This week our theme is the actual backstage of a magic show. I have often commented that our show is like the proverbial duck that seems to be calm and collected as he moves across a pond, but below the surface his feet are moving like crazy.
It may be that what is accomplished backstage, during a show, is more amazing than what happens onstage. Props must be moved from one place to another, costumes must be changed, and tricks must be set. This is to happen without confusion or people running into one another. Most of all, it is to happen very fast.
With practicality in mind, here are some things we do to ensure that the backstage aspect of our show works well.
1. The people who put props away should make the decisions about their placement. Early in my career, as the magician, I thought it was my place to manage everything. In an effort to be diligent and responsible, I would plan what people should do backstage.
Eventually I was informed that I was making things more difficult because, since I was not actually back there doing the work, I did not really know the best way to position things.
Now, as we are in the early stages of working on a new show or routine, I ask assistants and stagehands, “What is the best way to handle the backstage location and movement of this prop?” It is up to them to make decisions about it. I do insist that the decisions get made long before the show. Typically, I have them show and explain to me exactly what they are going to do. I do not contradict their choices. They understand the situation better than I do. All I need to know is that they know exactly what they will do.
2. Everything must have a place and everything must go into its place. When new people come to work for us, I almost always have to lecture them on this matter. There is a tendency to think, What is out on stage is what matters. Once the trick is over, just get it off the stage.
They do not understand the critical nature of precision and organization behind the curtain. On one occasion a new assistant took my Appearing Cane off stage (after it had been produced) and tossed it down on a couch in the green room. She was in a hurry to make a costume change. Later another assistant came in at a time when she could rest and, without looking behind her, started to sit down on the couch. Fortunately, yet another assistant saw the cane about to be crushed and rescued it. The cane is a special one that is both expensive and hard to replace. The failure of the first assistant to put the cane on the proper shelf nearly caused me a serious loss.
When props are not in the right place, one thing might be slammed into another, or stepped on, or knocked over, causing breakage.
Even more serious is the fact that props out of place can result in injuries. An assistant who is running from one side of the stage to another can smack a shin on the corner of a case, or get cut by running against the sharp edge of an illusion.
Every prop must be stored in the same way, in the same place, at the same time, every time. Artistic members of the show who tend to be a bit scatter-brained must especially be reminded about this. It does not matter what our personality type is or what your organizational tendencies are, when it comes to the backstage situation, there is no room for error.
3. A good way to organize things backstage is by way of lines made with gaffers tape. We do this both on the floor and on tables. We make designated spots where things belong. Each small prop has a “home” that is specifically marked. Each large prop has a place that is lined out.
4. Have a constant direction for backstage traffic. Now and then there must be exceptions made to this matter, but as much as possible we try to have all props come on from stage right and then be taken off stage left. This reduces the possibility of a prop that is being removed getting in the way of another prop that is being brought out at the same time. If we did not have a constancy in direction, there would be many more backstage collisions.
Having things all go in the same direction also helps to create room for things that need to be put away. As things are taken from one side of the stage and put into use, space is created for other things that are coming off the other side of the stage.
5. Hooks are better for costumes than hangers (during the show). We store our costumes on hangers. Costumes that are used when there is plenty of time to put them on, and then later put them away, are also kept on hangers. Costumes that must be put on in a hurry should not be on hangers. Hangers can get tangled inside a garment. If the garment is quickly pulled from a hanger, the hanger may flip off the rack and fall to the floor where it will be a distraction and/or hazard.
Coat hooks, put in strategic places, are very helpful. The costume is simply lifted away when needed, then put back on the hook when not needed. After the show, the costume can be put on a proper hanger.
Fundamentally, handling things well backstage is only a matter of using common sense. The problem is, because of excitement about what happens on stage, it is easy to fail to take the backstage situation into proper consideration. Reminding ourselves that the duck doesn’t swim unless things work well beneath the surface, is part of making sure we will have a great show.