Sleight Fantastic

Nothing jazzes up a theatrical production like a little prestidigitation and a disappearing rabbit or two. But actors often struggle mightily to finesse the sleight-of-hand required by a script or director. Other actors are magicians, whether professional (as is Harry "the Hat" Anderson of TV's "Night Court") or amateur (Woody Allen). Either way, conjuring while acting is a challenge.

This summer Los Angeles–based actor J. Todd Adams appeared as a mysterious and seductive suitor in W.S. Gilbert's obscure comedy Engaged. Although the script didn't call for his character to perform magic--it merely mentions tricks he's done previously--Shakespeare Santa Cruz director Paul Whitworth brought in magic consultant Ken Sonkin. The consultant taught Adams--who hadn't done tricks since he was a kid—half a dozen illusions, including making milk vanish in a glass, creating fire that "travels" to a book another character is reading, changing a silk scarf from one color to another, levitating a champagne glass, and producing two red roses from nowhere. I was duly dazzled and hadn't a clue how he did it all.

Adams practiced endlessly at home. The tasks were complicated by his having to play the piano--for real--while doing several of them. "It was hard to know what to focus on during rehearsal," he confesses. "If I tried to do the trick right, the acting would go to hell. So for a while I had to focus on the magic and forget the acting, which was frustrating. I sort of felt like an observer watching myself sometimes."

Initially he was excited about performing magic tricks. But "making it relaxed and second nature was a little harder than I expected, even though they weren't complicated tricks," he says. The tricks would look fine at home in front of the mirror, not so fine at rehearsal.

His character's objective was to impress the girls, which gave Adams an action to play while conjuring: to woo. Despite the considerable challenges involved in acing the tricks, Adams says it wasn't the hardest thing he's done onstage: Playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, with its sword fight followed by a big speech, was harder.

Unlike Adams, San Francisco actor Christian Cagigal (rhymes with "magical") is a magician at heart. He started doing magic at age 11; whole winter vacations melted away as he stood in front of the mirror with a pack of cards and a library book. "I was the pipsqueak only child with glasses and no friends. It was a form of expression," he says. Big guys at school would say, "Hey, magic man, show me a trick."

I met with Cagigal at the San Francisco Mime Troupe building (he's currently touring California with the Troupe's political satire "Doing Good") with the dim hope that he'd reveal some of the secrets of his astonishing--even emotionally affecting--magic show, which I saw last fall at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. No such luck of course. Magicians never tell, and actors who learn tricks for a show are sworn to secrecy. Even co-actors who help with the tricks often don't know all the details.

Cagigal started acting in high school because he wanted to bring more soul to his magic performances; he ended up with a B.A. in theatre arts from San Francisco State. "Acting is about being open, honest, present in the moment, not hiding," he says. "Magic is about deceit for your entertainment pleasure. It's about the illusion of honesty." In his own show, he is low-key and seemingly straightforward. He quotes Shakespeare, references Federico García Lorca, and establishes a gently teasing, apparently guileless relationship with the audience. In putting the show together, he agonized over what he wanted to say about destruction and restoration, the main theme of magic, creating stories before plugging in pre-existing tricks. He says the tricks are easy: It's establishing the connection with the audience and, especially, inviting volunteers onstage that are most challenging and leave him most vulnerable.

From his magical experience, Cagigal says, he brings to acting a level of hyper-awareness. "As a magician, I'm always aware and always four steps ahead of the audience," he explains. As an actor, he says, "I play director. Where do I have to go emotionally? Is what I'm doing helping the audience get what the writer and the director want to say? What's the image being given to the audience, and how do I fit into this grand scheme?"

Also, as a magician, he is comfortable being in two places at once: in the moment, as well as engaging in purely technical activities. This gives him an advantage, as he can deal with lines and direction and hitting marks while staying calmly present. When he came to acting he found he had to train himself not to over-plan what he'd do onstage. And that's where acting helped his magic act, aiding him in connecting with his partner, which is the audience, and playing with them--"bringing a little chaos into my magic in a good but scary way."

On a more philosophical level, he says he's seen how much people want to believe magic is real. "So I understand how people can fool themselves politically or spiritually," he notes. This kind of empathy can be useful in playing all sorts of characters. "Some people say they don't believe in anything," he adds. "And I say, 'How can you not?'

"I want to give people some mystique back into their lives," he concludes. "Magic is the illusion of the impossible for the sake of art." He tries to slip a little magic into every role; in Doing Good, he casually makes a cigarette disappear. I didn't notice it, but Cagigal says magicians in the audience do.

Dance With Your Hands

I called Sonkin, the consultant on Engaged, to find out how actors respond to being coached. Sonkin, an actor and director with a sideline comedy magic act, has performed at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, and elsewhere; appeared on television; and worked with Anderson and others. Recently he performed--incorporating magic tricks--in "Seussical the Musical" in Solano County.

In addition to choosing script-appropriate tricks that can be learned in the allotted time, Sonkin picks tricks according to the capabilities of the actors. He looks at the size of their hands (for tricks involving hiding things in the palm), and he notes whether they can play a musical instrument (which means good hand-eye coordination and a sense of rhythm and timing, all useful qualities in magic) and whether they have dance, movement, or martial arts backgrounds (suggesting enough body awareness so that if Sonkin says, "To mask this illusion, you'll need to turn three-quarters," they'll get it). "Magic in its purest form is a dance-with your hands," he says. "Acting and magic are both illusions; when done well, you don't see the homework."

Sonkin is careful to thoroughly integrate the tricks into the scene, so the actor is never pulled out of the play's reality to do magic, "like in a musical where they suddenly start singing and everything changes." In working on "Engaged," he found that Adams already had an understanding of the sinister side of his character, so the tricks seemed to come right out of the character and the situation.

In an interview online, British actor-magician Ian Saville compares acting to conjuring. "The central thing in magic is misdirection, which is...very similar in some ways to some of the things that Stanislavsky was talking about," he says. "The circle of attention for the actor is similar in some ways to the way the magician manipulates the direction of attention of an audience." To deceive the audience, he notes, magicians have to be completely natural in their movement; thus they have to observe others and themselves in real life, to see exactly how people do normal, everyday things--just as actors must observe those tiny details of human activity.

I asked Cagigal for his advice to actors undertaking magic tricks for a role. "Practice night and day, no matter how tired you are," he counsels. "And don't freak out." He mentions an old magician's adage: "Don't run when you're not being chased." That is, always appear open and free to the audience. The more you look as though you're hiding something, the more the audience will be on the lookout. Your hand has to appear casual, not cramped, when you're concealing something.

As actors, we're taught never to watch ourselves in the mirror, but this is apparently the exception. "Look in the mirror," says Cagigal. "See if you can fool yourself." After all, fooling yourself--into believing in the circumstances of the script is what acting is all about.