Magic is having a moment, mixing comedy and music with the art of illusion
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Magic is having a moment, mixing comedy and music with the art of illusion

When she was a child, she used to try to make the dog disappear. The pier, well, yes, she had a crack at making that vanish as well. Cath Jamison was given a magic kit when she was five years old and started putting on little shows for her family. Now Australia's leading female magician, nothing much has changed. "My partner Nic just rolls her eyes when magicians get together here and we're jamming and she just goes, 'what the hell are they talking about, making a dove appear there to put it over there?' At the moment I'm working on making goldfish appear, so I just bought a tank.''

This is probably the closest you'll get to a magician revealing anything about the behind the scenes nature of their work. Most have taken the Magician's Oath, which swears them to secrecy and, trust me, they take that seriously. Despite the internet enabling a wave of blabber-mouths to deconstruct tricks on YouTube, no amount of prodding was able to elicit any secrets or insights from the magicians interviewed.

Comedy-magic duo Dom and Dumber aka Dom Chambers and Bayden Hammond at Top Hat Tuesdays.

Comedy-magic duo Dom and Dumber aka Dom Chambers and Bayden Hammond at Top Hat Tuesdays.

Photo: JAMES PENLIDIS PHOTOGRAPHY

What they will tell you, however, is that magic is having a moment. Tim Ellis, referred to as the Godfather of Magic by some in the magic scene, is calling it a renaissance; he feels the form is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

"For many, many years magic has been looked upon as a lesser art form," he says. While people instantly recognise ballet, music, theatre and dance as art forms, he says magic was dismissed as something to entertain children. "They don't seem to see that magic is actually a way that people do express themselves, just as they do in drama and all these other things. The challenge for magicians is that, whereas with other art forms, if you see a dancer on stage, you see the technique, you see the work that's gone into it and you can appreciate it, but with magic we have to hide the technique, conceal everything that we've done and we have to get up on stage and something happens and you're like 'wow. That must've been magic!'"

Australian magician Cath Jamison teaches magic when she is not performing herself.

Australian magician Cath Jamison teaches magic when she is not performing herself.

Photo: DAVID WHITE
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The rise of TV talent shows in the past decade, such as Australia's Got Talent and its international equivalents, plus Penn and Teller's Fool Us, a TV series dedicated specifically to celebrating the skill of magicians, has helped raised the profile and understanding of the form.

The result is that Melbourne has a circuit of almost 10 weekly and monthly magic rooms running. In June, monthly magic show Top Hat Tuesdays celebrated its sixth anniversary, which suggests there's enough performers and audience to sustain such a night.

"There used to be a little magic shop in Southbank when I was a teenager, and the owners used to run a monthly magic show called 'Magic Mondays'. I have such fond memories of attending that show. It continually ignited my passion for magic, because it was the only opportunity I had at the time to watch other magicians doing their thing," recalls self-taught magician Bayden Hammond.

Wanting to create something similar, he joined forces with fellow magician Dom Chambers to start Top Hat Tuesdays, to give magicians not only crucial stage time but an opportunity to mingle with other performers. "It was also to give Melburnians and tourists a fun, regular event to attend, thereby promoting our art form to the general public", says Hammond, who alongside Chambers performs as comedy-magic duo Dom and Dumber.

Director of the Melbourne Magic Festival Tim Ellis is bringing 70 performers to this year's event.

Director of the Melbourne Magic Festival Tim Ellis is bringing 70 performers to this year's event.

"Since we started Top Hat Tuesdays, there has been a rise in these types of rooms, including the recently commenced 'Sleight Night', which is a monthly close-up magic show, as well as 'Magicians at Work', which is a monthly performance space hosted by the Australian Institute of Magic," he says.

"One month, you'll see the finest card cheats in the country, the next you'll see world class mentalists bending spoons right under your nose," says Sleight Night's host and producer Nicholas J. Johnson. It happens on the third Wednesday of every month at Laneway Theatre, Australia's only purpose built close-up magic venue.

Canadian magician Carisa Hendrix as Lucy Diamond, who returns to the Melbourne Magic Festival this year.

Canadian magician Carisa Hendrix as Lucy Diamond, who returns to the Melbourne Magic Festival this year.

Photo: Kerrie O'Brien

At the Marriott Hotel you'll find Australia's Got Talent alumni Luke Hocking performing in a weekly parlour magic show, Impossible Occurrences; Illusionaire is another weekly show, at the Docklands, featuring World Champion of Comedy Magic Sam Angelico and Rosanna Maccarrone, and The Magic Zone is a converted warehouse staging regular family magic and illusion shows.

Hammond estimates there are hundreds of magicians in Melbourne , including hobbyists. The main event for all of them – the fulltime professionals, the paid part-timers, the on-stage amateurs and bedroom enthusiasts – is the Melbourne Magic Festival, which kicks off next weekend.

