As I walked through the drizzly December morning in the once shishi Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens after my interview with magician Kevin James, I couldn’t help but think that a hundred years of entertainment history had come full-circle back to this moment. Over coffee Kevin told me he had discovered that just down the road from where we sat, the Queen’s Head pub had been owned by Charlie Chaplin’s uncle. Chaplin had said that it was the distinctive gait of the stable hand who worked in the stables next to that pub that inspired the most famous walk in entertainment history. Still wonder why has anything come full-circle?
OK, here’s the answer: Kevin’s of course the magician who for decades has bemused audiences by assembling a small Chaplin mannequin on stage and magically transforming it into a real living breathing small Chaplin. That’s just one of his iconic illusions that Kevin performs while he’s in London performing in The Illusionists. The show is full of a wide variety of magic by Kevin and six other magicians and illusionists. Kevin has been with the show in several of its incarnations around the world and will continue to tour with the show in 2016.
The unassuming Kevin James was performing his inventive illusions at one of the first magician conventions I ever attended as a kid and he made a big impression on me so I wanted to sit down with my fellow Michigander to talk magic while he’s in London (‘Michigander’, by the way, is not a type of exotic goose as it sounds; instead it’s what people from Michigan are called).
Christopher: There’ve been lots of public reviews of The Illusionists shows, mostly from people who know theatre but not necessarily those who have seen much magic. Has there been anything you’ve learned from the critics’ points of view and do you have any comments on what reviewers have said about the show and your work?
Kevin: I’ve learned to have elephant skin, no matter what they say. I know my value and the kind of work I do and some people are qualified to understand it and some are not. But of course everybody is entitled to their opinion. And for The Illusionists they prepared us when we were on Broadway last year. They said, ‘look these New York City reviewers are snarky and think they’ve seen everything. So the producers said ‘be prepared for not good reviews.’ So we were. We were ready to be killed in the reviews. But it didn’t happen. A few of them were snarky but you know you just take it worth a grain of salt and realise that people vote with their wallets and the word of mouth spreads.
C: And the box office has been great hasn’t it?
K: Well … last year we were the fourth top-grossing show on Broadway.
K: And it was funny because they said, ‘they may kill you in the reviews but look at what they did with Wicked (the Stephen Schwartz musical)’ … They killed it! I mean they lambasted it! The reviews made it look like it was the worst show ever and now it’s had (twelve) years of box office success so … the reviewers don’t know anything. (laughs)
C: That’s good to know! In terms of inspiration, you told me once that Guy Jarrett (1881-1972) is a magician who was a big inspiration for you and I wondered if you could tell me what it was for you that put Jarrett in a league of his own and what is it that you’ve taken from him in terms of inspiration and thinking?
K: Yeah, Guy Jarrett was this amazing free thinker who – when everyone else was building big clunky boxes, Jarrett was a master of inches and trying to make (stage illusion boxes) that were just big enough to get people in. He’d build equipment for specific people rather than something that could be used by anyone in the company. And he was coming up with ideas that were wonderfully original. The idea of the Bangkok Bungalow, being able to casually move the doll house from here to there, close it up and suddenly someone appears. So really amazing ideas, and he’s led me to think in other directions too…
C: When I think of your work, you have the strongest visual magic images in The Illusionists. After the show if I ask someone to think of a picture from the show, it’s probably going to be your stuff. Was that intentional, or did it just happen that way?
K: I just like to do the things that I’d like to see. And I try to add some sort of emotional connection – not the same emotion every time, I want to have different emotions. So some things are nostalgic, some things are sweet, some things are shocking… but I just want to make the audience feel something.
If you haven’t seen Kevin in The Illusionists or are a magician who doesn’t know Kevin’s work (if that’s possible!) then you should know his famous creation where he asks a small girl from the audience to assist him, she believes she makes a paper napkin move by magic and to conclude the routine he makes her a paper rose from the napkin which floats in the air before it bursts into flames, turning into a real rose.
