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Illusionist and magician Scott Silven on his show ‘The Journey’ that will take you on a trip like no other

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 4 days ago
a man that is standing in the grass: Up to 30 people can take part in illusionist Scott Silven’s interactive performance “The Journey”. Photo: David Wilkinson, Empirical Photography Up to 30 people can take part in illusionist Scott Silven’s interactive performance “The Journey”. Photo: David Wilkinson, Empirical Photography

Scott Silven wants to go travelling with you. No vaccine is required. No negative Covid-19 test will be necessary. You won't even have to wear a mask. There are a few pre-boarding formalities, but you'll only have to bring one piece of luggage: an object that means something to you.

The landscapes you'll explore are the west coast of Scotland, where Silven grew up, plus a combination of his memory and your memory - and you'll do it from your own home, because Silven is an illusionist and a magician.

His interactive performance, called The Journey, is part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which co-commissioned it. One of its beauties, aside from the Scottish Highlands, is that it's pandemic-proof.

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Up to 30 participants can take part. As with any real-world audience, Silven can summon individuals out of that intimate digital cluster and, thanks to the wonders of technology, interact directly with their holograms. That's 21st-century magic. Or, as The New York Times succinctly summed up At The Illusionist's Table, another of Silven's shows: Wow. Wow. Wow.

"It's not about exploiting people's emotions or memories to create a magic trick," Silven says on a Zoom call from an atmospheric, dimly lit room. "It's about using those moments to coalesce with my experience. They're in their own homes and the audience is seeing me in my own home as well, just as you are now."

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It's 3.15am in Scotland, 11.15am in Hong Kong but 10.15pm in Indiana, where Silven has just finished a live virtual show. Because he's doing a North American tour, which involves two hour-long shows six days a week, he's decided it's easier to live life on US time. He says he hasn't seen daylight since Christmas. Presumably that's less of an issue for an illusionist than it might be for the rest of us.

Silven, who's 29 and unreasonably fresh-faced in the circumstances, laughs. In the 90-second YouTube video advertising The Journey, he strides over rugged Celtic territory looking like actor Kit Harington playing Jon Snow. Fans of Game of Thrones will recall that Jon Snow famously knew nothing; this is not the case with Silven, who conveys an appealing mixture of charm, creative instinct and canny calculation.

Is he, in fact, really speaking from his home in Scotland? "Oh, I'm in the Virgin Islands right now!" he grins, which is a tiny, magical-thinking joke. He is - truly - in his sitting-room, outside Glasgow, where he has been since last spring, when he arrived back from Seattle in the US as the pandemic took hold and his tour dates for At The Illusionist's Table vanished into thin air. He thought he might stay for a couple of months but, alas, not even a mind-reader could predict the viral future; hence The Journey.

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Asked what meaningful object he'd bring to his own show, he replies, "A little matchbox from the first trick my grandfather taught me."

He was five, and entranced that a sweet could magically disappear, then reappear in a box. "That one experience was my North Star in setting out what I do today. It really was the catalyst." His grandfather's middle name was Silven, from a Scottish mountain called Suilven; the child would later adopt it for his stage persona.

Soon, young Scott was skipping school to hang out at Tam Shepherds Trick Shop in Glasgow, where the owner, Roy Walton, coached him in possibilities beyond magic.

"He used a lot of illusions you see today. David Blaine, David Copperfield - they use Roy Walton's techniques," Silven says. "I wasn't interested in magic clubs. When I was hanging out with magicians, I found you'd always be doing the same things together. The great thing about Roy was that he'd teach you the technique but it was up to you to create the illusion from it. It gave me the mindset to create my own material."

a store front at day: Tam Shepherds Trick Shop in Glasgow, Scotland. © Provided by South China Morning Post Tam Shepherds Trick Shop in Glasgow, Scotland.

When he was 15, he'd saved enough from private performances to do a five-day course on hypnosis in Milan, Italy. He convinced his mother he was going on a school trip. (She was surprised to read in a newspaper interview, just a few years ago, where he'd actually been.) He was already interested in the psychology of illusion: no props, just a connection between performer and audience. "I used aspects of hypnosis and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), as well as traditional magic, to create the appearance of reading minds because, obviously, mind-reading doesn't really exist ... You've weaving techniques together."

