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taste

A word we don’t see much when it comes to constructing art, whether it’s an acting performance or a magic performance: taste. We talk a lot in magic about method, effect, and even presentation, but taste is something different. Our friend Andy over at The Jerx, is one of the few who talk about it, if not explicitly. In fact, almost every post of his is about taste. So what is taste, and why is it important?

It’s tempting to say about artistic taste, as Louis Armstrong said about jazz, that if you have to ask, you’ll never know.  But I’m here to try: Taste is about proportion, and the humanity underneath the artwork.

An acting story: when I was in my twenties I stage managed a number of Off- Off-Broadway productions. I loved watching the older veteran actors, how effortlessly they seemed to ply their craft. And I remember one older actor, Gene—maybe one day I’ll remember his last name, but no matter, I still remember his first name, Gene—had a scene in a play that I was stage managing that was very moving, a family drama where he was playing the father. With every rehearsal I was spellbound by his depth of feeling. And opening night, I looked on from the wings as I always did and watched Gene do that stunning scene. Only this time, he was not only emotional, but he was crying profusely throughout the scene. Real tears. I was so impressed. But when the scene was over, he stomped offstage angrily into the wings muttering, “Dammit! I let myself go too far!”

Taste.

He knew he was a good actor; he didn’t need to prove it. He had gone beyond the bounds of taste right then. Just as in real life, we don’t always spill our guts, sometimes the way to be true to a playwright is to hold back a little. The issue is this: how much do you call attention to your own power as an artist?

Taste.

Which is what is missing (necessarily, given the format) of every performer on an American Idol-type show. The performers are forced, like trained seals, in the three minutes they have, to reveal everything they have, all their power, all at once, stripped naked.

Even a burlesque stripper is more tasteful.

In magic, magicians are particularly susceptible to lapses in taste—and I don’t just mean their wardrobes.  There are two major ways that they violate good taste: first, if they attribute all the magical will to themselves, they look egotistical—this is something I’ve written about before; but second, for the most part, you look like an idiot if you’re dressed in a Merlin costume and maintain that your magic is real. This is really the problem that Andy addresses in almost all his posts. Nobody with half a brain or a beating heart can ever believe that the magician’s Linking Rings are the ocular proof that real magic exists. If the magician acts as if it does, if the magician insists that somehow it’s more than just a form of entertainment, it’s creepy.  The majority of actors playing magicians seem to believe that they must really deny that they are just actors.

Taste.

So how as a magician can one avoid seeming to be a jerk?

Understand that a play is play. And a magician’s performance is play. Play is a context that tells others how to frame the present interaction. There should always be what that fine magician Pop Haydn calls the wink behind the mask.  That is, the wink that says: I know you know that this is all BS, but we’re still having fun anyway, and I’m still going to fool you and amaze you. Without that wink—and one doesn’t want to be too obvious about the wink, or else that would be insulting to the spectator’s intelligence, as if s/he weren’t capable of knowing that the magician was winking—it’s no longer in the context of a game, but the context of a demonstration, and that is a hell of a lot more boring and uninteresting.

Let me try to connect these two strands: the wink and the holding back. They are both ways to say that there is a real person behind all of this, and that the mission here tonight is something larger than bringing attention to the performer.  For the actor, the mission is to tell the story; for the magician, it’s to play with the audience. If there’s no proportion, the mission can get overwhelmed and lost. How big to make the emotion, how big to make the wink, these are all matters of experimentation and matters of taste. But interestingly, the metric is not out in the audience; after all, people still go for Barbra Streisand. No, there is some internal aesthetic that tells one what the proper proportion must be.