The secretive world of magicians

This morning THE AGE featured a great article on the Melbourne Magic community by Elizabeth Flux. You can read it online here or check out the text of the story below:

Every three years, the best of the best in the world of magic get together for FISM (Federation Internationale des Societes Magiques) – or, as it’s more affectionately known, “the olympics of magic”. It’s prestigious and selective, with each country only allowed to send a set number of competitors.

“There are a lot of magic competitions around the world,” says Australian magician Dom Chambers. “But this is the big one.”

Last month, Chambers stepped onto the FISM stage, competing in card magic, one of the most serious and well-respected categories at the competition. “Card magic is truly the most humble, honest genre of magic – it’s just a pair of hands and 52 bits of cardboard within them,” he reflects. Chambers’ trick involved the traditional deck of cards, a wallet … and a condom that ends up pulled over his head. “I thought it would be funny to enter that category, and then just completely subvert the genre and do the most stupid thing that I could think of. And that’s what I did.”

The trick is actually impressive on a magic level while also being completely ridiculous – and so the response was divided. He received a standing ovation along with a helping of criticism. “One of the reviews at FISM said this routine didn’t belong at an arts championship, it belonged at a drunk frat party. I said, ‘Thank you for the compliment’.”

Chambers, who lives in Melbourne, fell in love with magic when introduced to it by his grandfather, who learned tricks to connect with his grandchildren. From there, Chambers threw himself into the craft and started working as a magician when he was a teenager and just never stopped. He was a semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent and has appeared on Penn & Teller: Fool Us! Magic is his full-time career – if he isn’t performing in a show, he’s developing one. His work blends humour and magic skill, mixing the absurd and the amazing. Alcohol and cigarettes are often folded into his tricks, whether that is making smoke appear from a hand or a beer materialise from nothing.

There were two other Australians competing at FISM this year, Sydney’s Vincent Kuo and Melbourne’s Simon Coronel (though officially the latter was representing North America) – and all three Australians made their marks in very different ways. “Vincent, Australia’s wonderkid of magic … came second only to one of the great close-up magicians of all time, Shoot Ogawa,” says Chambers. Coronel was the overall winner – making him the new world champion – with a mind-bending routine involving a dissected card and a ring that he has been developing for 15 years. “He did the best single trick I have ever seen … His victory is just crazy. No Australian has ever won FISM before,” Chambers says.

“In Australia, we just bat so far above where we should when it comes to magic,” he continues. “I can’t remember the last time a dollar has been put into it towards magic in Australia. We’re on our own.”

Tim Ellis, artistic director of the Melbourne Magic Festival, one of the biggest Australian gatherings of magicians, says: “We have been surviving and thriving without government support.” He points to the many magic events that take place around Australia every week and the annual Magic Festival which supports magicians to innovate. “I try to rent all the rooms out so that if you sell 10 tickets, you break even, which is unlike any other festival in the world,” Ellis explains. “As artistic director, I’m probably much more in favour of choosing a piece to be in the festival if it’s going to divide the audience in half.”

Australia is unusual in the way that magicians support one another. There are regular meetings and workshops. “Magic in most areas, and most history, has been a solo profession – all secrets are guarded,” says Ellis. “Someone would be like, ‘I’ve got this great new trick, I won’t show anyone, they might copy it’. Our philosophy is show everyone your trick and you make a claim to it. And if somebody takes it without asking, they’re drummed out of the group.”

The trick Chambers performed has its origins in an annual improv magic event called MagicSports run by Ellis. Members of the audience give magicians things they have on hand, with the performer then needing to use those in their act. Chambers, as you might guess, was handed a condom.

When Ellis spoke with Chambers ahead of the championships, he had an inkling how things would go. “Having been a judge myself on several FISMs, I was going, well, he won’t score well but he’ll get a great reaction from the audience – and that’s exactly what happened.”

The Australians’ performance at FISM this year demonstrates that you can love and excel at magic and pursue it in different ways. It’s about innovation – whether that be in a way that wins awards or that pushes at boundaries and audience expectations.

So, is Chambers going to go back and compete again in three years? “I think my FISM journey is complete – I think I’ve done what I need to do on the world stage of competitive magic,” he says with a laugh. “But I think that magic can be taken to some really, really cool places that we haven’t seen yet. That’s definitely part of what excites me when I create magic is doing something and taking it to a place that no one’s taken up before. Bonus if it’s something that I think is really funny.”


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