Status and Improvisation - Part One  (Helge Thun)

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"Helge still hasn't sent the quotation for his essay."

Jorg Willich

One of the greatest terrors inherent in performing magic is the "difficult" spectator or "heckler". Nightmares of (enter your favorite four-letter word here) who reach for props during the performance, ask embarrassing questions like "Can I mix the cards once again?" or pose pain-in-the-ass challenges ("Okay, now I am thinking of a card-find it.") spread through local magic clubs and magic conventions as either horror stories or as heroic accomplishments, depending on the outcome.

The performer confronted with such a situation is in danger of losing not only his authority but also control over his show. At least many people seem to think this is an irrational fear harbored by most magicians. There are professionals who are prepared for everything, and there are chapters in many books which give tested gags and sayings for every possible situation. But there doesn't appear to be a patent recipe.

Perhaps this is because no one has analyzed the basic principles and modes of behavior which lead to this type of situation. Experienced reports and solutions are usually based only on one confrontation involving a situation which has already happened. But, a deeper understanding of the actual procedure is seldom reached. The professionals only have a suitable speech ready for situations they have already faced.

But what would happen if one could order all possible cases of spectator misbehavior according to a systematic principle, if one could reduce the entire problem to one basic concept? Then one would be able to draw on this knowledge in order to such situations or become spontaneous in these situations without years of experience and conditioned jokes.

The key (or at least the first step) to finding a solution to these problems is the aim of this essay.

1. Theatresports

Since, in the following, I will draw from experience which I have gained from a type of improvisational theater called "theater sport," I would like to explain briefly what it is.

In Theatresports, two actor teams are confronted with each outer. Scenes are improvised in accordance with suggestions from the public, which are compared by the public and graded by the public. Although nothing is prepared and none of the actors knows what kind of suggestions will be made on a particular evening, there are certain techniques for this type of improvisation which train creativity and spontaneity so that one is able to generate in an instant, without further preparation, a suitable response to a situation.

These techniques and the principles on which they are based were developed for the most part by the English director Keith Johnstone at the end of the '50s and the beginning of the '60s and were published in his basic book Impro. One of the central concepts of his work, which forms the key to our problem, is the concept of Status. It's important because it gives an explanation for all processes which occur as a result of the interaction between the performer and the audience.

In the following, I would like to attempt to clarify and define this concept in order to show its meaning for the relationship between the audience and the magician in general with special attention to the heckling spectator. Most examples are taken from the chapter "Status" from Keith Johnstone's book Impro and I can only recommend that anyone who's interested in the problem should read it in order to obtain a complete understanding of the material.

2. Status

"Status is a misleading concept unless one understands it as something that one does. One can have a low social status and still play high and vice versa."

Keith Johnstone

Status does not denote social standing but, rather, the active relationship between people. No behavior is really by chance or without motive, Status is always involved. When two people meet on the street, then their Status relationship is established through scarcely noticeable things like their eye contact. Whomever maintains his glance the longest, or first looks away without immediately looking back, is the "higher"; whomever glances at the other and then looks away with uncertainty is the "lower."

One probably should talk about dominance and subjection, but the concept of high Status and low Status is more neutral and has fewer negative connotations.

"A comic is someone who is paid to lower his Status or that of the other."

Comedy is based to a large degree on the Status principle. The classic scene of the man who slips on a banana peel is only funny when he loses Status. If President Clinton slipped on the peel, that would be unbelievably funny, but if our fragile grandmother fell, we would be shocked and hurry to help her. The prerequisite is that the audience has empathy for the performer. The great classical tragedies function by the same principle. It's expected that the tragic figure preserves his dignity even in death. If he gives up his Status and cries miserably, then we must have sympathy for him and the "greatness" of his sacrifice is lost.

In daily life, each plays his own preferred Status, that is the Status that gives him the most certainty. It doesn't matter if one plays a high Status ("Warning, bites") or low Status ("Don't bite, I'm not worth the effort"), one tries to maneuver oneself into the preferred position.

There are a number of ways to actively influence your Status and I want to indicate only a few examples. A relaxed position of the head while speaking, an open body position with direction but without hasty movements, a relaxed, full voice using complete sentences, as well as keeping eye contact, are techniques that raise your own Status.

Tense head movements in speaking, sentences that begin with "uh," a closed body position, frequent non-relaxed expressions of the face or head, create a behavioral pattern which reduces Status. The meanings of these points which make the principle of Status clear will be discussed in the following.

3. Stage

In general, the first golden rule is that the performer must always have the highest Status. A further definition can be derived from this rule: A misbehaved observer (heckler) is someone who puts the performer's Status in question and challenges him to a fight for higher Status.

At this point it should be clear that an insecure performer, who signals by his presentation and subconscious low Status behavior (body, voice, movements, tempo. etc.) that his authority is on very wobbly legs, encourages certain high Status people to challenge or heckle him.

