Jamie Harrison is a master magician, theater director, and renowned artistic director. But none of that mattered the day he had to demonstrate a moment of magic to J.K. Rowling. “I was terrified,” says a laughing Harrison, designer of illusions and magic for the international theatrical sensation Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “I’ve done magic all over the world, in all kinds of shows, but sharing my interpretation of Harry Potter magic with J.K. Rowling? I’ll tell you, I was really, really nervous.”
Harrison needn’t have worried. Having seen her own work interpreted on film, Rowling immediately embraced the possibilities in having a live audience get an up-close look at the young wizards of Hogwarts in action, along with the now-adult Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Observing Harrison perform a stunning sleight-of-hand move, “Jo gasped and said, ‘Do that again!’” he recalls. “When someone says, ‘Do it again,’ you know you’ve captured that feeling of wonder. I knew then everything was going to go well. She could not have been lovelier or more supportive.”
What trick did Harrison show Rowling? Don’t ask, because the friendly and otherwise talkative designer won’t spoil any surprises for future audiences at the Broadway, London, Melbourne, and San Francisco productions of Cursed Child. But he’ll happily talk about the thrill of using his expertise in service to Rowling’s wizarding world, dazzling theatergoers with never-before-seen feats of stage magic. “Harry Potter is such an iconic character, and to be given the opportunity to go anywhere near the magic of those stories was very exciting,” he says. “I nearly had a heart attack when I got the call.”
Though he’d seen the movies and read the first few books, Harrison felt a touch of apprehension as he cracked open the script for Cursed Child, which went on to win the 2018 Best Play Tony Award. “I was a bit worried about finding out what I would be expected to achieve,” he admits, “but once I started to read, I lost myself completely and stopped thinking about magic. I sat in my studio turning the pages, wondering what was going to happen next, and when I got to the end, I burst into tears because I was so moved. It’s an important and beautiful piece of work.”
From the beginning, Harrison and two-time Tony Award–winning director John Tiffany shared a vision for how magic should be used during the play. The two men first worked together at the National Theatre of Scotland when Tiffany was associate artistic director and Harrison created illusions for an acclaimed production of Peter Pan. “John wanted Harry Potter fans to leave the show feeling that they could replicate some of the effects at home,” Harrison explains. “He said, ‘I don’t want it to feel like CGI or special effects — I want it to feel organic, like we’re working with real objects in the real world.’” The result: thrilling, actor-driven illusions that the designer says are 90 percent original. “Our focus was on creating the world of J.K. Rowling’s characters in a way that feels holistic and theatrical.”
Speaking of actors, the conjuring in Cursed Child presents a huge challenge for cast members who’ve never attempted a magic trick, never mind performed one while acting on stage. “There are so many moments when actors are preparing things, hiding things, dealing with all sorts of strange gadgets and gizmos while at the same time inhabiting their characters,” Harrison says. “They have to rehearse certain moments hundreds of times in order to feel completely at ease, but they really embrace the challenge.”
While diligently avoiding sharing spoilers, Harrison reveals that the scene he most enjoyed dreaming up involves Polyjuice Potion, which Harry Potter fans recognize for its ability to make the person who drinks it assume the form of someone else. “Several characters change into others before the audience’s eyes, then run around meeting the characters they’ve changed into and hiding from one another,” he says with a laugh. “That was so much fun to figure out.”
Movies, of course, can deliver shape-shifting effects with artistry behind the scenes, but the live experience is even more electrifying. “Theater does magic better than anywhere else,” Harrison says, “because you’re watching it happen right in front of you. It’s that extra frisson of excitement the audience feels, knowing that the performers are in the same room, doing the show just for you.”
Harrison fell in love with magic as a kid in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, when a leg injury kept him in a cast for a year, which provided him plenty of time to practice tricks. He trained as an actor at Scotland’s Royal Conservatoire, but he returned to his first love after graduation, eventually working on high-profile productions including Pinocchio at London’s National Theatre and the West End premiere of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As Cursed Child expands its worldwide reach, he oversees associates who train new cast members and ensure that the company maintains opening-night standards.
Recently, the Glasgow-based designer slipped into London’s Palace Theatre to catch a performance of Cursed Child. “I found myself feeling very moved by the amount of care and love that everyone involved with the show put into it,” he reflects. “At the end of the day, it’s a story about a family, and about being a good person in the world — a good parent, a good son, a good daughter. The world of Harry Potter is so beautifully imaginative; the stories are so well-crafted and appealing. I just feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to enhance the audience’s emotional journey through magic.”
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