Dr Will Houstoun – magical historian (#94)

Photo credit: Mark Hesketh Jennings
Will Houstoun has a PhD in the history of magical education, supervised by Dame Marina Warner, and is a winner of both The European Magic Championships and The Magic Circle Close-up Magician of the Year. He holds a Literary Fellowship with The Academy of Magical Arts in Los Angeles, and is an Honorary Research Associate at Imperial College’s Department of Surgery and Cancer as well as Magician in Residence at The Imperial College/Royal College of Music Centre for Performance Science.

The current editor of The Magic Circular, The Magic Circle’s 113-year-old journal, Will writes extensively on magic for trade and popular publicationsConsultancy credits include Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the BBC’s Wolf Hall, The Royal Opera House’s Katya Kabanova and The Almeida’s The Twilight Zone. Will spends more time picking up cards than he would like to admit.

Twitter: @drhoustoun

Instagram: @drhoustoun

Facebook: www.facebook.com/drhoustoun

Website: www.drhoustoun.co.uk

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I recently heard a lecture by Jim Steinmeyer (a remarkable historian of conjuring and inventor) which he opened by asking: “What if we have it all wrong?” He went on to talk about the way magicians think magic develops and, with a fascinating example, showed that it doesn’t necessarily work so neatly and that there can be great losses as a result. I think moments like this, in which your perspective on something shifts, opening up new possibilities, feel terribly exciting and offer a glimpse of an exciting possible future.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

To me, the three words seem to be closely related, all falling on a spectrum featuring exceptional experience and further thought (alongside other words like surprise, astonishment, amazement etc.).

Awe, as with astonishment, amazement and surprise, is a feeling that one gets in response to the extraordinary, perhaps the beautiful, unfamiliar, unexpected or inexplicable. It is a response to something else that happens and thus comes at the end of an experience.

Curiosity is the ability to consider things to be interesting. It is a way of looking that marks experiences as starting points for further thought and investigation. As such it occurs at the start of a new experience.

Wonder, to me, is the most interesting of the three words. It is simultaneously a feeling created in response to the extraordinary and the beginning of an investigative journey, both an end and a beginning. One might feel wonder when encountering the beautiful, unfamiliar, unexpected or inexplicable. In this instance it is similar to awe. One might wonder about something that one wishes to know more about. Here it is similar to curiosity. For an experience to truly evoke wonder I believe that it must incorporate both aspects of the word. Whilst many magicians comment that they would like to evoke a ‘sense of wonder’ I would suggest that most only succeed in creating the first type (a feeling of an encounter with the inexplicable) without the second (a desire for further investigation and thought).


How could you envision a magic show that also includes the second type of wonder? Would that be in conflict with ‘keeping secrets’?

The first thing I should say is that whilst I have been thinking about this conception of wonder for about 15 years the idea itself comes from Philip Fisher’s book Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (1998). The second is that Fisher actually does mention magic, commenting that it can’t lead to wonder:

Astonishment is the pleasure we take in the face of the magician’s tricks. It never leads to explanation or even to thought. Astonishment is a technique for the enjoyment of the state of not knowing how, or why.

Contrary to his own assertion, I think that Fisher’s quote explains a possible path to inducing wonder in magic. ‘How?’ is one route for further thought, and it is one that magicians would want to avoid as it inevitably arrives at the method for how the trick was done. ‘Why?’ is another, and if the answer to the question of why a piece of magic was done offers an audience the start of a new line of thought then a piece of magic might be said to be wonderful. As Francis Bacon wrote:

We must not altogether condemn juggling and conjuring tricks. For some of them, though in use trivial and ludicrous, yet in regard to the information they give may be of much value.

Precisely what that valuable information might be is a question that any magician attempting to create a wonderful experience needs to explore for themselves.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I suspect that wonder is an innate human trait, and I think that if it is differentiated from awe etc., as above, then it might be one which is evolutionarily desirable. As an experience I am not sure that one can cultivate it, but it is certainly possible to try and put oneself in situations in which it is more likely to occur.


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?

I think they are two sides of the same coin. I love the variety of approaches, aesthetics, emotions, atmospheres and stories that really good magic can convey, and I dislike the fact that so much of the world at large doesn’t see that magic has the potential to do all those things.

You’re a Doctor of magic! Can you tell me more about your Ph.D research into Victorian magic?

