Smoke and Mirrors

 In Articles about Paul Kieve

Extract from Smoke & Mirrors by Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, May 2004, an article about the Ghost Train immersive theatrical experience.

Getting Ghost Train on track has been quite an undertaking. Central to the process has been illusionist Paul Kieve, who is the magic advisor on the upcoming movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban and the man famed on the theatre circuit for turning small boys into mice in The Witches, decapitating the performance artist Orlan at the ICA and creating the ghosts in Scrooge.

Kieve is refreshingly demystifying about the role of the illusionist. “All magic is,” he says, “is the simplest way of achieving the apparently impossible. Often it is a lo-tech solution to a big problem.” The secrecy that surrounds and guards the magician’s art is, he argues, part of the illusion itself: often all that is lurking in the closely guarded safe is a bit of gaffer tape. “Magic is an effect, like any other effect in the theatre such as the lighting or the sound, albeit one that can create astonishment and a sense of wonder. As soon as I talked with Marisa about Ghost Train, I knew that I wanted there to be really good ghosts, not just dangly bits of thread hanging in the riders’ faces and people jumping out and saying ‘Boo’.”

Part of the appeal for Kieve of Ghost Train is the opportunity to make magic mean something beyond the trick of it. It also gives him a chance to try out some of the illusions from the golden era of magic that spans the mid-19th century to the first world war, which he has read about in his extensive library on magic that includes books dating from the 17th century. “A lot of Victorian illusions were developed as side shows in fairgrounds and took place in very small rooms. They’re unsuitable for use in big theatres, but because the sightlines on the ghost train are so narrow I can adapt some of them,” says Kieve. He is particularly excited by an illusion known as Amphrotite: “It is an ethereal, floating, revolving figure. It is beautiful and so right for a ghost train. I’ve been wanting to do it for years and this has given me the chance.”

Ghost Train is also an opportunity to push the boundaries, melding modern digital technologies with simple Victorian tricks such as the famous illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost. “A bent coat hanger can be just as effective as the most up to date technology,” says Kieve. “And it is always good to remember that the performance element of magic is very important. The method is actually the least important thing. With magic it is very clear cut: it either works or it doesn’t. Even the most sophisticated audience doesn’t want to see the joins.” Making sure that we don’t is part of the fun. As Kieve explains, diverting the audience’s gaze to one place while something else is happening in another has always been part of the illusionist’s box of tricks.

Ghost Train, however, presents particular challenges as the audience is not sitting in rows in a theatre but in moving carriages watching a show that is taking place all around them. “It is an interesting problem,” says Kieve. “It means that you have to pay a lot of attention to the crafting and the detail and make use of lighting and performance. And of course the thing about Ghost Train that makes it different is that it isn’t about the individual illusions, it is about a total experience for the audience.”

Part of that experience, says Kieve, involves the audience bringing their own ghosts to the show. “All of us working on Ghost Train have our own ghosts,” he admits. “When I see the images of these ghostly women I keep thinking of my own sister Karen, who died suddenly when she was 30. We used to do a double act together. Working on this has made me think of her a lot. What is a ghost train? It is a place of memories.”

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