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Scott Silven mentalist extraordinaire is back to the UK after six years with new show Wonders 

BN1 Magazine had the pleasure to pick the mind of renowned mentalist, illusionist and performance artist Scott Silven. Direct from New York and following on from sold-out international tours, he is bringing his new show Wonders, to The Theatre Royal, part of Brighton Festival. From the 8th to 12th May expect five nights of intrigue, mystery and utter perplexity!

BN1 discovered how Silven entered the world of magic, how far it’s taken him across the globe and what he’s found when he’s got there. 

What inspired you at the start of your career? 

Scotland is a big place where myth and mystery is a pretty big part of my identity. I remember hearing the stories of fairies and we used to go on our vacations just exploring those landscapes. That place of light and shade and history was so exciting to me. When I was about four or five, my granddad taught me a little magic trick where – he made me say my name into a coin and he passed my hand over it – it vanished. He pointed to a matchbox on his mantelpiece and I ran over to it and opened the matchbox and inside was the coin. It was amazing, absolutely amazing. 

“I think it was seeing that the everyday couldn’t just be the everyday. It was a sense of wonder in the world waiting to be explored and that really set me on my journey.”

I know so much of it’s related to luck and being at the right place at the right time. I can’t imagine doing anything else, like really, it’s my dream to do it. When I was a teenager I studied hypnosis. I was doing the traditional magic for a while, sort of what you would imagine: coin vanishing, cards and communing with nature. Then I saw this hypnosis course in Milan when I was like 13 years old. I saw it in the back of a magazine and I didn’t tell my mum that I was going to be doing it, she probably wouldn’t allow it. I couldn’t afford a flight or anything like that, so I told my mum I was going on a school trip. Then I got the bus from Glasgow bus station all the way down to London and then crossed over into Milan. It was a 30-hour trip. Came back after the weekend with these hypnotic skills. It wasn’t until I started doing media interviews many years later, that she found out that I had actually done that. I totally forgot to tell her the entire time. 

It was amazing coming back from that trip. I think that was the moment that I understood the power of the mind and what we’re capable of, but that sort of took me on a different journey, which took the form of a type of magic called mentalism. I call it theatre of the mind, it’s using people’s memories and emotions and experiences and crafting impossible illusions from those things, rather than props or people in funny boxes. I think it’s the most powerful magic. I studied psychology and contemporary performance when I was in Edinburgh, which allowed me to craft theatrical experiences. ‘Wonders’ is a narrative-based show. The audience are coming and seeing a piece of theatre, as well as hopefully having this amazing magical experience. 

“People are used to that other type of magic, so it’s kind of like trying to take them by surprise a little bit as well. So, they don’t even realise this could be magic. That’s the hope.”

What drew you to America? 

It’s funny, growing up in those landscapes in Scotland as a kid, you’re so connected to nature. I had this weird thing that I wanted to move to New York City when I was a little kid. I have tried to navigate why that was the case, but I don’t know. I studied in Edinburgh and lived there for a couple of years after that. I was so lucky during that time because the Edinburgh Fringe existed and that’s the world’s biggest arts festival, and we take it for granted living in the UK. We’re like, oh yeah, just the Edinburgh Fringe. For me, what an amazing stroke of luck that I had that on my doorstep every year. After building up my portfolio, I moved to London and then three weeks later, I was on a plane moving to New York. It was one of those sliding doors moments. The show was off-Broadway, we were meant to run for four weeks, and we ran for 18 months. It was just like one of those amazing moments. From there I was able to live and tour in the States.

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I’ve slowed down a little in my old age now, but I started with like 500 shows a year – you’re doing two shows a day, sometimes three shows a day – looking back on it, I don’t know how I did it, but it was really helpful. I’ve slowed down now, I do about 300 shows a year now. It’s almost a show every day, or every couple of days. There’s a nice balance. Now when I’m touring, I play big venues. I’ll do the Sydney Opera House, the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center, but I also like to choose really interesting venues as well. When Brighton Festival contacted us and said that it was going to be at Theatre Royal, I was like, oh my goodness, that’s a venue I’ve always wanted to play. It’s a beautiful jewel box of a theatre, such a magical space and it’s going to be my first show back in the UK for about six years.

“In Hong Kong, I did a visualisation in the show where people close their eyes and they imagine they’re walking through a forest and they’re witnessing something. Someone just couldn’t connect with this because they’d never been in a forest before. They’d never experienced woodland.”

Unlike traditional theatre, where you’re just reciting lines every night into a darkened audience,  this is so personal to the audience and it’s their memories and life experiences, you really have to do your research before you land in a place. Even the difference between the UK and the US, what we would call a biscuit in the UK is totally different in the US. A biscuit to them is like what a scone would be. It’s strange little things like that, you have to get a sense of, what’s the cultural points here? What’s the touchstones that people have had from their childhood? You’re sort of thrown in and immersed into that culture for better or for worse.

How much were you adapting each show? 

The bulk of it was the same, but that’s interesting. In Tokyo I did something involving someone’s childhood home and the house number of their childhood home. The idea of someone having a house number on their door just wasn’t a thing there, so I had to change that.  I think in Hong Kong, it’s really interesting because I did a visualisation in the show where people close their eyes and they imagine they’re walking through a forest and they’re witnessing something. Someone just couldn’t connect with this because they’d never been in a forest before. They’d never experienced woodland, so you’re always accessing different life experiences in really profound and interesting ways.

“My work really isn’t inspired by the magicians. Growing up, it was Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch and those sort of storytellers and the way that they reveal their work, that’s where I take my inspiration from.”

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Is there anyone out there doing anything similar to you?

I think I’ve really tried to create my own thing for being a narrative story, story-based thing. It’s interesting, and I think that’s what really helped my show in New York, is that there was no other illusion show like that before. And I really love to see that other performers, other illusionists are now doing stuff like that. For me, there’s an old adage that what magicians did is they took something incredibly profound and they trivialised it. The hope with my work is that it’s taking it back to that place of rarity and ritual and the power of wonder in many ways. 

In the UK, obviously Derren Brown is amazing and known for his sort of mind reading stuff. Derren’s a fantastic, undoubtedly the UK’s best magician, absolutely amazing and there’s parallels with the work involving the mind, but I think because mine is more storytelling based, his is more psychological. There’s enough of a differentiation there. My work really isn’t inspired by the magicians. Growing up, it was Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch and those sort of storytellers and the way that they reveal their work, that’s where I take my inspiration from. I like to lead the audience with that grey area – that they’re sort of walking through a misty forest, and they can see something in the distance, but they’re not quite sure what it is – it’s a little bit down to the audience to see how they feel or what they’re thinking at the end of it.

Could you tell me a little bit about what to expect from your new show Wonders?

Wonders, in essence, is a show that explores the power of wonder in your life and how that can motivate and inspire you. You will witness impossible and amazing illusions, discover the power of your imagination and become part of this inspiring collective adventure. Hopefully it will be unlike anything you’ve seen in the theatre before and you’ll leave inspired. It’s really lovely speaking to audience members, many years after they’ve seen the show and they come and see it again and again.

Tickets: https://brightonfestival.org/whats-on/XO0-scott-silven-wonders/

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