I studied, in the Literature, Film and Theatre Department at the University of Essex looking at Professor Hoffmann’s instructional magic books, published from the 1870s, and the novel approach to magic they promote. I examined Hoffmann’s framing of a practical knowledge of magic as a valuable tool that could teach young people skills for the furtherance of their professional lives and the British Empire’s goals, and the way this approach propelled Hoffmann’s book to enormous success. I then investigated Hoffmann’s impact on the contemporary world of conjuring, which I believe is enormous… many of the things that magicians know and love, such as magic clubs, magazines and specialist literature, all flow from Hoffmann’s work


Prof. Hoffmann could be described as an exposer of magic to the public. Is that fair? What’s your views on exposure?

Professor Hoffmann was described as an exposer of magic on a regular basis. In fact, Frederick Eugene Powell, the Dean of The Society of American Magicians, once said of Hoffmann: “I have always thought that it would have been well had he died in his Mothers [sic] womb. He started this awful avalaunch [sic] of BOOKS. I wish every one was taken and burned.” Having said that, Hoffmann’s books were pivotal in the careers of magicians such as David Devant, Chung Ling Soo, Alexander, Thurston and Houdini, and perhaps are the reason that magic exists in the way it does today.

Hoffmann demonstrates that the issue of exposure is not a black and white one, though it is understandably often treated as such, particularly when organizational rules are being made about it. A productive way of thinking about it might be to follow Teller’s lead when he suggests that exposure is an aesthetic consideration rather than a moral one. How does it impact your audience (whether live or mediated through image, video or text)? How does it affect their perception of magic? How does it fit the experience you are trying to create? I also think there is a big difference between teaching people about magic and exposing magic.


Why is the history of magic so important to you? 

I think there are two aspects which capture my attention.

First, the history of magic is filled with astonishing people who did amazing things, often in bizarre circumstances, and their stories are fascinating to hear/read about. Of course, history can sometime be rather dry, but I challenge any magic lover to read something like Jay’s Journal of Anomalies and not be captivated.

Second, the history of magic is full of interesting ideas. Professor Hoffmann is a great example of that. As I mentioned, Hoffmann’s magic work was founded on the idea that he would teach people how to practically perform magic in order that they would learn skills that are useful in other areas of their lives and which would advance society at large. Studying Hoffmann’s approach has shaped my own practice and interest. Rather than doing magic which is all about the question ‘How is it done?’ I am interested in magic which answers the question ‘Why is it done?


What does magic that is about ‘Why’ look like?

There are lots of different ways this change in approach manifests itself… here are two specific examples.

Film and Theatre – When developing magic for a theatrical or cinematic project an important consideration is that the magic is not the end goal, rather it is a tool in service of the piece’s overall narrative. In practice this means that one approaches the magic in a different way to normal. When an astonishing piece of magic happens it sometimes acts as a jolt to an audience’s experience. In the context of narrative theatre this jolt might well destroy the narrative thread and atmosphere that the piece aims to create. In this case a magically ‘weaker’ or less fooling piece might be better suited to the overall performance.

Education – Following Hoffmann’s lead I do a lot of work teaching young people magic, and the transformation to associated skills is often remarkable. I have also looked extensively at magic in other educational contexts and am currently working in Imperial College London’s department of Surgery and Cancer to see how magic can help in the context of medical education. In these cases, one is not teaching magic in order to make magicians but rather to use magic as an educational metaphor for other instances of skill, performance or interaction. Another great example of this approach is Breathe Magic, a magic-based therapy programme about which Richard McDougall spoke when you interviewed him.

Photo credit: Taylor Wong
Can you tell me about your show Conjuring? How did the idea develop? Do you have a favourite part? What has the whole process taught you?

The way I describe the show on my website is:

Catching a bullet on a china plate. A magician without any hands. Conversations with the dead. An iconic trick that never happened. The last five hundred years are filled with astonishing moments of magic and now you have a unique opportunity to discover the truth behind the smoke and mirrors.

I don’t want to give too much away but the essential conceit is that I share a selection of stories from magic’s past, each illustrated with a trick, and tell my audience that any of the stories might be true or might be completely made up. After each piece I then ask them to vote as to whether they think the stories are true or false.

The idea is that this allows me to perform a diverse range of magic, with a range of emotional tones, and also encourages an audience to actively engage with how strange some of the things they hear are. It also allows me to play with the line between a lecture, in which things one says are true, and a magic show, in which deception is taken for granted.

If I were to choose one thing that doing the show has taught me, it is that you are far better off doing something that you find interesting and exciting rather than something that is traditionally viewed as what a show should be.


Where do you think the future of magic is going?

I am not sure, but that is part of what makes it exciting. The one thing that I think is certain is that technological and social innovation will continue to lead magicians to say that magic is dying but that, in fact, magic will continue to evolve, adapt and remain relevant.

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