Theater & Magic in the Classroom

MAR 18, 2014

A.R.T.-Inspired Coursework at Harvard University

By Sabrina Sadique, Teaching Assistant for “Theater and Magic”

Teachers and students look at a magic trick

The Harvard University Freshman Seminar “Theater and Magic,” taught in the fall 2013 semester, evolved from Professors Marjorie Garber and Diane Paulus’s idea of studying the relationship between theatricality, the power of the magus, and the arts of illusion with a small group of freshmen just embarking on their collegiate orbit. First staged in 1611 at the Palace of Whitehall, Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest had King James I in the audience. The conceptual and synthetic processes of fitting the text of a play from the era of the English Renaissance into the theatrical mode of the twenty-first century are indeed alchemical. Adaptation, to begin with, is transmutation: etymologically, it is the mechanism of undergoing change to accommodate a new reality, and few characters show the mechanics better than Prospero, The Tempest’s powerful magician and the upstaged Duke of Milan. Master of “secret studies,” playwright, director, actor, and father, Prospero embodies the moving nucleus of two concentric plays. Moving from role to role, he restages and repurposes the story of his loss of dukedom to nested circles of audience. On the inside are his audience of characters whom he traps with a tempest and controls on an island; on the outside of his play looking in is the audience of The Tempest from whom he seeks freedom. “Let your indulgence set me free,” is the magician’s ultimate appeal to the spectator.

A prime mirror dramatizing the power-dialectic between creator and creature, art and artist, the conjuror and conjured upon, The Tempest was at first the only play in consideration for the intensive study of magic at two notable historical nodes—the English Renaissance and contemporary theater. However, as we parsed literary analogues from the former tradition that also pivoted
thematic concerns of the course, the syllabus grew to include works of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Robert Greene, and more Shakespeare. Our roster of magicians expanded from the literary to the historical genre.

In the first half of the course, students explored biographies of sixteenth-century magicians while also examining plays, automata, devices, and stage illusions from the era. The second half of the seminar swerved its focus toward nineteenth and twentieth-century magicians as well as magic in and on film. Micah Hoggatt, Reference Librarian for the Houghton Library, came on board and compiled a display of objects from the Harvard Theater Collection (one of the largest performing arts collections in the world) for a mid-semester class-visit. From Harry Houdini’s handcuffs and personal correspondences, to 1890-1936 playbills and posters featuring many magicians addressed in our course, the exhibit also contained some of the earliest editions of our primary texts.

Studying the history and literature of magic alone would not have sufficed for the interdisciplinary approach we had envisioned for the seminar. Our textual analyses required a commensurate grasp of how illusions are crafted, staged, and theatricalized, how magic, which is part simulation, part an exercise of misdirecting an audience, shares its basic repertoire with the core elements of acting. Both require the complicity of viewers in the production of make-belief. The ten freshmen selected for the seminar comprised a trained illusionist from Japan, an engineering student with an interest in robotics from Nikiski, Alaska, a National YoungArts Foundation winner from Brooklyn, New York, Computer Science concentrators from Washington and Los Angeles… magicians, musicians, stage-designers, a published playwright from Martinsville, New Jersey. All were of one eager mind as they investigated how props, sound, costumes, light, and stage-effects move a play from language to a living creature—how technique and technology humanize acts of illusion. We invited contemporary practitioners of magic to share their experiences of the craft and interpret for us the chemistry between doing magic and
making a play. Guests included Steve Cuiffo, actor and magician who co-founded the performance group Rainpan 43; Paul Kieve, the author of Hocus Pocus: A Tale of Magnificent Magicians and their Amazing Feats, who created illusions for the musicals The Lord of the Rings, Ghost, and Pippin, and consulted for the Harry Potter film productions; and Aaron Posner, the recipient of multiple Helen Hayes and Barrymore Awards for stage directing, who is presently infusing magic into the A.R.T.’s upcoming production of The Tempest with eminent magician Teller (from Penn & Teller).

The climax of the seminar was on November 17, 2013 just two weeks before the end of the course. At 7:30 on a rainy Sunday morning, a bus full of freshmen were Broadway-bound from Boston for the matinee show of Diane Paulus’s production of Pippin. There they encountered the talking head of a Visigoth warrior, levitations of corpses, vanishing acts, and King Charlemagne’s knife-throwing legerdemain.
Students reviewed the play and asked Paul Kieve how headless legs walk on stage. The refrain that echoes and anticipates The Tempest at the A.R.T. is from the song that opens Pippin. “We’ve got magic to do,” the Leading Player promises, seducing our commitment to the heights and depths of being spellbound by charms:

We’ve got magic to do… Just for you
We’ve got miracle plays to play
We’ve got parts to perform… Hearts to warm
Kings and things to take by storm
As we go along our way.

For their final creative projects, our ten students were asked to execute in a breadth of seven minutes what they had just experienced at Pippin. Select a scene from a play we have read, incorporate illusion where there isn’t any, tell a story from start to finish, energize the relations between theater and magic with light, sound, costumes, and props on loan from the A.R.T. Enkindle the activity of the soul of a canonical play with your imagination. Expect tempests along the way. Transform a text while keeping its fundamental integrity.

Students read reviews of Bob Fosse’s production of Pippin; they saw on Broadway how a vital source may be preserved and revitalized in the atmosphere of a changed time. The process is magical in both form and spirit. Two different students performed the opening scenes of The Tempest with their distinct magic-signatures: one built a fire to initiate the storm, the other bewitched Ferdinand into awakening with the power of the song “Bright Morning Stars are Rising.” A freshman “genderswapped” the characters of Stephano and Caliban twice to dramatize its effect on issues of power and authority. Our resident magician, Masahiro Kusunoki, performed Prospero’s final lines in the Epilogue with digital illusions. The power of the magus multiplied visually on a screen until it receded to a single point. He asked our indulgence to set him free. We applauded.

Sabrina Sadique is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University, and was the Teaching Assistant for Marjorie Garber and Diane Paulus’s Freshman Seminar, “Theater and Magic.”

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