Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Tom Clutterbuck: Knowing how a trick works doesn’t necessarily spoil the magic

Knowing the behind-the-scenes workings of a stage illusion can be part of the fun for stage managers. Photo: Heuters Media/Shutterstock
by -

When you’re doing the tech for a magic show, you get to know most of the secrets.

Even if we don’t have to know them for set-up purposes, or haven’t been shown them, watching the same tricks repeatedly often allows us to see how the magic is really achieved.

We don’t fall for the misdirection because we’re watching all of the action, not just the part the magician wants us to in that specific moment. And as we already have advance knowledge of the pay-off, we know what to look out for in the set-up.

Of course, as the stage managers of those shows, it will be us doing that set-up. If smoke and mirrors are being used, invariably we’ll be the ones putting them in place. We are the ones who have to clean the hazer fluid residue from said mirror between shows with smear-free window wipes.

But what happens when there isn’t a gimmick on the market for a particular trick? Theatre technology can create illusions. Tech designers do it all the time, but it’s often not recognised as a magic trick.

Using wireless speakers or clever phone apps controlled via OSC or MIDI to make the sound of a baby crying in a pram on stage is a clever effect, but in a play it would just read as truthful.

If done well, the trick would draw no attention to itself, and the audience wouldn’t give it a second thought. However, I use the same technique to feed lines to an audience member who has been brought on stage, making it seem like they have been possessed. In this context, we watch it and are mystified, as the wonder of how such things are achieved is a large part of the show.

This isn’t the main object of the show, though, which is why I am able to tell you this without ruining anything. It’s essentially a play that uses magic as a metaphor, and largely debunks tricks as they are performed.

I’ve always been quite good at figuring out tricks, so knowing how they are done doesn’t ruin it for me. I have no interest in suspending my disbelief and imagining I’m watching real sorcery on stage.

For me, an appreciation of the complex mechanics and performance craft that go into a trick is enough. This is the attitude I think a lot of techs must have about theatre in general.

The old cliche of “seeing behind the curtain” is about our expectations not being met. The magic is ruined by knowing the workings. In that analogy the Wizard of Oz is just an awkward dude who made the heroes believe he was powerful – but isn’t that, in its way, more impressive? If he were already powerful, then he wouldn’t need to do any work to display himself in this way.

There is a lot of talk about the importance of truth on stage, but we should never underestimate the entertainment value of a well-told lie.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.