“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.”
— Charles Dickens
Last week I traveled to Delaware to perform at the Dickens Parlour Theatre, a 50-seat venue in the small town of Millville. The theater is the brainchild of Rich Bloch, a brilliant man and performer who I’m proud to call a friend. I performed in the first incarnation of this venue in Atlantic City a few years ago, but the new venue is truly amazing.
The theatre is built in what used to be an old work shed with a raised platform in the back. It has been transformed into an elegant Victorian parlour, with 50 theater seats in elevated rows facing the stage. There is plenty of wing space, a nice backstage area, and excellent lighting and sound capabilities. It is a delightful, intimate space that is perfect for the performance of magic and mentalism, as the famous writer and amateur conjuror Charles Dickens himself used to do for his friends.
So charming is this wondrous venue that it has attracted some truly excellent performers. I am honored to have trod the same boards that have recently featured Bloch himself as well as Harry Anderson (of Night Court fame), Bob Sheets (a master comedy magician – more about him later), and many other skilled magicians and mentalists. Outside the world of magic, the theater has also hosted excellent musical acts and recently featured the off-Broadway hit Zero Hour, written by and starring Jim Brochu, who garnered Helen Hayes and Drama Desk awards for his amazing portrayal of Zero Mostel.
This little theatre, a “hidden gem” according to many writers, was a dilapidated work shed that became the site of truly magical experiences for audiences because Rich Bloch saw beyond what it was to what it could be… and set about realizing that vision and revitalizing that property. As was recently reported in a cover story in MAGIC Magazine, this is only the beginning – the theatre is soon expanding to include a close-up magic performance gallery and a cafe’ in another building on the property.
“This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in.”
— Charles Dickens
On Friday night, Bob Sheets came to see my show. Bob is a skilled close-up magician and comic stand-up magician. He is also very knowledgeable about the art of theatrical performance; he is a longtime student of famed Broadway performer Bob Fitch, whom I’ve also been privileged to know and get occasional coaching from. (I remember seeing Fitch as Rooster Hannigan in Annie back in the original Broadway run!)
After my performance, Bob Sheets hung around until the crowd was gone and then joined me onstage. He shook my hand, congratulated me on the show, and then gave me perhaps the most valuable gift a performer can receive: honest, constructive feedback from a credible, helpful critic. Bob saw my performance, complimented me on the things I did well, and helped me see places where I could improve what I was doing. Some concepts were simple and easy to execute instantly; others will require more work. But I trusted him to be honest and constructive, and I really appreciated his candid opinions on what I was doing well and what could be improved.
To be clear – Bob emphasized that the show was good, I was good, and I would never have to worry about doing a “bad” show for an audience. He also complimented the construction of the show and my writing, which he considered excellent. The question he posed was – how can it get better? How can every moment get better? How can everything the audience sees get better? How can what I say be presented more effectively? As a performer and communicator, these are crucial elements for me.
Of course, beyond the “knowing” comes the “doing.” As Dickens said, it is a world of action.
Because Bob was willing to be honest with me, and because I was willing to listen to Bob and take action, he was able to help me work on my performance in much the same way that Rich works on the theater itself. Bit by bit, day by day, show by show. Take away what detracts. Add what is needed to give more impact or a better experience. Never settle. And before you know it, you’ve converted a work shed into a theater, or a good performance into a great one.
It takes an outside perspective to evaluate the reality of a performance. Outside eyes are vital to the performer’s ability to improve; it is nearly impossible to do sufficiently honest self-assessment.
If you want to revitalize what you do, get some “vital eyes” looking at you. Where are you getting an honest, credible outside perspective on your work?