Words by Emily Trace
Illustration by Jeremy Lewis
“Nothing like this has ever been attempted: a real hybrid between experiencing an exhibit and a magic show,” promises Jamie Allan, creator of the upcoming Illusionarium experience that will offer some much needed socially-distanced enchantment this winter. Once the exhibit opens post-lockdown, directly above the Van Gogh installation at 1 Yonge Street, ticket-buyers will be able to access both Van Gogh (at a discount) as well as the awe and enigmas of Allan’s magic labyrinth. A meticulously designed layout, a committed team, and a massive space will allow patrons to both engage with the last 150 years of magic as a performing art while experiencing brand new innovations in holography and illusion technology.
Illusionarium was based on a concept that Allan and co-creator Tommy Bond tried to do in a warehouse space in New York in 2018. Now with 300,000 cubic feet to work with, they’ve designed, produced, and scored an installation that will feature four ‘theatres’ each offering a ten minute performance—some with interactive elements. The theatres will be interconnected by passageways filled with historical content and poster art from the timeline of magic as a performance art in the modern Western world. “You’re going to find there’s a great story arc to this,” Allan remarks, saying that every room and passage contributes to the final experience. “There’s so much rich history behind magic; there’s so much that people don’t understand, and our main aim is to raise magic as an art form.”
Described as “the most televised British illusionist of the last decade” and a “high-tech Houdini” whose sold-out runs of iMagician Live have mystified audiences in Chicago and Houston, Jamie Allan has been preparing to create something like this since he was a child at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London. Among showcasing new domestic technologies, the exhibition also featured a haunted house—run by a technician who let Jamie visit every day to learn how to create immersive, mystical experiences through technology and atmosphere. Much later, he connected with creative partner Tommy Bond while performing at a venue. “We had a great interconnection about performance and technology, Jamie on the magic side, myself on the music and cueing systems,” Bond reminisces. He’s developed a musical score for the experience, something “intriguing, imaginative, innovative in some ways, that creates mystery and tension at the appropriate times and is very bespoke to the illusions and performances.”
The idea of a ‘maze’ conjures more than just illusions; it could also conflict with a practice of avoiding large groups indoors that we’ve acclimatized to over the last nine months. But the maze has been designed to allow distanced groups to move through, and capacities will fluctuate according to changing public health guidelines with around 32 people per room. With 12 pods in each room that can hold 2-4 people 6 feet apart, each group will have their own guide who takes them through and ensures everyone has an easy time of social distancing. Guides are being interviewed now, and Bond reports that candidates are very enthusiastic about the project and providing a safe experience for patrons. He’s also pleased that they’re now in a position to offer work to local magicians who might be strapped for gigs in the current climate. “It’s a wonderful blank canvas in there,” says Allan of the under-construction Illusionarium. “Right now walls are going up, secret passageways are being created, and it’s going to be a wonderful toy.”
The first room is a recreation of the Palais Royale, a theatre created for magic and illusion performances in the late 1800s by Robert Houdin, known as the father of modern magic. “Houdin was really responsible for taking magic off the streets and putting it into a theatre,” says Allan. He was also responsible for inspiring both Harry Houdini’s name and practice, and both historical icons will be represented with a hologram to narrate the performance. Complete with candelabras and a gilt proscenium, Allan and Bond devised a ‘dual-layer hologram system’ with transparent figures projected independently from the background elements they interact with, giving the audience a sense of depth. “So it’s really like watching an immersive 3D movie but without any glasses and it’s happening in front of you!” Allan and Bond believe this is one of the first instances of a foreground/background system being used like this in the emerging field of holographics. They’ll also be performing an interactive mind-reading trick narrated by a performer playing Harry Houdini. “The audience are all going to have their minds read by Harry Houdini,” explains Allan. “They all make decisions of their own free will, but the entire audience collectively will come to the same conclusion at the end.”
A recreation of the famous Egyptian Hall in fin de siècle Piccadilly, London will follow. Allan describes the variety theatre as the most important venue in the timeline of magic, “England’s home of mystery”, and their tribute will feature voiceover from the Hall’s most famous magician, David Devant. A period performer will introduce the five golden rules of magic and audience will see items levitate and vanish, see glass turn to liquid, even see someone cut in half... but while this is the most iconic, recognizable visual associated with stage magic, the Illusionarium will subvert expectations by replacing a man sawing a woman in a box in half with a magician cutting themselves in half—without a box. Fair warning to socially distance from the splash zone.
Bond describes the third room, On Air, as a tribute to television magic from the 1980s onwards. Designed to look like a TV studio with monitors for distanced groups to watch, this room will be presented by a very special duo of magicians yet to be announced. “This room is gonna be presented by Penn and Teller, the biggest stars of television magic in the world who’ve been on TV for over 35 years, and they’re going to be telling us all about TV magic and presenting a magic trick that happens in the audience’s hands.” The audience will all receive a sealed envelope as they enter with four playing cards inside, and will be directed by Penn and Teller to perform the trick in their own hands. “They’ll fool themselves,” Allan assures confidently. “They won’t know how they did it!”
The fourth and final room, Evo-Lusion, is built with LED walls where audiences will have the chance to see large-scale illusions performed closer than they’ve likely ever been able to see them before. “We’re going to float a person using ‘quantum levitation’—or, apparently using quantum levitation; we’re going to let the audience decide,” teases Allan. “We’re going to be telling them the secret…but the secret is so unbelievable that it’s up to them to decide if we’re telling the truth or not. But either way, one thing is undisputed: they will see a person floating in front of their eyes inches from the front row with no visible means of support.” They’ll also be staging an original illusion by Allan and Bond whereby a person disappears into moving television monitors, followed by a climax wherein one performer suspended in a glass box above the stage will switch places with another performer at the other end of the stage “in the blink of an eye”. VIP patrons will have access to a fifth theatre through a secret passageway, where a magician will perform more tricks up close.
Allan says that visitors will get a look behind the scenes, hear stories about “some of the most fascinating magicians that have lived and died on stage”, and touch base with many performance styles from over a century of magicians, “from the most intimate, to mind-reading, to grand-scale illusions.” Bond describes Jamie Allan as the nucleus around which the team is formed, including Clare Nordbruch as the designer of their graphics, sets and costumes, Hollie England as a seasoned Show Director who served as a resident director on Broadway’s ‘The Illusionists’, Harry de Cruz as on-site magic consultant and their third executive director, Steve Sterling, who was responsible for connecting with Lighthouse Immersive to develop the installation in the first place. “Jamie is a phenomenal mind,” Bond says. “He’s imaginative, he’s innovative, he’s constantly pushing all the team, he’s so great on the history of magic and he’s so passionate about it; he creates this energy that drives everyone.”
Many other performers might be daunted by the challenge of building a multimillion dollar immersive installation during a pandemic, but Jamie Allan and his team prove that magicians will always find a way to engineer the (seemingly) impossible. And with a difficult winter looming as the maze is being built according to strict safety guidelines, we can’t undervalue the healing graces of delight, wonder, and mystery that audiences are sure to find within the maze.