Tech-free tricks, old-school sleight of hand: How modern magicians keep magic alive
Online how-to videos 'push the art form forward,' says Canadian illusionist Darcy Oake
A century ago, magicians like Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston amazed audiences with their death-defying stunts and sleight of hand.
But that was long before there were YouTube videos explaining the secrets behind magic tricks and special effects capable of wowing crowds with computer-generated illusions.
So how do modern magicians, mind-readers and illusionists keep the magic alive in 2017?
To answer that, we spoke to the pros — the men and women working right now in Toronto's thriving magic scene.
The Winnipeg-born illusionist fell in love with magic as a child after watching his father do a card trick. Since then, he has honed his skills, headlining at The Magic Castle in Hollywood at 18 and later performing a national tour of Canada.
But Oake's big break was in 2014 — appearing before roughly 200 million viewers on Britain's Got Talent and winning praise from the judges, including hard-to-please Simon Cowell.
Fast forward to 2017, and Oake is among The Illusionists: Live From Broadway cast members appearing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until Jan. 7.
The rising star, known for disappearing acts and high-stakes escapes, says he knows that when he's developing material, people will slow it down and watch it over and over to figure out how the magic works. But he doesn't let that faze him.
"It helps to push the art form forward, totally, because you can't become complacent knowing that someone's going to watch this 50 times… it keeps you on your toes and keeps you ahead of the curve."
And, he says, while there has been an "evolution" of the art form, much of it is still based on the magic tricks developed in the 1800s.
A Scottish stage mentalist — think Amazing Kreskin-style mind reading — Colin Cloud is also part of The Illusionists: Live From Broadway cast performing now in Toronto.
As he's proven in dozens of TV appearances, including on America's Got Talent, Cloud is capable of figuring out everything from a long-lost friend you're hoping to see again to your iPhone passcode. But, he says, pulling off mind-bending stunts is about practice, not modern technology.
"A lot of the stuff I do, I create the techniques myself," he says. "The truth is, the way that my 'magic' works is it's all really based in knowledge and practice, and anyone could do what I do if they've dedicated the time that I have."
Still, society and culture have changed, so modern magicians have to tweak things a bit. "At the moment, when I do my solo shows, I look at things like Twitter and social media and how that impacts us, whereas a thousand years ago, that wasn't a thing."
David Ben has performed thousands of shows around the world in his 40 years as a Toronto-based magician, and is now the artistic director of local performing arts charity Magicana. Ben's house is filled with posters of world-famous magicians from a century ago — and he says those magicians faced a different world.
"There is no television, there is no radio, there is no YouTube, that we have today," he says. "It's pure fantasy performed on stage."
Still, Ben strives to keep that fantasy alive for modern audiences. "I think that magic remains compelling, because it deals with the basic elements of humanity," he says.
"A torn and restored object or levitation is sort of like death and resurrection and its cultural roots, and I think that the more questions we have in the world, the more we turn to magic for inspiration."
The Sentimentalists are a mind-reading duo from Toronto, one half Mysterion and the other half Steffi Kay — both mentalists capable of figuring out your favourite celebrity or movie with what feels like telepathic ease.
Rather than go for an edgy vibe, like big-name modern magicians like Criss Angel, the duo takes an old-school approach in both their looks and tech-free tricks.
"These acts around in the Victorian days, and the age of Vaudeville — they looked like they were reading people's minds," says Mysterion. Sure, it's not really mind-reading, but he says there's an art to it that doesn't involve any electronics.
"You can't just Google how we do it, because no one knows how we do it," adds Kay.