Backstage: Paul Kieve

Published July 11, 2011

After being asked to create magic effects for a 1991 production of The Invisible Man at Theatre Royal Stratford East, magician Paul Kieve found himself in a theatrical niche which blossomed into a career. Not only has he worked on big budget productions including The Lord Of The Rings, The Witches Of Eastwick, Theatre Of Blood and current touring show Batman Live, he also has the honour of being the person to have taught Harry Potter magic.

Now working on West End show Ghost The Musical, the theatrical illusionist tells Caroline Bishop about the art of making a person vanish live on stage.

Ghostly experience

I had seen the film Ghost and I remembered being fond of it. But I suppose I had a memory of it as being a bit cheesy. But when I watched it again and read the script, the thing that really sprung out straight away was this immensely powerful story and how it’s like a spine through the piece. I just thought, this is going to make such a terrific musical. 

[Director] Matthew Warchus approached me initially. Matthew and I have done something like a dozen shows together. In fact Matthew, [designer] Rob Howell, myself and Hugh Vanstone the lighting designer, we all first worked together in 1995 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds on Peter Pan and ever since then we have collaborated relatively frequently. Matthew said to me initially he wanted for there to be some very big magic moments in this piece, in fact he said he wanted it to partly be a magic show amongst other things. Not in the cheesy sense of the word, but he knew he wanted some wonderful magical moments and was absolutely prepared to start from that upwards in terms of the set. He wanted to let me have free reign on these points, find out the best way to do them, and then poor Rob Howell had to design a set that incorporated these things. That is a very, very unusual process for me. It’s very unusual for a director to see that to do this stuff properly you’ve got to have it in there first. You can’t glue it on to a design that exists, it has to be that the design incorporates it.

Ghost The Musical uses optical magic and effects, meaning you actually see things on stage; you see someone’s hand pass through a solid coke can, you see somebody walk through a door. They’re not suggested – you don’t put someone behind a curtain and then the curtain falls and they’re gone – you see it happen before your eyes. They are the sort of effects that I was fascinated by as a kid, and so was Matthew Warchus. They are the most difficult to achieve in terms of sight lines and shape of the set.

A disappearing art

The whole point of why I think I like doing magic within a story is you get the impact of someone suddenly appearing and vanishing, it’s not just a magic trick, it’s actually Sam appearing, the dead boyfriend of Molly appearing before her for the last time after two and a half hours of story and emotional investment by the audience. On the first preview Matthew came up and said ‘I’ve never seen somebody crying and applauding at the same time’. There’s a very interesting thing happening there.

It sounds a bit pretentious to say it, but magic is an incredibly profound form, it’s at the centre of religion and the centre of existence. The magician originally was a very powerful figure. You don’t think of magic as provoking an emotional response. On its own it can’t really do that but if you put it into a story suddenly that ‘appearance’ becomes the appearance of a dead soul and the ‘vanish’ becomes the final departure into the afterlife. But as a performer, having done my time doing close-up magic at corporate functions, nothing could be less magical than going up to a group of pissed lawyers at a Christmas party and have them try and grab a pack of cards. I feel quite lucky to have the opportunity to work at this end of the scale.

Starting out

I don’t think you think far ahead as a kid. I just said, I am not going to go to university, I am going to become a professional magician. I was so obsessed with it and so sure of myself that that was what I was going to do that no one was going to persuade me otherwise. I left school and of course then it’s like oh right ok, how do I go about doing this then? At that time there was a circuit in London that you could work in, there was one called Xenon in Piccadilly, and you could work there as an act and you went on and did a five minute spot at about 01.30 in the morning to slightly drunk disco dancers,  between Gloria Gaynor and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. You had to work to disco music because people wanted to carry on dancing.

My act was always visual and quite compact, with lots of things happening. My big dream at that time was to work in Las Vegas and do that sort of circuit and be a spectacular illusion act.

I was in a double act for about five years, we travelled around the world, and then I was asked to do The Invisible Man at Stratford East when I was 23. Ever since then I’ve done more behind the scenes than in front of it.

Luck vs hard work

I love that phrase ‘a lifetime of preparation meeting a moment of opportunity’. When Stratford East called me in at that age I was absolutely petrified. I can remember being virtually ill doing The Invisible Man because of the responsibility, and [writer/director] Ken Hill was quite a hard task masker, but it was brilliant training. I ended up working with Ken Hill over a period of three years on different versions of it. But at the point they phoned me up I had already spent six or seven years completely absorbed in this field of visual illusion and even though I wasn’t experienced at working on stage plays I was lucky that Ken Hill was confident enough to trust me.

Harry Potter was an amazing one to get. I remember meeting Daniel Radcliffe on the set and him being very keen to learn magic, and I started what is a very long friendship. I met him in 2003, when he was 13. He was incredibly focused and enthusiastic. He wasn’t naturally the most dextrous kid. But he was incredibly determined and fascinated and engaged, and a very fast learner.

I think I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had to constantly clamour for work and look for lucky breaks. I’ve worked virtually my whole life. Ever since leaving school in 1985 I’ve more or less kept in work. It’s time for me to retire really!

Magical exploits

I did Theatre Of Blood at the National Theatre [in 2005]. Working with [designer] Rae Smith – who won the Tony for War Horse – is one of the most joyful things because she’s such an incredible facilitator. Jim Broadbent played a hammy old actor who murders his critics one by one in the style of Shakepearean plays, and I did all the murders. I didn’t ever think I would get the chance to put a live poodle in a liquidiser at the National Theatre. We didn’t really do it, but the shock and horror of the audience as we apparently did it… It’s just interesting how easily you can shock an audience; they gasped and laughed at the same time. There was so much stage blood used in that show that the whole of the backstage of the Lyttelton smelt of candy floss.

I was on holiday in Cuba and The Lord Of The Rings was running in the West End and I got a text from Matthew [Warchus] and it said ‘Bilbo didn’t vanish! What happened?’ It was like, ‘well I forgot to mix the potion in the glass at eight o’clock in the evening!’ Of course it was a very complicated thing and I bet somebody just didn’t plug a light in or something. That was one of my favourite ever messages.

The job comes with a lot of responsibility – not like being a brain surgeon, let’s get it in perspective – but my stuff only works when all the details are there and there’s a very high chance that it won’t work because of that. It is fun and I enjoy the challenge of it, but it’s fun that comes with quite a lot of anxiety because I want it to work and also people come to me more and more expecting something that is unique. I can’t necessarily churn out something I’ve done before and it’s also meant to look astonishing and baffling.

But I think I am blessed that I have something that basically was a childhood interest and fascination and I feel very lucky that I have the chance to put these things on stage.

CB

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