Are you ready to explore the power of home and connection in the magical landscapes of Scotland with this year's RE:LOCATIONS Festival? In his newest, one-of-a-kind digital show, illusionist Scott Silven takes his audience on a journey to his childhood home – all from the comfort of their own home.
Photographs: David Wilkinson Empirical Photography
Text: Michaela Medvedova
What is your new show, The Journey, about, and where did the inspiration come from?
It is a show where I take 30 people out of their homes, and I invite them to travel virtually to my home in rural Scotland. We go on an adventure together that explores the power of home, place, and connection. We use their imagination and memories as a guide during this magical journey. The illusions form part of the story and the audience's memories of the narrative.
The show's catalyst was me coming back to my childhood home in Scotland that I have not been to for a couple of years, a place that inspired what I do today. I realised the power of home and how it stays with you.
I really feel the show is unlike anything audiences will have seen before, certainly not in the digital world. I did not want to build a show that was a Zoom experience. Instead, I wanted something that was a bit more my style - very interactive and immersive. That is when I had to bring my creative team together and build the show's technology.
What kind of technology is that?
I am lucky to work with a wonderful creative team known for pushing technology to the limits on stage. My production designer helped build the technology that allows me to take the audience and project them into the space in my home. We have the audience on the walls behind me, almost as we would have in a live theatre. What is magical is that whenever I want to interact with someone, we can pull them from the wall, and they will appear as a hologram beside me. It is fascinating for me to interact with my audience as I would do live.
All I wanted was for the audience to forget the technology is there. With Zoom, you have to mute and unmute your mike, make your screen bigger or smaller, and sometimes taking away from the experience. With what we created, that is not the case.
Because I genuinely perform in my home space, I wanted to subvert that environment in an interesting way. I invite the audience into my home but very quickly, the home begins to change into something quite magical. Suddenly, we are in the Scottish landscape, which is achieved by very complex projections and lighting. But all of this is invisible in the experience of the show.
New forms of connections in the digital space.
As an illusionist, you need to connect to people. How does the transition to a virtual space feel for you?
Unlike a singer or an actor, I require an audience to be a part of the illusion. There is not a single illusion in the show that I am doing myself. It is not a show where you see card tricks or traditional illusions – it has very interactive, personal illusions. My big fear in creating the show was that it would not feel that way, that it would feel disjointed, disconnected. Luckily, that has not been the case. The show allowed all new forms of connections that I would not be able to do in my live show.
We ask the audience to bring an object of meaning to the show with them to form a part of the experience. Technically, you could ask them to bring it to the theatre, but it would not have the same organic quality that I wanted. This has opened all new forms of connection, where people share stories about these objects in their homes or point to something on the mantelpiece. That creates a very special bond with the audience.
Secondly, I limited the show to a minimal number of people because I want to create that genuine connection with the rest of the audience and me in the space. It would be straightforward to create an online show where 200 or 500 people are just watching on their screens. But to be part of a small group, one of 30 people where you all see each other, you all create the illusions together, I think it makes it much more impactful and powerful.
The digital nature of the show allows you to take it across the globe. Do audiences around the world react to the show differently?
People, within their hearts, have the same reactions. We all have this desire to reconnect with the world and ourselves. Whether you are in Hong Kong or Holland, it is the same reaction. But the way they externally present themselves is different. Asian audiences are reflective and contemplative and take their time to answer a question. With a Scottish audience, everyone wants to take part, and they are shouting their answers as quickly as possible, in the same way as I would.
The objects they bring also form a part of their experience. Culturally, seeing what we value and what we hold as important – it is fascinating for me to see this beautiful cultural shift in terms of what people connect with. In Europe, pieces of jewellery are very common. In Asia, it is writing, letters, and handcrafted objects.
I imagine that some people may be pretty reserved while attending an illusionist's show.
For some people, there is an inherent scepticism. I am a sceptic as well. I do not believe in the paranormal. I am a very rationally minded person, and I believe that as an illusionist, you have to be. You are taking everyday items and using problem-solving and logic to create an impossible experience from them.
