Looking the wrong way

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[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

I’m always looking the wrong way at the circus.

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesIt’s not that I don’t know where to look (don’t worry, I know where the acrobats are), it’s that I’m just as fascinated by the stagecraft. I want to see the mechanics. Regardless of how good a Cirque Du Soleil show is (and “Kurios” is very good), Cirque performers are always masters of shifting an audience’s focus: of getting us all to look one way. Or more importantly, making sure where we aren’t looking.

Now, some of this is just pragmatic. Watching the tech guys disassemble the giant trampoline is ‘boring’. Or ensuring that the aerialists rig is safe, well, that’s essential but it’s better hidden. It’s part of the illusion. That’s the part that really captivates me.

What are they distracting us from so that the show is more magical?

That’s the great lesson for the theater: how do you amaze an audience by hiding some of the work? Frankly, most of the shows you see – everyone’s just struggling to maintain the focus. It’s not as bad as “look at me, look at me!” . . . but sometimes it’s close. Now this makes sense because making the work visible is job one. Making sure that, as an actor, you have the presence to command an audience and be seen – well, that’s what distinguishes us in the theater. As a director, the ability to focus a story, to make sure the audience is following us is the difference between moving and boring them.

But in the theater, we should realize that learning how to be invisible is the more nuanced next step to being seen. I’m not suggesting some magical cloak out of a wizard story, but instead understanding how to direct an audience both towards the action and, often more importantly, away from the mechanics. How do we heighten the spectacle by hiding what’s making it all work? After all, that’s what the Cirque clowns are doing up in the audience, they’re distracting us from the work onstage – those techies rigging the next act.

I remember years ago sitting down to talk with the great lighting designer Jules Fisher. Right after he took out a bag of coins and showed me a magic trick, he casually shared a secret of the theater. He said that directors were constantly asking him for more light, ‘can we have more light on the star?’ In his early days, he said he’d just bump up that light.  He’d make it brighter. But then one day he realized there was another answer: make it darker. Instead of making the star brighter, he made the rest of the stage dimmer. Suddenly the director was happy and the star wasn’t totally washed out.

It’s telling that Jules Fisher loves magic because who better than a magician to understand these essential mechanics. Yes, the trick is happening over here . . . but the real work is happening over there. A magician’s art is about making the mechanics invisible so that all that’s left is the magic (or if you’re Penn & Teller, or the avant-garde, it’s about making the mechanics themselves a work of art).

So when you go see the circus, or a great magician, spend at least part of the time looking in the wrong direction. You might see the artist’s real work.