Working in the Theatre: Magic


[music] People have this desire to know that the world
is bigger than them, that there are possibilities out there that go beyond our daily lives.
People want to experience magic, they want to experience wonder, they want to feel that
anything’s possible. [music] One of the greatest dreams that anybody has
ever had, and most people have had in their life, is the ability to float or fly. Somebody,
in every one of their lives has at one point dreamt they could float in the air. [music] And I do that every night. I’ve created illusions where I float and fly. When I was a little boy I
literally jumped off the roof of my house, thinking I could fly. My dreams were so real,
I had a difficult time telling the difference between reality and fantasy. [music] Magic has been a part of theatre and about
entertainment since the very beginning. It’s something we find in Greek plays, it’s something
that we see was incorporated into Elizabethan plays and masques. It’s always been fascinating
to give the audience a taste of something that’s exotic and that’s unbelievable. [music] But the kind of magic that I’m involved in is illusion magic, something that surprises you by being impossible, something that’s incorporated in the story so that it helps
tell the story by adding an element of magic. [Music] In the 1860s everything changed when magicians
and theatre designers realized that they could incorporate optical illusions, actual optical
effects, on stage in their productions. And I think the original of those was the ghost,
which was the invention of John Henry Pepper, that actually put a transparent ghost on stage,
interacting with other actors. Now it was very limited as to how it could be used, but
it was a huge inspiration to other producers and other directors. And we can see those
principles, we can see those little effects working their way through the history of magic,
in different forms and in different incarnations, all the way up to modern shows in Las Vegas. [Eerie music] About 1910 to about 1926 or 27, the Industrial
Revolution brought people from the rural areas to the cities, and gave them a little bit
of expendable income. And so, for the first time people were, in mass, going out to the
theatre, and theatres began to pop up, but for the magicians, all of a sudden there was
this new environment, which was a theatre. They could control the lighting, they could
have trap doors, they could have a theatre-like setting, so this was like, really a new playground. [Music] And out of that came this great surge of creativity that’s known as the golden age of magic,
and magicians really were the rockstars of the day. And then what happens? This brand new thing
came along called movies, and in a matter of a few years this grand place of live performance
disappeared. [music] I still remember the impact it’s had to
me, to see some of the great historical magic, things that were forgotten for generations,
things that might be used in Vaudeville or might be used in the 19th century, that were
ignored! And there were fashions for these things, but what we’ve learned is that there
really is no fashion for the secrets, because they’re secrets, they’re always abused,
their always devalued. So when I was a kid, I had a chance to see great magicians who
were performing illusions from the 20s and 30s and reviving them, and performing them
in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And that was an incredible inspiration because we realized
we were seeing something very old and very new at the same time. [Music] P.T. Selbit was concocting this brand new
illusion called sawing a man in half, and he was gonna debut it in London on a stage.
And the other thing that was going on at that time was women’s suffrage. Women – very,
very controversial. And although maybe in polite society, people said they were in support
of it, the country was really split, in fact the world was really split, which we can understand
in today’s world. So, P.T. Selbit had a brilliant stroke of genius, he decided in
one moment he would not debut cutting a man in half, but he would cut a woman in half.
