We were fortunate enough to steal a moment of Scott Silven’s downtime from his two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe to talk a little about his shows, inspiration, what it’s like to perform, at much more.
Hannah: First I’d like to speak a little about Wonders at Dusk, what do you want your audience to get out of the show?
Scott: “Wonders at Dusk is a very personal show to me, telling the defining story from my past, something that really affected me and what I do today as an illusionist and a mentalist, so I want audiences to look at their own lives in the same way, at what defines them and how they can challenge themselves to achieve more. Every sort of effect in the show is guided towards that in some way, its not just about connecting with each other, it’s not just about connecting with your surroundings, but connecting with yourself, what you’re capable of. I hope its an inspiring experience for most of the people that come along. I don’t know how you found it yourself?
Yeah I would say inspiring is a good way to describe it
(laughs) Yeah that’s how I try to be with all my work, it’s not just about me standing on stage and presenting skills I’ve learned over years, it’s about using those skills to look at the world in a different way and allow audiences to look at the world in a different way as well. So that’s what I hope…there’s no set agenda when audiences come in, that they must experience a certain thing by the end, but I certainty hope it’s more than just entertainment.
What genre of magician would you say you are?
Well it’s interesting because magic… magic comes in so many different forms. Some [magicians] purely focus on close up, others focus on cards only or mentalism, so if we were defining by genre I’d say mentalism. But I also don’t want to limit that in terms of what I do onstage. I hope I’m a performance artist and a storyteller as well as being a mindreader. My background is theatre and hypnosis, so it’s bringing all those individual elements together and feeding them into an experience that hopefully isn’t just another mentalist or just another magician.
Did you attend university and did you have any other career aspirations other than magic? Or was it always magic?
Amazingly it has always been magic, which my family were thrilled by I’m sure. I started [magic] when I was 4 or 5 and then when I was 12 or 13 I was studying psychology, it was something I was studying in school and was fascinated by what the human mind was capable of. I studied hypnosis when I was 15 and in Milan on a summer holiday so I think my family knew at that point I had a real interest in the human mind. I studied theatre at Edinburgh University and the reason for studying that was purely because- I did acting when I was younger as well, was definitely a showman, and enjoy presenting in front of audiences, and I felt if I had a strong understanding of the craft of theatre that would be able to feed into my work that I do onstage. So I specialized in contemporary performance, which was a great subject to study because you study directing and producing and playwriting as well as acting, so you’re creating your own theatrical toolbox as well as your magical mentalist toolbox. Once I graduated I felt I was in a good place to begin to put the pieces together to shape my own work, so incredibly I have never had a real job, which is exciting and terrifying at the same time, but I would’t have it any other way.
It’s not every day that a person encounters a magician. What’s the first thing people ask you to say or do when they find out about your profession?
Well of course it’s “what am I thinking right now,” and “can you read my mind,” but once you pass that, I think generally it’s a bit of nervousness from people that meet you. It is quite a strange thing to meet someone who claims to have these skills. But I love interacting with people, as a kid my main reason for getting into mentalism was that inquisitiveness- as soon as I meet people I’m always wanting to find out more about them more so than have them find out about me. But also I think it’s really important to be able to switch off when you’re with friends or with family or sharing a coffee, you’re not trying to pry into the deepest reaches of their mind, you’re just trying to be present in the moment.
So what exactly is the appeal of magic to you?
Goodness that’s an excellent question. The appeal has shifted over the years, when I was much younger- my grandfather was the guy that taught me first of all- I started in a very traditional sense with card cheating. So I liked the manipulation, the deception, the artistry behind it at that point in time. The fact that you were working to present a great skill that to 99% of the public was invisible, I found quite exciting. As I got older I studied psychology and hypnosis I realized that magic is so important in our lives- to have a sense of wonder, to have a sense of curiosity is a delightful thing. I think in the world we live in today, to have something mysterious, to have something profound, is the most incredible thing, so that’s what drives my to develop my new shows is that sense of mystery. Yeah, I think that every time I develop something new, every time I see new piece of magic, it ties back to the what we are capable of as humans, what we can aspire to be.
