Ben Hart on the magic of magic
Award-winning magician Ben Hart talks new show Jadoo, cultural influences, the impact of social media and the power of astonishment
Award-winning magician Ben Hart talks new show Jadoo, cultural influences, the impact of social media and the power of astonishment
Big Issue North: What was the genesis for Jadoo?
Ben Hart: I’ve done a lot of shows in the more conventional way magicians work, and this time, I really wanted to make a show that stretched me as a performer.
I have family in heritage in India, so I thought, I’m going to go to India, and I’m going to study the type of magic that is performed on the streets there by travelling magicians called jadoo-wallahs, and I’m going to come back and mix that into the melting pot of my work and see where we end up.
We end up with this show that is much more earthy and organic than shows that I’ve done before, and rooted in the idea that if you reduce magic down into its purest essence, it’s sometimes hard to tell what is real and what’s a trick.
What is magic to you?
It’s a feeling, isn’t it? We talk about it like that – oh, it was a magical evening.
Magic is an emotion, and so as a magician, all I’m dealing with is trying to bring that emotion out of the audience, and whether the audience knows it’s a trick or doesn’t know it’s a trick is sort of irrelevant. It’s about, can I cultivate an environment where the audience allows themselves to feel that very special emotion.
Is that increasingly difficult in our rational age?
Yes – people don’t want to trust, and it’s ironic, isn’t it, that the magician is the person who wants you to trust them? But at the heart of magic is the idea that I will make you joyfully come to the wrong conclusions for the right reasons. There’s nothing sinister behind what I’m doing – it’s a game that we play together.
Do audiences respond more to that element of collaboration after the isolation of Covid?
I think that must surely be true. Obviously, it was very hard, as a magician, during isolation, because that conversation went away, and magic doesn’t exist without that conversation. For example, I could do the same actions on stage without a script, i.e. without the communication, and it wouldn’t fool an audience.
Sometimes, the script is the thing that has the deception within it, or it’s the game of conversation, of communication. A magic trick really only exists in the mind of every individual audience member, so really, all we’re doing is mind hacking and manipulating people’s perceptions through communication.
Do people enjoy that kind of manipulation?
Yes – it’s always disappointing when people find out [how a trick works]! I work as a magic advisor and creative on various other shows, and so you come in, and you have to explain to people who aren’t magicians how the magic works, and there’s never a joyful moment of, “Wow, what a great secret!”
There’s always disappointment, because the feeling of magic is so special in our lives that to reduce it down to “it was on a string that you couldn’t see” or “it was hiding behind a mirror” – it’s terrible, isn’t it? But for me, that’s where the beauty is – the distance between the secret and what we call the effect, the plot of the trick.
The secret can be so simple, but as humans, we’re so desperate to experience wonder, so hungry for it, that the audience will turn a simple secret into some profound idea simply through the power of their imagination. That’s amazing!
Working with me in a rehearsal room as I develop a show, people are frequently surprised or possibly disappointed in the process being so methodical and scientific. It is really a game of research and development: “Can we take an impossible idea that’s on the page and make it happen? Let’s start mapping that out.”
With practice, I have noticed that there is a process.
Tell us about that process with Jadoo.
I was learning, really, by observation, because I don’t get fooled by magic anymore, and so when I watch something, I can understand the ingredients. So, what we’re trying to create is a sort of fusion – I want to try to take in the essence of what works in a different culture and mix it into what the needs are for my audience.
So, for example, I noticed that the magic performed on the street [in India] is rarely explicitly comedic. It can be funny by situation, but it’s not comedic. Well, I know that if I’m going to hold an audience’s attention for two hours over a full evening show, I need it to be explicitly comedic at times, so there’s a game of, can I take what works there and make it work here?
For example, street magicians in India perform completely surrounded, in the round, like you would imagine if you were to stop in a market square or something. Well, in a theatre, I can’t do that, because the audience is sitting all in one place, so I have to create contrivances that make it feel like we’re in that type of environment.
