The Stony Stare

By Ben Harris - Friday, September 18, 2020

It’s an old saying, one that applies to any form of artistic expression: “The art is the concealment of the art.”

But, what does that actually mean?

Every GREAT artist appears to be effortless with the delivery of their special talents. Effortless! From the great singers, writers, actors, jugglers, or magicians. These particularly talented artists ARE great because no effort on their part is obvious to us. None! Their magic (be it song, poetry, or our chosen discipline) just pours forth without any inkling of hardship—no furrowed brow, nary a bead of sweat.

As magicians, we try to ensure this through rehearsal, scripting, blocking, direction, and our presentation. We make sure the “work” remains hidden. We practice our sleights so that they are invisible, so they are effortless. This is all part of being a magician. These are the things drummed into us from our tentative years. The discipline needs to translate to the new performance mediums we find ourselves using (or considering using).

Times change and how we we express ourselves—evolves. Remember when only the very finest magicians were appearing on television? A select few made careers from this medium: David Nixon, Paul Daniels, Doug Henning, David Blaine, Derren Brown… There was/is something special about performing on television. The writers, lighting experts, directors, editors, make it all look so good. Often it looks too good, and in these instances we cry “camera trick.”

Fast forward to the current day, and we find ourselves at the other end of our screens—performers with our own studios (apps). Stars of our own channels. Social media and the various new streaming and podcasting applications have given us all the chance to star in our own televised fantasies. In my mind, this is a wonderful opportunity. We see many folk exploiting this new medium, some amazingly well. It’s inspirational. These people have thought about what they are doing and how to best express it via the pocket televisions that we now all carry. They have written scripts, attended to lighting and direction; made sure they look good and—most importantly—rehearsed. They have too, for most part, avoided what I’m calling the “Stony-Stare.” However, many others are falling into the trap.

So what is the Stony-Stare?

The Stony-Stare is akin to, (and as revealing as) looking at your hands when executing a difficult sleight. I have mentioned that we practice our sleights and moves so that they are invisible. Along with this comes the golden rule that we all know so well: “Do NOT look at your hands while executing the secret move!”

I propose that the Stony-Stare is the digital-ages’s equivalent of “burning your hands during the execution of a sleight.” I other words, the same tip-off manifests itself in the virtual world as the Stony-Stare. You know the look: It’s when the performer shifts his focus to his monitor (phone screen) during the execution of a move. It’s a subtle shift from camera to selfie-monitor, but it looks really bad. The performer is now failing to make eye-contact and is beginning to look phased-out, lost in his own world. It becomes BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that the performer is carefully monitoring his situation—watching out for SOMETHING, (guiding something, maneuvering something, configuring something…) The audience need not know what you are doing—they just know that you are doing something. They also know precisely WHEN the “work” is being done. As I said, exactly like “burning your hands during the execution of a sleight.” The end result is that the performer appears to be dis-interested, pre-occupied and hard at work, day-dreaming, or arrogant. None of these impressions are desirable.

The easiest way to solve the problem is to sufficiently rehearse so that you don’t have to monitor yourself during performance. You would rehearse sufficiently if you’re going to perform for real people in a live situation. As the star of your own channel, you should rehearse for that too. You not only owe it to yourself, you owe it to magic. Let’s face it, if the piece you are performing is so angle-sensitive that you need to monitor yourself during a static-one-camera scenario, then it’s going to be a useless effect for the real world where you’ll need more freedom with the sight-lines.

Part of the problem is with the current technology, itself. If using a smartphone on a tripod to broadcast yourself (as many are), then the camera and screen are pretty much together. It is very easy to allow your gaze to wonder a few centimeters and to focus on the screen, rather than making eye-contact with your audience through the lens. Solution? Flip the camera over (use the front camera) so you can’t monitor yourself. This will require careful planning and rehearsal, but that’s a good thing. Of course, if you are serious, you can indulge in a multi-camera set up and zoom in for the tricky bits so we don’t see your face. Cut back to full frame when done.

Okay! No more stony-faces. Engage the audience, or focus on the item in hand (being amazed yourself at the magic unfurling), but please don’t gaze off into the nether nether… we don’t want to see when you’re “doing the work!”

Ben's latest book, MACHINATIONS, is available right here.

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