Now that Edinburgh Fringe 2017 is over, our reviewer Hannah got to sit down and chat with Chris Cook, whose shows Control and Concealed we absolutely loved.
Hannah: The first thing I wanted to ask you, what is it you want your audiences to get out of your show?
Chris: The [performance of Control] you came to, I feel like the guy on stage really dug that out of me. And I think that was the moment I really realized it. What I want is for the audience to leave that room better people than when they came in. And I think one of the ways we do that is by building a little community, by getting to know each other better and feeling like we’ve made something, not like we’ve just watched something, but that we’ve experienced something. What came out of me that day is that it’s really easy to impress people- as a magician I think it’s really easy to make people clap and laugh and to impress them, but it’s hard to make people think and it it’s really hard to make people feel, and that’s all I want to do.
And that’s what the show is about, that’s what the journey is. People come into that room and they’re expecting a magic show, so I have to deliver, I have to impress them in the beginning, I have to make them clap and laugh and be wowed. And then half way through, I’ve got them on board, now I can do what I really want to do, which is to start to make them think, think about their own lives and why they are not the people they want to be. Then by the end of the show I don’t know if we make it, but my hope is people will feel something. I think the person who helps me with the finale, they will feel something, and I hope the audience sat there really do as well. It’s not for me to say, and it’s also not for me to ram it down people’s throats. If you can make a connection with the show, that’s amazing, if it didn’t quite hit, that’s fine. Maybe it’s my fault, maybe it’s just not the show for them. But I think all I really want to do is make people feel and make people better. I think humans are great, I think we can leave that room and look out for each other and make the world a better place. That’s my hope.
Which of the life goals that you talked about in “Control” are you going to work on first?
One of them was just to paint some more, and I think I’m going to do some painting this evening, now that the Fringe is over and I’ve got some free time. That might be one I start on first. One of them was to spend more time with my brother, which I’ve already started to do.
I think the ones that are more important to me are the ones that are harder to do, but I think that’s okay. I don’t think life should be too easy, like if life was easy it would be boring so- I’ve never visited some family that I have in New Zealand, so I really need to make that happen. There were quite a lot of travelling things. I really want to get my qualification so I can go scuba diving and that’s going to require some work and some time, and I’ll probably book a holiday away somewhere so that I can do it somewhere beautiful. I don’t know which of them means the most to me. One that I was just talking about, the dream was to do a show at the Fringe that isn’t a magic show. I think that will be the hardest. If I can come up with a way of still being entertaining and still connecting with an audience, but without doing magic, I think that might be the most difficult thing I do, but maybe that’s the most important.
So what exactly is the appeal of magic to you?
The appeal? Hmm. I don’t know, I don’t think that there is an appeal. I actually don’t think I like magic. I think magic is often about – a magician’s aim is often to fool an audience, and I think inherently with that comes making a fool of the audience, and I don’t want to make a fool of the audience, I want to connect with them and empower them and make them better. I don’t want to make them look stupid, I want to make them feel smart I guess. So actually, I don’t think there is an inherent appeal with magic, I think magic is often a thing where you see something and think, that’s a really impressive trick, but I could never see myself doing something like that because that’s- it wouldn’t fit with what I’m trying to achieve. So I don’t know- I realize that might be a bit of a weird answer to that question but I do think I want to use magic as a tool, not just do magic. I guess I want that tool to be a tool of encouragement and try to make the audience connect and feel better. I really don’t want to use magic to make people look silly or make a fool out of them.
As a magician, what kind of audiences have you found to be the most difficult and the easiest to entertain?
(laughs) Sometimes Sundays can be really hard? Cause everyone’s had a big night out and my shows are quite early in the morning. Sometimes tired crowds can be hard. I feel like I’m quite good at pitching the audience, figuring out where they’re at and getting myself on the same page. So like, I can do shows that are quite sweary and political, but I’ve also done things for a lot of kids that are more gentle, or whatever. Some of the most difficult audience are people who are drunks, or sometimes people that are just too excited. Like with the Control show, on the show that you came to, it was amazing, the crowd were so on board, like everything that I said was hilarious that the jokes that maybe used to get a little laugh were getting rounds of applause and huge cheers and I just remember thinking, “I’m not going to be able to get to the end of this show. I will not be able to do the gear change that takes this from like funny silly magic show to thoughtful meaningful audience interaction.” And I think we really got there by the guy I got on stage and we started asking each other questions. But sometimes that can be hard, audiences that are so excited that they’re not even really paying attention.
And the easiest?
The easiest are people who have seen you before and they know you and they like you. Or they’ve been recommended you, so they show up to that room knowing that they’re going to have a good time so you don’t have to win them over. They’re probably the easiest crowd.
What would you describe as the most rewarding aspect of performing for audiences?
