The pandemic isn’t over, but Leah Collins and Lise Hosein are ready for a Big Night Out. During the first lockdown, these two CBC Arts staffers wrote about all things virtual, and now that live entertainment is returning to Toronto, they’re ready to mask up and enjoy the scene. Read their takes on some of the city’s new attractions. COVID-19 keeps changing what we’ve come to expect from arts and culture, but when you’ve been stuck at home since the Before Times, everything’s a major event.
Every vanishing act ends the same way. Whether we’re talking white rabbits or the Statue of Liberty, the thing that disappeared will return again.
It’s tempting to apply that sort of magical thinking to the state of live entertainment, particularly in the summer of a second pandemic year. After a record-breaking lockdown, listings on Toronto’s event calendar are beginning to reappear, and one of the splashiest productions on offer is something called Jamie Allan’s Illusionarium — an immersive show that promises to combine live performance and whizz-pow stagecraft (e.g. holograms, lasers, large-scale projections) while treating the audience to a walk-through exhibit on the history of the art form.
Produced by the same company as Immersive Van Gogh (which is housed in the same downtown venue), the show was co-created by Allan, a U.K. illusionist who’s famed for his tablet-centric trickery. (Google “The iMagician.”) Lockdown orders prevented the production from having its world premiere in December 2020 as originally planned, but since opening July 29, the show will run through the summer, playing to groups that max out at 48 people. These audience pods are guided through the space on timed-entry tickets.
As a format, it’s unlike anything else you could see right now — or perhaps ever, which is exactly why CBC Arts’s Leah Collins and Lise Hosein had to be there on opening night. Read about their magical (?) experience.
Leah Collins: Let us talk about MAGIC.
Lise Hosein: It’s weird, I was just thinking about magic and then you said it. MAGIC.
LC: When are you not thinking about magic, though?
LC: Personally, I don’t think about magic, magicians or magical things. And of all the many kinds of live entertainment people used to see, magic was not exactly something I was in the habit of seeking out. When was the last time you were at a real live magic show?
Inside feels very exotic right now.– Lise Hosein, CBC Arts
LH: I am not sure I’ve ever been at a live magic show, though I actually did my own magic performance when I was about nine. It was truly fantastic. So as a schooled magician myself, I was excited for Illusionarium. (Side note: I have watched every David Blaine special ever, though I’m not sure how I feel about that now.)
LC: As a non-magician who doesn’t follow David Blaine, I was pretty excited myself, though that was mostly because I haven’t seen anything even resembling a show in months. Anything in particular you were hoping to find inside?
LH: So, a few things: inside feels very exotic right now, so I was looking forward to potentially not being frightened by being around other people. But what I was most intrigued by was the fact that much of the magic would be on video. Magic specials and series were kind of rampant in the past couple of decades, and I wasn’t sure how it would translate, going to an actual destination instead of my couch to watch magic happen on a screen. I also like labyrinths of magical rooms.
LC: Yeah, before visiting, I really had no grasp of what form this whole thing would take, specifically how the “immersive” side of the production (holograms, projections, etc.) would mesh with the promised live performances. The show’s apparently the first of its kind, after all. Difficult to predict what we’d be getting into.
So for the benefit of folks who almost certainly haven’t been to see something like this yet, maybe we should retrace our steps a bit — take a walk through that labyrinth of magical rooms, so to speak.
LH: OK. Let’s retrace.
LC: So, the venue is One Yonge Street, the same place where Immersive Van Gogh is happening. It used to house the printing presses for the Toronto Star, and much as I love newspapers, it’s not a world of pure wonderment and magic, in and of itself. It’s 300,000 square feet of windowless concrete chambers, rejigged into five themed performance theatres (six if you count the waiting room where they assemble each audience cohort pre-show), plus some corridors that have been lined with vintage posters and magician-related memorabilia. As I was never entirely sure what we’d be seeing next, all in all, I would say the space is adequately mysterious.
LH: I did like that the “intro” room where we gathered had wall text about a number of famous magicians and a screen playing vintage clips. My memories of magic were triggered by David Copperfield’s eyebrows and seeing him majestically fly through the air in old footage. Like, super majestically.
LC: There were placards everywhere. As soon as we arrived, I felt like it was a lot of information to take in all at once. Personally, I didn’t have time to pore over all the factoids before our tour guide ushered us into theatre No. 1, but it set the Wikipedia tone of the program, for sure.
There’s a loose chronological narrative that ties all the performances together, and to me, it read a bit like someone was giving a PowerPoint on why magicians are their favourite entertainers of all time. I’m not sure why Big Magic feels the need to run a propaganda campaign, but so be it.
As a former child magician, did you learn anything new?
LH: I didn’t learn anything much in that intro room other than maybe realizing magicians are plentiful and mostly white.
LC: Haha. And male.
I’m not sure why Big Magic feels the need to run a propaganda campaign, but so be it.– Leah Collins, CBC Arts
LH: As we moved through the experience, yeah, I did learn a thing or two, like how there are very basic principles that govern every trick you see — for example, making things disappear or breaking something (playing card, human) into separate pieces and putting it back together again. Turns out you really can break all magic down to these very few simple components. I wish I had understood that as a young and incredibly gifted magician.