In fact, I was just performing this show in a spiegeltent, which is an old circus tent in the round, which was amazing, and I wish I could just tour that entire tent, but unfortunately we can’t!
How do you convince an audience that the theatre layout is not part of the misdirection?
I always try to embrace the mystery. Like, what a nice idea that everything that I ever hold up, the audience thinks that there might be something behind it! That in itself is so great. But it comes down to evolutionary thinking – we’re scared of the shadows.
How has magic changed since its Victorian heyday, when English performers frequently drew on the ignorance surrounding Asian cultures to create a sense of mysticism?
My grandparents spoke of seeing travelling street performers often. Now, it’s a very rare of occurrence to see that type of entertainment done on the street, and so I’m just trying to catch the last breaths of a dying form, because now, if you are a magician who wants to present their work, you would just go onto TikTok or Instagram.
I feel, as a touring magician – and I may be completely wrong; it may be my ego speaking – that I’m at the end of a dying or dead form of magic. There are hardly any of us working in theatres, because if you’re 16 and you’re getting into magic now, the easiest place to monetise your work would be on the internet.
The cultural differences in any entertainment industry are rapidly disappearing, if not already gone.
What that Victorian cultural theft represented was the idea that magic could transport you to a place that you hadn’t been before, but now I can’t say that to my audience – “I’m going to transport you to a culture you haven’t experienced before” – because we’ve all experienced a whole multitude of cultures.
What I can do is transport them to somewhere they haven’t been before in their minds. I think that’s possibly why we’ve seen mentalism become such a powerful magic form, because it’s no longer, “I can transport you to India because I’ve got this mysterious-looking box” – everyone can do that themselves.
It’s more, “I’m going to take you somewhere that your brain doesn’t allow you to,” because we’ve evolved into a species that likes to be right all the time and thinks that we’re right all the time. Magic is useful for reminding us that we’re not right all the time! It reminds us to get bigger dreams. It forces us to know that the things that we are told are not always true.
What impact can that have on an audience?
When you come to watch a live magic show, there is a safe space that is made that allows you, for the duration of the show, to explore that idea – that the assumptions that you make are assumptions.
The hand that you assume to be empty might later be revealed to be not empty, and in that little moment where you feel wonderment, embrace that, but also think, “Right, that happened for a reason.” As I said earlier, you came to the wrong conclusions for the right reasons.
Do you want audiences to critically engage or to suspend disbelief?
There’s an ebb and flow that’s very intoxicating, certainly for a performer and hopefully for an audience. The flow of, “I’m going to tell you stories, I’m going to transport you, but then immediately, the house lights might come up and I might need to go in there.”
It’s different to conventional theatre in that way, in that the so-called fourth wall comes up and comes down a lot in the course of the show, and I really think that watching a live magic show, when it’s performed well, can be very exciting because it forces you to be intellectually engaged the whole time.
I’m asking you to ask questions all the time, and you don’t really get that, I think, in any other art form. If you go to watch a film, you hope that you’re not thinking about the technique. If you do to watch a play, you hope that you’re not doing that. If you go to watch a magic show, I’m asking you to ask if that’s a real table!
It’s very direct. I work with various theatre directors on various projects, putting special effects in, and I sometimes smugly say, “I can get a gasp from my audience in the first 30 seconds of a show.” A magic show can be 30 seconds in, and the audience can gasp with amazement. That’s an incredibly direct form of theatre, and I love the directness of magic.
There’s still some snobbery from other art forms, where they think it’s a low form of art, but it isn’t. It can be so direct – laughter and applause and a gasp in one moment.
What impact has the rise of communications technologies, from radio and television to social media, had on magic as an art form?
I love the way magic can reach huge audiences. There are social media influencers, magic performers, who have incredible reach. I love that.
What I don’t love is that it’s turned magic into a very short form thing – magic that unfolds in 60 seconds, or less, to appeal to a TikTok algorithm. I don’t like that because magic is a peg on which you can hang a lot of story and emotion, and that’s what’s prevented me from moving my work online – I just simply can’t distil my work down into something so empty.
