rise, and follow him. The two mysteriously move through layers of painted curtains through which we see fires blazing.

The curtains open on a large cast: dancers, actors, jesters, hoopers, and fire spinners. The cloaked man leaves the Dreamer at the spectacle.

There the Dreamer begins his journey, on which he meets a variety of characters. He keeps finding a child’s toy boat in different places as he journeys, which reminds that him he may be dreaming. In this strange place, he slowly learns that his guide was the eternal Sandman, and that he is now in the Dreamworld.

A few adventures later, the Dreamer is taken to the Royal Court, and the dream becomes a nightmare. Different factions scheme to capture and claim his soul! A mystic battle of fire and dance breaks out, that threatens the entire Dreamworld.

The Dreamer is in peril, too, for if he dies in his dreams he may really die in his sleep!

The Sandman storms in, furious, and transforms his attackers to save the innocent Dreamer (a true deus ex machina). He sets things right in the Dreamworld, and gently leads the Dreamer back safely to his easy chair, before drifting into the darkness.

The Dreamer awakes alone, and finds the toy boat from his dream there in his easy chair.

We are left to wonder, was it all just a dream?

The Sandman (also called Morpheus, also called Dream) is from the hugely popular graphic novels written by Neil Gaiman, published by Vertigo Comics. The immortal Lord of the Dreamworld, his metaphysical role is to guide us into (and out of) our dreams.

He’s not a dream himself, however. He’s usually brooding, always in black. The Sandman is a goth icon; with pale skin, dark eyes, and wildly unkempt hair. He was referred to several times by the characters in the Dreamworld (with fear and dread), but we only saw the Sandman twice. First, as the play opened, then again at the very end. He’s a bit like Uncle Drosselmeyer in the Nutcracker, as he leads the main character into another world and back again.

SANDMAN AARONThe Sandman is drawn as gaunt and skinny, which I am not. I dressed all in black with a long cloak, with white makeup on my face and hands, and shadows around the eyes. I gelled up my hair and rubbed and twisted it all around.

For creative interest, I tried to show different sides of him, not just the morose ennui of an immortal. He was quite angry when being forced to save the Dreamer, then he relaxed and became calm and welcoming. When the lovers were re-united, he acted with old-world courtly gestures; and showed compassion and protective concern when returning the Dreamer home to his real world easy chair.

The play began: “An ordinary guy, in old timey nightshirt and cap, is seen falling sleep with a book, in his chair. A black cloaked figure emerges from the darkness. He compels the dreamer to follow him into the Dreamworld…”

That’s about what I had to start with. The director said for me to be “doing something”, preferably with fire, as I entered. I had free reign to do whatever I wanted. Visions of sugar plums danced in my head of all the fire tricks and special effects I ever knew about or daydreamed on. My mind swam with possibilities.

One inner guideline was obvious: the Sandman is a supernatural entity, so his works wouldn’t look like tricks.

After pulling out every fire gimmick and gadget I owned, I chose to have the Sandman open the Dreamer’s book, and flames rise up. Next the Sandman tapped a few grains of salt into his fist, and a stream of salt poured out as he led the Dreamer away.

I felt that the troupe expected something more elaborate from me. Why choose the Hot Book, and Salt Pour?

The play was full of fire performers, so it seemed natural that Morpheus would ‘read’ the sleepers’ coming dream by seeing fire in the book he was reading before falling asleep. The long sustained pouring action of the salt led into our “journey” in the following scenes. But really, it was a matter of time and space!

My stage time got squeezed even shorter than I’d expected, as the score was created. Had to be quick!
The performance space was a outdoor riverfront amphitheatre, and the weather was rainy and damp. Also, the previous summer’s show had a big flash effect someone did that never worked! This had to work!