C: Do you start with the emotion and the magic grows out of that? Or is it the other way around sometimes.
K: You know whenever I create something it comes from a totally different angle every time. Sometimes it’s a method (for doing something) first. You know like the floating rose was created out of the necessity to have a bigger act. All I had at one point was a close-up act and I was doing restaurants all the time. But I knew that I needed to get a stage act so I thought the fastest way to get there would be to take something that’s already getting a strong reaction in my close-up repertoire and modify it, trying to make it play bigger. I was doing a close-up floating bill routine at the tables and I was getting a strong reaction so I thought that’s a good place to start. Then one day I was in a bar, I was thinking ‘how can I make that routine play bigger’ and saw a bartender make a paper flower out of a cocktail napkin and it just clicked that could be the end of the routine. …
With that said, I started doing the trick with 20-somethings (audience members helping on stage). You know Copperfield can play the Rico Suave (doing a) ‘hey baby’ on stage – but that’s not me. I can’t play that character. … Then, one day, twenty years later, I was doing a show, and there were only a lot of kids. I picked a girl who was five or six years old and again it changed the whole vibe and took it to a completely other direction. Because you know at that age they’re so expressive: you know when something amazes them they light right up. And when the moment comes where you give her the power to make it move, she really thinks she has it, and if that’s on a big screen on stage it sends electricity through the crowd and I knew that was the way I wanted to do it. But it only took me twenty years to figure that out.
C: Twenty years well spent.
K: Yeah well, you get 97% of the routine finished and you never know how long until that last 3% arrives.
C: And that 3% can be the game changer.
K: Yeah and it was!
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Kevin has made waves amongst both magicians and laymen alike with his famous black comedy ‘operation’ scene that features in The Illusionists where – without any boxes to hide in – he cuts someone on stage in half with a chainsaw and reassembles them with a staple gun.
K: I used to put a lot of restraints on my brainstorming. You know, is it too expensive? Is it too big? Do I have a place to perform it? So I would not go down certain paths if I didn’t feel that I could get it in the act right away. (Magician) Jonathan Neil Brown says if it doesn’t fit in a little box that fits under the airplane seat in front of him, it doesn’t go in the act. I think that’s taking it to the extreme. I always thought if it’s good enough, producers will pay. You know a lot of people told me not to do the operation – a LOT of people told me not to do it.
C: Just because of the sheer logistics?
K: Logistics! … It’s not like anyone can do it, it takes five people to do (the operation act) on stage. Are you going to travel with five people (for one scene)? It becomes instantly prohibitive. But what I found was, if it’s good enough, producers WILL find a way to ship the props no matter how big, they’ll find a way to get dancers to help you for certain things, they’ll find a way to build it into your salary so you can pay the other people, they’ll find a way if the routine is amazing or shocking enough or special enough, producers will find a way. … So I stopped worrying about that. Then The Illusionists came along and in the first few months that I’m with them, you know the producer says what would you do on stage if size and money were no object? (Kevin makes a head explosion gesture with his hands) … you know, what about all those ideas that I thought were pie-in-the-sky that I discarded years ago? I should have written them down, taken them to the next step. You know and what I realized was that you can’t have any limitations when you’re trying to create things. Just open your mind and let anything come out. … There are ways to trim things here and there later.
C: Go for the vision and see what follows.
K: Yeah, go for the big picture.
THE INVENTOR’S MINDSET
C: That ties in to something I wanted to ask you. Of course with The Illusionists you’re being branded as ‘The Inventor’ because you’re in a rare position of presenting all your own material, which is unique for most magicians. What would you say is the inventor’s mentality? You’ve mentioned before about going through the Abbott’s Magic catalogue thinking up ways all that stuff could be done.
K: Yeah you know when I was a kid in Michigan I saw Greg Wilson, the magician Mark Wilson’s son in an edition of ‘Boy’s Life’ magazine. I was a boy scout and read Boy’s Life. And there was a big article with coloured photos of Greg, Mark and all these big illusions in this warehouse full of stuff and Hollywood TV shows and all that and I was so freaking jealous. I thought ‘why couldn’t I be born into that dynasty!?” I just thought, ‘oh my God!’
