Photo credit: Nomad Creative Studio
Neil Kelso is a writer, theatre-maker, magician, musician, artist and serial entrepreneur. His career has spanned solo performance, collaborative multimedia art productions, and creative consultancy. He is the co-creator of acclaimed political musical theatre cabaret show These Trees Are Made Of Blood, co-founder of cabaret collective The House Of Q, and is an Associate Artist at Theatre Delicatessen. He lives in London and Paris.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
I’m reading Sapiens at the moment. It has completely turned my understanding of our evolution inside out. The thought that the agricultural revolution was actually crops domesticating humans, rather than the other way around, blew my mind. And it’s a book that does that repeatedly, I’m loving it.
At the weekend I watched a show called Queerstory in which two cabaret performers Mercury and Maxim conjured the most electric and moving atmosphere I have experienced in a long time. They moved the capacity audience to hysterical laughter one moment and had them sobbing a few minutes later, and built to a beautiful, rousing, empowering standing ovation, whilst educating people about chapters of history that are often neglected, and inspiring people who changed the world. It was a real masterclass in the power of subversive political cabaret.
Those are two very different recent examples of things that have completely captivated me with a sense of pure wonder. I find it very easy to experience wonder, and actively seek out weird and wonderful flavours of it. Because wonder is everywhere- if you’re not feeling it, you usually just need to look a little closer or stand a little further back. I think it’s healthy to travel and immerse ourselves in the most diverse range of wonders rather than just always going to the same places for our fix. Stories from other cultures, other perspectives, using other senses, seeing through other people’s eyes and in other languages. That’s very important I think.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
Curiosity is an instinct to explore. It is a magnetic, almost irresistible force that is aroused when we become aware of interesting territories we’ve never explored, or lenses to look through which show us familiar things in radical new ways.
Awe is a humbling emotional state of appreciation of the things or people around us being so much *more* than we had previously imagined. I believe it’s an experience that talks to our sense of scale and shows us a fragment of a map of our own position in the cosmos.
Wonder is the hardest of those for me to define because it can take so many different and sometimes opposing forms. It might even be that wonder’s undefinable nature is a big clue to what wonder really is. Wonder might be the realisation that thinks can’t be defined – that everything around us is connected to everything else and to us, whether we can see it or not. Wonder might be the revelation that boundaries are an illusion because they are by their very nature inclusional and porous and permeable.
I don’t know how curiosity, awe and wonder relate to each other. I don’t think they’re necessarily three stages of a journey. They seem to be related but I think they’re distant relatives that don’t always keep in touch with each other. I’m not sure they get along well.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I believe we are born with a wondrous outlook, and that it is a tightrope we walk for our whole life. Through fear-of-being-duped or fear-of-being-seen-as-naive we can become hardened and too closed to the wonder around us, like the sad people we encounter sometimes who have lost contact with hopes and dreams and just bitterly mutter their way through their days never looking up, like Ebenezer Scrooge – the people who don’t believe in magic and who have repressed any kind of imagination, and will only grudgingly admit something exists long after it’s published in peer-reviewed journals. At the other end of the spectrum if we are overly credulous we become vulnerable to wonder-overload and so swamped by the universe that we can’t live our lives, every little thing distracts and captivates us, so we’d never get anything done – like people who are lost with their head in the clouds. So I think it takes continuous conscious presence of mind to live in the moment with a healthy level appetite for wonder which is neither greedy nor cowardly. Perhaps for each of us the “right” level is different, and perhaps our need for wonder flexes over time, or from one moment to the next.
What do you love about magic (the performance by magicians on stage/TV etc.)? And what do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?
Well firstly I think magic and magicians are two different things which aren’t always found in the same place at the same time. Magicians includes people who present magic, but it’s a term that also includes people who present magic-themed entertainment and magic-themed art. So magicians is a very broad term- some I enjoy for the beauty of the wondrous baffling magic they present, others I find enjoyable to watch for their charisma and performance, others can captivate me with a performance that changes the way I see the world. I enjoy seeing a generous, warm, kind person, or I can appreciate a performance that might make me think by presenting more challenging uncomfortable messages in an interesting way.
Things that I dislike seeing (in magicians but also in any kind of performance or work) include selfishness, unkindness, laziness, wasted opportunities, abuse of the platform to push a destructive agenda, failure to respect their audience/collaborators/environment, lack of gratitude for the opportunity/privilege they have been given, excessive pride/arrogance, or just generally a toxic presence.
We’re surrounded by modern marvels which we largely take for granted. What do you think is the role in culture of a 21st century magician?
