Sitting at a table covered with a red felt cloth in his Toronto studio, magic producer David Ben demonstrates how a magician shuffles cards.
To the spectator sitting across from him, it looks innocuous enough, but lean up beside him and he’ll show you that he can see the face of every card as he fans through the pack with his fingers. Oh, there’s a queen. He stops and cuts the deck, placing the queen on the bottom.
On he goes, dexterously repeating the process again and again, demonstrating how he can locate high value cards, mark their position in the pack and then produce them on demand in the midst of a seemingly innocent shuffle and cut.
Magicians aren’t supposed to share their secrets with the public, and Ben figures that this taboo is a problem. It’s part of the reason why magic is always considered a lesser form, the five-minute trick of the commercial variety show or the hobbyist’s after-dinner amusement. The techniques of real art forms can be taught openly, and analyzed by the public and critics.
“As soon as the audience can evaluate technique you have art; otherwise it’s just magic,” he said.
Ben, a professional magician and magic impresario who has performed a series of theatrical magic shows at the Shaw Festival and at Toronto’s Luminato over the years, makes no exalted claims for most of his profession: “People say magic is an art, but I say no, it’s a craft, but in the hands of artists it can be an art. Magic has produced a few great artists.”
However, Ben does have ambitions to raise magic out of the populist ghetto where it currently resides and win it acceptance as a true theatrical form.
His programming for this year’s Luminato festival is typical of that approach; he appears in Card Table Artifice, a show built around 10 pieces for string quartet created by the British composer and jazz bassist Gavin Bryars in the 1990s and inspired by The Expert at the Card Table, a classic 1902 book explaining how to cheat at cards. In this update of the 1990s version, actor R.H. Thomson will deliver sections of the 1902 text while Ben will silently illustrate the card tricks. Meanwhile the Art of Time Ensemble will play the music with a special guest, Bryars himself, on double bass. Theatregoers can decide on which of these three elements, music, magic or narration, they want to concentrate their attention.
A second show at this year’s festival also presents magic in a theatrical frame: Scottish actor Rob Drummond is coming to town with Bullet Catch, a dramatic monologue by a magician about to enact the most dangerous trick of them all – the bullet catch in which a spectator is asked to shoot the performer.
For Drummond, who has practised magic as a hobby since boyhood, the show is one of a series in which he creates theatre about popular entertainment. He trained as a wrestler for five months for Wrestling and recently did a piece about TV quiz shows for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. He agrees with Ben’s take on magic.
“Every trick should have a narrative, an introduction, a deception and a finale. There’s a natural theatricality to magic,” he said, but added, “It’s a low art.”
And he too has problems with the secrecy in a profession where tricks tend to be handed down privately from master to apprentice or, these days, sold for large sums on the Internet. He describes the bullet catch, which has reputedly killed a dozen magicians over the years, as a “managed danger” that poses absolutely no risk to the audience. In his show, he also explains how the levitating table illusion is created, a revelation that has been angrily criticized by magicians on social media.
Drummond makes no apologies, however, explaining that the theme of his show is the choice between blissful ignorance or uncomfortable knowledge. Like Ben, he wonders what kind of art relies on deceiving its audience.
“You know you are not watching the real Hamlet in a castle in Denmark, but you still go to the theatre. It’s a famous play, you know the ending, but you go and it’s enthralling.”
It’s the hidebound attitudes of some magicians that are holding magic back, Ben figures, decrying the amateurs dedicated to mastering the five- to seven-minute trick that was the staple of vaudeville and then the TV variety show.
“The magic societies are like Civil War re-enactors,” he said, adding, “My joke is that the best-kept secret in magic is that The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air in 1971.”
Ben points out that magic has been reinvented and revolutionized regularly over the centuries, citing masters such as Robert-Houdin, the 19th-century French magician who is considered the father of modern conjuring, Dai Vernon, the Ottawa-born card expert who perfected close-up magic in the early 20th century, and Doug Henning, the Canadian who turned large-scale illusions into Broadway-style shows in the 1970s. Is it time for performers such as Ben and Drummond to push magic toward some kind of hybridization with legit theatre?
If that kind of development is in the cards, Toronto and the Luminato festival would be a good place to stage the trick. Canada has a history of producing magicians, including Vernon and Henning (although both made their careers in the United States), and Canadian magic has, in the figure of media magnate and philanthropist Allan Slaight, a patron to promote it. Slaight is himself an amateur magician and his family foundation funds the annual magic component at Luminato.
“You need vision, talent and money,” Ben said. “I have money only because of the patronage of the Slaights.”
He points out that the legitimization of the circus arts, which Cirque du Soleil has vaulted from grimy street corners and faded tents to the glittering Las Vegas pleasure palaces, took place in Quebec because the province is one of the few jurisdictions that fund their variety artists as well as practitioners of the fine arts.
“We would like Toronto to become the intellectual centre where the next breakthrough in magic can happen,” he said, but he makes no prediction about when that might be.
In the meantime, he will be appearing on stage, deftly handling his cards so that an audience can appreciate both the trick and the reveal.
“I hope what they get out of it is how beautiful it is,” he says, bemoaning the secrecy usually attached to magic tricks. “It’s like we are doing a Bach fugue but we aren’t allowed to tell anyone about it.”
Card Table Artifice will be performed at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, June 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. Bullet Catch will be performed at the Berkeley Street Theatre, June 14 at 2 and 8 p.m. and June 15 at 2 p.m. For more information, see luminatofestival.com.