As I write this, I’m sitting on the couch of a self contained holiday flat in Cromer. It’s Boxing Day 2018 and I’m alone, following the successful completion of another show to a wonderful audience this afternoon.
I’m currently performing in the the Cromer Pier Christmas Spectacular, located as you might expect, in a theatre on Cromer Pier in Norfolk, UK. Being away from home is always tough, but aside from the obvious plus sides (like being paid to perform and living the only dream you’ve ever had) there are some unexpected benefits.
The show is a mix of song, dance, comedy, sketches and variety. It features four headline acts and a cast of dancers.
The headline acts are –
Harvey James: Vocalist and world travelling star of musicals.
Fiona Jessica Wilson: Soprano singer, cellist and iTunes download chart topper.
Olly Day: Comedian, singer, magician and decade long face of this show.
The show sees me taking part in song and dance numbers, playing various characters in sketches, dipping in and out of a double act with Olly and for two spots, doing my own material. It’s this last part that this blog is really about.
Being in a show like this will change your material. There are four reasons –
– Pre rehearsal decision making.
– Directorial input.
– Consistent performance.
Let’s examine those areas.
PRE-REHEARSAL DECISION MAKING
I was told before rehearsals I’d have two spots. 12-14 minutes in the first half and 6 minutes in the second. Given these figures you must then work out what you wish to do. Taking the Roy Benson formula of a ‘4 trick set’ I planned out my material.
My set would include Fire Eating, a version of Tim Gabrielson’s ‘Stretching The Truth’, a Balloon Swallow and Cigar Box Juggling.
In my own show these four pieces of material are close to 20 minutes total.
Cutting six minutes from four routines is tough but entirely possible. I knew I wanted to fit them all in to show some diversity, editing down was the only option.
I start by cutting off the build up where I usually say my ‘hello’s’ and warm up the audience (they should by the point I’m on, already be warm), within 15 seconds of entering the stage I have a torch lit and the audience know what’s about to happen.
I push through all of the visual moments without stopping to admire myself and by the time I’ve ‘eaten’ both torches (the usual finish to my fire eating bit) I’ve already lost almost two minutes and my routine is all the stronger for it.
Next up, Stretching The Truth. Usually there’s a ‘pre trick’ chat to explain what’s going to happen, then the music begins and I begin the real work. I decide to have the music start immediately and overlap the explanation of that’s happening with the actions I must also undertake such as getting cards chosen etc. This gives the routine some pace and before you know it I’m getting better reactions at 1.5 minutes shorter.
My balloon swallowing routine usually focuses on sword swallowers and has some verbal jokes. It totals around 2 minutes. Instead, I time how long it takes to blow up and swallow the balloon, it’s 35 seconds. I edit the music to 45 seconds and remove almost all of the words except ‘and now, the yellow balloon trick’. Again the trick is immediately better and I’m only giving the audience the bit they really like. This trick is asked about more than any other in the foyer afterwards, it’s lack of chat makes it stand out as a really offbeat break.
Those of you adding up will know that I’ve now lost 3 minutes and 45 seconds.
I manage to knock a further 2 minutes off my cigar box routine without losing a single moment of the actual juggling. Only the parts where I stand around looking pleased with myself are gone.
I’ve now over shot the mark for cutting and find the opportunity to put in a couple of extra jokes! Bonus!
I intend to write an entirely separate blog/article on the importance of direction so for now I’ll stick to a few points. Being directed is absolutely crucial if you really want to be your best. Their advice on movement and staging is always worth listening to and never fails to improve my performance. They usually begin by spotting and cutting out unnecessary trips back to a prop case (if they let you have one on stage at all), they refine every moment and question all actions. They pick up on strange ticks and habits we have, tell you not to rock from side to side when you talk and ask why you constantly fiddle with your lapel or glasses.
They examine things and don’t take anything for granted. No movement is wasted or without intention. This is best practise for magic and yet we routinely ignore it.
Working every single day is obviously a sure fire way to get better quickly (provided you’re actively engaged with the process). I work pretty regularly as it is so I can spot myself feeling a little out of sorts after even just a few days off. The real benefit of a show like this is that you’re in the same venue twice per day. The variables are extremely limited. The audience change but they’re roughly the same types of people in exactly the same room. The lights and sound levels are always the same, the stage never changes. If the reaction to a particular piece is different, it’s almost guaranteed it was down to something that YOU did. If you’re in a different venue every day, in different parts of the country/world, you can’t always be sure that the surge in laughs (or drop) is because of you. If on the other hand, you are the only variable you can, which means that your refinements happen at a much quicker pace and can be tested.
There aren’t a huge list of venues where something that goes beyond the expected will be easily accepted. If magic is to become art, it must be displayed in an appropriate gallery. People who come to see theatre shows are used to seeing the performers commit to their roles. They’re used to moments of poignancy and subtlety. This cannot always be said of a sportsman’s after dinner event. Working in a theatrical environment allows you to explore the extra layers of your ability and the material in front of an audience that will not only accept it, but expect it.
It also doesn’t hurt that you’re constantly surround by theatrical minded fellow performers and crew. They’ll watch you night after night and occasionally suggest something great for you that you may never have thought of.
Ultimately I always leave a show like this with better material than I came in with.
All of the editing decisions I’ve made above will be staying after I’m done in this show. I’ve gained back almost 6 minutes which means I have space to fit in more routines and ideas. I’d never had to make such strict cuts before but the practise is ready to spread to the rest of my material. In all cases above it made the routines both stronger AND shorter. I’m a huge fan of both of those things!
You can’t beat those unexpected benefits.