The obvious choice was that most trusty Bev Bergeron invention, the Hot Book, which is a prop book that bursts into flame when opened. My idea was that the sleeper was reading something about a fire, and the sleeper’s thoughts were revealed by the fire from the book when the Sandman opened it. The Hot Book served as a prelude to the fire acts seen later in the Dreamworld. (The book had the cover from The Edge of the Unknown, about the paranormal experiences of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

I chose for the Sandman to show a blank response to the flame, to reflect his usual dark mood. In hindsight, the Sandman should’ve shown a definite reaction (of some kind), that would clarify the meaning, and strengthen the connection. As it was, the flash of fire from a book at the opening became more of a magic show cliché.What else to do? For inspiration, I went back to the source, and re-read some of the Sandman comics. There it was, right in front of me the whole time.

He’s the Sandman, after all, and he’s always manipulating sand. The sands of time…that bring sleep and travel within the nighttime realms. In the comics he either poured it from a little bag, or created sand from something around him: dust, crumbs, etc.

SANDMAN SALTI added a salt shaker on the little table, and from a few grains the magical sands poured forth. You can find many versions. I used a variation of the technique found in Roy Benson by Starlight, by Levent and Todd Karr (The Miracle Factory, 2006).

I just wish you could see it better! On the only video of the play I have (a dress rehearsal), the falling salt is washed out after a few seconds. Why?

That night footlights had been added, and the fire acts behind the curtain (dyed silk veils) had lit their props earlier than in rehearsals. (Someone said it looks like the set was burning up!) Replacing about half of the salt with silver glitter made all the difference. (The stage “floor” where walked was a gravel patch in front of the platform, so no danger of dancers slipping on salt & glitter.) The audience could clearly see the “salt” falling as we moved, and I was told it looked “magical”. I look back and see that I over-used the switch back and forth.

I liked this choice because the Salt Pour is kind of a soft effect, from an intimidating character.

‘Dreams’ also featured an exchange illusion, Charles Waller’s Transmogrification, from Greater Magic, by John Northern Hilliard (Kaufman and Greenburg, 1994). It is also in the Tarbell course, the Mark Wilson course, etc.

To briefly describe it: Person #1 stands at center stage. A long cloth is held up by two assistants, standing at either side. The cloth is just over a person’s height, with poles on either end for stability. The assistants on the ends walk in a clockwise motion to wrap up Person #1. In the act of wrapping, the cloth is reversed front to back, the assistants ending up on the opposite sides. When the whole thing is unraveled, Person #2 is standing there at center. Person #1 is gone.

We staged it as happening at the Sandman’s command to save the Dreamer, switching two people for two others. In magic show terms it was not completely deceptive. However, it went over much better than I expected.

These “wraparound” illusions require the people to be produced to get on and off stage unseen. This was very difficult on an outdoor stage, as the wings (sides of the stage) were partly open to the audience view. And it must be very well rehearsed, which this was not.

The suspension of disbelief was very high, as the audience was really into the story. Like the opening, it wasn’t presented as a trick, but as a device to move the story along. The audience chose to accept, rather than analyze, which made the effect pleasing. To my surprise, the crowd applauded wildly for it!

The entire show got a big response. The audience was full of friends and fans, and were very receptive. Many in the young, hip audience knew and recognized the Sandman, which really helped. The salt pour, especially, made perfect sense to those who knew the character. To those who didn’t, his actions probably made no sense at all. (even though the Sandman and his powers were explained at length later in the play).

Max Howard pointed out how easy it is to be deep in playing a role, unaware that the audience might not “get it” at all like you think that they do!

Some expressed disappointment that I didn’t do more magic, or go all the way with the Sandman’s wild hair.

Brief though it was, this role was really one of my favorites I’ve ever done. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you look up the Sandman graphic novels, they are very intriguing. They are all collected in The Absolute Sandman, Volumes 1-5.

As described by the Bard, Kendal Turner…

One has no choice but to obey the verdict of the Sandman’s power.
His voice is the sound of centuries unfolding, a million ancient pages simultaneously turning…

And so, besides the opportunity to “guest artist” with some talented young performers, what did I get out of this?

First, remember that the answer you are seeking probably is right in front of you.

Second, try adding some glitter to your salt pour so the audience can see it better.

And third, my friends were right, I should have worn the wig!

(A condensed version appears in Linking Ring magazine, January 2014, Volume 94, Number 1)

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