What do Lady Gaga, a string of Broadway musicals and Harry Potter all have in common? The answer is magic consultant Paul Kieve. He’s accumulated an impressive list of projects he’s consulted for, adding magic to shows that tell stories. I did a degree in theatre and I’ve always been interested in storytelling. So what Paul does using magic to help tell stories I’ve always thought is some of the most magical magic out there.
I sat down with Paul a few months ago over coffee to chat about these things and have finally managed to get it in writing. Here I am with Paul talking about how magicians can better connect with their audiences, the ‘problem’ of the magician’s ego, and the technique of pacing magic.
Christopher: I heard you say once in an interview that from your perspective as a magic consultant, you thought there was a peculiar relationship between the magician and the audience. Can you tell me what you mean by that? I was guessing you were implying the ‘ego thing’ and that it’s hard for a magician not to just be a show off.
Paul: I was probably talking about the difference between having magic within a story and the idea of a magician standing in front of an audience doing magic. It’s that magic (not being a real thing) isn’t a ‘real’ skill. I mean sleight of hand is a real skill, as are the arts of presentation and showmanship… but it’s been said a million times: when you’re a singer you’re really singing, when you’re juggling you’re really juggling and when you’re telling jokes you’ve got to have that real talent of comic timing. When you’re a magician though, you’re not a magician. You’re not really doing magic.
And that relates to the whole Houdin thing of the actor playing the part of a magician. So people like yourself playing Norvil or John (van der Put) doing Piff the Magic Dragon and all the great performers in some way or another who have sustained a career have found a way of presenting a relationship. By this I mean presenting why they’re pretending to do magic. Why are you standing in front of an audience pretending to do magic? It’s an odd thing to do, isn’t it?
I mean you could argue ‘why are you an actor trying to be someone else?’ Well, we know you’re an actor pretending to be someone else and that’s the key. The reason you’re doing it is hopefully that you’re telling someone else a story and you’re going to learn something about human existence or an insight into a life that you’d never have known or a story or subject you’d never have known. So what’s the reason for a person to stand on stage and pretend to be a magician? Well, we know why. Because magic is an amazing thing and a fundamental experience to be astonished so your job as a magician should primarily be to lead your audience into some sort of amazement in some kind of way. Whether it’s through comedy or some other device or just doing extremely cool things – that’s all fine.
But still the idea of ‘who is this person presenting magic’ is a tricky one. If you see a bad illusionist with a bunch of boxes and ridiculous choreography … you start to wonder what you’re meant to be watching. What is this? And I think it’s safe to say that a lot of magicians don’t think about that because at best they’re sharing the enthusiasm of wanting to show a cool thing to an audience… and at worst – as we’ve probably to a certain extent all started off in magic – we’re trying to make ourselves feel good through something we’re not really doing. Because maybe we didn’t have acceptance, or didn’t have other talents.
HENNING: AN EXAMPLE OF RELATIONSHIP
I mean I’m a self-confessed Doug Henning nut – I grew up on Doug Henning. And he had one of the best ways of inviting audiences into this preposterous idea that someone’s on stage doing magic. Of course he broke through in The Magic Show which was a story in the form of a musical (written by Stephen Schwartz) and he played a magician. Then his TV shows were called ‘Doug Henning’s World of Magic’ and I don’t think this was accidental. His props were all rainbow coloured and his choreography really came from musical theatre (his dancers moving in the style of Bob Fosse or an even camper version of that) and he used to say at the beginning of the show ‘welcome to my world of magic.’ Henning was inviting the audience into his world very deliberately. It was his world of magic: he made that clear.
You (as a viewer) decided whether to go into his world and of course he had this wonderful innocent way of sharing that. It was sharing a world of magic what he did. It wasn’t ‘look at me I’m such a clever guy’. He came across as a genuinely lovely guy who really wanted to share his childlike contagious enthusiasm. I was really fortunate to be quite close friends with Charles Reynolds who was Doug’s advisor I think from the first TV specials and clearly there was a huge enthusiasm at showing the audience these things that hadn’t really been seen. I mean no one was doing those big illusions – especially not on television. It had sort of died out. So I think he came from a genuinely exciting time and (his approach) was genuinely innovative.
He was this hippy but you have to put it in context as well with what was going on in opposition to the Vietnam war and on Broadway you had Stephen Schwartz with two other (‘hippy’) shows on Broadway (Godspell and Pippin) so The Magic Show was very much a part of the era. So I’m diverting a bit onto Doug Henning but I think he’s a good example of how a magician made himself acceptable in relationship to an audience.
Christopher: I remember reading in the Henning biography ‘Spellbound’ by John Harrison that Dale Souls, the director of The Magic Show on Broadway with Doug Henning said ‘Sure audiences had already seen a woman get cut in half but they never got to know her well enough to care whether she had ever got put back together again.’ The Magic Show changed that, it was about a story rather than an ego on stage.
