Simon Painter has been bringing magic to Broadway — literally — since 2014. As partner/executive/creative producer of The Works Entertainment, Painter is responsible for the creation of the internationally celebrated magic franchise The Illusionists. In November, The Illusionists will return to New York with Magic of the Holidays. We recently caught up with Painter to talk about The Illusionists’ fourth Broadway engagement.
You’re billed as the producer and the creative producer of The Illusionists. What is your exact role?
I came up with the plan back in 2011. I came up with the first Illusionists show. And I also lead the creative team alongside director Neil Dorward.
This is the fourth installment of The Illusionists on Broadway. It’s starting to become a New York holiday tradition.
It’s pretty fantastic. When we first started doing it back in 2014, we really didn’t know how it was going to go, so the fact that New York loves magic during the holidays, it’s a great thing. We appeal to such a wide demographic, which is lovely to see.
Where did you get the idea for The Illusionists?
I was a classical violinist–turned–circus producer. I produced a lot of summer seasons for big performing-arts centers in Australia — big circus shows — and we toured the shows as well. And one year we decided to give circus a rest and we were thinking, “What else could we do?” I had been around magic because of the entertainment world in Vegas and such. And I thought, “Let’s do to magic what Cirque du Soleil has done to circus. Choose the best acts and produce them in a way that makes them current.” And that’s what we did; we created the show! And the show sold tickets, so we started touring it, and over the years the show has expanded. We now have five units of The Illusionists playing all over the world.
What’s the appeal of The Illusionists and magic?
I think it’s very similar to Cirque. Everyone loves magic — especially during the holiday season. And for us around the holiday time, magic does really well. It’s so intergenerational; there’s something for everybody. People love to be wowed and it’s a good day out for the whole family. And for Broadway audiences, aside from our shows, not many people have seen a magic show on Broadway. There’s a demand for it in the market.
When were you first intrigued by the art of magic?
I was playing the violin in an Irish dance show in Las Vegas and we shared the building — the casino — with this funny magician called Amazing Jonathan. He was fantastic and he always sold out. He always had an opening act, and quite often, we would finish our show and I would get roped into his show as an assistant or helper. So I was around fantastic magic all the time, living in Vegas.
Your whole idea with the Illusionists brand is to make magic feel modern and contemporary.
I think with every art form, it does take a vision to bring it forward. So just like Guy Laliberté did with Cirque du Soleil, what I found with magic, while the magicians were really talented and had fantastic acts, they often did their own costuming, music, and staging. They were their own choreographers and directors. Some of them had fantastic acts but their whole look felt a little out of fashion. Their music might have been from 15, 20 years ago and so on. So with our show, we look to update the acts and make it feel modern. We also shorten the acts and contemporize them.
How do you find your Illusionists?
Often they find us. We’re certainly the biggest employer of magicians worldwide. We offer very stable jobs for lots of people, and the ability for them to do their acts. It’s hard to be an illusionist. The guys who are doing comedy or who are mentalists, they can travel around the world with very little, just their skill, so it’s easy to move around the world. But if you’re doing anything with props and involving stagecraft, where you’re trying to escape from something, you need to pay for a lot — the rigging, the lighting, and so on. And a lot of magic relies on all the stagecraft to do it. So they often find us because they want to be in our show. And we have a big scouting system: We look at magic competitions, we start developing acts, we take people on board and start working with them. There’s also a big focus on trying to get young women into magic.
With the first two productions of The Illusionists in New York, it was all men. The last show, you had one female magician. And in this current show you have Chloé Crawford as one of your Illusionists. What does it take to get more women involved in magic?
I think it’s happening, and we have a responsibility with our company to really push that. It is an art form that anybody can do and they can do it for an extended period of time. You look at circus acts: It’s hard for circus acts once they get past a certain age to do quadruple backflips from a trapeze because, just like any athlete, they’re in their prime when they’re younger. But with magic, the wonderful thing is you can keep doing it at any age. And I think the more women we help to develop their skills and put in our show, the more it helps the industry. And I do think we will see more women as magicians.
The title of your show is called Magic of the Holidays. What can we expect?
We’ve always come to Broadway around the holiday season — there’s a lot of synergy between the holiday season and magic itself. I have a 4½-year-old daughter, and seeing her during Christmas, it’s just a magical time of year for a kid. And so we wanted to skew the storytelling and themes of this one toward the holidays. And a lot of the acts involve opening presents, snow, and those sorts of things.
Will there be holiday music?
You’ve toured the world with The Illusionists. What’s the next chapter for your brand?
Our goal is to continue expanding the brand and to really build and improve on what we have. We’re hoping to create sit-down productions in various places around the world, we are expanding the number of productions we have, and we’re also becoming more ambitious with the type of magic that we’re doing on stage. It takes time and money to develop these acts. So we have a plan and we’re being aggressive about it. And it’s a wonderful thing to see all of it happening.
You’re around magicians and illusionists all the time. If you, Simon, had your own magic act or skill, what would it be?
The piece of magic that fascinates me the most is mentalism. I would choose a form of mentalism where I’m persuading the audience that I have an ability to read their minds or predict the future or any number of things like that. That’s the kind of magic that fascinates me the most.