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Floating suitcases, flying canes and ‘frissons of magic’ – illusions that thrill West End audiences

Whether propelling a cane across the stage or teaching Mark Rylance the three-card monte, magic consultants add spectacle to stage and screen productions. As The Twilight Zone opens in the West End, two magicians who worked on its effects tell Nick Smurthwaite why old-school tricks hold their own in an age of digital wizardry

At a time of ever-accelerating technological advance, is there still a place for old-fashioned magic? The continuing success of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Wicked, The Woman in Black, The Phantom of the Opera and Matilda in the West End would seem to suggest that magic and illusion on stage still have the ability to thrill audiences as much as digital wizardry.

“You don’t want the audience on its feet applauding what you’ve done, you almost want it to go unnoticed,” says Richard Wiseman, who worked on the magic effects for The Twilight Zone, which has just opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, with fellow magician and friend Will Houstoun.

Wiseman continues: “Stage magic in the context of a narrative is all about little moments, little frissons, which is the opposite of the effect a solo magician is after.”

The Twilight Zone, which started out at the Almeida a year ago, is based on the spooky, genre-twisting American TV series of the early 1960s. One reviewer called the new stage version “kitsch yet piercingly smart when it wants to be”.

‘Stage magic in the context of a narrative is all about little moments – the opposite of the effect a solo magician is after’ – Richard Wiseman

Wiseman and Houstoun, who are both members of the Inner Magic Circle, are working together for the first time on the play. They had to find ways of lifting suitcases into the air, making a cigarette appear in someone’s mouth from nowhere, causing objects to disappear through a portal, and propelling a cane around the stage, among other things.

“What’s nice is that it’s all very low-tech: our tricks could have been done in Victorian times,” says Wiseman. “A lot of onstage magic now is dependent on projection and electronics. Ours is all person-led. The actors are very much responsible for making things happen.”

They were brought on board by Sarah Angliss [1], one of the show’s two sound creatives, and an old friend of Wiseman’s. For the West End transfer, director Richard Jones asked them to dream up some new tricks and illusions in keeping with the ethos of the original television series.

“Luckily I was a huge fan of The Twilight Zone on TV,” says Wiseman. “Each episode was a little act of genius. Creating effects for The Twilight Zone on stage is very different from creating effects for television. If something spooky starts to happen in a TV show, the camera zooms in on what’s going on, whereas on stage the effect has to be more obvious, yet no less effective, so that it can be seen by the whole audience. You have to make sure to draw everyone’s attention to the place on stage where the trick is going to take place. Your worst fear, as the creator of an illusion on stage, is for the audience to miss the whole thing.”

CV Will Houstoun

Photo: Mark Hesketh-Jennings

Born: 1985, London Training: PhD in literature, University of Essex, on Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic: The Rise of Victorian Conjuring (2010-14)

Career highlights: 
As magic consultant: Hugo (film), Paramount Pictures, (2011) ; Wolf Hall, BBC (2015); Katya Kabanova, Royal Opera House (2019)
Other: Magician in residence at the Royal College of Music/Imperial College London Centre for Performance Science (2018)

Awards: Close-up magician of the year, Magic Circle (2015)

Agent: None

Advice to aspiring magicians: 

There is far more to performing magic than simply knowing the secret to a trick. Remember that discovering how it is done is the first step, not the last.

Given that magicians are essentially solo performers very much in control of their environment, how did Wiseman and Houstoun enjoy the experience of working collaboratively within a large team of creatives?

“It was challenging and exciting to be working in a collaborative medium where everyone is expected to be flexible,” says Houstoun, who has worked as a close-up magician since his teens. “It’s the opposite of the way magicians work. Even tiny changes made by other people feel huge to the magician who has carefully worked out how and where everything should be.”

Wiseman agrees: “Magicians are usually control freaks who work alone. They like to control everything in their environment. Suddenly, in the theatre, you’ve got the lighting guy saying: ‘No sorry, you can’t do that,’ or the director saying: ‘Actually, that’s not what I had in mind.’ Making any kind of change or modification to an effect or an illusion can involve at least half a dozen people.”

‘We had to find productive ways to make our two worlds intersect’ – Will Houstoun

Were there times when they and director Jones were not on the same page? Houstoun says: “We had to find productive ways to make our two worlds intersect. We had one or two odd conversations because we thought there was shared knowledge in the room – but it’s only when you’ve had long experience of magic that you know what is and is not possible. What Richard had in his head in the way of effects was the thing he wanted to see. What we had in our heads was the logistics: was it possible to achieve this effect?”

On the plus side, Houstoun – who edits the Magic Circle’s magazine, the Magic Circular – says the experience opened his eyes to the other specialised skills of theatrical production: “I wouldn’t normally have been interested in sound or light or body movement. I gained a massive insight into the rehearsal process of actors doing something and then being given feedback by the director, which they would then have to adhere to in order to improve their performance. The speed at which it all happens is remarkable. I think I’d need a week to process what I’d been told by the director.”

Wiseman believes there is a fundamental difference between the presentation of drama and magic. He says: “With a play you’re asking the audience to suspend its disbelief; with magic it’s the exact opposite. You’re asking the spectator to believe what has actually just happened before their eyes. That’s why magic and drama isn’t always a good fit.”

[3]CV Richard Wiseman

Born: 1966, Luton

Training: PhD in psychology, University of Edinburgh; professor of psychology, University of Hertfordshire

Career highlights: More than 500 million views of his YouTube magic and illusion videos [4]; Wiseman’s books have sold more than 3 million copies; one of Wiseman’s illusions inspired Penn and Teller to create a trick they perform every night in their Las Vegas show

Agent: PEW Literary

Advice to aspiring magicians: 

Always remember the difference between showing off and performing. Showing off is all about you, performing is all about your audience.

Both magicians clearly enjoyed the challenge of working with individual members of the cast, even though it involved thinking outside the box. Wiseman says: “We were facing constraints we wouldn’t normally have to face. In terms of making a suitcase levitate, for instance, doing that ourselves wouldn’t present a problem. But as soon as you hand the trick over to actors with no magic experience, it becomes a different thing. How can I make it work every night with a bunch of people who are not magicians?”

Both Wiseman and Houstoun have experience of teaching magic. Wiseman, though more a writer than a performer, has produced a series of magic displays on YouTube in the past 10 years – “to get people interested in magic without giving too much away” – while Houstoun worked as a one-to-one magic consultant on the 2011 film Hugo, and the TV drama series Wolf Hall. He says: “I had to teach Mark Rylance to do a three-card monte. I think it was to illustrate Cromwell’s disreputable past. It was easy enough for me because it’s what I do, but someone seeing it for the first time is impressed and baffled at the same time.”

Wiseman says: “We’re used to congruent gestures in our everyday lives. What you have to teach people is to say one thing while you’re doing something else, which is not what you do in everyday life. Will and I have been doing that since we were eight.”

Wiseman and Houstoun are confident that person-led magic will hold its own in the age of technology. Houstoun says: “Special effects are great, and they’ve come a long way, but it’s not the same as watching someone hold a coin in their hand, close their hand, open it and the coin’s gone. In our experience people respond more directly to that kind of illusion than to the whiz-bang effects of technology.”

Wiseman adds: “In the theatre, magic should be supplementing the narrative, not getting in the way of it. What worries me about technology is that it’s over very quickly and it doesn’t always have meaning. I still believe storytelling is paramount. Good stories are always going to touch you and stay with you and sometimes even change your life.”

The Twilight Zone runs at London’s Ambassadors Theatre until June 1 [5]

Dynamo: ‘After my illness, returning to magic in small rooms was the perfect way back’ [6]