Behind the Curtain

Although space at 31 Faces North is limited, we have always tried to expand the reach of the conference by helping Magicana stage lectures and workshops for those locally with a passion for magic. These workshops and lectures are by performers who rarely, if ever, lecture or perform in these parts.

This year there are three!

First up is Rafael Benatar with both a workshop – limited to ten people – and the first half of a lecture double-bill. I’ve only met Rafael once, and that was a decade ago, but I have followed his creative output closely. Rafael, although from Venezuela, is of the Spanish-school, being a close-confidant of Arturo Ascanio and, of course, Juan Tamariz, two of the most influential magicians of the past quarter century. Rafael travels the world, and by doing so, sees and hears the latest wonders, all of which inform his own work. Rafael is also a great communicator. Fluent in several languages, he knows how to explain both the essence and the detail required for creating and performing superb sleight-of-hand.

Gaëtan Bloom is the second. I have known Gaëtan since the mid-1980s, and have seen him perform and lecture both here and abroad. I have invited him every year to 31 Faces North, and I am ecstatic that he has finally found the time to join us. It has been ten years since his last visit to Toronto, and for someone like Gaëtan, that was a million ideas ago! So, I’m pleased that we have the opportunity to catch up on his fertile imagination. Gaëtan is not only a superb inventor of subtle secrets, but he is also one of the most entertaining performers – one whose magic is the high watermark of visual deception.

Rafael and Gaëtan will be presenting a double-bill of magic in Montreal on August 14 and in Toronto on August 18. Rafael is also doing an intensive card workshop in each city.

Jim Steinmeyer is the third. As an author, inventor, magic historian and creative consultant, Jim has touched the lives of all of us interested in the art of magic. His lectures are few and far between, and I have traveled far to see and hear him in action: Louisville, Chicago, Los Angeles and London. For those in Toronto with a passion for magic, you now you have the chance to listen and learn from him in your own backyard.  It doesn’t get much better than that!

Magic Circles

It’s trite but true: things have a way of returning full circle.

I first became involved with the Shaw Festival, one of the four great English language theatre festivals in the world, in 1994 while developing The Conjuror with Patrick Watson. The first incarnation of the show premiered there at the Royal George Theatre in 1996. We were invited back for round two in 1997.

The Shaw Festival has a crackerjack crew of theatre craftspeople: set designers, lighting designers, scenic and prop builders to name but a few. I developed a very close relationship with the latter, and one of the their builders – XXX XXXXXX – remains one of the best kept secrets in magic. He has built a broad range of apparatus for me to use in my shows.

Well now, some fifteen years later, I have returned to the Shaw Festival, but this time as a consultant. I am helping them develop some magic-related special effects for a new production – One Touch of Venus – that, as Jay Marshal may have said, was so rarely performed, it was practically new. As is typical with the Festival, they have a way of uncovering these long-forgotten gems. The show features music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, the book by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman. The show was produced originally in New York in 1943 under the direction of Elia Kazan, with choreography by Agnes DeMille. It starred Mary Martin. It was turned to a film a few years later.

So, the first circle is that we’re back at the Shaw Festival. The second circle is the remounting of a show that is rarely remounted.

The third circle was running into Wayne, now head of the prop shop. Wayne built the Sawing In Half illusion that I used in The Conjuror. It was a based on the design that Alan Wakeling developed from the original illusion invented by P.T. Selbit circa 1920. (Jim Steinmeyer described Wakeling’s variation in The Magic of Al Wakeling.) Wayne mentioned to me that he had seen another performer do the routine with the same type of apparatus that I had used. He spoke to the performer afterward and the performer mentioned that he had spoken to me about performing the illusion. I was surprised, to say the least, as I had never spoken to this person, or remotely given him permission. Of course, he may have used the same source as I did in developing the trick. What is more interesting, however, is that Wayne developed certain details and incorporated them into the design he built for me. Wayne had added his own ingenuity, dictated by the demands of our particular production, to the illusion; and the copier, unbeknownst to him or his builder, had appropriated Wayne’s innovations.

The easiest way, of course, for him to do this would be to copy or download the promotional photographs for The Conjuror that depicted the illusion. He, or his builder, could then ‘scale’ the photograph, a technique often used by illusionists and their builders to reverse engineer the work of another. Sometimes it is a good thing, other times bad. For a person or performer who invents something novel and is using it in his or her business, it can be quite irritating. As many of magic’s greatest illusions were developed during the so-called “Golden Age” between 1875 and 1925, it is not surprising that copyists relied on photography and the scaling of photographs to determine the modus operandi of the competition. Often, the person doing the copying rarely understands what he or she is copying, and the reason for the technical developments. They just copy and assume that it will work.

Of course, in the hands of someone like Jim Steinmeyer – one of the great minds in magic – the technique can help him unravel the riddles inherent in the great illusions of the past, not only so he can restage them, but also so that he can extrapolate new ideas and applications from those principles. Jim, however, is a rare breed.

For me, it is a simple reminder of another circle: I was now part of a long lineage of those who, while performing one of the most pirated illusions of all time, was also the victim of piracy.