LC: Sadly, time travel is not one of the five basic tenets of magic.
LC: So, that part of the show was interesting to me because it was the first bit where they introduced a live magician. He pantomimed all the classic tricks while a recording narrated our lesson. I am 99 per cent sure that there were a bunch of flashy projections swirling around too, but a few days later, the thing that sticks with me most is the fact there was a human on stage who was giving us a show. I’d like to think that this reveals more about what I’m craving as an audience member than anything about the limits of my short-term memory.
It’s the live elements of Illusionarium that I enjoyed best. A 3D hologram of some dude pretending to be Harry Houdini is neat, but I left wanting more magic. Or maybe just more performances where the magicians get a chance to shine. They were all masked and silent, by the way, which took some getting used to.
Did you feel the same way about that? What did you think about the mute performers?
LH: I don’t mind my magicians mute, and I was very glad they were actually there in the room with us. Some of the video elements of Illusionarium left me feeling a little flat, and I needed those live moments to carry the experience.
There was one performance in particular that was the centrepiece of the whole thing, for me. We were led into a “secret” room (read: really just another room) where a performer executed what I’d call an endurance/escape feat. I won’t say too much about it because I think it’s worth not spoiling, but it was genuinely impressive and quite anxiety-provoking (in a good way, I think).
It’s the live elements of Illusionarium that I enjoyed best.– Leah Collins, CBC Arts
LH: But I will say that after having a feeling of real engagement during that section of Illusionarium, the rest did feel a bit dull by comparison. There’s nothing that really beats seeing magic happen in real time and space, I guess. (Also, did I mention I am a magic critic now?)
I think it also showed me that the simplest room in the “labyrinth” was also the best. It was perhaps the only room that didn’t have an extensive video presentation.
LC: Completely agree. And the fact I’ve never witnessed a classic escape like that up close and in person — from what, a few metres away? — was all the more thrilling.
If I was going to make a list of highlights, I’d add Penn and Teller. They’re not appearing live, to be clear. Their bit is a pre-recorded video. But they do an interactive trick where everyone in the audience follows their instructions, shuffling their own personal pack of cards. It’s a quick bit of goofy fun, and best of all, the trick works. (Magic!) But hey, it’s not live. It’s the kind of thing that was engineered to work just as well in a Zoom performance — so I suppose it’s the most 2021 thing you could experience.
I have to wonder whether anyone would buy tickets to a hybrid magic show if we weren’t still living in a pandemic, though. What do you think?
LH: Yeah, the video trick was cute and effective. The Zoom element reminds me that I’m not entirely sure we got the full Illusionarium experience? I’m imagining there had to be some quick pivots to make this work during pandemic times. Audience members are separated into pods that have their own assigned place in each room, which means there’s little to no interaction between people who didn’t arrive together. It also limits any capability for physical or close interaction between magician and audience. I suspect people would still buy tix if we weren’t in the end times — WHO DOESN’T LOVE MAGIC? — but I did leave feeling like we’d missed out on a richer experience.
LC: Yeah. I was surprised by some of the things you just noted, I’ve got to say. I didn’t think the extra distance between our pods, or “Magic Circles,” would make that much of a difference to how I experienced the show. The same goes for masks. But when you can’t hear laughter or applause, or see how folks around you are reacting, the mood in the room is so different. Was anyone delighted by that card trick? Just me? How can I tell if I can’t see their grinning faces?! I prefer to go through life not caring what others think, but it really makes a difference in the context of live performance.
LH: Exactly. I think one of the joys of watching magic is feeling a collective sense of amazement. It’s natural to turn to the person next to you to see if they’re as affected as you.
LC: Great Doug Henning’s Ghost, at least we had each other.
LH: And I wonder if this is a bit of a signal of how our experience of live events is going to feel going forward — a little more solitary, a little more at a remove. But I’m being bleak. I was just thinking that you should definitely go to Illusionarium with a companion if you can. Somebody whose EYES you really know.
LC: Or just a casual acquaintance with really big eyes. Expressive ones.
LH: A doll, maybe. A human-sized doll.
LC: Definitely cheaper than splashing out on two tickets, and less risk of viral transmission.
You should definitely go to Illusionarium with a companion if you can.– Lise Hosein, CBC Arts
LH: What’s your takeaway from this magical experience, Leah?
LC: To piggyback on the insightful comments you made a moment ago, my takeaway is this: live events are back, but the experience — and the form — is very unfamiliar. I am curious to see how other shows compare.
And you? Have you been inspired to revisit your short-lived career in magic?
LH: I, sadly, lost my ambition to do magic during a tragic “water from the elbow” trick gone wrong when I was smol. Don’t ask.
As for what I took away from Illusionarium, I’d agree: for me, besides the couple of live and video performances that were genuinely impressive, I was left reflecting on how much magic may be drained from live events in the next while. (Did you see how I did that?)
LC: Wordplay! Magic!
LH: But I feel optimistic about how other theatre events will find dynamic ways to grapple with pandemic-induced change, and I think we may also find ourselves watching and relating in different ways, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Jamie Allan’s Illusionarium. One Yonge Street, Toronto. www.illusionarium.ca