The stylish Scotsman who's reinventing mentalism
Scott Silven isn't your typical stage magician
If Scott Silven wasn’t in the mentalism business, he’d be a filmmaker. Or at least that’s what he tells me from his New Year’s holiday in the Virgin Islands.
“Another very easy career choice to get into,” he jokes.
It’s hardly surprising. Asked about his inspirations, Silven mentions photography, music, art, but no other magicians. His Instagram is brooding and architectural, consisting of dimly lit polaroids and monochrome buildings – hardly the norm for a globetrotting showman. Later, he explains how he binges David Lynch films when thinking up new shows.
“The way [Lynch] drops subliminal hints to the audience throughout, his choice of light and image – they’re all things that I find really inspiring.”
Scott Silven is all about the spectacle, but not the flashy Vegas spectacle of some of his stage magic compatriots. His shows are breathtaking and confounding, but what Silven really wants to do is tell stories, create conversations, inspire – all the things you might expect from a gallery or a Lynch film. He assures me that mentalism is an art, not a science.
For his upcoming Opera House show, Wonders, the stage is set up to look like Silven’s grandfather’s study in the attic of his childhood home in Scotland. It’s warm and inviting, filled with objects Silven found in the forests of Scotland – things that inspired him as a boy. Throughout the show, he invites audience members to “share their own stories of wonder in their life”.
Silven’s passion for his craft, like the premise of Wonders, is rooted in childhood curiosity.
“I grew up in quite traditional landscapes of Scotland, where myth and mystery are such a big part of its identity. So I always had that innate sense of wonder as a kid,” Silven explains.
When people are coming to see me, I've never tried to convince them that magic is real. It's about taking them on a journey of the power of what they can achieve in real life.
“Scotland is a nation of storytellers, and I think we've always had that desire to sit around and share compelling stories. I found great power, when I was younger, in magic being a metaphor for something greater. The illusion itself is inspiring, but if you can weave in a tale, a universal story that speaks to people, it really elevates the effects. It makes it all the more powerful.”
Silven is part of a movement in mentalism away from the ‘mind reading’ ruse of old and towards self-reflection and storytelling. Derek DelGaudio’s acclaimed Hulu special In & Of Itself is, according to critics, the gold standard of this, using magic as a trojan horse for a deeply personal narrative about identity.
“Derek and I were at the forefront at a similar time in New York,” says Silven, who was performing his interactive dining show At The Illusionist’s Table at the same time DelGaudio was doing In & Of Itself.
“It was just this amazing feeling in New York at that time – that magic was hopefully being elevated to an art form, to a piece of theatre. And the critics seemed to agree. It's been amazing to see that other magicians are now taking more consideration and care in their shows, and realising the power they happened to have as artists; to take these amazing techniques and elevate them in inspired ways when you connect a story to them.”
What of the ‘deception’ of magic? If mentalism “exists across a spectrum of morality”, as Penn & Teller once declared, Silven surely sits on the virtuous side of the gamut. He dislikes the “mind-reading and telekinesis” and make-believe showmanship of the “magician in a top hat”, and bitterly talks about the perception of mentalism as “trivial birthday party tricks”. His work, by comparison, is remarkably honest.
“When people are coming to see me, I've never tried to convince them that magic is real. It's about taking them on a journey of the power of what they can achieve in real life. I've always had a great aversion to mentalism that veers towards psychics and all that sort of stuff. I don't feel any of that is real, and I don't like giving people false hope.”
Instead, Silven compares his work to performance art, regularly talking about inspiring his audience – even teaching them techniques they can use at home. He loves that personal communication element, so much so he created a digital show at the peak of the pandemic called The Journey, in which he broadcasted to groups of 30 from his “mum’s living room in Scotland”.
Aided by a small production team, a lighting rig and a few projectors, Silven cast his audience on the walls, as if they were in the same room, occasionally inviting certain members to participate. With different time zones and performances every day for months, Silven’s family had to be careful not to wander in mid-show – but he found something charming about how candid the whole experience was
“The hope of The Journey was that you're connecting people from across the world in spaces of meaning to them. So you're seeing people sitting in their own homes with objects of meaning again. I didn't realise how powerful that would be.”
The power of the show is taking people right back to that childlike sense of wonder you had as little kids, how it allowed you to look at the world in a different way.
They weren’t all meaningful places. Silven notes that there would be someone watching the show from their car “almost on a nightly basis”. On one occasion, he cut to someone collecting food from a McDonald’s drive-through.
When we spoke, only a couple of weeks had passed since his 400th and final online production of The Journey. Exhausted and enjoying time off in the Caribbean, he described it as “the most challenging thing [he’d] ever done”.
Now, Silven eagerly awaits his return to the stage. The Opera House will be his first live performance of Wonders since the pandemic began. He’s visibly excited to share a room with his audience again – to transport them to the forests of Scotland where stories of magic and monsters once felt so real.
“We live in a time where everything is so easily explained. And we live in a very sceptical time as well. The power of the show is taking people right back to that childlike sense of wonder you had as little kids, how it allowed you to look at the world in a different way, and sharing that in a cognitive space with other people.”