Magicians find fresh form at the Vancouver Fringe Festival

Illusionists like Robbie T and Keith Brown are forgoing spectacle for intimate storytelling and low-tech tricks in an atmosphere that lets them get creative

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      This year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival has an unprecedented number of magic shows, but if you’re picturing guys in tuxedos pulling rabbits out of a hat—well, you probably haven’t seen a magic show for a while. And you definitely haven’t seen one of the growing number happening at Fringes around Canada and the world.

      For Aussie talent Robbie T, as for so many other illusionists hitting the Fringe circuit, it’s a chance to do something riskier, more personal, and more narrative than the corporate work where they make their bread and butter.

      “I didn’t want to do my tricks that I do for my day-to-day bookings and corporate events. And it’s nice: it’s not as commercial and I get to be a little more creative,” says the Perth-based artist over the line from Oz, before boarding the long flight here to present his largely autobiographical hit Weirdo. “A lot of magicians are kind of awkward people and to a degree that’s why they got into magic—it makes them stand out a little bit if they’re not good at sports or whatever. And this show is kind of playing on that idea.”

      Amid the storytelling, he performs some of his low-tech tricks, working in some added elements you’d never associate with a regular magic act. “I incorporate various photos of me growing up, just to provide some texture and colour,” he says. “I still have a diary that I kept, and I read from that, and I have a stuffed elephant that I’ve had since I was three or four years old.”

      Canadian magician Keith Brown, who’s a Fringe-circuit veteran, also works in some photos—including X-rays—of a trick that went sideways three years ago, sending him to the hospital. Let’s just say it involves a sewing needle and a stomach injury, and if you come to see his show Absolute Magic, you’ll witness him attempting it again.

      “The trick is great at the Fringe, but not great at a corporate Christmas party where they’re about to start dessert and going, ‘Oh my God! Is he going to kill himself?’ ” the artist, who’s been practising magic since he was 13 and works full-time in the field, tells the Straight from Toronto.

      The Fringe, it turns out, provides multiple benefits to magicians beyond a creative outlet—not the least of which is a viable space to perform outside of offices, convention centres, and backyard birthday parties.

      “There aren’t that many magic venues in the world,” Brown explains. “When I saw it [the Fringe], I said, ‘I could fit in here.’ You see open mikes for musicians and comedians—not magic. And magic, in some people’s eyes, isn’t high art. The Fringe was finally a place where I could say ‘I can fit in here and participate.’ I think the Fringe creates this very nice opportunity where it creates an equal playing field.”

      Robbie T brings a friend from the past to his autobiographical hit Weirdo.

      Another benefit the Fringe offers is the chance for audiences to see magic live. Although the art form has seen a new wave of interest, thanks to Netflix shows like Magic for Humans and Penn & Teller: Fool Us, there’s a special thing that happens when you see it performed in intimate venues like those at the Fringe.

      “With TV, there’s always the justification, as an audience member, that the trick happens because of editing. It’s different than when you’re face to face with a magician,” Brown says. “The other thing for me is, like, I can’t do magic by myself; I need your willing participation to interact with me. I can do my tricks in the mirror, but I’m not going to fool myself.”

      Which brings us to the rabbit in the hat—and any other great-escape, body-floating spectacles you associate with the glitzy Vegas magic acts of the past. (As Robbie T’s tag line reads: “ ‘I’ve never heard of you.’—David Copperfield”.) Many of the magic shows on offer at the Fringe work the power of innovating with small-scale illusions—involving a deck of cards or a borrowed cellphone.

      Brown calls it a return to the “realness and authenticity” of magic—“no flashing lights and top hats”. “It’s not about music or fog or big boxes or illusions you’ve never seen before,” he elaborates. “I would rather stick to the basics of strong magic and strong showmanship. I’m happy with just you and me in a room.”

      And there, Robbie T would seem to heartily agree. “Magic does get a bit of a bad rap and not everyone is a fan of it. A lot of it is a little bit cheesy and copy-and-paste,” he tells the Straight. “It’s a bit of a myth that magicians don’t share anything. They do—I think there are more books on it than any other area of interest. And with all this stuff flooding the market, it can be difficult to make something your own, to put your own flavour and personality in it.

      “I’m not doing grand illusions, but stuff that’s more intimate, a lot of it involving the audience. They trust the show and I try to do it in a way that doesn’t belittle them or make them feel uncomfortable,” he continues. “Right toward the start of the show, I tell people I’m a bit of a weirdo—but I think in a way we all are.”

      Weirdo is at Performance Works September 6, 8 to 10, 14, and 16; and Absolute Magic is at Studio 1398 on September 7, 9, 10, and 13 to 15, both as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival.