Step Right Up To Hear About The Illusionists & Circus 1903

A funny thing happened on the way to this interview.

Simon Painter has been producing a successful magic show called The Illusionists for several years and wanted to give Pollstar a breakdown. The show – which actually has three traveling incarnations – has done some staggering numbers. For instance, it did 42 shows at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in a month’s time, selling nearly 78,000 tickets and grossing CAD$7.8 million. In Paris, the international version did 32 shows at Folies Bergere, selling 22,000 tickets and grossing EUR$1.2 million. In Los Angeles at the Pantages, 22 shows, 30,636 tickets, $2 million.

– Simon Painter

But Simon produces another show called Circus 1903 and we chatted with him just a few days after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey called it quits. That suddenly made Circus 1903 a commodity, being one of the few active circuses in the world, and probably the only one with puppet elephants, so we began there. Circus 1903 plays theatres, focuses on acrobats, and has a turn-of-the-century flair with plenty of handlebar mustaches, petticoats, and fire-eaters.

So with the passing of Ringling Bros., how many circuses are still out there?

Not many. We’ve produced cirque shows in the past, and obviously the big competitor is Cirque du Soleil. They’re the 300-pound, very nice gorilla. There’s nothing really else out there, so we wanted to bring the circus back into the prosceniums, back into the normal marketplace.

But Cirque du Soleil has a wider definition of the term “circus.” This seems more traditional.

Absolutely. This is a traditional circus but it’s done in an elegant way. It’s produced as the highlights of what the circus used to be – the grandeur, the stunts, the lighting, the gorgeous costumes, and less of the narrative storytelling. It’s very high-end on production but focusing on what makes circuses great.

It’s a fascinating moment because we just sold 31,000 tickets in Sydney for a show in eight days. Our presales in America are fantastic. We are reinventing the circus and I think what we’re trying to do with the circus is what we did with magic, which is we brought an art form back. Five years ago when we started the Illusionists everybody said, “Magic’s dead. Magic shows don’t sell tickets.”

We contemporized it. We reimagined what magic was and we’ve had this wonderful success. We’ve been very lucky. We now have three versions of it running.

Explain a bit about these puppet elephants.

With Circus 1903 the original idea was to bring the elephants back to the circus but not in a way that was controversial and was obviously not unkind to the animals. So it seems to have mounted a passion in the audience. When the elephants – the mama and the baby – come onto the stage, people actually cry. They’re so emotional about these creatures and obviously they’re just puppets but it was an amazing thing for me to see that in Australia. And it confirmed why we did this, which is the circus is not only healthy and vibrant but people are transfixed by it. Not only is it about amazing feats but these magnificent creatures, brought to life again.

Mark Turner
– Circus 1903 baby elephant

Have you received phone calls or text messages regarding the passing of Ringling Bros.?

Absolutely. Many, many. Some people are saying what incredulous timing. It’s incredibly sad but as one giant goes to sleep it allows others to come into the field. It’s especially sad for the workers but it gives us a chance to show the circus is alive and well.

You said the Illusionists is “contemporized.” What, specifically, was modernized?

At the very beginning we tried to do to with the Illusionists what Cirque had done to the circus: Take very traditional acts – and magic hasn’t come a very long way since 1980, from the Copperfield days – and really contemporized it, adding an amazing live band onstage and really good video projection front and center so the small tricks can be seen as if they’re right in front of you. Also the production value and the pace of it.
We’re not necessarily saying to the people that this is real. We don’t expect people to walk out of this thinking we’ve changed their religion, but it’s an entertainment piece and I think that’s the difference we’ve made. We’ve turned the corner. We’re not saying we’re actually bending a piece of steel; it’s about entertaining people.

I like to think there can only be so many magic stage acts competing for an audience, so combining them into one show is a boon for their careers.

Yes! Absolutely! There are very few illusionists who can sustain a two-hour show. And that’s not for lack of talent. The opportunity for these people are slim and there are a handful of people in America who can sustain a living on their own, from Copperfield, Penn & Teller, to Criss Angel, David Blaine – that’s about it.