A single, violent act on a woman, on stage, under the guise of, you know, evening’s
entertainment. [Music] And it made headlines, other magicians began
to copy. The other thing they began to copy was they go ‘wow, a woman makes a beautiful
presence on stage and is far more interesting to watch than two men up there.’ Magicians
back then, and now, were pretty ruthless, [Music] Magicians back then, and now, were pretty ruthless, because it really meant, if you had a, if
there was a trick that was creating a sensation, that meant dollars, that meant money, that
meant success. So magicians were very big on copying, so they would try to sus out,
they would try to steal. There’s a famous story of the great Thurston
that had a great levitation called “The Levitation of Princess Karnac,” the beautiful
girl rising on stage. There was a very famous american illusionist called Harry Keller,
who heard about this illusion, and he came to London to see it, and he watched and he
didn’t know how it was done. So he came back the following night and the following
night, and he would sit in a different seat in the theatre, and still couldn’t work
out how it was done. And eventually it was becoming very expensive not just in theatre
tickets, but he needed to be back in America and doing his show, so he, one night, just
walked straight up onto the stage, and walked all the way around the floating lady to try
and see how it was done, and once he had the secret then he went back and started performing
it in his show. [Music] Illusionists were the biggest act in the entire
world in about the early 1900s. There’s no television, there’s no radio, and when
people went out to the opera or to the music theatres to see something, the illusionists
were the biggest and best of all the acts worldwide. Illusionists turn of the century is a classic
magic show that you might have seen in a opera house or a theatre 100 years ago. The other
shows are very very youth oriented. This was an opportunity to bring into the fold some
of the magicians that I respect, some of the guys that have been out there doin’ it a
long time. [Music] The nature of being a daredevil and a stunt
performer is asking somebody to care whether or not you live or die. Performing at the
Palace Theatre, there is such a direct connection to Houdini. He performed on the stage many
times, and the theatre was built by the man who gave Houdini his big break. Houdini was a magician, and then he would
do stunts. Escape from a straight jacket out in front of the theatre during the day to
help make people aware of his show, help sell tickets. He was known as ‘King of Cards’
before that. [Music] [applause] There’s a long history of animals in magic,
of course the classic rabbit from hat, magician making a dove appear, which rick does in the
show, which, probably one of the high points of the show for the audience is all of his
dove magic. And I think the challenge for the performing and the magician is to also
understand that nowadays there’s a different sensibility out there, people are very sensitive
to animals in entertainment. It becomes paramount to not only give the impression of caring
for that animal, and making sure the audience is comfortable, but in actuality really doing
that. [music] There are many many elements in a theatre,
in any theatrical production, that are considered magical. The interactions of the characters,
the way something’s written, the way costume is designed to create a certain effect…
the knowledge of magic is scattered among a big variety of books that have a lot of
little secrets in them. There are a number of really simple, amazing secrets in magic
that have been enhanced by a wonderful presentation and a wonderful technique. The most important thing is to be aware of
all the techniques, to be willing to experiment with them, because we’re still taking old
techniques, and changing them around in a way that they fool magicians today, who are
knowledgeable about the subject. So there’s no such thing as an old trick, there’s just
a trick that hasn’t been dusted off properly and put in the new setting so that it looks
new. [Music] And so at the very beginning of the process,
we’ll start with artist renderings, drawings of what the illusion will look like,
and then we’ll start working with the performer, whether it’s an actor in a show or a director,
or actually a magician, and we’ll start working out how they’re going to perform it, so we end up writing
a script for it at the same time. So these are the kind of the colorful way that we’ll start these and the way we’ll start visualizing exactly what they’re going to be. We’ll start with often a color rendering so the performer sees what the prop is going to look like. So we’ll start to visualize elements of the show and we’ll start to see how that’s going to be decorated and then how that’s going to fit on the stage and then those end up getting integrated into the scenic design of the show and the costume design and then they come back when the actual production is done. So these are early, early artist renderings to show the performer what he would be looking for. Ha! Whoa! Ah! That your family tree would
always be a barren one! A lot of people treat magic as kind of a pyrotechnic,
you know, if you push a button something amazing happens over here. And it’s really more
than that. Great illusions are little stories, and when they’re all lined up in a play,
they actually help tell the story and they help further the action of the play, and I
think that’s the ideal that we’re all searching for when we put something, an illusion
effect, inside of a show. Oh no, he’s dead! [screaming] [music] Ha! [applause] In an illusion, when it’s presented on stage there really are three scripts going on. There’s the script of what the magician is saying so that it gives the right effect and it gives the right enhancements to the audience. And then there’s a secret script of what the magician is actually doing to accomplish that trick and that’s a very valid script as well because that’s all happening in an underhanded way behind the scenes. And there there is a third script that has to be considered which is what the audience is thinking at any moment. [Aladdin music] So in order to do any of those effects, certainly
the flying carpet in Aladdin, that really is a product of everyone pulling together,
and all the design team pulling together. The set by Bob Crowley is specifically designed
to make that illusion work, the lighting by Natasha Katz is specifically designed to make
that affect work. It looks effortless, and that’s a credit to their design skills because
you don’t see anything special, you don’t see anything unusual about that, you just
see an amazing set, an amazing array of lights, that tell this kind of moonlight flight. And
when it’s all put together, all those things go past you, and you focus only on
the illusion. [Music] The great use of it in the theatre is to tell
us something about the story and the characters in a way we didn’t expect, and leave us
with more of an impression than just the illusion. I’m working on a couple of stage shows that
use magic as elements of them, including a production in theatre right now called Magic
Play. When you come to see the Magic Play, you sit
down and you start watching a magic show. A magician comes out on stage and he’s delivering
his magic show to the audience, and you’re a member of that audience, and you are watching
a magic show unfold in front of you. And then things start to go off the rails a little
bit, and we later find out that this character, the magician, well his lover has just left
him. I took him to the aquatic center where I train.
