Mysterium: The Words We Use

Posted by Jonathan Bayme on 27 March 2013

Editor’s Note: This article is the tenth in a weekly series by Jason England: MYSTERIUM. Each article in this series will be posted on Wednesday at 11:00am EST – every post on a different subject. This week, Jason discusses the merit of using a script during a magic performance.

The Words We Use

There is debate in the magic world about whether or not a performer should work from a script or whether it’s sufficient to decide what you’re going to say in the moment (and perhaps make changes from one show to another). My own opinion is this: I believe in scripts for the vast majority of situations, but don’t necessarily have a problem with working from only an outline in informal performances. Let me explain.

The very best magic shows I’ve ever seen were scripted.

I’ve seen Mac King’s show in Las Vegas dozens of times. The same goes for David Copperfield and Penn and Teller. Apart from changes to the shows driving script changes out of necessity, all of these performers say and do the same actions at the same points during all of their shows. They’re working from a script, plain and simple.

More recently, I’ve seen Nothing to Hide at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles on three occasions. You guessed it – scripted. Several years ago I saw Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants.  I only saw the show once live, but I’d seen it many times before on a VHS copy of the same show that had aired on HBO almost 10 years previously. Even though there was a gap of nearly a decade between the time Ricky had filmed the HBO show and the time I saw the show live, it was virtually identical. Again, the reason is that the show is scripted; in Ricky’s case, by none other than playwright David Mamet.

These shows are some of the best contemporary magic has ever seen. The fact that they all use scripts is no real surprise. After all, these are all formal shows that take place in theaters for paying audiences that expect a certain amount of professionalism. I guess the question then is should an amateur magician trying to amuse his friends for a few minutes across a restaurant table go to the effort to script his brief, casual performances? The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

Scripting your performances brings a focus and a clarity to the effects that is difficult, albeit not impossible, to achieve otherwise.

The process of creating and practicing to a script allows the performer to choose the perfect phrasing for every given phase of a beat, effect, or act. This facilitates a precision that is very hard to capture when you’re trying to think of what to say next at every step along the way of an effect.

Of course, this precision only comes once you have a GOOD script. Any of us could write a bad, or non-sensical script and never deviate from it even when we knew it was awful. The goal is to continually tweak your script until you know that you’re saying the exactly proper thing at each step in the routine.

So, if an overall improvement to your act is the upside to scripting, is there a downside? Well, I don’t know that “downside” is the proper term necessarily, but there are pitfalls to look out for.

Many magicians don’t know how to properly script an effect.

They wind up saying things in ways that are completely out of character for them. Imagine a young magician doing simple coin tricks for his friends suddenly launching into a Ricky Jay-esque historical observation on some deep intellectual subject. It’ll work for Ricky – he’s a genuine expert on the history of magic and unusual entertainers. It won’t work for a 15 year old. He’ll come across as someone trying to sound like an expert rather than actually being an expert. You have to play to, and write to, your strengths. Or more importantly, your character’s strengths.

When constructing your scripts, it's important to understand who you are as a performer. Make sense of yourself.

In my case, my performing persona is very much my real persona, but with exaggerations in all the places I think I need or want them. For instance, I don’t think I have a “laugh-a-minute” personality like a Bill Malone or a David Williamson. My sense of humor doesn’t run to the slapstick or silly end of the spectrum. It runs more towards the quiet, intellectual, perhaps occasionally even cynical end of the spectrum. Because I’m aware of this, I’d be very cautious about using a sight-gag or an over-the-top joke in any of my performances. Maybe I could pull it off with a lot of practice if it was an absolutely incredible joke that added to my show in a really meaningful way – but it’s not in my nature to go looking for that type of material.

If you’re a young magician, play to your strength. Exuberance, naivety, and a sense of “I’m just discovering this for the first time too!”

All are good traits to look at when creating a performing persona (and by extension, a script). If you’re an older performer, you can begin to address more adult themes like family relationships, life and death, gambling and cheating at gambling games, etc.

Of course, these themes aren’t written in stone. An older performer can certainly bring a sense of wonder and amazement to his/her shows, and a young magician can absolutely pull off a gambling routine if it’s done properly. The point is to understand who you are and then script things that your character would say.

Now that I’ve made my case for scripts, let me tell you a few situations where I think it’s okay to not use one. The first example is for extremely simple effects that are little more than visual eye candy. If you’re performing a double-turnover for a young child and then placing the top card onto their hands and snapping your fingers before revealing the change, I don’t think a full-blown script is required. Likewise a quick, series of color changes often doesn’t require that you say anything. I think saying something is quite likely to improve the color changes if what you say is carefully constructed, but it’s perhaps not critical.

A final example of when it might not be completely necessary to work from a script is if the current script you have is inappropriate for the audience at hand.

For example, if you normally work behind a bar for people that are drinking, you might play from a bawdy, raucous script. That same script probably won’t work if you’re hired on short notice to work a more intimate, formal corporate gig. In this case, I’d abandon the inappropriate script and do my best to either produce a new one completely, or at the very least work from a more appropriate outline of what I wanted to say if there wasn’t enough time to work out all the kinks in a full-blown script.

In a follow-up article, I’ll play devil’s advocate and discuss why some performers don’t want to work from a script. Perhaps you have your own reasons? If so, let’s hear ‘em.