By us taking the top seven in their fields we’re not just elevating them but broadening them. It’s an easy way for an audience to digest magic.

Mark Turner
– Circus 1903

I can’t recall who said it – Jean Hugard, Howard Thurston – that America embraces one magician at a time. Seems like this could be a way to work around that.

Very much so. What we’re also finding out is that, compared to 20 years ago, people’s attention spans are much, much shorter so we try to keep the pace very high.

The longest act is 8 minutes. With that being said, if you don’t like somebody, it’s on to the next act. The show is two hours long because that is the amount of time people can sustain with this art form.

Those decisions become very important to us to make this family-friendly. We have a bit of a moniker for all that we produce: We say we are the 3G of entertainment, three generations of a family watching the show together. There’s never been a truer statement than that about the Illusionists.

Mark Turner
– Circus 1903

What can you tell me about the three productions?

There’s the American touring production. That’s almost the original cast as the Broadway show – Jeff Hobson, Kevin James, Dan Sperry, Andrew Basso, Yu Ho-Jin and a couple of spots that switch around.

Then we have a European cast, called the World Touring Cast. It’s designed to be much less lingual (it has much less speaking) and that one is going on a world tour. We just finished Paris and just closed a week in Amsterdam that was completely sold out. Now it’s on to Moscow, then Saudi Arabia, Brussels, Berlin then on to London. That has a cast from across the world.

Then there is the Turn of the Century show, which just finished on Broadway and became the highest grossing magic show in the history of Broadway the last week. That cast is very specialized – acts that lend themselves to being done in a very old-fashioned way.

What’s the relationship between the Illusionists and “America’s Got Talent”?

The Illusionists came first. We opened in Australia in 2012 and toured the world for a couple of years before we got to “America’s Got Talent.” We were going to Broadway in 2014 and “America’s Got Talent” always has guest spots as it goes on. We were really lucky the booker wanted a big spectacular act on, and we obliged. It was great for them and it announced we were coming to Broadway.

Joan Marcus
– The Illusionists

Do the performers arrive with their acts or do they give you a shopping list?

We essentially form a caricature of the person. Number one, we come up with a character that best illustrates what they’re doing and then we look at the act and we spend money on the costumes, the props, the magic, the soundtrack, the choreography. In some cases we don’t change the acts because they’re perfect as they are but one thing we do with every act is make them shorter. Magicians have a tendency to have longer acts and we want to fit them all in. But we absolutely revamp the production values. Rewriting the soundtrack to the act is a huge endeavor but it makes a massive difference to the success.

How many people are in the North American tour?

There are seven magicians, nine assistants, probably 35 for the touring crew. This year we’re doing 100 dates I think. We normally do 30-40 weeks of touring. We’ve grossed close to $100 million since opening the show.

Marketing: what is bringing people to these shows?

It all starts with the poster. There’s no doubt about it. That’s the most important thing. It has to do what it says on the tin, which is an English expression that means people need to look at the poster to understand what it is.
With the Illusionists, you know immediately it is seven guys, they do magic, and they’re all different characters. It’s very easy to understand. Then, absolutely, it’s the viral marketing – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook – they’re so incredibly important but it’s not about what we do but what is shared by the audience. To me, the success of a show is through what is shared. That has less to do with us controlling it and much more to do with the audience.

Joan Marcus
– The Illusionists

Regarding that, the early days of TV destroyed magicians’ careers. They’d make a career out of an act and, once it showed up on a TV variety show, they wouldn’t get booked anymore because now everybody saw the act. What gets shared?

We are very careful with what gets shared online. We try not to show full acts but excerpts for exactly this reason.

Today the live experience is becoming more and more valuable. It’s become one of my biggest statements. The live experience has become one of the last un-copyable, non-downloadable, unshareable commodity you can have in entertainment.

Every other form of entertainment media, whether it be YouTube, DVD, film, song, Facebook, photos, they’re all shareable and can be accessed by your phone. To go and see something live has become the commodity. You can’t share that. I think live theatre is thriving because the more you can share on TV, the more valuable that live experience has become.