Can you describe the most rewarding aspect of performing for audiences?
I think it’s the transformative nature of it, there’s almost a metamorphosis that takes place. Which for me is incredibly magical, that you see this audience coming in, especially during the festival- it’s late at night, they’re tired, I’m sure they’ve seen ten, fifteen shows throughout that week, and over the one hour I have with them, by the end I hope there really is a transformation where they’re much more open, much more connected. Certainly in the shows that I’ve done it’ll be an idea of connecting with each other, a sort of unconscious connection that runs through the piece, I often notice people exchanging numbers or speaking to each other down at the bar afterwards, so I’d say that’s the rewarding aspect, seeing the transformative nature.
Comedians are famous for referring to certain groups of people as tough crowds. What would you say are the most difficult and the easiest crowds for a magician to work with?
People often say that drunk audiences are the easiest to entertain but they are definitely the most difficult. Wonders at Dusk is on at 10:30pm at the festival and it is billed as a late night show but it not a traditional late night show, it is not a raucous experience, so I would say drunk audiences are definitely the most difficult. Surprisingly I find skeptical audience are the most enjoyable to work with because they come from a place of rational thought and I like to twist that subvert it in a way. I travel all over the world doing shows, and I find American audiences like yourself just to be fantastic, open and receptive. British audiences are a little bit more reticent. But I never look upon the audience as a situation where it is me vs them, its about an experience that were sharing together. I’ve never tried to convince them of something that isn’t real or may be real, it’s just about taking them to a different place and allowing to look at that place and make their own decisions from it.
Can you talk about the importance of showmanship by magicians as opposed to just having technical skills?
I think technical skills are really important and that’s absolutely what everyone should start out with, whatever branch of magic you’re doing whether that’s card magic or mentalism is to take yourself to the level where you have your own toolbox that you can delve into and create your own effects. Of course like any art form you’re going to be inspired by other people but it’s really important to have a strong set of skills. But a wonderful set of skills doesn’t make a great show. To truly connect with an audience, to truly shape something that is an unique experience, you need to craft your own persona or essentially your own character in some way. Showmanship is a difficult word because it can suggest a slickness or a unrealnness to who you are onstage. So I think its important that you display your humanity but that you also offer the audience something they haven’t seen before. The person I like to be onstage is some whose enigmatic, someone who clearly has a great love of mystery. The person I like to be onstage isn’t just someone whose smiling about how wonderful they are, ‘look at these amazing effects I’ve created’, as a lot of performers do seem to do. For me it comes from a place of real joy and innocence of seeing what we are all capable of. Showmanship is important, more important than technically skill, but what’s more important is that you display your humanity.
Do you watch other magicians’ shows? Who inspires you?
I really like Derek DelGuadio, he’s doing a show in Los Angeles called In & Of Itself, It’s directed by Frank Oz and is a magic show but also a piece of performance art, really philosophical and really interesting stuff. And of course in the UK, Derren Brown is incredible, a wonderful mentalist and wonderful performer and really the main inspiration I take from him is that he is a big proponent of using magic as a metaphor, that it’s something so much greater than what you see onstage. Another performer I really took inspiration from is as a child is one that unfortunately passed away a few days ago, Eugene Berger, a wonderful Chicago close up magician who was an incredible storyteller and he was- performing in small spaces and bringing the audiences close to him. He might only perform three or four effects but they would be the most incredible three or four effects that you would ever see in your life because they shaped a beautiful story and had humanity attached to it as well. So those are the three main magical performers I take inspiration from. And interestingly I think I like them all because with them it’s not just about the magic itself, it’s about pushing magic into different realms.
This is kinda leading off that as well, do you think that every magician lives in the long shadow of the big names like David Blaine and Derren Brown to some extent?