Paul: Yeah. I think that’s probably right and it’s funny because The Magic Show – I have the script of it upstairs – it’s a fairly thin script. The music is great. I went to the Stephen Schwartz estate – or I guess not ‘estate’ because he’s still alive <laughing> but whatever you’d call it – the archive. I dug up the script but they were like ‘yeah but you’d definitely have to rework this one’. But there was an innocence and no one had seen that stuff before.
DO EGOS GET IN THE WAY OF MAGIC?
But I think the problem is, a lot of the time, because magicians all mix with themselves and it’s all this inward-looking stuff with magic conventions all the time. You know we’ve all sat there through lectures where someone has come up with a card variation which may be a moderately clever thing but they’re immediately described as a genius. There’s a huge amount of back patting and it’s due to the rather vulgar marketing that magic has become so much about. Do you see many people doing a lecture who aren’t trying to sell a DVD at the end of it? I think that’s pushed the ego aspect of it even more because you’re not going to sell something if you say you’re not very good, or it’s not the greatest thing ever. SO it must be very confusing for people coming into magic to work out what’s really good. You know, what is the really amazing stuff? As Steinmeyer said,
“The process is a lifetime of continually panning for gold.”
ON CONCEALING THE EGO
So I think it’s interesting because I just saw The Illusionists in the West End yesterday [Note from Christopher: here’s my interview with Kevin James, a star in the show] – some really amazing performances in that. David Williamson was performing and how amazing it was to see a performer who is so genuine and he’s so genuinely talented with it seeming effortless. He makes what he does so completely charming that I can only think of that quote where ‘if you know you ‘have it’, you don’t have it’ And just watching him work the audience in the interval and he came around and did some magic for my niece and nephew and he’s such an incredibly skilled magician but really a huge amount of energy and work has gone into concealing that… Where it’s so tempting like in juggling that a skill is completely on show but in magic because you’ve worked hard at something you feel like you should be getting some automatic response for it.
BUT WHO’S TO CREDIT HERE?
But you know I was always blown away by seeing a classical concert thinking about all of the work that was behind it. You have this composer (who’s more often than not dead), who was a genius and has written this thing down on paper that was then put in this score you could hold it until the conductor interpreted it until 70 or 80 musicians – all of whom have spent their lives perfecting every day what they did and it’s only until it all comes together and this thing comes back from the dead – it’s like it’s recreated from these dots on a page. And who do you credit for that? You don’t worry about credit – I suppose you credit the composer and I suppose the conductor – it’s tricky to know what the conductor does as the wizard to bring it together but you don’t ultimately worry about who you credit that to and when it happens it’s a transcendental experience.
So in magic does that ever happen? Is there ever a collection of people and talents where you’re not crediting a one person? The idea of a magician is almost by its nature an egotistical thing. Actually you’ve got to credit what one person is doing and in some respects it’s one of the confusing things about (the matter). … But I think people fundamentally do like magic because in theatre when the magic is introduced through the back door via the story they’re much more open to it than if you have an egotistical performer.
Christopher: So I have a question that could tie together a few things you’ve been talking about: you mentioned Stephen Schwartz with Doug Henning and then orchestral compositions. After my theatre degree I studied opera singing in Bologna, Italy and so something you once said jumped out at me. It was a radio interview I heard with you on YouTube where you said magic, like music, needs breath around it. What did you mean by that?
Paul: Oh yes, I was probably talking about a constant frustration I have when I work in shows where I’m trying to improve a magical effect in a story and I often find that I’m battling for sometimes one or two seconds of space before or after a magical effect. It was probably to do with the way big scale musicals have their technical rehearsals. The scenes will rehearse in a rehearsal room, along with choreography with the musical director and just a piano and with the piano you alter the score. So if the choreographer wants extra beats or dance breaks that would be worked out in the rehearsal room between the musical director and the director – and a good director like Matthew Warchus who works a lot with music will work with the pianist in the room. SO all the breaths and gaps and moments will be worked out on paper.
Here’s a clip of Paul explaining more about his fight as magic consultant to make ‘breathing room’ for magic in shows …
This was just a part of my chat with Paul Kieve. You can see some of his current work as magic consultant from July to September in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. I’ll revisit my interview with Paul in a future blog post when I’ll share how one of Paul’s projects with a head on a table has wound up in a lawsuit involving Lady Gaga, we’ll hear about his masterpiece in Ghost The Musical, we’ll find out about a magical connection that led him to working with Kate Bush and learn a bit about Dynamo’s live show as well.
ADDITION: Here’s a link if you’d like to see the second part of my interview with Paul Kieve.