Arts & Entertainment

Q&A with the master ‘Illusionist’ Scott Silven

By July 11, 2019 No Comments
Mentalist and storyteller Scott Silven conjures up a world of mystery and illusion in his intimate dinner-theater performance "At the Illusionist's Table," presented by Cal Performances July 16-Aug. 4 at the Grace Street Showroom in Oakland. (Photo courtesy of Scott Silven)

The table is elaborately set for 28 strangers, all of whom are meeting — not on a train — but at the Grace Street Showroom in Oakland. An air of excitement and mystery commingle as guests present their names at the door in order to enter the unexpected.

What sounds like it might be the opening of an Agatha Christie mystery or a Hitchcock thriller is a mind-blowing experience/dinner that is earning raves and selling out across the globe.

“At the Illusionist’s Table” — a Cal Performances special engagement — brings the charming and talented Scott Silven to the East Bay.

Silven will be performing “how in the heck did he just do that” tricks while spinning tales about  life growing up Scotland during his July 16-Aug. 4 engagement.

Even though tickets aren’t cheap — $350 — the price tag does include a three-course dinner in an intimate setting and some fine whisky.

LocalNewsMatter.org emailed the 30-year-old mentalist/hypnotist/illusionist some questions about his craft just before venturing to the East Bay. No spoilers included below.

What piqued your interest while growing up in Scotland to become an illusionist/mentalist?

Living in Scotland afforded me a connection with a place where myth is woven into the fabric of its identity. I used to spend a lot of time in the forests of the Clyde Valley as a kid and it was such a natural way to explore the mystery and wonder in the world. And I was around 5 when my grandfather showed me a simple effect and I was hooked. After an initial interest in traditional magic effects, I was seduced by mentalism and the remarkable ways it could inspire people. I began to take the craft more seriously when I was 15. I traveled to Milan for a few weeks to study hypnosis there, and from there it felt habitual — that this type of performance is what I wanted to focus on. I now use my background in theatre and illusion, my passion for psychology, and my knowledge of hypnosis to create immersive and hopefully unforgettable theatrical experiences that transcend the boundaries of a magic show.

I know you can’t reveal much about “At the Illusionist’s Table.”  We respect that … BUT, does the menu ever change? And if it doesn’t, do you eat the same meal yourself during the run?

The menu changes for each run and this allows each chef to explore their individual style and feed it into the performance. It also ensures that I’m not eating the same meal every night for a year! As the show is intrinsically linked with the meal, I work closely with the chefs on crafting a menu that can effectively weave into the shows narrative. It’s always rewarding to see chefs pushing their abilities to create unexpected flavor combinations and taste sensations.

Could you briefly break down what constitutes an illusionist, a mentalist and a magician, and then pinpoint which of those most accurately describe what you do?

All three do fit under the same category of the mystery arts and each category has a fluidity, as we share in techniques and style. We should all be creating acts of the impossible. But whilst traditional magicians and illusionists often use technology or elaborate props, my work is not driven by any of this, but by the power of story, by memory and the mind. It’s theatre for the mind in the truest sense. For me, mentalism is the purest form of magic; it happens inside the audiences’ own heads, and directly involves their memories and emotions. Naturally, this can affect them in the most remarkable of ways.

As a performance artist, what is it about using an intimate setting — a dinner table gathering with 28 people — that you prefer versus a larger venue with a huge crowd?

Exploring the senses and the human mind is at the very essence of what I do. I’ve trained all my life in a variety of techniques to elicit the desired response from my audience. My stage shows also focus on storytelling, suggestion, psychological and traditional theatrical techniques, but creating a more intimate setting that directly involved the senses seemed like a unique opportunity to connect with audiences on a much deeper level. It’s really rewarding to sit down with 28 strangers every night and watch each of them begin to connect with each other and directly become agents in the impossible.

Have you visited the Bay Area before? What are you looking forward to seeing the most once you’re here?

I was just close by for an extended run at Stanford University a couple of months ago so I’m really excited to be returning to the area. Living in Manhattan now, it’s rare to see such magnificent landscapes — so the Bay Area is astonishing. Last time my regular hangouts in S.F. were Liholiho Yacht Club and Foreign Cinema.  I’ve heard St Francis Fountain and The Old Clam House are a must visit. I’m really looking forward to exploring the surrounding area of Berkeley too. If you’ve got any recommendations let me know at the show!

There have been many movies featuring illusionists and mentalists. Do you have some personal favorites?

I often don’t take inspiration from movies directly featuring illusionists, but my work definitely explores a Lynchian aesthetic and has a sense of Hitchcockian storytelling and mystery. But if I had to choose a favorite it would be Chris Nolan’s “The Prestige”— gorgeous visuals and superlative storytelling.

You’re earning raves for the show, from Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times. Are you making plans for a new tour or are you going to take a break after this one?

My ambition has always been to create work that can be shared with the widest audience possible, so whilst it’s rewarding to be validated by international press such as the NY Times and Vogue, it’s allowed me the opportunity to be able to demonstrate my work on stage and screen and connect with audiences across the globe. I just completed a seven-month run in NYC in April and headed straight into my second world tour, which will be running until next spring. I’m also currently in workshop with my creative team on my new theatrical experience that will be completed in a year or so. Like all my work, it will be pushing the boundaries of what a magic show can be. The direction I’m going in involves something that I’ve never seen on stage before. I can’t wait to reveal it.

Whisky plays a role in the dinner. Which whisky brand or brands do you enjoy the most?

I began “At The Illusionist’s Table” a few years ago in collaboration with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. They collect and store some of the rarest whiskies in the world. Often I’d be doing the show with the only bottle of its kind in existence so it added a beautiful ephemerality to the experience. Now, whilst touring we work with some great suppliers to secure the best single malt whiskies possible. Personally, I’m always a fan of Laphroaig — big and bold flavors — its story is perfectly told in the glass.

Let’s get a tad metaphysical here. Do you believe life is an illusion?

I think there is an inherent beauty in the mystery of life that should be embraced. But to me, it’s always important to be present in the moment and appreciate just how miraculous it is that you exist. Wonder exists all around you and that should inspire you to be open to opportunities and discover experiences that allow you to grow as a person. My personal motto in both my work and life is to have courage, be bold, and let the story unfold.

For ticket information, visit calperformances.org/performances/2019-20/special-events/scott-silven-at-the-illusionists-table-onsale.php