Yule 2015 #15 performing magic

This week sees the performances of the annual Sixth Form Panto at my son’s school. I wrote about this tradition this time last year:


For those of you reading this outside the UK who may not be familiar with the concept of the panto, may I suggest that you follow the link above to get some background information on this peculiarly British art form.

Last year, my son was a performer in the panto. This year he has written the panto, directed it and, due to some of the actors having prior commitments at certain show times, he will also be performing. Over the last two weeks he has also been constructing the set and sourcing props. It is a huge commitment and responsibility for a 17 year old. It has taken over his life. To an extent that he could not have imagined when he volunteered to do it. He is completely stressed out. Not sleeping. Not eating. We have to make him stop and refuel every now and again. He is exhausted. Running on adrenelline. Riddled by doubt. Losing perspective. Obsessed. Totally focussed. There is no room for anything other than making this thing happen.

And he is learning. Learning what it takes. Learning what it takes to make magic happen.

Because, make no mistake, theatre is magic. It is the art of making something from nothing. Taking an idea and making it reality. Take an empty space. Empty and in darkness. Add lights. Add people moving in the lights. Have them speak. Maybe add some music. Have the people sing. Take the lights and people and voices and music. Use them to tell a story. Invite an audience to see the story. And, if you have worked the magic well, we will all be transported. To a different Time. A different Place. Belief will be suspended. The audience will chose to believe in the reality of the story. They will be changed by your story. Maybe for the moment. Maybe forever. Changed forever by an idea made real. That is magic.

And, like all magic, it demands a huge act of willpower to make it happen. This is what my son is learning: the Impossible can happen – if you have the will to make it happen.  It doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you fancy, in an irresponsible fashion. Quite the opposite. It means that you have the power to do anything you desire – if you have the will to see it through. But with that power comes resposibility. And consequences. It’s tough.

It has certainly been tough for Sam. He has been in school all weekend. Then working on learning lines and rewriting sections when he gets home. It requires total dedication. Dedication that is not always appreciated by those around you. Because you are totally focussed on making your magic happen and they are not. Because you have to be and they do not. You have different perspectives. From your perspective, they will put obstacles in your way – actors will not turn up for rehearsals, props will not materialise as promised, rehearsal rooms will be double booked, other demands will be made of your cast. And you must learn to negotiate these differing perspectives whilst staying true to your own – an act of pure will.

Because, the thing about theatre is, most people only see the Product. They have no idea about the Process. They can admire the Product. Applaud the Product. And be totally oblivious of the Process. Yet, in theatre, it is the Process that is really the important thing. The key thing. Which makes it different from, say, building a car. Building a car might take great skill. The car builder might find enjoyment in the process of building the car. But, if the car doesn’t work, the process is worthless. The focus is on the success of the Product. In theatre it is the Process that is important because it is the Process that transforms. And, in theatre, the Product, the performance, is actually just part of the Process. What you witness as an audience is never a finished complete piece of work. It is always a work in progress. It will never be the same twice. The next night, things will go slightly differently. Lines will be forgotten, changed, delivered differently. People will laugh at different jokes. What you witness as an audience is unique, fleeting, transitory, totally of the moment. That is its beauty.

When I was a Drama teacher I used to book a lot of touring theatre companies to perform in our Drama Studio. They would arrive in a transit van at 4pm, shortly after the students had left. Then the actors would unload the set from the van. Build it. Put up the lights. Sort out the sound levels. Gradually our workaday Drama Studio, the same space our students created their Drama, was transformed. Gradually, magic took place. I encouraged students to stay behind, help out, witness the Process happening. The good theatre companies were happy for this to happen. Red Ladder, Big Brum, Gazebo, Loudmouth. I never tired of watching the magic happen. Of watching my students realise that the actors were just ordinary people like them. Realise that all it takes is the will and a lot of hard work. Realising that magic was within their reach too.

And, then, the audience would arrive. Our students amongst them. And they would see their Drama Studio transformed. They would see that the space they had available to make Drama was a magical place. They would aspire to make magic themselves. They would be transformed.Magic.

Then, finally, at the end of a long day, the audience would leave and I  would help the theatre company dismantle the set and lights. Pack it all away into the van. Eventually, they would leave and I would lock up. And I always took a moment to look at the Drama Studio before I left. Empty now. Back to how it was. But not. Because now it was alive with the ghosts of the performance just gone. Ghosts that would seep into the work of the students in the days to come. Ghosts that were part of the Process. I always loved that moment alone with the ghosts of the magic to come.

That is what Sam is learning now: that magic is possible. It demands an iron will and hard work, but it is possible. And that it is a Process. A Process that will take over your life. Which will make your life hard. But will make your life magical. I am so, so proud of him at the moment. I hope the performances go well. But, they are not the point. I am proud of the way that he has engaged with the process. Proud of the way he has chosen to live his life.

Still, I hope that, if you can, you come to one of the performances. They are on at William Brookes School, 7.30pm, 16 &17 December. They may be good. They may be bad. They will be magical.

And my gift for today?

Patti Smith again. Speaking this time. Show this to your children.

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