Twelve years ago, unassuming scientist Kevin paused his Physics PhD to become a magician, being tutored by none other than magic royalty Penn & Teller. Having now spent the first ten years of his adult life completely immersed in Physics and the next ten in magic, Kevin is the most likely the only person on the planet who’s reached the required 10,000 hours needed to make you an ‘expert’ – in both areas. Kevin has since appeared in BBC documentaries, consulted for the National Theatre of Scotland & taught Eddie Izzard magic for a movie role. He was the first magician to perform at the Globe Theatre in London and is Artistic Director of the UK’s largest Magic Festival – The Edinburgh International Magic Festival.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I’m one of those twisted people that amazement rarely happens to. Probably why I’m a magician! When I do find it, it usually takes two forms. 1) manufactured. When I went to see the Grand illusionist David Copperfield perform live I was invited on stage to witness an illusion close up. In a space, just inches from my face, a sheet was hung from for a second and then removed. In the previously empty space there was now a car! Genuinely surprised – I physically took a step back as I was so close to the vehicle. It’s terribly annoying when your brain has no where to go. I tried to hold onto that for as long as possible – but inevitably the deconstruction took place after the show! 2) pondered amazement. The iconic, mile-and-a-half long, steel railway bridge that spans the Firth of Forth, just north of Edinburgh is one of the modern wonders of the world. I’ve travelled over it my whole life, usually taking it for granted. It’s only when you properly look at it and just start to imagine the complexity of the project, the groups of people that had to work together to pull it together, the physics, the engineering, the building, the planning … it’s completely overwhelming to believe that one brain can hold all of this. The combination of these thoughts leads again to amazement and wonder. And of course admiration. It’s been accomplished already!
You describe yourself as “Magician>Scientist Hybrid” Can you tell me more about this? And does the greater than symbol imply you see yourself as more of a magician?
The last question is easiest. I see myself firstly as a magician and then secondly as a scientist.
“What’s a magician-scientist hybrid?” To be honest I’m still trying to work this out, both terms conflict greatly. So let me firstly explain the influence and then explain what I think it is. Here’s a part of my script from my 2015 show Quantum Magic that describes a revelation I had in 2014 that opened Pandora’s box.
“type ‘magic’ into Microsoft word and right click, navigate to ‘synonyms’ and hover for a moment, and a list of similar words to ‘magic’ appears. Enchantment, supernatural, delightful, right at the bottom of this list is also the antonym, the opposing word. That word was ‘science’. Science was the primary opposite of magic.
Continuing the experiment I then typed in ‘Science’, went through the same process, but this time the antonym was ‘ignorance’. I don’t need to complete this do I?”
Magic and science are opposites – surely it would be impossible to find similar ground? Fortunately magic is all about the impossible and I fancied the challenge.
Secondly. What is it? Well explicitly I make magic shows with a science theme in mind. The Science is sometimes fully on display but other times hidden and only available to those who look beyond the surface of the show. Sometimes the science is for my own benefit and there’s no real entertainment value. Other times it’s explicit. For example – the giant version of Mach’s harmonic pendulum I created for an illusion is just simply beautiful to watch. The science isn’t very had to eek out. On the other hand my cups and balls using polarising filters, it’s probably only me that finds filters interesting when It comes to magic – but it’s best for the audience to keep that part secret.
Most of my creations and presentations hit conflict after conflict but I’ve worked out a number of narratives and presentational techniques that allow me to avoid the general science-magic narrative of “here’s something that looks like magic – here’s how it works – here’s something else that looks like magic – here’s how it works”. I’m not really a fan of that presentation because of the repeated battery and collapse of wonder. As an aside I firmly believe that innovational science requires wonder to be fostered.
Back on topic – my primary goal however is entertainment. Everything has to be entertaining.
How much science features in your work?
Lots. See above. Behind every show though is a premise that pulls magic and science together. Quantum Magic was about how at the tiniest levels in the universe Scientists have no idea why things behave the way they do – so they have to use the language of magic to describe things. Spooky, invisible, vanish, reappear… Anti-Gravity was about the creation of an anti-matter particle at CERN and the possibilities of anti-gravity. For me it was how that would look in our world, one of the few tools that can present the effects were levitation illusions. Vanishing Point tackled control of attention, how tech manipulates our attention and how that links to magic.
Years ago my fellow physicist housemate applied for the role that you won in the “Faking it” TV show. I remember him saying that the TV producers thought that a physicist would be the polar opposite of a magician. Would you agree?
As you can probably tell I’m not a big believer in “polar opposites”. There’s always something in common! Even the term ‘polar’ suggests that each of the opposites would share being bloody freezing if they occupied the geographical locations the words explicitly suggest. Magic show audiences are full of scientists and engineers. I find they generally love the “puzzle” element. However a theatrical presentation of magic with impeccable technique and challenging presentations (think Derren Brown or Colin Cloud) and you soon find even the most sceptical buying into a theatrical presentation.
So in conclusion. Physicists are human. Humans like magic. Therefore Physicists like magic. Doesn’t really answer your question 🙂
What were your personal challenges transitioning from a researcher into a performer?
Getting paid was the biggest challenge. 🙂 I think I always had a bit of a showman inside me so it was a case of getting stage time and finding that voice.
Tell me about your latest show. What was the concept? How have you found the development process? What has surprised you about it?
Neon Future was the philosophical battle between free will and pre-determinism and how humanity (and therefore magic as a representation of the contradictory elements of humanity) jump between the two ideas depending on what live throws at them!
This show was probably the first show I’ve written where the structure and script didn’t change all that much from the script written prior to performance. That surprised me. I was surprised that the University of Edinburgh allowed me to set off explosions in their venue. There were a lot of hoops to jump through, sensibly, but we got there!
I was surprised that I already owned Sam Harris’ “Free Will” after buying a second version for study.
Development was easier than normal. Worked with the same team from last year. It was generally a solid show but needs more presentations to become excellent (so if you’re looking for a quirky magic show do drop me a line…)
You also set up and produce the MagicFest in Edinburgh. How did that come about? What have been the ups and downs over the years? What acts have stood out for you? Are magicians easy to work with?
There was a gap in the market in 2009, I was a magician in need of a challenge and I had just met Svetlana, a graduate from the Napier Festivals and Events Course. We were both fiercely ambitious and we saw that no one else was doing big magic events in Scotland, or even the UK. So we went for it. Magicians are genuinely a joy to work with. They generally push the bounds of what theatres find normal – so there’s always challenges there – but I’ve never worked with a magician who was also a dick.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from? What can we do to cultivate it? And are magicians any good at creating wonder?
For me wonder, as mentioned above, is spontaneous or it comes from exploring something that I think is cool. The second version of wonder for me is the deepest. Wonder needs room to breath and a person needs time to digest it. Generally it’s the digesting that gives way to the new ideas and helps us as humans become better.
Some magicians are good at creating wonder others good at creating puzzles.
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