Making An Elephant Disappear: Spectacular Stage Magic Is Back In Vogue

It’s the cracking of the bones that really turns your stomach. “That’s the first moment of raw reaction from the audience,” grins Chris Fisher, one of the two illusion designers on Stranger Things: The First Shadow, the stage prequel to the hit TV series. He’s describing a dreamlike sequence in the play that combines elegant levitation with grotesque, knuckle-clenching violence. Pet-lovers would be advised to avert their eyes. “That was the one where Netflix said, ‘How are you going to do the cat?’” He looks proud. “There are so many layers to get that to look like it does. Everyone had to have faith it would work.”

Magic on stage is having a moment. Big-budget shows are increasingly using illusions to help tell stories full of wonder. “Our job is to use magic techniques to embellish the narrative,” says John Bulleid, illusion designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s forthcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In The Magician’s Elephant for the RSC, Bulleid was asked to make the giant titular creature disappear from an otherwise bare stage. Houdini used a tunnel to do a similar trick and Paul Daniels employed tents, but Bulleid had nothing to hide in or behind. He smiles as he refuses to tell me how he did it. “Magic is the purest form of storytelling,” he says. “If you make a coin vanish, the audience doesn’t really care how you did it. What they care about is whether they believe it, and how it made them feel.”

Ten years ago, a consultant magician would be brought on to a production to help achieve an effect. Today, illusion designers are a core part of the design team, like the lighting or sound crew. “We’ve never wanted to wheel in an illusion, perform it and wheel it off,” says Jamie Harrison, the other illusion designer on Stranger Things, and creator of the heart-rending puppetry and illusions in last year’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. For Stranger Things, they were in the room when the play was first being devised.

“At its best,” says Harrison, “magic is a part of the emotional narrative of a piece. You tie a visual moment of wonder to an internal moment of discovery.” Both Fisher and Bulleid remember an illusion Harrison created for Sam Mendes’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that did just that, where Charlie wrote a dream-filled letter to Wonka, folded it into a paper plane and threw it up, the plane soaring way out into the audience. The trick kept failing, Harrison remembers. “Sam was tearing his hair out. Then finally, just before the audience came in, it worked. All the children in the cast happened to be sitting in the stalls.” He remembers them wide-eyed as the magic little paper plane gracefully flew as if it had a mind of its own.

Spellbinding … an effect during Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

That visceral sense of astonishment is repeatedly achieved in the Stranger Things play, which has magic in its marrow. There are enormous tentacled monsters and extraordinarily complex dream sequences, yet one of the effects Harrison most savours is startlingly simple. “It’s the moment Henry starts foaming at the mouth,” he enthuses. “It’s a tiny effect but it heightens the moment.” The foam oozes out of the teenager’s mouth as he starts raving, spit flying across the stage as his fury and fear escalate.

It was a broken leg and a dislocated knee that brought Fisher and Harrison into the world of magic. Their stories are oddly similar: as bored kids recovering from injuries, they were each given magic sets to keep them occupied. As adults, the isolating nature of performing magic pushed them both into theatre. Harrison spent a year working as a magician for a circuit of five-star hotels in Thailand. “By the end of that year, I felt really lonely,” he admits. He trained to become an actor, coming back to illusions when he formed Vox Motus, a Glasgow-based multimedia company, with his friend Candice Edmunds.

Rather than moving from magic to acting, Fisher went into stage management. As company manager for We Will Rock You and Wicked, he would lead “magic Saturdays”, presenting the cast with a new trick every week after warm-ups. When Harrison was invited to do the illusions on Mendes’s musical, Fisher was already there. They immediately hit it off and their subsequent collaborations include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. In fact, it’s hard to name a West End show involving magic that one of them hasn’t had a hand in.

Cat shocks … Stranger Things. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

The creation of an illusion on stage requires more than just a handful of talented magicians. The bone-cracking illusion Fisher is so proud of took months of cross-departmental conversations and collaborations. “We all have that child in us,” says set designer Anna Fleischle, “where we want to see something and think, ‘That’s impossible.’” Fleischle’s work has intertwined numerous times with the world of illusions. She and Fisher designed 2:22 A Ghost Story and the tender-hearted musical The Time Traveller’s Wife. “With 2:22 there were clear moments of illusion you needed to fulfil in the script,” Fleischle explains, “but with Time Traveller’s Wife, it’s bigger than that. Magic is a character.”

In the stage adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, the protagonist disappears repeatedly and reappears in a different time of his life. One of the most baffling effects on stage is when he walks through patio doors and simply melts away. “It’s borderline what’s illusion and what’s set,” Fleischle says. “Chris knew he wanted to do a fade, so then a part of the set needed to be constructed for that. We worked it out together.” It’s a long process requiring experimentation and persistence. “You have to keep trying because the slightest change of angle or colour or material can reveal what’s going on.”

The set is not just a platform for the illusions, but an integral part of it. Fleischle explains with glee how her designs can be used for misdirection, building rules of the world on stage for the audience that they then strip away. Imagine, she suggests, that you need a hat for an illusion. “If that was there on its own, you’d be drawn to it. But if you place more hats elsewhere, you don’t pay attention to it because it’s nothing special.”

Baffling … Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

By guiding the eye and setting expectations of the world on stage, she says, design becomes a magic trick of its own. What astonishes Fleischle most about working with magicians is the amount of innovation involved. “There isn’t a big rulebook with these illusions in it,” she says. “One illusionist might build a contraption where someone else might do it with a bit of cardboard.” Bulleid describes the role as one of constant problem-solving. “You see the world differently with magic,” he says. “Nothing is an issue because there is always a solution.”

When you start talking about specifics, magicians inevitably get a bit shifty. But Bulleid, who also trained as an actor, explains that secrecy isn’t about spoiling a trick but the feeling it gives. “You’ll be destroying a story,” he says. As UK associate for illusions and magic on Harry Potter, he is responsible for teaching the new casts the effects. He also teaches them the value of not revealing the method. “We do games where we teach them secrets,” he says, “and explain how powerful it feels when you know the secret and no one else does.”

Even with highly experienced illusion designers and the input of multiple brilliant creative teams, magic tricks on stage go wrong. Expelliarmus, the disarming charm in Harry Potter, went through 16 iterations before it reliably worked for the stage play, and even then, it almost got cut. “It was really difficult to get it to work and it kept throwing off the actor,” Harrison remembers. “It’s all very well getting something to work once in a workshop, but getting it to work consistently, eight times a week, when it’s really ambitious and hasn’t been done before, is tricky.”

Technology is increasingly used alongside or as part of illusion design, but the designers all agree there is little fear of it overriding traditional techniques. “Theatrical magic works best with people and with objects,” says Harrison. “Fundamentally, it’s about being in the room with impossible things happening in front of your eyes.” It’s the strange alchemy of technical skill and creative innovation that allows you to see a bone break in front of you, an elephant vanish or a paper plane fly as if caught on a current – so bright and clear, it’s impossible to believe it’s not real.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is at Phoenix theatre, London, until 25 August. The Time Traveller’s Wife is at Apollo theatre, London, until 24 February

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