I am never trying to convince the audience that magic is real. It is a piece of art, theatre that allows you to look at the world differently, using the impossible experience to create something inspiring. I call it the theatre of the mind where I am using the techniques – psychological techniques, stagecraft, writing, all the conventions of traditional theatre, and my background in illusion – to create an impossible experience that hopefully stays with people.
The second big challenge is seeing something on the screen is very different from seeing something live in a theatre. There, you have a complete sense of your perception. You see everything in front of you. Yes, that can be manipulated, but we are much more used to seeing impossible things happen on screen. We watch movies, and we see dinosaurs coming through the wall, we see things vanish and reappear. The big challenge for me was to create an environment that feels as authentic as possible. If you were sitting in my house with me, you would see the same thing you see in the online experience.
Tricking the minds, not the eyes of the audience.
Why do you think people are drawn to performance pieces? Is it a way for them to escape reality?
I think illusion can be more. We get escapism from anything – watching Netflix, eating a great meal. I hope that it allows people to reconnect with this innate sense of wonder we have all within us. We all have the experience as children where we look at the world differently, and we do not question and rationalise everything. It allows us to be more open and connected to ourselves and the world.
That is the hope with the illusions I create – that just for a moment, that little glimpse that you see of the impossible, it just allows you to think of the possibilities in your own life. Then, your rational mindset sets in, and you begin to question and wonder how it is done. But it is that little gap that I create that really excites me as a performer.
When you think of a magician, you think of people going inside boxes on stage, flashing lights, card tricks. I like that, as we all do, I find it fun. But it does not resonate and stay with me. Magic can be a little more potent than that.
How did this fascination of yours with the human psyche start?
With the experience of creating an illusion, you have to have a questioning mind. You have to look at the illusion in lots of different ways like an audience member would. Find the weaknesses and block them to create the impossible. What fascinated me most about the development and performance of illusions was how audiences reacted to them. I found myself creating illusions that tricked the audiences' minds more than filling their eyes with simple sleight of hand. At that point, I realised the psychology of illusions is deeply fascinating how we as humans are still able to be fooled and tricked in a way. How we all have the desire to believe, and how that forms part of our belief system.
When I was at university, I studied contemporary performance. It was much more about creating art with the what and whys in mind – you want to remain a performer. It was pushing your creativity further than traditional magic would. When I left university, my mind was buzzing to create work that spoke more about the experience of wonder, the impossible, and the power of the mind rather than just simple tricks.
Exploring post-pandemic digital art in our new normal.
Do you think audiences will demand more of this type of art that makes them experience wonder, especially after the disillusioning experience of the pandemic?
At the start of creating the show, I said that I do not want this to be a show that speaks about the pandemic. We read about that in the news, we see it everywhere we turn. And yet, there are metaphorical aspects of the show that speak about disconnection and being placed home, but it is not trying to send a covid message. It is a show that has inspired people in a time of disconnection and disillusionment.
I think there will be an exciting future ahead for digital theatre. The one good thing for me as an artist that came out of the pandemic is that I have shared my work with audiences worldwide in a much easier and accessible way. It is egalitarian. No matter where you are in the world, you can click a link, and we can share this experience together.
Now, we are at an exciting point where we all desire to have a live experience again, be it in a theatre or go to a cinema. I think it will take a bit of time once we come out of the pandemic for the digital to blossom again. Right now, we are nearing the first act of what digital theatre can be. I tried to create this show with something that did not exist in the digital world before. It was not going to be just a live show shoehorned into a digital experience. I cannot wait to see what kind of art is created over the next few years.
Speaking of the digital future, soon, you will bring your show to Denmark. What attracted you to the RE:LOCATION Festival?
I was very excited to be a part of the festival purely because I think it is at the forefront of this new digital future. It is a digital-first festival. This is not something that was live and then quickly pivoted into an online format. It has been purely created to celebrate what digital theatre can be. I had planned to end my tour a bit earlier, but when Karen Toftegaard, the festival founder, contacted us, and I realised I have to squeeze this in.
I love Copenhagen in general. It is one of my favourite places to visit in the world. I cannot visit live this time, but hopefully, this comes close.