Script, Schmipt

Earlier this week, Shane Cobalt put  up a piece on Scripting over at his site - Chasing Dovetails. His argument: don't script your material... at least not yet. Shane and I disagree over a lot. But he's well-read and thoughtful enough that they tend to be interesting disagreements (that is, agreements where it's not painfully obvious at the outset that one person is wrong.) Whether or not we actually disagree on this point probably depends on your definition of scripting.

In Scripting Magic, Pete McCabe advances a fairly broad definition of scripting. It's simply the words, written or unwritten, for what you're going to say in front of the audience. In essence, the script becomes the plan for your show; at least the audible portion. If you're going to subject an audience to magic, then thought and planning are good things and more planning should certainly be preferable to less planning. (Actually, some performers disagree with this statement that seems trivially obvious - I'll return to that later.)

For the past few years, I've been in the position of managing a show for the public. (Shameless plug - Magic Tonight continues through the summer at the Crimson Lounge in Downtown Toronto. Readers of this blog can use the code reality for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when purchasing online.) That puts me in the (very) unpleasant position of having to tell some people who would like to appear on the show that they can't. If I'm lucky, I can make a convincing case for their style not being a good fit for the show we've built and branded. But usually it's simply that the material is not good enough because they haven't put enough thought and planning into it. Where the unpleasantness comes in is if it's someone who has been at this longer than I have (in some instances since before I was born) then I find it hard to feel qualified to judge the quality of other performers' material. Well, really what qualifies me is the fact that I can spot the lack of thought put in from across the street, but that's not something I'm prepared to say to someone's face.

If you take an uber-literal definition of script — typing out what you say word for word — then I probably agree with Shane. There are pieces in my show that aren't scripted in that sense. They can go for months before I will sit down and actually write down what I say. When tricks are new, they tend to change often. New lines added, old lines shuffled, fat trimmed. What that doesn't mean is that I walk out on stage without knowing what I'm going to say. That would basically amount to experimenting on the audience. Just like the government has high standards for what drugs qualify for human trials, magicians should have high standards for what makes it in front of an audience's eyes. While it's true that new material doesn't appear fully formed and does at some point need to be audience tested(jokes especially need to be subjected to this acid test), most magicians underestimate the amount of planning and development that's possible entirely off-stage.

The Argument Against Scripting

The argument against scripting is usually seen as the argument against planning. Or, more accurately, the argument in defence of laziness. But as I've come to hear this defence from more people I've realized there's a bit more too it.

Magicians differ from most script-users in that most users of scripts are not the writers of those scripts. (If you broaden the definition of script to include more general aspects of planning, they can also include choreography, stage directions and even the method of the trick itself, since a lot of magic secrets are verbally driven.) Typically the reason you have a script in the first place is someone else is in charge of deciding what you will say and this is the medium they are using to tell you what to do. But if you're more like a singer-songwriter, then you have a lot more control over the contents of the script.

But since most great actors are not also great screenwriters, most magicians are lousy actors and script writers. So when magicians are asking for guidance, "Should I script my material", it's not a choice between scripting and not scripting. Rather, it's a choice between "badly written and dryly delivered script" and "whatever I can make up on the spot." In that situation it's less clear that the script is the preferred alternative.

Magic usually demands a fair bit of brain power. Between the hands doing sneaky things and managing the dual reality of what the magician sees and what the audience sees, there isn't often much left over for the spontaneous invention of snappy patter (or according to Mark Lewis' dictionary of British grifter-speak "the fanny"). That leaves most magicians in the Dunning-Kruger position of not being good enough at writing to realize that the writing they're improvising is not that good. The worst problem tends to be that the performer's brain is too busy coming up with what to say, it's not even registering the fact that there is dead time it's not filling.

This is the kind of magic that Chasing Dovetails is on a crusade against. I'm certainly not good enough to spin a magic script off the top of my head —and I know Shane isn't either — so I suspect we come closer to agreement that it would appear.