Escape the headlines, find the magic: Why we need the oldest tricks in the book more than ever

Fall down the rabbit hole and into Toronto's trickiest art scene: magic.

Fall down the rabbit hole and into Toronto's trickiest art scene: magic

Sawyer Bullock. (Kelly Saunders)

It's a new year, and we're already exhausted.

Each day, the turning tides of Twitter bring new garbage and controversy to shore. The online gladiator matches between academics, activists, politicians and pot-stirring trolls fill up our social media feeds — one of our last bastions of mind-numbing distraction — with even more turmoil than our daily life affords. We need a break.

In the 1900s, the silver screen provided some distraction from the news of the World Wars, but it also served as a conduit for propaganda. These days, we similarly struggle to find escapism that isn't tinged with politics. Only now, partisan tension seems to follow us everywhere, beyond the movie theatre and into comedy clubs, sports arenas and  every content-producing corner of the internet.

It's hard to hide from it — all of our open tabs beckon us to dip one more time into what will inevitably put a damper on the day. But what if there were a way to momentarily hush the noise and avoid getting swept away by the deluge of headlines? What if, just for an evening, instead of going into a tailspin of reading, arguing and frantically allowed yourself to be fooled?

Sawyer Bullock. (Sawyer Bullock)

Sawyer Bullock takes the stage in a cramped board-game bar. There are 40 or so people lining the walls and sitting in high-backed plastic chairs. The guests chatter before the beginning of The Newest Trick in the Book, an event where notoriety spreads through the magic grapevine.

Bullock walks onto the stage with a stride similar to a wind-up soldier and claps his hands once — a move that demands attention. With the eyes of his audience glued to his intense gaze, he produces a cold, moist slab of deli meat from his dress pants' pocket. "My first trick is called 'Sleight of Ham,'" he announces.

With seasoned stage presence, Bullock flips the grandiosity of the moment on its head as he invites a young man to shuffle the "deck" of ham and memorize his chosen slice. After a burst of fire flares out from Bullock's sneaker, a freshly baked dinner roll emerges and the correctly marked slice of ham is produced from inside the dinner roll. The scene concludes in bursts of laughter and flabbergasted awe.

Magic has always been linked to performance for Bullock, ever since he put on his first show for a group of mothers at a library reading group. "I've always been an introvert, and the thought of going up to people was always terrifying," he says. "I think my social skills developed alongside doing hours and hours of magic — especially with close-up magic: you have to break the ice and make everyone comfortable."

Part of Bullock's unique edge lies in the fact that he doesn't take himself too seriously — he brings playful wit to what can otherwise be overdramatized. "I take my magic very seriously, but I'm not always solemn. I find that you set the tone for the show within the first 30 seconds; you're letting the audience know how it's appropriate to react. If it's obvious that I'm chiefly interested in us all having a good time, the crowd understands that I'm not there to fool them, like, 'Screw you, I'm the magic boy.'"

Chris Mayhew (right). (Chris Mayhew/Facebook)

Chris Mayhew, another headliner at The Newest Trick in the Book, shares Bullock's awareness of the dynamic between audience and performer. Recently, as he performed close-up magic for people in the lineup at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mayhew pinpoints the moment when his unsuspecting audience realized they could relax and enjoy the show. "Once they're aware that you're part of the act, the guards go down," he explains.

In a societal climate full of divisive politics and aggressive arguments, magic invites us to react differently: we embrace the person on the other side of the divide, and we want to be deceived. As the audience, we don't want to have a glimpse behind the curtain — we unknowingly beg the performer to keep us at arm's length so we can taste the fascinating flavours of wonder and curiosity.

Mayhew is a renowned trick-creator in the North American magic scene, having spent many years tinkering away on methodology and technique before bringing his own act to stage — his persona a combination of the insecure yet lovable prankster. His devotion to the invention of new tricks and technique has led him to a unique understanding of the yawning gap between what the audience thinks they want to know and what actually makes a good magic show.

Often, the audience supposes that they're desperate for the answer. (In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, we want to know everything, don't we?) But, as Mayhew puts it, the simplicity of the sleight is integral to the trick — the pleasure is in the explicit unknowing. We're willingly fooled because we trust that the magician's truth will not harm, and that their deception will lead us to creative wonder, not disorienting confusion.

Julie Eng, the executive director of an arts organization called Magicana, has made a long career of finding ways to use magic to bring joy. She succeeds by touching on the shared human need for wonder — whether it's performing for hundreds of people in a theatre or working on fine motor skills with a child recovering from injury. "We get to share the experience of magic in the capacity of giving," Eng explains. "It's this idea of instilling a sense of wonder, fulfilling a mystery without making the person feel tricked. I don't like tricks."

Increasingly, much of our experience is now internet-sized; everything is either being critiqued or praised online. Eng, however, prefers the flesh-and-blood presence of a live performance — a communal experience in real time. "When you boil it down, you think you know the world a certain way, and then along comes magic and it shows you something that you didn't realize could happen. And that's fun — it ignites your imagination and opens your world a bit. This is what art does: it lets us look at the world differently. Magic has a unique experiential mechanism that touches people differently than other art forms."

The classic magic show that has entertained audiences for decades provides a collaborative experience of wonder and unity. Rather than highlighting division to incite conflict, magicians like Bullock, Mayhew and Eng invite their audience to embrace a divide — and experience, for a moment, the unique joy of not knowing it all and being quite alright with that.

The Newest Trick in the Book runs every Tuesday night through February 26th at See Scape in Toronto. Get tickets here


Conor Sweetman enjoys thinking about artistic and literary things. He is the Founder of Ekstasis Magazine, the Communications Coordinator for DeafBlind Ontario Services and a freelance writer from Toronto.