Friday, April 26, 2013

Forward into the past

Jim Steinmeyer
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Fashions in theatre, as in other areas of human endeavor, come and go.  Today’s hot trend is tomorrow’s old news and, when everyone who remembers it has died off, it’s The Latest Thing once again.  If you doubt that, take a look at the way the once-passé subgenre of operetta had undergone a rebirth in the years since Phantom of the Opera started raking in the revenue.

Consider, for example, the following bits of “advice to the players”, so to speak, that I recently stumbled across in my reading: “If you go on to the stage feeling downhearted and gloomy, don’t expect your audience to be otherwise… Make your patter short and to the point.  The public, you will find, are better pleased than if you went too long story telling.  Leave that to the lecturer or public speaker… In learning or practicing [new material] have a disinterested friend watch you and comment on your work… Secure a method and style of your own”.

Chung Ling Soo
a.k.a. William Robinson
As you might have guessed from the archaic style of the prose, this isn’t new advice.  In fact, it was written by early 20th-century magician Chung Ling Soo (real name: William Robinson) for the magician’s magazine Mahatma in the late 1890s (as quoted in illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer’s fascinating biography of Soo/Robinson, The Glorious Deception). But it’s still good counsel, easily applicable to any actor or, even more to the point of this article, any cabaret artist today.  That’s because, technology and fashions not withstanding, the relationship between the performer and audience pretty much stays the same across the years and national boundaries. 

The great 19th-century magician Jean-Eugene Robert Houdin (from whom Harry Houdini took his stage name) once wrote that a magician was actually an actor playing the role of a magician.  In the same way, a cabaret performer is playing the role of the most entertaining version of himself or herself.  Play it well and the results can be—well—magical.

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