Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Magically Confusing the Audience

Yesterday I had a great time chatting with set design colleagues.  One of them mentioned seeing the show Flashdance when it came through town.  When set changes happened, he said, up to twelve different set pieces would move at once!  (Maybe more, he lost count at twelve.)  This reminded us of my earlier post on The Rule of Three (HERE), about the inability of the human eye and brain to track more than two things at once when you want to confuse the audience.  Fifteen?  Overkill!  Flashdance also had a downstage piece or two - fabric or a couple scenic panels - cross the stage to deliberately catch the audience's eyes, guaranteeing that no one would notice whatever they were hiding.

This is a different  way of covering scene changes than that used, for instance, in La Boheme at the Met, designed by Franco Zeffirelli.  He just dropped the curtain.  This, I must say, interrupted the drive of the story and led to extended stare-at-the-curtain breaks for the audience that were enlivened only by a few mysterious bulges and quiverings of the heavy velvet.  Well and, each time, another curtain call... a series of ovations that began to get more and more amusing; just how much applause can an opera singer stand to listen to anyway?

La Boheme is absolutely gorgeous! with dramatic set changes well worth a little wait... but it was designed in 1981 and, with its curtain drops and highly romantic scenery, it feels a little old-fashioned.  (No artist ever starved in a lovelier Parisian garret.)

This modern trend to never to close a stage curtain, however, relies on sleight-of-hand.


By one of those funny coincidences, as I was driving away from this meeting and thinking about the magic of manipulating the audience's attention, a talk show on my car radio was interviewing the author of the book Fooling Houdini.  This talks about magic and, in part, about the glitches in human perception which make magic work.  I'd read the book!  Unfortunately, it didn't have a chapter titled "These are Things a Set Designer Needs to Know."  When reading the amusing travails of the author, I suppose I should have taken notes.  I enjoyed the book; it turns out, we're all very easy to fool.

Optical illusion - believed public domain, found HERE.

Speaking  of the quirks of human perception...  Seen this video of a classic example of the (embarrassing) gaps in human perception?  Have fun with "The Selective Attention Test":  HERE.

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