As a result of that, the magic is quite disposable, because social media requires you to churn through content, and that means that the overall standard of skill in magic has plummeted.
I’m working on stuff now that I don’t expect to go into the show until 2025 – years of work – whereas with social media, it can’t be anything more than a day’s worth of work, because you have to do something new every day, so the standard has dropped.
On the other hand, the diversity of magic has improved, in terms of both content and performers. We now are seeing performers from all different backgrounds performing magic, which would never have happened pre-internet.
That’s also to do with accessibility of information. You can find magic secrets on the internet now, and that’s a good levelling thing, so that everybody has the chance of having a go at this strange art. Bad for magicians who want to protect their secrets!
But to see more diverse performers of magic has been hugely a result of the internet, and that’s great.
With that short form, do you also risk losing the storytelling aspect?
Yes – the good bit! When I coach people, they come with a trick, and usually the trick is bad – not because the trick itself is bad, but because it has no weight to it. It has no ritual. Why just ask someone to pick a card when you could ask them to take the deck of cards, go out into the street and ask a stranger to pick a card?
I’m always wary of how much I tell the audience, because it’s probably not going to sound appealing if I tell the public who come to watch my show that I turn magic tricks into little rituals. From a PR point of view, it’s got to sound exciting!
But from a creative point of view, beside my desk, I have a handwritten sign that says, “Make it a ritual”, and it’s simply a reminder to myself that rituals, in whatever form they might be, are essentially trivial things, but given value.
In magic, there’s something trivial about a card trick, or a trick where you’re following a number of small balls in someone’s hand, but if you can make it a ritual and hang some sort of belief or emotion on it, it can become lifechanging for the audience.
I have performed magic that I really believed and have been told has changed people’s outlooks on their lives, because it’s been the right place, right time.
In the live show, I don’t expect that it’s the right place and right time for the hundreds of people in the audience, but I have to try to get us there, together – to put us in a place where we all might take something away from the show.
Can you give some examples of tricks audiences have found lifechanging?
I get a lot of people who say that they needed that feeling of wonderment or narrative transformation at that time in their life – “I came to see the show and I wasn’t feeling very good; I needed it.” People find that it, on some level, can help in that way.
But also, sometimes you get moments, which are often driven by fortune or chance. For example, I used to do a card trick – quite a simple card trick – which I would call filler. Not a great trick – something you would do to fill a bit of time in the running order of a show, like a six out of 10 trick.
The punchline of it was a name written on the back of a card. Now, it’s always the same name, and it’s not really about the name usually – that’s a secondary moment within the trick – but one night, I performed it, and the person I performed it to had recently lost their daughter, and that was the name on the back of the card, by chance.
Because I had presented the trick in a way that was unknowingly respectful, it felt like that was a trick for her. It was essentially a message – albeit in a magic show – from someone she was thinking about. Those moments happen more than you’d think, and it’s because, in my work, I don’t trivialise people or their emotions or the magic.
As soon as you stop having those bad habits, you find that chance helps you out quite often. I’ve had many situations like that.
Once, I had a trick where people would write a word on a piece of paper, and I would tell them what was written on it, in the barest form, and the way that it would work was I would look at the piece of paper when they didn’t see me looking!
I’d done this many times over the course of the night, and people usually would write simple words, like a house, a key, a cat, that sort of thing, and I would crumple up the ball of paper afterwards and put it in my pocket, and at the end of the night, I’d have a few balls of paper in my pocket.
Anyway, I get to this guy, and he writes the word “kot”, and I secretly look at the word and I think, “I can’t look again, I’ll get spotted. I don’t recognise the word kot. Maybe I missed the letter ‘n’, maybe it’s the word knot. Somebody might write the word knot as a bit of a pun, trip the magician up – is it knot or not? I don’t know.”
So, I guess the word knot, and he smugly says, “No, the word was kot.” I said, “That’s not how you spell cot.” He said, “No, it’s a Polish word for cat” – and then my brain said, “In your pocket, crumpled up, is a piece of paper with the word cat on that someone else wrote earlier in the night.”
