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.