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Frugal Fantasy: Making Magic on a Less Than Fantastical Budget

In this guest blog post, playwright Hillary DePiano shares her tips for low-budget stage magic.

hilary2There’s a part in The Green Bird where, poof, a colorful grotto appears where before there was only a dark forest. When the script first came out, some panicked directors contacted me worried about how they were going to pull off that effect. As they threw out lists of complicated ideas for making this magic, I found myself asking, “Wouldn’t it be simpler just to turn on the lights?” For the audience, revealing a colorful grotto where there was only a dark section of the stage is as magical as seeing it appear out of nowhere, even without pyrotechnics.

Blockbuster fantasy epics have given us the wrong idea about magic. We see the spectacle of a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and think we can’t possibly do something like that on a community or school stage with a shoestring budget. But the truth is, magic is one of the simplest effects to do on the stage. Never underestimate the value of a simple sound or lighting cue to enhance what your performers are doing. Simple tricks, such as tossing a handful of sparkles or firing a handheld confetti cannon, are technically simple to implement, inexpensive to acquire, and can look very impressive from out in the audience. Especially when coupled with good performances.

Above all, it’s your actors that are the real magicians. Everyone knows how a well-rehearsed action and reaction is the key to comedy, but that’s true for magic too. Making convincing magic effects on stage is about nailing the timing, committing to the action, and doing broad and obvious gestures so there’s no mistaking what’s going on.

One performer flings their hands out, the other reacts as if they’ve been zapped. Add a sound effect to make it a little clearer if you want and that’s really all there is to it. Two of the other most popular magic moments in The Love of Three Oranges are the joust where everyone on stage goes into slow motion while Prince Tartaglia stays in real time and when Fata Morgana slaps the entire cast at the same time. Both are big crowd pleasers and big wow moments on stage, but both are purely just action and reaction from the performers with nothing fancy added on.


I made this GIF from RPI Players production of The Love of Three Oranges because it illustrates this perfectly. This is the moment when the dove transforms back into Princess Ninetta. All it takes is Ninetta chucking the puppet she was manipulating behind her and the other performers pretending to notice her for the first time. There’s probably a sound effect we’re not seeing here, but you can see how the performers are selling it even without.

When Renzo and Barbarina’s magic castle grows up from the ground in The Green Bird, some productions simply rolled that flat on from offstage, while one had background performers raise a cloth castle from the ground with poles—a bit like a royal umbrella. In comedy, if an effect comes out more “special” than intended, it can only make the moment funnier. At Randolph High School’s production of The Love of Three Oranges, all of Celio’s magical entrances and exits were accomplished by him sneaking in and out behind a silly fake bush and triumphantly jumping up and revealing himself. Because everything about that play is completely ridiculous anyway, it worked just fine.

Oranges transform into princesses with the closing of an orange umbrella. The Green Bird turns into a king by switching performers or tossing a puppet aside. People turn to stone by just standing really still. Once you start to think simple, you’ll realize the solutions to stage sorcery rarely need to be complicated unless you want them to be.

So don’t be intimidated the next time you fall in love with a fantasy play. The audience’s belief is already suspended. They’re along for the ride. That’s the beauty of theatre. If you tell them they’re seeing magic, they’re ready to go along with it, even if you’re not wowing them with big budget effects. When all the basics are working how they should, from the performances and storytelling to the look of the world, that’s a kind of magic all its own.  Everything else is just flourish to jazz up the trick.


Hillary DePiano is a playwright and author of fiction and non-fiction, best known for her adaptations of Carlo Gozzi’s Love of Three Oranges and The Green Bird, which have been performed in theaters around the world. A folk and fairy-tale nerd, Hillary has mucked with myths from the nursery to the North Pole in over two dozen plays and other fiction works. For more information about her books, plays, and blogs or to connect via social media, find Hillary DePiano at



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