Theatre is just illusion and hustle.
I came up with this theory as I watched Guy Hollingworth in The Expert At the Card Table, a one man play directed by Neil Patrick Harris at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica earlier this month. The play has long since closed and like great illusions, it only exists in our inaccurate memories.
The Expert At the Card Table was a book published in 1902 which gave away card shark secrets. In the course of an hour and a half, we learn the fate of the book’s author. Even though I consider myself pretty good at figuring out stories, I must say honestly that I didn’t see the ending coming.
Interspersed with the story of the author, Hollingworth, an accomplished magician, performs card tricks. Thanks to a large screen behind him, we see his hands work. He can make a deck of cards do anything he wants.
It’s like watching a dancer only he dances with his hands. I could write a play starring his hands. Oh wait, that was The Expert at the Card Table.
As the play went on, I thought about the theatrical hustle. He draws the audience into the trick, shows the audience what he wants them to see, then snap, magic!
We playwrights are hustlers too. We are hustlers on the page (we also have to be hustlers with artistic directors, but that’s a different essay). We only show the audience what we want them to see. We might hold off on a bit of information until it is necessary. We might only show one side of a character. We might only show one room of house.
We practice long hours to perfect our illusions, to make them seem almost natural, so the audience doesn’t miss what they can’t see.
Having that much power over an audience is kind of a sexy thing.