Orlan head on table at ICA

Making Magical Magic: Part 2

You may have seen a big Broadway or West End show recently with magic in it. If so, theatre magic consultant Paul Kieve probably cast the spells behind the scenes. Here’s the second part of my fascinating interview with Paul. We sat down in his kitchen last year and he let the stories roll…

Christopher: Lots of magic in fact isn’t very magical. That strikes me as ironic! You get to work on shows with narratives and help weave the story with the magic. I think there’s the potential for lots more magic when you skilfully blend it with a story.

Related articles:
Read Paul Kieve’s first interview here.
With Kevin James, magician in The Illusionists.
How it was to study with magician Eugene Burger.

Paul: There’s a lot of blag in the magic world. I mean people shouting off about their achievements that aren’t really achievements. It sells DVDs and things. It would never happen in music for example that a person could compose a piece of music that lasts ten seconds and suddenly be regarded as a highly acclaimed performer. But I generally find those doing the most interesting stuff in magic are those who are slightly outside of magic. They get inspiration from other things and from working in other fields. The other problem is it can be relatively easy to make a living doing close-up corporate stuff. There are some wonderful close-up performers but it’s not an areahere you’re driven to be original or take risks. In fact it’s quite the opposite.

“A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.”
– Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin

Christopher: In your work as theatre magic consultant, how have you found actors (who you’ve trained to do magic) relate to performing magic? Of course there’s the Robert Houdin quote of the magician being an actor playing the part of the magician. Do you find that actors benefit from the magic that they’re incorporating into their performance?

Paul: It depends on the actor and the piece I think. I think really good actors will know if it’s right for them. They know if it’ll help their character and make them look better. I always remember Tommy Steele who was famously difficult to work with. But I worked with him over ten years on Scrooge as we’d do it every year and he was very attentive to every detail. He’d always ask me, ‘you got any notes, mate?’ and he knew he had to do it well to make it look good. So he totally got it.

Magic Consultant and Tommy Steele in theatre

I think you can sometimes get actors who are difficult but they’re often having a hard time otherwise. Maybe they’re not enjoying the project or are very insecure. Some of whom can hardly remember their lines let alone remember how to pull off a magic trick.

I once walked out of a theatre when an actor was so rude to me. He was a TV actor. It was his first stage performance and he couldn’t remember his lines. He needed to do something precise. The actor had to hold a prop a very specific way. He was vile to me and I said you can’t talk to me like that – I thought ‘fuck it’ and walked out for a breather. When I went back in he was all apologetic and good as gold. In the show though when he saw the result when the audience gasped – he knew it was worth it.

get the magic in up front

It’s best if you put (the magic) in early so they can get used to it. I always say an hour at the start of the rehearsal process is as good as six at the end of it. If you can get in during the first week, everyone’s relaxed compared to at tech time. But there’s been a tradition of magic in shows with theatre magic consultants going in during tech. Geoffrey Durham always used to say is the tradition of most magic in stage shows is that it gets cut during tech because no one’s there to see it through. You have to be there to work with everybody.

Christopher: One thing I never understood is why so many magicians make a point of saying they’re ‘practicing the art of magic.’ When I was doing my theatre degree or my singing training after that, there weren’t any actors or singers going around saying “I’m practicing the art of theatre” or “I’m performing the art of singing.” As a magic consultant, what’s your take on that?

Paul: It is totally pretentious and it bugs me and is embarrassing. It just shows a complete misunderstanding. It’s really difficult to get into that conversation about whether something’s an art or not. And I think it’s pretentious to worry about. I was very close with John Wilson who was a conductor and he never talks about the art of music. He might say he’s in the presence of genius to work with say the music of Mozart or Beethoven. Really great classical musicians never big themselves up in public about how good they are, say to play the violin. Instead they tend to play themselves down if anything. They get on with incredible performances and then go down the pub after the performance.

And I suppose it’s like that in theatre. You don’t see Imelda Staunton get off stage to go around saying ‘I’m a great artist.’ She’s an extraordinarily hard working performer. I once worked with Judy Dench on Cranford. Tim Curry was playing a magician and Judy had to make this key appear in her hand so I had to teach her a bit of sleight of hand. The night before she worked out a way to do it on her own. She came to me the first day and said quite excitedly ‘I worked a way out to do it.’ I asked ‘have you done something like this before?’ and she replied ‘no I haven’t, but I think it’s marvellous!’

Judy Dench with theatre and Magic Consultant

On the same episode Judy had to wrap a parcel and the prop guy told me that she’d insisted on taking the box and paper home for two days before it. She wanted to practice how she’s going to wrap it so when she did the scene she wouldn’t hold anyone up. She would know how to blend the rhythm of the text with the wrapping of the parcel. She’s one of our great actors but you know she’s so great because she’s probably worried about getting it wrong that makes her great.

Christopher: You’ve worked on a huge variety of projects during your career as a theatre magic consultant. Tell us one of the most random stories connected to a job you’ve done?

Paul: Well in 1996 I did a project at the ICA in London. I used to love working with artists and for this I worked with the artist Orlan. She wanted to do an exhibition about disembodied heads. So we did the sphinx at the ICA with a gauze stage, all white, really cool so it really looked like nothing was around it. We did this very clean image and her look is really distinctive. Remember, 1996 was really pre-internet. It appeared in some arts journals and she kept faxing me at the time saying we ought to do it again. I liked working with her.

Paul Kieve magic consultant to do her woman with head Orlan on a table.

Anyways, a year ago a friend sent me an article saying ‘maybe you should sue Lady Gaga too?’ It turned out, Lady Gaga has nicked lots of Orlan’s imagery and has stolen the image of the disembodied head on the table in exactly the same way – not with the sphinx underneath it, but the same looking head. It was unmistakably the same head and setup so my project with Orlan is now at the centre of a $30 million lawsuit between Orlan and Lady Gaga. If nothing else, I hope that it alerts people to how these big artists like Lady Gaga just take things piecemeal off other people and certainly she took lots off of Orlan and Madonna of course did this as well. But maybe it’s not a bad thing as it’ll throw light back onto Orlan. … -CH

Post script: Recently Paul was theatre magic consultant on the Tim Minchin musical Groundhog Day which debuted at the Old Vic in 2016. It will be opening on Broadway with previews from 16 March this year.  If you want to read more of my interview with Paul, here’s the first part that was published last year. And if you’re REALLY keen, just get in touch and I can send you the whole transcript as there’s lots of interesting stuff I didn’t have room for about his work on Ghost the Musical, the Dynamo UK tour, and with Kate Bush.  

Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

© Christopher Howell 2016.

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