In the early 1920s, an innovative magician named P.T. Selbit devised an illusion that would forever change the landscape of live magical entertainment: sawing a woman in half. With this groundbreaking trick, Selbit was not only trying to boost his personal ticket sales, but also to do something about what many were beginning to notice: a challenge to vaudeville performers’ livelihoods. It was the early 1920s, and theaters were facing an impending demise: a decline in interest due to the rising popularity of a new technology, motion pictures. Beginning in the late 1800s, motion pictures were shown between live novelty acts as an added attraction and to pass the time, but films became more sophisticated and longer, technology evolved from silent films to “talkies,” and stars were made. Selbit’s gamble paid off — if only temporarily. For the first time, women were used as objects of torture on stage. This scandalous act of sawing a woman in half live made headlines. To increase interest in this display of mutilation, an ambulance was sometimes parked in front of the theater, and occasionally actors would come out the front door and dump fake blood, actually red-colored water, into the street. It was another part of the show in the world of show business: an illusion to stir interest and fill the seats.
Interestingly, we find ourselves in a similar dilemma today, as technology once again threatens to replace human labor in various industries. Actors and writers, in particular, have recently initiated strikes that highlight growing concerns about the replacement of real human talent with computer-based alternatives. This thought-provoking parallel calls for a deeper examination of the impact of technology on live entertainment and ultimately sheds light on the challenges we face in an increasingly digital world.
Undoubtedly, technology has revolutionized our lives, opening doors to a world of possibilities and convenience. However, as we bask in the benefits brought forth by automation and computerization, we must also recognize the potential ramifications. The advent of movies in the early 20th century disrupted the status quo of live theater, captivating audiences with its unique visual storytelling. Similarly, today’s technological advancements, particularly in the realm of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and artificial intelligence (AI), pose a significant threat to the livelihoods of actors and writers.
At the heart of this issue lies a fundamental tension between artistic labor and technological progress. Creativity, emotion, and the human experience are the cornerstones of live entertainment, weaving together narratives that resonate deeply with audiences. Actors and magicians breathe life into characters, evoking genuine emotions that cannot easily be replicated by machines. Writers, too, possess a unique ability to craft intricate stories and dialogues, offering audiences a profound connection to the human condition.
The ongoing strikes by actors and writers symbolize a struggle to preserve the authenticity and irreplaceable qualities of human talent. Just like P.T. Selbit’s innovative illusion aimed to entice audiences back into live performance venues and theaters, these strikes serve as a wake-up call, urging society to reflect on the implications of allowing technology to overshadow live entertainment. We must remember that while technology can enhance our experiences, it should not completely supplant the human touch that has captivated audiences for centuries.
Rather than viewing technology as an adversary, we should seek to establish a symbiotic relationship between human creativity and technological advancements. By embracing innovation and leveraging it to enhance the art of live entertainment, we can create a harmonious coexistence that preserves the essence of the human spirit while harnessing the power of technological tools.
The story of P.T. Selbit and his sawing a woman in half illusion exemplifies the cyclical nature of the challenges faced by live entertainment. Today, as actors and writers rally against the growing encroachment of technology, we are reminded of the importance of preserving the human element in art. By recognizing the invaluable contributions of human talent and finding ways to incorporate technology without sacrificing authenticity, we can navigate this ever-changing landscape and ensure the continued enchantment of live entertainment for generations to come.
At Scheer Genius Assembly Shows we use an adapted version of ‘Sawing a lady in half” to demonstrate to school children the importance of “seeing” inside of a person in order to evaluate them. Of course, this family friendly version doesn’t even use a saw and cutting a woman in half is never even mentioned. It’s kid safe and teacher approved! As Dr Martin Luther King Jr told us back in the 1960’s, we should judge others not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. That’s the lesson in our version of sawing a lady in half. It’s what we call, “The See-Thru Kid.”
Magicians and school show performers interested in learning more about Doug Scheer’s Diversity Circus assembly show and learn how to create educational shows of their own can purchase his book set, Entertaining Education, A Comprehensive Guide to Creating and Performing Educational Shows at this link.
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