Well what I had was the Abbott’s catalogue which was a big thick volume of trick descriptions and as every magician knows in the descriptions it says things like: ‘this light bulb floats, lit, and there are no mirrors, black art, no blah blah blah, and they gave all these things it’s not. So that made me think, well how could you do that with black art or a mirror or whatever.
C: Dreaming of multiple solutions.
K: Yeah, and just learning how everything works and then you start to connect the dots and when you have a database that’s big enough, all these possible solutions and options and how things are done for real. Then you can start to imagine what would be cool on stage and work backwards to see what solutions are more elegant than others.
ON MAGICIAN DOUG HENNING
C: I read last night that you had created material that Doug Henning used. I didn’t even know there was an overlap between his career and you coming to the magic scene.
K: Yes, Jim Steinmeyer kind of brokered it. I sold (Doug) two things: I sold him (my illusion) ‘Card in Balloon’. And I sold an illusion called ‘Neon Transpo’ (a magical transposition between the magician and assistant). So that was my first connection with Doug. …
Here’s an audio clip with one of Kevin’s stories about Henning. You’ve just got to hear him tell the story himself…
LEARNING ON THE JOB
C: You’ve worked alongside some other great magicians with The Illusionists and the last thing I’d like to ask is about something you said in another interview during the Broadway run. You said you enjoy being backstage in the show, observing the techniques of the other magicians and learning from them. Do you have a few examples of performers who have inspired you and what have you learned from them?
K: Absolutely. They all have different lessons for me. You know watching Jeff Hobson do the Egg Bag routine night after night; he’s so … consistently good! But he’s always tweaking and trying new little bits like the pause here or the raise of the eyebrow there. And to watch him handle things that go wrong because (the egg bag) routine in particular is fun to watch over and over because of crazy stuff the audience does to him. So just to watch him fine-tune you know. A journalist asked me one time “do you know how they all do their tricks?” or some stupid question like that.
C: First time you were ever asked that, I bet!
K: Yeah!! And I said, you know the magic is so insignificant. It’s 5% of the puzzle. It’s 95% artistic interpretation, the timing, pacing, choice of music, lights, body positions, all these little details and decisions have to be made for a routine to become a work of art and so watching Jeff do all of that is a joy just because you get to see it every day and what he did different than yesterday. And Dan Sperry – what lessons I learn from him… you know, Dan – whether you like his (stage) character or not – is a really interesting character. I mean it makes you wanna watch him. OK? So he’s created … a character that is fun to watch and is interesting. So the tricks don’t matter with him either. It’s how he reacts with the audience, it’s his character’s point of view, he changes his makeup daily, he’s always experimenting with that, as well as his hair… that’s thinking out of the box. I haven’t changed my hair in years.
C: Maybe Dan can give some tips?
K: Well yeah! I mean he’s absolutely not afraid to try things. But he’s made me think about how I can be more interesting on stage. And Andrew Basso the escape artist… I couldn’t do what he does! There’s no way to physically do what he does. The discipline that he has to go through – he has to stay very physically fit. And there’s punishment he puts himself through that people don’t realize. I mean he can’t eat anything for four hours before he does his show. FOUR HOURS! Imagine a three-show day! I mean imagine that!
C: Talk about discipline.
K: Serious discipline. I mean that’s working hard for your act. Really hard. So I’m impressed with that. So yeah, those are some of the things I see backstage that amaze me and make me proud to be part of the team with people like that.
© Christopher Howell, 2015.
The Illusionists runs at The Shaftesbury Theatre, London until 3 January, 2016. Just drop me an email if you’d like the entire interview with more about P.T. Barnum, Kevin’s “Neon Transpo” illusion, magician Gaeton Bloom, comedian Jay Leno, Kevin’s future plans and lots more…