If the performer is in a clear spotlight and embodies high Status, then the heckler must be an egocentric who only feels challenged by a "real opponent." Assume that there is one in the audience and that he calls attention to himself.

Since he is in the audience, he feels protected because he's part of a larger group. It's like an attack from behind: the gunman in the bush has an advantage since he is invisible and doesn't fear direct attack. Bring our attacker onto the stage. Here you can deploy your entire aresenal of high Status weapons while the heckler is eye to eye with you ("in direct comparison"). In most cases this actively sinks the Status of the challenger and raises your Status.

Comment: In this case I don't mean one of the aggressive lines mentioned at the beginning-on the contrary: instead of reducing his Status, a verbal attack usually encourages a heckler to raise his Status and sink yours since everyone knows whoever screams is in the wrong. Whoever engages in verbal attacks lowers his own Status since it only signals his own helplessness. Then our opponent doesn't have to do anything else but ignore the attack and let the performer hang in midair-the heckler's Status rises without his having to do anything.

The responses I refer to are very simple, everyday things:

First, the heckler should be made to sit on a stool which, because of the difference in height, immediately gives the performer a natural advantage. In addition, the heckler should be given something to hold so that he is immediately put into the position of following orders. You see how simple these things can be. Once you understand the principle, you will think of additional strategies. It's important to understand the basic processes and motives which take place in such a situation in order to be able to give your own strategies a meaningful direction.

Before I give a false impression and lead you into one bitter chicken fight after another, I need to give you a very important rule: The high Status of the performer must always remain positive.

Positive is a another key word from theater sport. When I want to increase my Status and lower that of the fellow player, I can accomplish this in two ways. I can say to my neighbor "Mr. Meyer, Tom just managed to get transferred. You're always so nice to the rascal." I can also turn the same facts in a positive direction: "Congratulations Mr. Meyer. You must be really proud that Tom was transferred. You have remarkable patience with him. Really great." In both cases I lower the status of Mr. Meyer but, in the first case, I make myself unpopular with my own aggressive behavior while, in the second case, I emerge as the sympathetic neighbor who is happy for Mr. Meyer.

The meaning of the just-described stage situation is apparent: If the performer embodies negative high Status (in this special case: he sinks the Status of the heckler in a negative way), then he quickly makes himself unpopular with the audience and an aggressive atmosphere results. If, however, he takes a positive high Status, he retains not only the upper hand and his sovereignty but also a positive relationship with the audience.

From this we can derive our extended second rule: The performer must always maintain the highest positive Status. How much higher should the Status of the performer be in relation to his audience? Let us consider this question by bridling a horse from behind and assume the case that the performer asks a very insecure and fearful observer to come to onstage. The magician can mean everything positively, but when a fearful women, almost in tears, sits on the stage then the audience is sympathetic toward her and will direct its aggression toward the performer.

There are also cases in which the performer must be careful to increase the Status or the self confidence of an assisting observer without reducing his own Status. The extension of the rule is: the performer must always retain the highest positive Status without denigrating the Status of the observer. The performer must, in fact, elevate the Status of the observer until it is just below his own.

This means that he must always remain slightly above the Status of the assistant. When the difference is too large, the audience can't relate to the performer and sympathy turns into antipathy.

4. Close Up

Up to this point I have been writing about the stage, where in spite of the spotlight and the fear factors, "mass audience" gives the performer a natural, home advantage. The stage belongs to him-at least this is the agreement between the performer and the public all over the world-he must only learn to take it (and in a manner acceptable to the public).

In the area of close-up magic, especially when working tables in restaurants, there is no home advantage. The close-up performer moves, to some extent, into the sovereign realm of the observer and receives temporary permission to work there. This can be revoked just as quickly as it was only hesitantly given.

In general, the same rule holds here as on the stage: the highest positive Status with only a small difference between that of the observer and performer. (That certain stage behavior can be unsuited to the table, is assumed.) In contrast to the stage, where the performer is only confronted with "one" opponent (either with an assistant or with the uniform mass of the public), here he has to deal with a complex group, i.e., a net of social relationships and tensions.

In this case, the concept of a "pecking order" needs to be taken into account. Also, social Status is the Status that a person acquires through their active relationship within the group. Simply stated, one can assign each person in a group of four persons a number from 1 to 4 (4 = highest Status, 1 = lowest Status). Usually the individual "numbers" are very easy to recognize, but sometimes they lie close to one another and the transitions appear to overlap. It's possible that one runs into a dominantly "low Status-table" or a typical "high Status-manager table." However, with time, one acquires a feeling for the subtle relationships within a group. We have all grown up with these mechanisms and have a natural instinct for them.

The rule for the close-up-performer might be the following: The performer must always maintain the highest positive Status. This should be as just above the highest Status of the group and he should not neglect the Status order of the group.

> Click here for the second part of this essay.

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