I think the majority of the public look on Blaine and Brown as gods and I think that is absolutely right because they are both incredible performers who have done very unique things within their perspective realms. So Blaine is one of the first to do street magic or the first to present a really minimalistic purist form of magic where it’s just about what you see in front of you, and there’s so many performers who have copied that, well known performers though the UK and the US, but Blaine deserves to stand at the top. And Brown is exactly the same, he is an incredible mentalist. I know he takes inspiration from another performer who is very inspirational who is David Berglas. He was Brown’s equivalent in the 80’s and 90’s in the UK, who presented this really interesting show of exploring the human mind. I think it’s really about carving your own path as a performer, certainly using those people as an inspiration but not worrying about living in the shadow. I think it’s like, once again like any craft, you’re going to take inspiration from artists that inspire you but its just about focusing on your work, and presenting the best work possible. I believe that if you take the time to craft and present good, unique work the opportunities will open themselves to you. And if not, if you just look on Brown and Blaine as great performers and copy all their material, then of course yeah you will live in their shadow.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve received or influence that you’ve had and who was the source of it?
The first one- there is a very old magic shop in Glasgow called Tam Shepherds and there is an man in Glasgow that runs it is called Roy Walton, who is an incredible card magician. A lot of the card effects you see other magicians do came from Roy originally, so I had the great pleasure at a young age of being able to go to Tam Shepherds. Something Roy always stood by was having originality in your work, and to yes be inspired by other people and to learn other moves but really to have originality. Whilst we do very different styles of magic that idea of originality and taking the time to create has always stayed with me. Then, the second influence I’ve had was very much my grandfather, he wasn’t a magician himself but he had a great love of mysteries and practical jokes and really shaped my childhood experience with magic. Anytime I’m crafting something new now I’m always thinking of him in some way and what he would think of it or how I would react if he was presenting this to me. So it’s always a nice base to begin from.
And then, what is the best piece of advice you’ve given and who was the recipient?
That’s a difficult question because I think the advice we give to people comes from other people, sort of percolates through from somewhere else, we pass it down and its sort of like a myth in that way, so it has probably been passing on what Roy said about originality, I’ve said that to multiple performers and magicians. And also really about finding joy in what you do. Certainly when you get to a situation like the Edinburgh Festival where you’re performing 50 shows in 24 days or something, or as I do I do a lot of work in America, travelling a lot, doing a lot of shows in big venues, its about finding joy in your work, deciding that’s the reason you do it. And if ever you look on what you’re doing- whatever it is you do in life- and you don’t find joy in it, you should step away and reassess if it exactly what you want to do. So every day when I wake up I’m hugely excited about getting ready for the show or practicing the next effect or perhaps to working towards something else. I’m in an incredibly privileged position where I know of myself, if I won the lottery tomorrow this is still exactly what I would want to do with my life. So that’s the sort of life goal I try to pass onto anyone that I meet.
We’re just about out of time, but before we finish, I just wanted to ask if you have any exciting new projects in the works?
I have a really exciting year ahead which I’m very much looking forward to, this September I start a film which is called Carmilla which is a Gothic novel from the 1870’s written by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and it was sort of the quintessential vampire novella before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. There’s a character in it called The Magician who is a very mysterious enigmatic figure, and very excitingly I’ve been cast as the magician and the illusion consultant in this film. We’ve got this amazing cast and it’s this really interesting project. Then after that I’m hopefully going to be going to New York to premier a new show which hopefully I’ll be doing for a few months. Then starting next year I start a six month American tour which will be going across the United States in some really lovely spaces with interesting theaters, and then hopefully I’ll be premiering a brand new show at next years Fringe. So it’s a little bit nonstop for the next few months but I’m really excited about it all.
Tickets for Scott Silven’s At the Illusionist’s Table appear to be all sold out but you can still nab one for his last Wonders at Dusk on August 27th at The Dome.