It was late at night. He thinks we snuck in but I actually had a key. [laughter] So, the
whole place is dark. Except the pool had… The magician is a character who can control
every aspect of his life, on stage and off, and especially in his personal life. And in
that way, he’s never truly vulnerable. And I think this play asks the question that,
if you never risk vulnerability, can you ever be truly intimate with someone? He’s showing me how to do an approach. And
after like 15 minutes… The Magic Play is a piece that we’re doing
right now, here at the Goodman, that combines magic with a more traditional theatrical narrative.
I think theatre and magic actually have quite a bit in common with regard to truth and deception,
in that when we go to the theatre, we know that what we’re seeing is not real, we know
that that’s not what’s actually literally happening in that room. And it actually is a real card, two ½ by
three ½ inches, it just hasn’t been printed yet. And make sure that it is in fact blank,
nothing rubs off. Nope. It’s truly a blank card. Similarly, when we see a magician predict
what card someone has chosen, we know that there’s something else going on there. And
yet, both art forms aim to get at some kind of truth. What was that card that you were merely thinking
of. A two of diamonds. The two of diamonds? Yes. That’s what you imagined? Yes. [laughs].
And you see when you imagine printing that card… Now to show you exactly where the lady hangs.
Our medium is at the back. Magic has always had a certain amount of exposure.
When magic gets popular, exposing magic becomes popular, whether it’s through TV shows exposing
it, or in the 40s and 50s Camel Cigarettes used to expose magic, but magic has always
survived. Now we have something called the Internet, and really any piece of information
is out there, anything you want to know. but , from somebody that’s been in magic my
entire life, that’s seen magic go through many changes, you know, for me, I remember
that feeling as a child going to Disneyland, and it was this amazing place, and then I
would see a TV show on all the mechanics and the animatronics and how it worked, and the
tunnels underneath, and all these things, and yet somehow, when I walked through those
gates, it was magic again. [music] Magicians do their very best to keep their
secrets and to keep them from other magicians, but the truth is that the secrets of magic
are very very simple. I always say that magicians guard an empty safe, which is they guard it
so that you don’t find out that it’s empty. And there isn’t a secret in magic, really,
that I couldn’t explain to you in about two sentences, that wouldn’t completely
disappoint you. And what magicians do, what we’ve learned, is that we keep those secrets.
We don’t tell people those secrets because rather than disappointing them, we want to
give them a sense of amazement. And so what you do is you keep the secret, and you make
sure that it’s enhanced by different points, different presentations, so that it looks
as good as it can possibly be, so that people don’t think about the ordinariness of it,
they just think about the extraordinariness of it. [music] It really has little to do with knowing how
a trick works, and so if somebody wants to, they can find anything they want, but if they
want to become a magician, you learn other skills. The deception that magic uses is simply
a medium for what you’re truly after, which is a moment of connection. [Music] There are all sorts of deceptions, and people
use deception every day, they use it in advertisements they use it in politics, they certainly use
it to cheat other people, and those sorts are written about and understood. But magicians
use that deception to do something very interesting which is to create a moment, or several moments
of wonder. They give an experience that’s uplifting to an audience. But what’s profound about it, what’s interesting
about it is how it gives you an experience of amazement, how it uses your own senses
to deceive you and tell you something about a story in a completely new and different way. And the
audience is always complicit in this, the audience audience is always a part of that deception
because we’re drawing upon what they know, we’re drawing on their experiences, we’re
drawing on how we know they’ll react to certain things, to enhance that effect. [Music]

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