I really like it when people get in touch and say “you were the best show we’ve seen in years,” like when people do that it’s really amazing, it feels really rewarding. I had someone say that he comes to the Fringe every year for like ten years and that my show was the best thing he’s ever seen. I think like, wow, that’s really- it feels really rewarding. But I think I know when I’ve made a difference. I don’t think I need someone to thank me. I can do a show and I know sometimes I’ve connected with the audience in a way that they’ll go away and think about what we’ve dealt with, and that’s probably the most rewarding experience. Certainly with Control and with the arrows, sometimes I do that and I know they’re going to think really hard about their dreams, and they’re going to go and try to achieve them. I don’t need them to thank me, I don’t need them to email me a photo of them stood on the top of Kilimanjaro or whatever their dream was, I know I’ve made a difference, and that’s probably the most rewarding.
Can you talk about the importance of showmanship as opposed to just having the technical skills?
Yeah it’s the most important thing. Yeah. I think I’ve seen so many magicians who have incredible skills, like magically they’re very good, but their performance is not good and I think showmanship and performance is the most important thing. Not even showmanship, you can be yourself, but confidence is it, enamoring the audience, that’s what is important. Whenever I speak to magicians that are trying to get better, young magicians starting out, everyone gives them the same advice- which is “practice, practice, practice.” My advice is don’t practice. Just don’t do it. Don’t sit at home in your mirror practicing that move again and again, just go out and do it. Just go down to the pub and show that trick to your friends, show it to your parents, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, something like that. They’ll tell you what’s wrong, they’ll help you get better, people will go “I saw that, it’s hidden in your other hand” or they’ll go “eh that’s okay, but it wasn’t as funny as you thought it might be.” So I don’t think you should practice. Don’t get me wrong, you gotta be good, your magic has got to be good, but like, it’s probably 10-15% of what’s important. I’ve seen magicians absolutely slay audiences with a trick that costs three pounds in a magic shop, that every kid has probably bought at some point, but they’ll do it on stage in front of a thousand people and have everyone in stitches because it’s not about the trick, it’s about the performance. That’s what I think is important.
Okay, this is a question you’ve kind of answered in your show, so just answer for people who haven’t seen it- did you attend university and did you have any other career aspirations early on or was it always magic?
I don’t think my career aspirations have ever been magic. I don’t think I ever really wanted to be a magician, and I still don’t think I want to be one. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy my job- I think it’s amazing and I love it. But I certainly never planned on becoming a magician. I’ve always wanted to work with people. I used to work as a youth worker and I really enjoyed that, I used to work as an outdoor instructor at a ropes course center where I taught kids how to climb and I really enjoyed that. Then I went to Leeds University to study journalism- I’m interested in the media- and I thought I wanted to be a reporter or a presenter or even a travel reporter or a war reporter, but I just realized that the media is very broken and I didn’t feel like I was the best person to fix it. So I didn’t feel like I could really go into that job. There’s a lot of nepotism but also there’s a lot of laziness, we call it churnalism, where journalists churn out press releases without really thinking about it. I think the 24 hour news cycle has meant the demand for news- like that we need to know now, straight away- that’s not really good. I don’t want to know when something happens, I want to know why it happens. So, yeah, we shouldn’t really know, this many people died in Iraq today, we should know, why are we at war in Iraq? What’s going on there? I feel like until the world of journalism changes there is not really a place for me in it. That and also I wasn’t even that good at it anyway.
I actually watched your TED Talk and I wanted to know if you ever considered astronomy or seriously thought about being an astronaut?
Yeah, that’s good, yeah! I love astronomy, or not even really astronomy, but I’m fascinated by space. I think space is amazing, and I think that it fits in with this idea that I feel like we’re all a collective, and like if you’re from Edinburgh you don’t like people from Glasgow and if you’re from Glasgow you don’t like people from Edinburgh but then suddenly, if we’re talking about countries, it’s like well I’m from Scotland, and we’re all from Scotland, and now we’re in part of that collective. Or we’re all from Britain, or we’re all from Europe, or we’re all from the West, and I think that’s why space is so exciting- cause we’re all from planet Earth. We’re all in this together, we’re all humans, we’re all life, like life is exciting, so I’m constantly fascinated by space and just the insane distances between things. It’s also quite depressing though, it’s quite sad, that there could be life out there but we’ll probably never find it, it’s too far away. I often wonder why, why are the distances so great and why is the speed of light so slow? It takes so long to get anywhere that by the time you’ve got there you’ve died. And that can be a bit bleak, but yeah I’m fascinated by space. It’s just a little hobby, to read about that. I don’t think I could ever become a physicist.
Do you watch other magician’s shows and what goes through your mind when you’re watching them?
I don’t watch loads of magic shows because I don’t really like them. What I want to see when I see a magic show is a point, a purpose, a message, a story. I don’t want to see like a magazine, like “here’s a trick, and then we’ll turn the page, and here’s another trick, if you didn’t like that one you might like this one.” I want it to feel like it’s really like reading a novel, like it’s going and experiencing a thing, and I don’t see a lot of magic shows that do that so I don’t go and see a lot.
