May 22, 2013 Theatre
Down the line from Los Angeles, Mark Kalin lets out a sigh of pleasure. “You’ve just won the award for the greatest question ever.” He’s one of The Illusionists, an ensemble of seven magicians who bring their live show to Auckland in May. I’ve asked him to go one better and name his dream line-up, living or dead.
Kalin thinks for a moment before rattling off a list of personal heroes: Robert-Houdin, the 19th century Frenchman credited as the father of modern magic; PT Selbit, who was the first magician to saw a woman in half (Kalin and Jinger Leigh, his on and off-stage partner pictured above, perform a re-creation of that original trick as part of their act); Doug Henning, the shaggy 70s hippie who single-handedly dragged stage magic out of top-hat-and-tails stagnation; and David Copperfield, famous for disappearing the Statue of Liberty and walking through the Great Wall of China.
Finally, he name checks the Marilyn Manson-style shock magician Dan Sperry, “a true original” with whom, back in real life, he’ll be sharing the stage in Auckland. The acts who make up The Illusionists are some of the top magicians working today, including Italian escapologist Andrew Basso and mega-illusionist Brett Daniels. Kalin says they’re a happy but highly competitive bunch.
“Getting your material into the show isn’t about anything except who has the best stuff. If yours is the best you’ll have the most time in the show; if your stuff isn’t quite up there, it’ll be pulled and somebody else will get that spot. We’re always trying to outdo each other.”
After the high times of the 80s and 90s, when rock-star magicians bestrode arenas and television schedules alike, fashions moved on and away from live magic. Budgets shrank, televised variety shows all but disappeared, and star performers like Kalin and Jinger, whose 2001 disappearance of an American Airlines plane was the biggest stage illusion in history, learned to lower their sights.
“And then along came [Illusionists producer] Simon Painter, who said, ‘I want the biggest, the best magic show there is.’ And that has meant, for all of us, a tremendous rebirth in our approach to magic. We’ve been given the opportunity to dream once again, to forget about being practical and just concentrate on doing something really cool.”
When we speak, Kalin and Jinger have been holed up with top magic designer Don Wayne for three days, working on new concepts for the Auckland shows. Sure, they could fob off local audiences with tried-and-trusted tricks they haven’t seen before, “but that’s the easy road”.
“The whole point after this long journey is for us to do something new in The Illusionists. I think we all feel a great sense of responsibility to raise the bar, to push magic forward, and not just rely on what magicians have been doing for the last 20 years.
“[Live entertainment] is a different world now. We’re competing with people like Beyoncé for audiences. So you have to raise your game, to be able to say, ‘This is what magic is now, and it deserves to be here, it deserves your attention.’”
The Illusionists Live: The Civic, May 22-June 2.