So, I crumpled up his piece of paper, secretly exchanged it for my piece of paper, asked him to hold it, and then said, “I couldn’t figure out what your word was, but I can translate it,” and then he unfolds the piece of paper, and the word has been translated.
By chance, this impossible thing had happened that could be, surely, lifechanging for somebody – it’s so profoundly baffling!
Are you ever tempted to disabuse people of their misinterpretations?
No, they’re the ones that are easy to protect. I do a lot of shows – about 200 shows a year. If you’re doing that many performances, just statistically, magic happens, and the more you allow it to come into your life – and this is true of everyone – the more magic you see.
I have a piece in the show where I literally say, “I need you to invest in this story I’m going to tell you,” and I even say to the audience, “I don’t really care if you believe it or don’t believe it, because magic is like a placebo – it somehow always works.”
The more I’ve matured as a magic performer, the more that stuff seems more and more relevant, because we’re not going to believe in make believe, we’re just going to remind ourselves that we come from a long line of people who know nothing about anything!
Like, okay, we don’t want to believe that stuff because it’s rubbish, but in 50 years’ time, a lot of the stuff we think now will be seen to be rubbish, and in 1,000 years’ time, we’ll look ridiculous.
Does magic, then, provide a space in which people can think in a different way?
Knowing is all about not knowing. We all know that the most brilliant minds are the ones who are most prepared to change their opinion – to listen to arguments and to bend and evolve.
Magic, for me, is so much more than just the tricks and the mechanics. You would’ve thought that as the years have gone by – I’ve been doing magic for longer than people would think! – that it would get less interesting to me, but the truth is, it gets more and more interesting.
How did you first get involved in magic?
I was just a kid who was interested. I think a lot of people have a brief period where they’re interested in magic, they just don’t necessarily keep going with it.
I was very aware early on that magic is at the intersection of a tonne of different things – psychology, acting, but also engineering, mathematics, mechanics, chemistry. A good magic show can incorporate an awful lot of that stuff.
For me, that was amazing, because instead of being the kid who had a chemistry kit, because I was interested in magic, I was the kid who had a chemistry kit and was thinking about, “Could I portray these as magic tricks?” Instead of being the kid who was bored in maths, I was the kind who was realising, “Some of these mathematical sums look like magic tricks at the end.”
I was very lucky to find magic early on. I didn’t do well in school, but that was because I was also a daydreamer, which was really perfect for this! I mean, magic is totally pointless. That’s what I love about it. A lot of art forms are essentially pointless, and what I love about magic is that it’s so pointless – it’s the most pointless – because all my work is hidden.
I can work on something for years, and it might look like somebody’s lost their keys and I can just make them appear. That’s so pointless, isn’t it? I’m throwing all my work down the drain!
In our age of armchair psychologists, has pop psychology become its own misdirection?
Exactly. “He must’ve made me choose that” – that’s what people always say!
I have been doing some of my routines in the show, if you want to think of them as little psychology experiments, for 15 years – literally thousands of performances – and in the audience, there might be hundreds or thousands of people watching.
When you start to do the maths, it’s a lot of participants involved in your scientific study, and you start to get a very good set of data in terms of, “How do people think? What excites them? Why is it that one trick lands well and why is it that another trick doesn’t? What is it about that one that connects deeply within people’s consciousness?” It’s all fascinating to me!
Do people from different cultures, like an Indian versus a British audience, respond differently to the same tricks?
There are huge cultural differences, but they usually don’t exist in that pure moment of astonishment. That moment of astonishment is the same no matter where or who you perform to, regardless of race or culture or wealth – that is an innate feeling of astonishment that is very pure.
What changes is the interest in certain storytelling themes and ideas and applause cues and what jokes land, so the magic show can be completely different in a different environment, but the moments of astonishment are usually the same. We are all united by that one emotion that nobody dislikes.
Jadoo is touring the UK from 28 September to 25 November. For details and tickets, visit benhartmagic.com