Lawrence Leung

Lawrence Leung

Ellis, a magician himself, is the driving force behind the festival. He has owned Australia's oldest magic shop Bernard's, published Australia's only magic magazine, run magic schools, conventions and showcase events, plus taught and lectured in the art. Along the way he has been buried alive, escaped from a wooden crate at the bottom of the Yarra River and freed himself from straitjackets suspended high above city streets. Ellis spends six months of the year entertaining multi-millionaires on six-star luxury ships and then heads home to run the Melbourne Magic Festival, which he is proud to say has grown, in number of shows and audience size, without any government, arts or corporate sponsors. Last year's festival had more than 11,000 audience members, who came to see 55 shows.

This year the program features shows from a mix of up-and-coming conjurers performing alongside some of the world's best illusionists. More than 70 Australian magicians plus guests from Hong Kong, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Canada and New Zealand will be displaying their talents, making it one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world. Having spent the first decade at the Northcote Town Hall, this year the Melbourne Magic Festival moves to the Melba Spiegeltent, otherwise known as the home of Circus Oz in Collingwood. While the bulk of the festival will take place in four venues there, shows are also happening across the inner city and in suburbs such as Mitcham and Rowville, plus in satellite venues further out, in Geelong, Queenscliff and Phillip Island's Magic Manor at A Maze'N Things.

Lawrence Leung  says the internet is pushing magic performers to up their game.

Lawrence Leung says the internet is pushing magic performers to up their game.

Photo: Simon Schluter

Ellis has set up the festival so there's a low break-even point for the performers, which allows them to think about their shows from an artistic rather than commercial point of view. "Because if you do Comedy Festival or Fringe you've got to sell a lot of tickets to break even," he says. This way, he says, performers can focus on asking the question "what do I want to show the audience?", which creates far more interesting shows.

"So while audiences will certainly be treated to classic card tricks, ladies sawn in half and rabbits plucked from the dark confines of a top hat, they will just as likely see groundbreaking, experimental works designed to redefine how the public views magic," he says

"I want people to be divided, I don't want people to go 'yeah, I had a nice time' like the latest popcorn movie, I want them to go 'that changed me!' and so as a consequence, magicians have started taking more risks," he says.

This environment allows for a testing of ideas that has often paid off. "Lucy Diamond was created last year in the magic festival and it's now become a phenomenon," says Ellis of Canadian performer Carisa Hendrix's character, who is returning this year in Lucy Darling: That Tingling Sensation. "She did it at the Magic Castle. It was a sensation. It was so good to see a female performer totally school the magicians, her magic is very strong and her character and her delivery and comedy was so much stronger and now she's created an almost entirely new show for this year's festival.

"One thing we are so excited by is there are so many more female magicians now than in the past, and a lot of people think 'oh, magic is a boy's club' but it's never been that way within our community, we're always encouraging female performers."

Cath Jamison, who has teamed up with jazz singer Lizzy Gascoigne and her band Kissing Harriet to mix magic, comedy and cabaret in their show Be Charmed, teaches magic when not performing and has been pleased to see an increase in young girls attending her classes. The mix now is nearly 50/50 girls and boys. "I get asked to do girl's schools and have done career nights as well, which is great that I'm a role model for girls in a career that is, you know... it's not your standard lawyer," says Jamison, whose skills include eating razors, knife throwing and, in more recent times, mentalism (being able to ''read'' minds).

At the Australian Junior Championships of Magic last year, which runs during the festival, first, second and third prizes, for the first time, all went to young women and the winner, Prue Spencer, is back this year.

"I'm seeing a lot more women coming through doing incredible stuff," says Lawrence Leung, whose own work was good enough to earn him the 2017 Director's Choice Award at the Melbourne Magic Festival. While he doesn't call himself a magician, Leung's fascination with trickery and what people are willing to believe has always been interwoven throughout his stand up comedy career, which has taken him into TV and film. A film adaptation of his stage show, Sucker, is being made and he's back at the Magic Festival this year with a new show called Unthinkable.

"There's no such thing as no real magic. It's all part of, you know, suggestion, showmanship, a little bit of trickery and bald-face lying," he says with a laugh. But just as the internet is revealing some magic secrets, Leung also feels it's pushing performers to lift their game and that has led to real innovation. "I'm super keen to see an 18-year-old prodigy from Sydney named Vincent Kuo," he says. Kuo, doing his first full show at the festival, called Personal, invents "literally mind-boggling visual eye-candy".

This is what makes magic so fun, according to Leung.

"A good magic effect gives that sense of I don't know what's happening because the world shouldn't operate like this and, for this split second, all of a sudden, I am thrilled that the world isn't how I expected it to be and it's almost a return to that childlike feeling of something being new again," he says.

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The Melbourne Magic Festival runs from July 2-14 at the Melba Spiegeltent and other venues.

melbournemagicfestival.com

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