But there are some that do that and that’s really exciting. I think when I’m talking about “let’s create a new genre of magic” I think there are people that could be doing that. So like, I went to see Sam Fitton’s show on the last day, and I loved it, because it was -it was by no means a perfect show, but- he had a concept and an idea, and instead of going “here’s a load of magic tricks”, he’s going “I’m waiting at a train station and I missed my train and then I went into this dream world and in my dreams I’m really magic and that’s why magic is happening.” It was charming and it was lovely and it was a piece of theatre. It might not have had a really solid message but it had a point to it and it wasn’t just a selection of tricks.
And similarly with Ava Beaux, with her show, I thought that was a really bold first show at the Fringe, because like, she’s very young, she’s new, she’s kind of nervous, and instead of going “I’ll just bring some of my favourite tricks, and I’ll just do what I’m good at”, she’s going ‘no, I’ll tell the stories of Edgar Allen Poe through magic tricks” and I’m like yeah, that’s what I’m talking about, let’s do more of that instead of just trying to show off. I don’t like magic that feels like it’s just showing off. Those were a couple of things I saw this Fringe that I really liked.
And there are a couple other people doing things like that, I just wish there were more people doing things like that. Like if I asked Ava Beaux “what is the point of your show” and she’d be like ‘I want audiences to love Edgar Allen Poe as much as I do or to feel like they’ve understood him more.” And you’d ask Sam Fitton “what is the point” and he’d be like “I want to transport them to a dream world where we’re all stuck on a train station platform together.” Whereas you ask other magicians what the point is, they just go “I just wanna make people laugh and clap and be impressed by me” and I just think that seems very needy to me, that’s not what we want. We shouldn’t strive for that. I want my audience to leave that room better people than when they came in. I think that’s important. That is the first aim, impressing them comes second to that. I wish there were more magic shows that were trying to do more than impress people.
So who are your heroes, mentors, and models in the magic world?
I’m not sure. I grew up in the Lake District and I didn’t have any other magicians around me, so I didn’t really have any magic mentors, I felt like I learnt more from folk musicians and storytellers who taught me more about how to perform on a stage. I do really like Penn & Teller. And I really like Derren Brown a lot although I don’t really like mentalism, I really like what he does because I feel like he has a point. Most of his shows whether, it’s his stage shows or his tv shows, he has a purpose or he has a message or he has something he tries to deliver, and again he does it without taking himself too seriously. He’s still very funny and casual and I like that. Last year I saw Charlie Caper and I actually got him to perform in Best of Magic. He won Sweden’s Got Talent with this really charming street performer style act. While I don’t think the magic I do is similar to what he does, I really liked his style and it inspired me to go and do more street performing.
Do you think that every magician lives in the long shadow of big name magicians like, as you mentioned, Derren Brown, or Dynamo or David Blaine?
Yeah, I mean we’ve all got to be grateful for them. I think it’s easy not to like David Blaine, especially as some of his performance style can seem like he’s taking himself too seriously, but I think it’s amazing because we have to respect that he made magic cool again. Before that if you said you were a magician it meant that you were wearing a top hat and you had a cape and you’re producing doves, or you’re doing children’s parties dressed as a clown. Whereas he came along and made magic cool. And I think one of my idols was Paul Venon, who’s like the British David Blaine. He was doing street magic at the same time, I liked him more because he didn’t take himself too seriously, he was very silly, was very funny, he focused more on the reactions, than on the magic tricks and I really liked that. I’m not a huge Dynamo fan, I’ve watched his tv shows, but again I’ve got so much respect for him because I can tell he’s making magic cool and he’s got kids into magic. Then Derren Brown I think is the God of mentalism. I’ve never seen a mentalist live and not though, “eh, you’re just like a poor man’s Derren Brown.” I feel sorry for people who do mind reading and mentalism shows because a lot of them are working really hard to to really incredible stuff but they live in the shadow of Derren Brown. I’ve never seen anyone better than him, they often seem just like a cheap imitation.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve received and what was the source of that advice?
One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve received was from a juggler who I used to work with doing circus and juggling shows. We were practicing something, it was one of his shows, and I was doing this joke that was a physical prop gag and I was making it really obvious and really trying to make it so clear, so everyone got the joke. He was like “I think you should make it more subtle” and I was like “I worry if I make it more subtle people won’t get it” and he just said to me “if they don’t get it they don’t deserve it.” It really was just the best piece of advice, and I feel like I’ve lived like that since. But other than that…my advice is don’t listen to other people’s advice, just go out and be yourself.
Just before we go, do you have any exciting future projects that you’re working on?
Lot’s of things! You mentioned my TED talk, I’m doing that for ITV at Emmerdale, in about 5 days time. I haven’t done that for about two years so I need to relearn my own TED talk so I can do that again, I’m a bit nervous about that. I’ve booked in some tour dates of Control, so I’m doing it in Bristol and in the Lake District, and I’m doing it in Vienna and Bratislava in November, and I’m going to try and take it to Australia. I’d like to do it at the Adelaide Fringe Festival or possibly the Perth Festival next year. The whole time I’ll be thinking about new ideas for my new show at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. And I guess I’ll try and do a bit more street performing. So when I am away travelling I can just busk anywhere and not have to book things so far in advance. So yeah, lots of exciting things in the pipeline!