The first performer I saw live, other than a band, was David Copperfield. He was amazing. As a child I sat there amazed by the magic created in front of me. Fascinated by how he broke the rules of science and did things that I had only before seen in comic books. I couldn’t do the things he did, but I knew that I wished I could. Years later when I saw my first theatre show–Laughter on the 23rd Floor on Broadway–I sat there amazed at how these performers deftly navigated a world of emotions and relationships, something my teenage self had difficulty doing. I knew the feelings they all were having, but I couldn’t deal with them the way they were. But I wished I could.
I have started thinking more and more about these two events. There is a point we all get to in our careers of creating theatre where we look around at the landscape, we go to see things and find something is missing. We can’t figure out what it is, we know it’s missing, and we desperately scream out for the need. In search of it we clasp on to new forms of theatre (movement based, immersive, deconstructed, etc), we look for new voices (voice of our generation, voice of the downtrodden, rarely heard voices), we look for something we have never seen before. I have been doing this for a while, but as I look back at those first two moments of performance that amazed me I see what they had in common. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t seen them before.
It was MAGIC.
Magic in itself is the art of deception. The great stage magician Karl Germain said, “Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.” Deception. This is at the heart of Magic. But it’s also at the heart of theatre.
I think about the promise, the contract, the agreement I make when I step into a theatre. I expect more than to be told a story, I expect to be deceived. I expect for the artists to trick me into thinking that the actors are truly Romeo and Juliet and that they are desperately in love with each other. I want them to lie to me so that when I step through those doors, I am transported to the middle class neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
I want them to deceive me.
Suspension of disbelief. We focus on this a lot in theatre. We talk about it a lot when we talk about the costumes or the effects or the stage makeup or the fact the lead actor playing a father is only 22. We talk about suspension of disbelief in the physical world of the places we are creating. In the sounds and sights and actions. What I feel we forget to talk about is the suspension of disbelief in the mind and heart.
While the magician’s job is to make us believe that these solid rings can lock together or that a playing card can jump to any point in the deck, theatre artists’ jobs are to make us believe that people can fall in or out of love, that they can beat the odds or not, or that the mind and the heart can believe different things in the same moment. The suspension of disbelief that yes, these people can navigate the emotions, the situations, the story we have created around them. Not just with physical things, but with their own minds and hearts. The job of theatre is to deceive us into believing in each other, in another human being, if just for two and a half hours.
The thing I think most about when talking about magic or deception is that it is an agreement. It is two sided. It’s not just the person-watching-the-magician’s job to suspend their disbelief, but it’s also the magician’s job to suspend his disbelief. For a moment to believe, although he knows how it’s done, that he can do the impossible.
Isn’t that what we want in our theatre? Not just for the audience but for the artists themselves to suspend their own disbelief for just a few hours a night and truly believe that he is Romeo or she is Juliet and that they are in love. For a moment to believe that they are living in the suburbs of Chicago. For a moment to believe that Mace will pin Chad Deity. They deceive me into believing that they know how to navigate the emotions of the heart or relationships between people, that the world that I am in–their world–is not the one I am truly in. The performances I remember most in my mind are the ones where not only did I suspend my disbelief, but I believed that the artist did as well and that they bought into their story as much as I did.
Or perhaps they were just deceiving me?