Monday 16 December 2019

Illusionist Gillen plays mind games with his audience

Shane Gillen has impressed Denzel and Kelsey with his magic and he's written a play too

Shane Gillen
Shane Gillen

Sophie Gorman

For a very long time, we thought of a good magician was someone who could make an intricate sausage dog out of balloons or pull a white dove from his inside pocket, but the new generation of magic men are very different, they want to bend your mind rather than your balloons. Dubliner Shane Gillen is a magician who is not afraid to admit he can't actually make any animals out of thin air. But he can persuade you that your thoughts aren't quite as private as you might think.

Shane has been earning money from his brand of magic for seven years, since he was 19 and on a J1 visa to San Francisco. He didn't know that he wanted to become a magician and he didn't write it down on the career guidance form. No, he enrolled in college for a degree in English, media and cultural studies.

"I really had no idea I wanted to be a magician," he says. "I hadn't grown up with the Paul Daniels' magic set and thought this could be my future. On the summer of first year in college, I went to San Francisco. I instantly needed a job, so I went around town and found myself on Pier 19 outside Houdini's Magic Shop and they had a sign in the window looking for staff. I decided to chance my arm.

"I was fascinated by it in that I had watched David Blaine specials on television but out of morbid fascination rather than it was something I pictured myself doing. I bluffed my way in and they gave me the job, but it involved actually demonstrating magic to customers, so of course I was fired after five days.

"But the bug had bitten by then and I wanted to see what I could do. I googled 'magic shops' in the Bay area and up popped MisDirections run by Joe Pong and I had no idea that he had mentored David Copperfield and David Blaine.

"I asked him for a job but rather than that he offered to mentor me for the summer. So I got a job delivering flowers around the financial district every Monday for a $100 a week and spent every other hour in MisDirections learning from Joe. By the end of the summer we were in Hollywood performing in the Magic Castle."

Shane returned to Ireland and to college but kept practising. Two summers later, he went to New York and got a job as a personal assistant in an expensive condominium complex off Central Park. His job was to look after all the shopping or last minute-messages for the east wing residents.

"I soon realised that A-list celebrities like Denzel Washington were among my residents. I didn't tell any of the clients anything about me or my magic, but some other staff members started telling people after I did magic on our nights' out.

"Denzel was doing a play on Broadway at the time and one night when he came home he said that he'd heard I was a magician and would I show his family a few tricks. So I went to his apartment on my night off and spent the evening with him and his family. Right after that I got booked for the graduate party of a big New York acting school hosted by Samuel L Jackson, and he told me that Denzel had recommended me.

"Then Kelsey Grammer (who played Frasier Crane in Frasier), who lives in the same building came down to say Denzel had told him about me and I spent a morning showing him tricks."

"In Irish culture, it's not the coolest thing in the world to say, 'I'm a magician'. So when I came home, I didn't really say it to anyone for fear of death by slagging, but on nights out I would sometimes pull out a deck of cards. I started doing friends' birthdays and and then I started getting bookings for clubs, and it slowly started to build."

Shane has now created his own play, Lapse, which is currently running in the atmospheric Boys School, Smock Alley (smock

"It's about the science of memory and how memory functions," he says. "It's a one-man show and I am playing myself and talking about my grandfather and how we choose to memorialise people after they pass away. It is all scripted, 11,000 words that I have just about memorised, though there is audience interaction, which is of course unscripted."

Lapse is being staged by Sugarglass theatre, and Shane worked with them before on a play when they were giving the audience a choice of situations but needed to be sure that they made the right choice. Shane succeeded in manipulating their minds from a distance and a connection with Sugarglass was formed.

"I'm not an actor, though, and I don't see myself as one on stage," he says.

"I just have to persuade you that I am one. Mind you, I'd hope that you would be sceptical of everything you see. Scepticism is the healthiest way of life."

At the end of our interview, Shane performs a little trick on me and makes me draw a tree. Or maybe he just makes me think that he has made me draw a tree ...

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