Magic If For Actors

Magic If For Actors

If you have been reading these pages in order, you now have a basic understanding of Relaxation, Sense Memory and Concentration. Now you pick up your script, read it once, form certain ideas, read it again and clarify more for yourself. Then you ask yourself, “Where do I start with this? “

First you start with a relaxation exercise.

A good starting point for creating inspiration is a concept Stanislavski described as the “magic if”. The “magic if” asks the actor to begin his work by asking, “What would I do if I were in these circumstances?”

The answer to this simple question can be a springboard to creativity and inspiration, because it allows the actor to realize the fact that, after all, he is living out a fictional life, a figment of the author’s imagination, with sets and props that are actually just sets and props — not real trees or real windows, or real guns.

It is the actor’s job to make the props and set real to himself. By using the “magic if” the actor is granting himself permission to “believe” in these imaginary objects, in the same way a young girl believes her doll is real, or a young boy believes he is really “Tarzan “, or “Konan”, or that the broomstick he is using is really a gun.

It’s magic of the kind that children possess, and few adults retain from childhood, for reasons that most of you adults reading this can relate to: Play is for kids: “Mommy, can I stay up tonight and wait for Santa to come?” Responsibility is for adults: “This damn Santa guy is costing me a fortune!” Honest expression is for kids: “I hate you! I hate you! I wish you were dead!” Diplomacy is for adults: “I’d like to visit John in the hospital, but I just can’t find the time right now.”

If you haven’t discovered this yet, I’ll tell it to you now: Actors are still kids. They have to be. And it’s a constant struggle trying to come to terms with the rest of society, which demands that the adult control the mind and body of anyone over a certain age. And that age is young (“Shh, be quiet Johnny, children should be seen and not heard” — “Sit with your legs together Suzie, like a big girl”).

Suzie doesn’t know why she has to do that, and when she grows up and wants to be an actress, she’ll have a hard time creating “public solitude” while sitting “comfortably” in her movie studio or stage “living room”.


An actor in my workshop was questioning the use of the “magic if” in a scene he was working on. In the scene, he plays a detective who has to take a murderer to justice. This young actor, who is very talented, is a mild mannered person, who is not a ” tough guy” type. The actor playing the murderer is a professional boxer in life. Actually, he is very intimidating.

I’ll call the actor playing the detective “Hal” because that’s his name, and the murderer I’ll call “Jerry”, because that’s his name.

Hal came to me and said that the “magic if” was not working for him, because “if” he found himself in the author’s circumstances in real life, he would be afraid, and probably run from the situation.

I told Hal that the author does not give him that advantage, and that he has to live out the apprehension of this dangerous person. I asked Hal to sensorally create having a gun in his jacket pocket to see if that would help. “What if” you had a gun, Hal?

He tried it, and it helped some, but Hal still could not make himself believe he could actually take the murderer in, by force if necessary.

I wouldn’t give Hal an easy way out. I suggested he search hard to find the “real” answer to the question: “What would you do if you were in these circumstances – knowing the author is not going to let you run away?”

Hal: “I’d be afraid”.

Instructor: “So, be afraid. You don’t have to be Mike Hammer, or Philip Marlowe. You can be real.”

Hal: “I’d try to use psychology on him.”

Instructor: “Good. So use it the way you, Hal, would use it. “

Finally, I gave Hal what has become known as Eugene Vakhtangov’s formulation of Stanislavski’s “Magic If”. Vakhtangov, Stanislavski’s greatest student, asked, “What would I have to do in order to do what the character does in these circumstances?”

So Hal finally decided that having a prop pistol in his jacket pocket gave him enough belief to carry himself through the scene.

When we observed the scene done this way, it was obvious that it was working for Hal. He was totally believable as someone not to mess with. It was a departure from the Hal everyone in the workshop has come to know and love. A quite different “character”, but really just good old Hal underneath it all.

What Hal did affected Jerry’s work as well. Jerry wasn’t as confident as he had previously seemed “in character”.

Of critical importance in using the “magic if” in the actor’s work is exploring with absolute honesty what the actor would actually do in the often unusual circumstances the author has given. What would you really do if you were robbed at gunpoint? Is there a hero in there or a coward?