Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Illusionists extravaganza proves a tricky business

How on earth did they do that? It is the immediate response to a decent magic trick - be it a fiddle with some cards or British hypnotist Derren Brown's magic-whispering some upright citizens into staging an armed robbery - but it is the question no magician will answer. How you saw a lady in half, how you make a motorbike disappear in a blast of firecrackers ... silence on these matters is part of the craft. The thrill of magic, according to the fraternity, lies in its impenetrability.

Magic, like burlesque a decade ago and circus before it, is having quite a moment right now. Once confined to Las Vegas and tea-time kids' shows, men with wands are now popping up everywhere in town: at The Illusionists extravaganza coming to the Arts Centre Melbourne in January, in numerous television shows from Britain and the US and in the recent film Now You See Me, with Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson as master illusionists who stage a bank heist involving mirrors, mass hypnosis and a good deal of showmanship.

Actually, there aren't any men with wands any more. Wands are out. Cloaks are over. Rob Drummond, who researched magical history for his one-man play Bullet Catch, part of next month's Sydney Festival, says there are probably only seven kinds of magic trick, in the same way that there are only seven basic stories, but they are being dressed up differently now.

Cutting edge: The Illusionists ham it up with the old saw trick.

Even the emblematic rabbit has waltzed away with the top hat into oblivion.

I saw The Illusionists 1:0 when it toured to London at a 5000-seat venue; it was a barrage of flashing lights, flying props, zippy dancers and a very loud house band from Los Angeles playing the kind of driving beats you get at speedway meets. Even the magic felt loud. A man was chopped up and appeared to survive as two halves; a magician who looked like Marilyn Manson passed a polo mint through every orifice in his face.

New media has meant that you don't have to go to Las Vegas to see magic or, as a magician, to be seen; Australian magician Jamie Galea got his big break when one of the producers on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show saw him on YouTube.

There is an inherent irony in magicians' insistence that it ruins the fun to know how it's done. All have stories of watching David Copperfield videos over and over again and spending hours trying to master sleight of hand. Galea says he was first inspired by seeing a street performer at an Australia Day event making a ball disappear into a handkerchief. He thinks he was about eight. ''I remember I just didn't let him go, and I would watch with every person he went to, which I'm sure drove him nuts but he actually showed me: he said 'here, kid, here's how it's done'. Which makes me think now how intense I must have been as a kid then!''

Growing up in Glasgow, Drummond learned a trick from his sister's then boyfriend; he was also eight and, as he says, spent the next 12 years practising tricks in front of the mirror.

''It didn't feel time-intensive,'' he says. ''I thought, 'well, I can do this for the rest of my life' but with no real purpose, you know. It does demand doing one thing over and over until you get muscle memory.'' Is that why all magicians are men? ''It may have something to do with why all magicians are introverted and socially awkward,'' he laughs.

You do wonder. All the magicians I meet are actually very personable, but the ability to pull an egg out of someone's ear certainly has the potential to be a compensatory social skill.

''You get into magic because you don't feel impressive,'' Brown - who is something of a phenomenon in Britain - told The Guardian. ''It's the quickest, most fraudulent route to impressing people.''

Galea, who has clearly given considerable thought to the ethics of magic, remembers the rush when he successfully stole his teacher's watch at high school. ''All the kids round me were laughing and it was a thrilling moment,'' he remembers. ''It becomes like a drug." Later he would have bets with fellow magicians about how many watches he could snaffle in a single show; his record was seven. He's not proud of it; it was ''stupid and crazy''.

''That doesn't thrill me at all, that kind of 'oooohhhh look, look how good I am','' he says. That kind of act, he says, is a power trip for the magician rather than something fun for the audience. ''I mean, magic is an amazing skill, but I think there are people who use that to show off and others who do it to give people a great experience everyone can share, where nobody feels stupid for not knowing where their card is. Watch anyone's trick and I think you will instantaneously know what they are trying to do.''

Of course, being the smartest person in the room - or making people think you are - has a tremendous allure.

''That's the reason some magicians don't like other magicians: they realise 'oh, I'm not special around you'. I guess that is a sad moment.'' That neediness is also an unpleasant thing to see in oneself, he agrees, so the defensive response is to bad-mouth your competitor while trying to think of a trick that will be bigger and better than anything he's got.

Don't we all want to be the smartest person in the room? Not entirely. In Bullet Trick, Drummond asks the audience to vote on whether he should reveal how a trick is done. ''Not only magicians say that people don't want to know; people themselves say that,'' he says. ''But the moment you present them with a genuine offer of knowledge, human curiosity takes over. There is always a battle within. Part of them doesn't want to know, but the bigger part cannot resist an insight that will make them part of the club.''

And it turns out all those old-school magicians were right all along.

After they have seen how a trick is done, he says, people usually say they feel a sense of loss. Like Eve eating the apple or luckless pandora las vegas opening the box full of evil, they lament their vanished innocence; at the same time, they had to know. ''That's every story of origin that's ever been,'' agrees Drummond. ''That curiosity is inherent in all of us.''

The Illusionists is at Arts Centre Melbourne, January 3-12.


  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
    wish you a lovely fourth Advent ...

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