City festival’s success is anything but an illusion

Street Magic Festival: Russell Hall with magic balls
Street Magic Festival: Russell Hall with magic balls

Mind-reading, teleportation of laminated cardboard and the regurgitation of small coloured balls were all on display to shoppers on Fargate as crowds gathered to view ‘close up’ and ‘table top’ magic in Sheffield’s first ‘Street Magic’ festival.

Part of the council’s ‘Summer Saturdays’ series, the festival was organised by Russell Hall of the ‘Magick’ shop on Broad Street, patronised by magicians and apprentices of all ages, including pre-Voldemort era celebrities such as Paul Daniels.

The shop’s ‘Saturday Sessions’ are legendary in local magic circles: experienced and novice magicians just turn up on Saturday mornings and show off their tricks, to fellow wizards and the public.

Russell said: “The idea of the Street Magic Festival is to get people coming into the city centre, but for me it’s also about raising the profile of magic in Sheffield. There are some fine magicians here.”

Over 40 of them were doing the business on Saturday afternoon, most from Sheffield and South Yorkshire. The traditional laminated playing cards were the staple, with young and old shoppers wondering aloud how a signed Jack of Clubs could move up and down the rest of the pack and finally appear in the magicians mouth without anyone noticing how it got there.

Magic Circle rules forbid any clear elucidation. “It’s about misdirection, the skill that hides the skill,” said Russell Hall. “Getting people to look in the wrong place at the right time.”

Being a magician is about lots and lots of practice, said Steve Faulkner. “You might see a performance that lasts a few minutes, but behind that is years of being sat in a room with a pack of playing cards. But the performance is the difficult part. You have to make the trick into a piece of entertainment.”

Steve worked for 14 years in Covent Garden with a ‘comedy, juggling and escapology’ show. He moved to Sheffield ten years ago, and his career as a professional magician is now based around performances such as the upcoming Fright Night on October 27, along with corporate and private events.

He worked for several years in Spain and Portugal, where the opportunities for magicians are very different. “Street performance is seen as a real art form in Europe, but here you’re just a busker.”

Sheffield’s festival is unique in the UK, said Steve. “Magic conventions here are usually a bit geeky, with magicians showing each other their stuff, whereas somewhere like Portugal you’ll be doing street performances, cabarets, then you’ll go to place like prisons, hospitals and care homes too.”

The success of TV magicians has helped improve the image of the craft, said Russell Hall. “We’ve moved on from middle-aged men in sequinned jackets now.”

Although not all world-famous illusionists would want to hack it on Fargate on Saturday afternoon, Steve Faulkner said the Browns and Blaines and Dynamos have done a great job of improving the image of magic making.

“It’s cool to be a magician now, but seeing what’s done on TV and being able to watch magic on YouTube has raised the bar. You still have to improve all the time, and challenge yourself to try new stuff. If a magician gets bored, it shows.”

Most of the performers at Saturday’s festival were working for next to nothing, just enjoying raising the profile of their work. Given the interest, the hope is that it will receive more funding in future years and possibly extend over two days to showcase the work of even more local magic makers.

“It is useless, you’re not building a house,” said Steve Faulkner of his work. “And nowadays, where you can send a film up and down to a satellite magic happens on a daily basis.

“But if you do it right, we can still go out with a deck of cards and in five minutes create magic for people.”