Ever since I've been in magic I've heard people quoting Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin's famous definition saying "A magician is an actor playing the role of a magician", but only in the last couple of days have I come close to understanding what that really means.
Sue-Anne and I were discussing Criss Angel. What is it that sets him apart from his contemporaries like the two Davids (Copperfield and Blaine)? Sue-Anne pointed out that to her Criss Angel, even when playing his surreal goth character, was still Criss Angel... a nice guy who cares about his family and is passionate about his art. David Blaine plays his mystic character pretty much all the time, while he does stunts, during press interviews, even in the magic press. David Copperfield comes across as a "party guy" interested in going out with supermodels, flirting with his female audience members, and often walking through his live shows with a distinct lack of energy.
Now think back to Houdin's original quote. "A magician is an actor playing the role of a magician". David Blaine plays the role of a magician beautifully. So convincingly in fact, that many people I know think his magic is "real" and are a little creeped out by him. But does he let his audience know he's only an actor playing a role? Does he let us know anything about who the actor really is? He tips a little of his past in interviews and in his book, but is it real or part of his character's history? The line between the actor and the magician is blurred.
Look at Copperfield. We certainly know a lot about him as an actor. We know who he was engaged to, where he was partying last night, we know about his mum and dad and how he never saw snow as a child... once again, do we trust that this is all "real", or is some of it just part of the show? And when he's on stage are we watching the magician? Or does the actor show through a little too often?
Imagine an actor like Eric Bana. We know about him as an actor because he grew up here in Australia, we read about him in the media, we know a little about his family life and we know a lot about his passion for his art. When we see him on film immersed in a character (like Avner in 'Munich') we are watching the character, not the actor. We no longer see Eric Bana, but we still know it is Eric Bana playing the role. We are not really watching Avner.
If Bana was to use Blaine's style, we'd see Avner on screen then, in interviews, Bana would stay in character and answer questions as Avner. We'd think he was insane.
If Bana used Copperfield's style, we see Avner on screen, but we'd see elements of Bana's personality slipping in from time to time. Maybe, some times, he'd even look a little tired, as though he really wasn't trying. Perhaps there'd be a leery double-entendre when an attractive girl walked into shot.
To a large extent, with exceptions which I'll mention in a moment, Criss Angel is treating magic in a way that is extremely close to Robert-Houdin's definition. We see Criss Angel the actor, who introduces us to his family, his crew, his consultants... and credits those who support him while still managing to "star" while sharing the spotlight... just as Bana would credit Spielberg and all of the people who helped make 'Munich'. Angel knows his role. His is an actor, not a one-man show. He allows the audience to get to know him as an actor who plays a magician, and one who works hard to try to create the best presentations possible. Sometimes he plays the role of the magician on the street in casual clothes with a casual attitude. Sometimes he plays the role of the magician on stage with full goth make-up and surreal imagery. But after the show he steps out of character and is happy to discuss his art, just as an actor would.
The difference between Angel and the others is very subtle, but if you watch his early shows 'Supernatural', 'MindFreak' and 'Made in Japan', you can really see a difference in his attitude and that of other magicians. He seems "real". He seems "down to earth". Bottom line: he seems like the type of guy you'd love to have over for dinner. Would you invite Blaine? Or would you worry that he'd sit there motionless freaking people out? Would you invite Copperfield? Or would you worry that he'd try to crack on to every female in the room? Take it further... would you invite Siegfried & Roy, Penn & Teller, even Lance Burton...? Can you see beyond their magic characters and see a "real person" in there? Can you see the actors or only the magicians?
The exception with Criss Angel which I alluded to earlier, and this applies to all magicians, is one moment in his show where he lost the trust of his viewers. To me, this is the reason that his shows didn't rate well in Australia. In the USA viewers may have a different attitude, but here in Australia when a magician says "Some of what I do is real, some is illusion, it's up to you to decide." I believe many Australians feel the magician is lying to them. To continue the Bana analogy, if he was to say either "Was it me playing Avner in 'Munich'... or was it Avner himself? It's up to you to decide." or "I channelled the spirit of Avner and allowed him to take over my body for the role." we'd feel he was talking BS. Australians seem to appreciate straight talk. They don't like people talking down to them. If you are levitating people in the middle of the street in Las Vegas and you say "Maybe it wasn't just a trick, maybe it's real." You are talking down to the audience and treating them like idiots. You are blurring the line between magician and actor.
Now, what Criss Angel really meant was "Some of the things I do are real" (like the fish hook suspension, the 24 hour water torture etc) so his statement was true, but it was too easily misunderstood by the viewers.
It's fascinating to analyse the styles and approaches of different magicians, and indeed performers in all artforms, but what can you learn from this?
Be honest with your audience. If they trust you, the believe you, they'll like you, and they'll be happy to watch you do anything. (Be honest, if people didn't "like" Adam Sandler do you really think they'd watch any of his movies? *g*) People love to be fooled, but they don't like to be lied to.