He had an additional ace up his plausible sleeve: geography. He studied theatre and contemporary performance at Edinburgh University. Every summer, the Edinburgh Festival attracts thousands of tourists, plus agents and talent scouts, to Scotland's capital. When Silven relocated to London after graduation, he continued to head back north every August to perform. In 2016, he put on an Edinburgh version of At The Illusionist's Table, was signed up by American management, and a month later had moved to New York.

That theatrical run was scheduled for four weeks. It lasted eight months. He knew that New Yorkers don't suffer fools gladly but he'd had good practice with unforgiving audiences in Glasgow. (In the US, he's often billed as a "mentalist". To a British audience, especially anyone familiar with the work of Steve Coogan's alter ego Alan Partridge, this term generally signifies someone of limited brain capacity.)

Reviews were ecstatic. As with The Journey later, participants were limited to 30. Silven doesn't like to emphasise the gulf between performer and audience. "I'm averse to magic for magic's sake - that 'ta-dah!' moment can be fine but it can also cheapen the experience."

a man and a woman standing in a kitchen: Silven during a performance of © Provided by South China Morning Post Silven during a performance of

And so a group gathered each night at a dining-table in the McKittrick Hotel. Illusion began at the front door: the McKittrick isn't actually a hotel but a five-storey performance warehouse in Manhattan.

Over fine food, whiskey and Scottish-accented mind-games, emotions were intensified. People cried, bonded, made life decisions; there have been, he says, "multiple marriage proposals". Jaws, collectively, dropped.

A world tour followed. He developed another show at the McKittrick called "Wonders at Dusk". He toured again. Then everything stopped, he found himself back in Scotland and the idea of homecoming - creating a journey while standing still - began to bloom in his mind. He knew people, wherever they are on the globe, now yearn to feel connected and find meaning in their lives. "So many are trapped indoors, surrounded by objects they maybe haven't looked at for years because they've been too busy."

Roy Walton sitting at a table in front of a building: Roy Walton, owner of Tam Shepherds Trick Shop, opened Silven's eyes to the wider world of magic. Pictured here in 2004, he died aged 87 on February 3, 2020. © Provided by South China Morning Post Roy Walton, owner of Tam Shepherds Trick Shop, opened Silven's eyes to the wider world of magic. Pictured here in 2004, he died aged 87 on February 3, 2020.

Normally, a high-concept show such as The Journey would take between six and 12 months to develop. Because so many other projects had been put on hold, the team managed it in eight weeks. Gareth Fry, who won both Olivier and Tony awards for the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, designed the immersive soundscape. Award-winning Broadway production designer Jeff Sugg made his physical way to Scotland to work on it.

Every night, it takes a crew of six to conjure up another land, seamlessly, within Silven's - and, by extension, his audience's - home. "I knew from the get-go I didn't want to do something that's just a Zoom show," he says. "The technology is made to feel as invisible and intuitive as possible. The audience shouldn't have to think about it."

Occasionally, the messy outer world intrudes: a few nights before the US election, a participant brought along a Trump voodoo doll, complete with pins, as his meaningful object. Usually, like Silven's matchbox, the object is something more personal - a passport to an unusual journey, through past and present, for one evening. The pandemic is never mentioned.

Gareth Fry wearing glasses and smiling at the camera:  Gareth Fry designed the immersive soundscape for © Provided by South China Morning Post Gareth Fry designed the immersive soundscape for

It's now 4am in Scotland: time for Silven's dinner and a quick walk in the chilly gloom outside. Just before his Seattle dates last spring, he'd been in Alaska. "And I was fascinated by the thought of living in darkness for months," he says, ruefully. "I'd said to people there, 'How do you do this? I don't understand it.'"

He does now; "It's like working the night shift." He realises, of course, how lucky he is to be able to do it.

Still, he yearns to travel once more. He's already planning a show for when pandemic ends and he can work his magic on real people, all of them in one room, all in the same time zone. Until then, for everyone, the journey has to be virtual.

In a way, the ultimate mind game was that he convinced himself it was possible.

"We didn't have millions of dollars to do this," he says. "At the beginning, I spoke to all the best people in the industry and they were all, like, 'This concept doesn't exist.' When I see the audience every night, and they see me, I'm as delighted as they are. It really is a miracle."

The Journey will take place, online, between March 2 and 7; then March 9 and 14.

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