I think magicians by keeping their creative practices so limited and narrow have largely been left behind by other hungrier less precious art forms. First and foremost the 21st century magician’s responsibility is to have a really good clear-out. Why on Earth is anyone using live animals in their acts any more? It’s shameful that our public image is that of stuffing defenceless animals into our coat pockets or our hats. Why don’t most magicians collaborate? Why don’t most magicians work with directors and propmakers and stylists and computer programmers and microbiologists? Why are most magic shows and magic conventions just a parade of straight white men? Why are the demographics in most magic clubs not representative of the diverse society? Why aren’t magicians doing anything to schedule more female magicians in their lineups, or more performers of colour? Why are most magicians doing trivial showoff things like using marked decks to try to convince people they can “read your body language” when they could be using that fifteen minutes of fame to tackle racism or transphobia or empower people to find out facts for themselves about Brexit or Trump or just give people something that makes their life happier? We don’t need to show off or constantly make it about ourselves.
When you say “magician” to most people- they don’t light up with wonder in the same way as when you mention Star Wars or Judi Dench or Biscuits or Rick and Morty or Oculus or Cronuts. And we only have “magicians” to blame. Magicians who cling to dated practices have relinquished any claim to be magic experts, and other more open minded fields have been more than happy to step up to that responsibility.
So a magician in the 21st century’s top priority is to take a serious look in the mirror and ask why they’re doing what they do. I include myself in that, and I am my own harshest critic, but I believe we’re incredibly powerful and we ought to be using our powers as a force for good.
Your website has the strapline “experience beautiful mystery”. Often mysteries can be very unpleasant. What’s a beautiful mystery to you? How do you unleash one?
Mystery and Beauty are interlinked for me. Anywhere I see beauty, it always has an enigmatic smile, a seductive appeal, an enchantment about it. I don’t understand what you mean by some mysteries being unpleasant- a mystery is simply an unknown, a gap, an unquantifiable in-between. I don’t think a mystery can be categorised as either positive or negative – those are subjective judgements. Sometimes we are afraid of the unknown, sometimes we are attracted to it, but in either case that emotional response is a reflection of our own state, not of the mystery itself, which is neutral.
I don’t believe mysteries can be “unleashed” because mysteries cannot truly be contained. You can have a mystery box, but by definition the mystery oozes out to consume the box itself and everything that touches it. Mystery refuses to be contained. All we can do is point towards mysteries, or shine a spotlight on them, or draw a circle around them with chalk.
Can you tell me about your process for developing a ‘trick’ (although I hate that word)? What are the key ingredients it should have? Could you describe one or two of your favourite effects to perform?
The starting point for any piece of work can vary hugely. Sometimes it’s to meet a brief or contribute to someone else’s larger work (like consultancy or if I’m in a cabaret that someone else is producing), other times it’s an inner fascination, an itch, or a question that I want to explore. I have a set of inner values of kindness, belief in adding positively to the world, inclusivity, celebration of diversity etc which all steer my choice of material and the directions I want to explore or avoid.
The next step is often to look at what I am working with – if it’s for me to perform that comes with a raft of limitations (there’s some things I’ll never be able to do) and opportunities (my other skill sets poke their nose in and ask if they can help – music, clowning, languages, etc). I will also look at the venue if that has been decided – I need to be sure whatever I create can fit in the space, and be visible there, and to interface well with the venue’s capabilities and limitations. And a big consideration is the audience. I need to be sure the work I create is accessible to them, builds on what they already know about the world, feels relevant, is inclusive etc etc.
Then it’s a big creative process to explore mixing those ingredients in different ways. Sometimes it all falls into place effortlessly, other projects can take years before I get the pieces working together in a way I’m happy with. That’s why I have lots of projects happening in parallel. They inform each other and I can’t predict how quickly each will evolve and bear fruit. I’m very inspired by Arie De Geus’ book The Living Company. This part of my process always reminds me of the story he tells about the Chilean potato.
I have different routines I enjoy in different environments, so I don’t have a favourite, and that’s always shifting. At the moment it’s the run up to Christmas 2018 and I am developing a new character based on the Abominable Snowman. It’s funny and silly and visually exciting, and magical conjuring with ice and snow, whilst also exploring the role humans are playing in the environment and how that would look from the perspective of a being that is closer to nature.
You’ve just finished a run of your latest show “I draw clouds”. Can you tell me about the concept, development and what you learnt through sharing it with an audience?
I Draw Clouds is a one-man play I have written. On the surface it’s a funny, surreal, musical, magical story. The starting point is a conversation between a magician and his notebook during the process of trying to create a magic show. Conceptually, it is a way to pull my creative process out of my own head and to see the different creative instincts battle it out on stage as each tries to steer the show. It pulls apart what I think magic is, and what I think theatre is, and why I think the world’s unravelling, and where I think ideas come from, and much more.
When writing for myself, I enjoy a spontaneous improvisational playful relationship with the audience, and so I really need a live audience to play with in order to develop that script truthfully. So as part of the creative process I just performed the show four times in a week in two different venues with rewrites, tweaks and changes between each showing. Next I transcribe those shows and pull everything apart, put my dramaturg hat on, drink lots of cups of tea, talk to all my inspiring friends who are all specialists in very different worlds, stare into the distance a lot, go for long walks, refine all the components, reassemble the pieces, and re-rehearse it for the next round of performances.
What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.