The Theatre Technician: ‘magicians fool others by fooling themselves’

Phillip* is a technician who has worked backstage on high-profile magic, illusion and circus productions. He spoke with Sophie Quick about misdirection, non-disclosure agreements and why people want to be fooled.

Animation of a blindfolded person with the scrolling words: 'TALENT COMING THROUGH TALENT COMING THROUGH EVERYONE BE AWARE NO EYE CONTACT'

What are magicians and illusionists like as a species?

It’s definitely a personality type, I’d say. They can be ego-driven, because it's an art form based on one person and their power. There are few performing art forms that are based on a single person, their point of view – and their entire relationship to the audience is saying, ‘I am better than you’. Comedians play in that space, I guess, but the idea of the magician really is: ‘I know things you don't. You're a sucker, you're a mark.’

Why do audiences want that?

People want to be fooled. People want to not know … That gap, that ambiguity, that sense of not knowing – it's tantalising. It's kind of disappointing when you do find out the banality of tricks, when you see them from [backstage]. It's a little sad.

Are magic productions the most complicated kind of shows for technical producers to work on?

Not really. Lighting is very important with magic, but it’s exacting rather than complex. Same with the audio. That’s because misdirection is the largest part of magic. Misdirection is that thing where [the magician or illusionist] is basically saying ‘look over there!’ and fooling you while you’re distracted.

It's kind of disappointing when you do find out the banality of tricks, when you see them from [backstage]. It's a little sad.

In close-up magic, it’s the way they move their hands around or touch your shoulder. Every time they touch you on the shoulder, it’s to take your mind off something their other hand is doing – that’s misdirection. So in a magic show, if you mess up lighting, if you put light where light is not supposed to be, or if you do sound at the wrong time, you can easily mess up the whole thing.

Did you ever see a trick or illusion go terribly wrong?

There was a lot of illusion in musicals I worked on a while back. In Beauty and the Beast – the transformation of the beast at the end of that show – that was a really expensive, mechanical thing. The beast is dead on the ground and she kisses him, then the spell is broken and he floats up the air and starts spinning around and then there's a flash of light and – BAM! – he's the prince. It's the big illusion at the end of the show and I guess Disney won’t shoot me to explain the way it’s done. When the actor is lying down dead, he’s sneakily attached to this big metal arm at the back. When the arm comes up, it’s directly behind him and covered in black velvet. With lighting effects, it’s a very good illusion. It really looks like he’s spinning in the air.

But one night the automation guy was checking the mechanism during the interval and he realised something was broken. And the thing that was broken – it would take him an hour to get to that bit and replace it. So they’re standing around – the automation guy, the director, the actor who plays the beast – and this whole discussion is taking place: ‘What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?’ And in the end, the guy who plays the beast goes, ‘Just jog the lights low – I’ll just dance it.’

So he did! Instead of doing the whole mechanism, he just did an on-the-spot interpretative dance kind of thing. The lighting people just cued the lights, he did this dance thing, timed it perfectly, ripped off the mask for the big reveal, lights come on, he’s standing on stage as the prince. Crowd goes wild.

That one mechanism was about $250,000 worth of equipment. But that’s the thing. He sold it. That’s the most important thing with illusion – selling it, convincing the audience. Look over there – boom – I’ve tricked you. It was amazing to see a multimillion dollar musical grind to a halt, then see a bunch of people decide to just dance it out.

Illustration of a magician's wand and top hat; from inside the top hat, a stage light beams upwards

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

What about tricks and illusions in circus performances?

I worked for Cirque du Soleil and there isn’t much illusion involved in that. The things they do look incredibly dangerous because they are. And they look incredibly skilful because they are. There's not much fudging in it.

The Cirque du Soleil theatre in Macau was built especially for the show and had an amazing amount of automation things in it, though. It had three enormous stage lifts that rotated and they had this enormous oval race track in the roof that was 100 metres one way and about 40 metres across and it had these cars that rode around on it and you could clip performers to them so they’d fly through the air everywhere.

One night, the automation operator double-tapped a cue. It put the cars out of order in their movement and wires started getting tangled. There was an acrobat up there and they had to do an emergency stop – and half the rescue happened while the audience was still in there, because it takes a while to evacuate. They had to do an abseil rescue of her, coming down from the roof, clipping onto her, then coming down again. They practise [rescues] all the time, but it's scary as fuck.

How did the audience respond?

They were so into it. Everyone loves to see a car accident. There are videos on YouTube; people filmed it in the audience. It turned out ok. They rescued her and she did the matinee the next day.

Do the crew usually know how the tricks and illusions work in a magic show?

There are so many gradations of tricks. There are tricks where [even if you work backstage] you will never really know how they work, because so much of the mechanism of the trick is controlled entirely by the magician. You don’t need to know and they’re not going to tell you. But there are other ones where – you're seeing it from a different angle and the misdirection isn't aimed at you – so you go, 'Oh right, I see how it's done.'

Do you respect magicians and illusionists more or less from seeing their shows behind the scenes?

Probably more. It's an art form. I work on a lot of art forms that I don’t really enjoy as a punter, but I still admire and respect. This is definitely one of them. Magicians fool others by fooling themselves. They just sit there with a mirror for hours upon hours just doing tricks over and over, working out every last thing, every tiny movement of the hand or whatever. And I respect people who do it with originality, who put a freshness on something that is hundreds of years old. The basics of the form haven’t changed in hundreds of years.

Have you ever worked for David Copperfield?

I did bump-in, bump-out crew on his show at the Regent years and years ago. There was a multi-page non-disclosure agreement. And bits of it – you can see versions on websites – it's famously weird. There were lots of things stating when you could and couldn't be on stage, or backstage, in order to limit your access to the illusions. That's fine, fair enough, it’s his intellectual property.

Six enormous security guards walked out in front of him, shouting: 'TALENT COMING THROUGH TALENT COMING THROUGH, EVERYONE BE AWARE. NO EYE CONTACT.'

There was other stuff, though. We were told to not make direct eye contact with him, which is one of those things where you go, 'Fucken what?' I remember one day we were all packing everything up on stage, and the only way [Copperfield] could get from the dressing rooms to the stage door was to cross the stage. Six enormous security guards walked out in front of him, shouting: 'TALENT COMING THROUGH TALENT COMING THROUGH, EVERYONE BE AWARE. NO EYE CONTACT.' And this little dude comes out, looking at the floor, walking straight past. It was weird.

Did you like his show?

Um, yeah? I mean, it's slick. It's shiny. It's a little bit too lacquered hair and smarminess for me.

Has anybody's show ever really blown you away?

Hmmm no, not really. Cirque du Soleil is impressive but that’s more about the acrobatic, athletic effort. You see people who have been training since they were children and now they’re in their twenties and they're at the peak of the game.

It's sad, though, that whole athletic thing – to reach that apex of perfection, knowing that it's not going to last forever. It either tails away from ageing, or there's a spectacular injury and you're done. I've seen people walk off stages or out of rehearsal rooms knowing they're never going to do that again – knowing one injury has ended everything they’ve worked towards.

It's so much better be mediocre and to have no amazing skills.

Yep!

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