It’s not every day you get to talk to a Member of The Magic Circle, an organisation cloaked in mystery. Feeling like I was a muggle trying to get into Hogwarts, when the editor of The Magic Circular (the Members’ monthly magazine) agreed to have a chat to me I was sceptical as to how much he’d be able to reveal. To my surprise, Will Houstoun was chatty, down to earth and happy to tell me all about his journey into the industry, just not the secret tricks that got him there. Will is far more than your standard magician; travelling round the world teaching, writing a PhD on nineteenth-century magic literature and working on the film set of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (all without a magic wand). Whether you want to take it up as a hobby, or audition for The Magic Circle yourself, take the rabbit out of your top hat and have a read of this.
So the obvious first question, how did you get into magic?
I became interested in magic in the same way everyone else does – by being given a magic kit when I was a child, but whilst most people grow out of it I haven’t quite done so yet. I was very lucky actually; a friend of my grandfather was a Member of The Magic Circle and acted as a mentor. I also discovered The Young Magicians Club which is The Magic Circle’s youth initiative.
As you said, for a lot of people it’s just a hobby, so what made you decide to turn magic into a career?
I didn’t initially; to start with I went to university and studied Mechanical Engineering for my master’s degree. Whilst I was doing that I entered a few magic competitions – I won one of them and did quite well in a few others. Off the back of that I started to get invitations to travel to Spain and America to do shows and teach other magicians how to do magic. That sounded like fun, so I decided to have a gap year and travel around doing that. During my gap year I discovered an old manuscript describing magic tricks using cards from the eighteenth century and I ended up writing a book about it. One gap year turned into three or four and I decided to do a PhD based on a man named Professor Hoffmann, who wrote a book teaching people how to do magic in the Victorian period.
So how did you come to The Magic Circular?
The Magic Circular is a monthly magazine that goes out to Members of The Magic Circle only. It’s a magazine that started in 1906, the year after The Magic Circle was founded, and it’s the longest continually running magic magazine. In terms of becoming the editor, I have been a Member of The Magic Circle since I was 18 and I’ve done quite a lot of work on magic in an academic or literary sense – I had already written two books and edited a few others.
You also worked on the film Hugo – how did this come about?
Hugo was a film directed by Martin Scorsese based on Brian Selznick’s book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’. One of the main characters is George Méliès who was a pioneer of early filmmaking; before he became interested in film he worked as a professional magician performing in a theatre in Paris, so they wanted to be able to have some magic in the film to tie in with that. At the time I had just completed writing a book about magic in the Victorian period and my speciality is card magic, so I guess it seemed like this was a good set of skills for the film. I worked alongside a wonderful magician called Paul Kieve and between the two of us we chose a selection of tricks we thought might work well in the film and which would be historically accurate. We then worked with Sir Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield, teaching them how to do the magic, but more importantly in Sir Ben’s case, how to look like he was a magician who had been doing this for 50 years, rather than an actor who had learnt to do tricks for a film.
Is it difficult to teach someone how to do magic or can anyone learn?
Anyone can learn. It’s the same as anything – the more effort you put in the better you get at it. You can have lessons or read a book and learn about it, but it’s really down to the amount of time you spend practising and actively trying to get better. Certainly anyone can learn to do magic.
Before we spoke you also mentioned a project called Breathe Magic, can you tell me a bit more about this?
Breathe Magic is run by an organisation called Breathe Art’s Health Research. A magician, David Owen, who is a friend of mine contacted the people in St Thomas’ charity who run the arts health programmes, looking into the possibly of using magic. We work with children with hemiplegia, which is a condition that affects one side of the brain and gives the child stroke-like symptoms in that they have limited movement on one side of their body, particularly in their hands and arms. The children are told to practise repetitive exercises to try and improve their movement but these are fairly unexciting. So instead we teach them specially chosen magic tricks which incorporate the actions they need to repeat. The magic really motivates the young people and because they are practising the tricks, they are also practising these therapeutic actions which then translate into real world benefits.
Magic is also quite empowering in a psychosocial way – for a lot of these children, when they have learnt the magic and can go back to school and show it to their friends, it is the first time in their life they are centre of attention for something they can do, rather than something they can’t.
Wow that’s a really great thing to be part of. What would your tips be for magicians hoping to get into The Magic Circle?
If you are under 18, you can join The Young Magicians Club and there are no entry requirements for that. The Magic Circle is the world’s premier magic organisation, so in order to become a Member you have to be proposed and seconded by two existing Members. You then have an interview with the Examinations Officer and if that works well you are invited to an audition, where you are judged by three of the senior Members of the club. My top tip would be to go to the website, look at the requirements and the marking sheet for your audition so you can see all the different criteria you will be judged on.
Another tip is that if you don’t think you are good enough yet to join The Magic Circle, there are lots of smaller regional clubs scattered around the UK – most towns or cities have one. These clubs have a slightly lower entry standard, so are a great way to spend a few years working hard and getting better.
That’s really helpful advice –thank you! Finally, what is your favourite trick at the moment?
I think for most magicians their favourite trick is the last one they have started to work on. For me that’s a trick where I have two packs of cards, one is chosen by an audience member who then shuffles it into a random order. We look at the pack and I ask the question, what if it wasn’t a random order? I then take the second pack of cards out of the box, put it down next to the first pack and when I turn the top card over in the two pack over it matches. It turns out every single card in the pack that the spectator has been shuffling is in the same position as every card in the pack that has been on the table since the beginning.
And how do you do that?
I’m not going to tell you how it’s done I’m afraid – one of the rules of The Magic Circle is that we don’t tell people who aren’t magicians how tricks are done.
I guess I’ll never know then. Thanks again Will!
If Will has persuaded you to learn the tricks of the trade, why not take a look at the magic courses listed on our site? Remember that practice makes perfect, who knows – you might end up in The Magic Circle yourself one day. To find out more about Will and his magic visit www.willhoustoun.co.uk
Image credits - A view inside The Magic Circle (credit Darren Martin)
Headshot of Dr Will Houstoun (credit Mark Hesketh-Jennings)