A bonus of running this site is the opportunities it creates to interact and engage with performers. I choose who I will interview carefully, and try to bring a wide range of different talents with varied skill sets.
This week I am chatting with Tony Middleton, an established international award winning artist who is passionate about magic and its presentation. He has a keen interest in the Golden Age and presents his magic in a classic but modern way.
A director, author, magician and teacher of magic to name just a few of his multiple skills. He has adapted his show to online and provides many different entertainment based services.
Tony has appeared on television programmes that include Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Also a member of the Magic Circle, and was a finalist in their Magician of the Year in 2018. His book "Performing Magic" was published in 2011 and he has held residencies at various venues and actively directs and produces shows.
Check out his website "The Magic Hour" and social links at the bottom of this post.
Magic Seats - Thank you Tony for joining us today for a chat.
I am aware that you studied Drama and Theatre and you have directed many theatre productions and still do. What was it that made you decide to also pursue magic?
Tony Middleton - I got into magic as most do around the age of 11, so it's always been a part of my life. At school I started my own magic club, and by A levels, I staged my first illusion show in the drama studio. It was a great opportunity to incorporate lighting, sound & set design and make a proper show. I studied drama at A level, and was very involved with school theatre productions, so had access to facilities and wanted to make the best of them. I guess most people don't produce a full theatrical magic show at age 16, but I felt I could do it and was excited to give it a try. It was a great success. From there on I went to study drama at degree level. I got a First in Drama & Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Later, my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) was in Theatre Directing was at Birkbeck, University of London. My undergraduate study gave me a lot of options to sample different aspects of theatre practice, and a good understanding of how to think analytically.
My postgraduate study gave me a solid grounding in directing and producing - a real hands on, practical experience, which included a 1 year placement in industry as well. It's the best directing course in the UK, and hard to get on. The first time I applied I didn't get in, so I took a year out working wherever I could in theatre - quite often as an assistant director at places like Nottingham Playhouse. Then I re-applied and got a place. To work in theatre you've definitely got to demonstrate commitment as it's so competitive. All the time I was studying in theatre I also worked as a close-up magician - this helped to pay the bills, and I gradually discovered that I could bring the two worlds together and create unique magic based productions. So I suppose the two really went in tandem, but I just didn't realise exactly how to merge them together fully until later on.
Magic Seats - It certainly allows you to have a very unique act, combining your theatre training with magic. Your website, show and your general presentation/style is reminiscent of the golden age of magic. What is it about that period that holds particular interest for you?
Tony Middleton - I'm excited by the Golden Age. It's evocative, full of secrets, fantastic imagery, and there's often so much more to the trick than what you see on the surface.
There are such great characters and stories. These days magic can often come across as tacky or simply derivative, but it has such a rich history. How many Blaine or Dynamo copies do we need? Also, I don't like the aesthetic of most magic shows to be honest.
Maybe it's because most magicians don't go through a theatre training, or analyse their act properly. You need to consider everything, how it fits together, and what it communicates to the audience. Too many just buy the latest trick from a dealer, copy the routine / patter supplied and off they go. The 'street magician' image has been done to death, and it doesn't fit me. I think that old style magic can be presented in a classic, refined way, and drawing upon the past gives it more gravitas. People enjoy a different experience, and it leaves room for the imagination - that's so important.
Magic Seats - I would agree that you offer a different experience that is unique and recognise the importance of considering all aspects of performance.
As you are excited and influenced by the Golden Age, which magician from that period would you go to see perform if you had a time machine?
Tony Middleton - That's a really good question. I would like to go back to Egyptian Hall 'England's Home of Mystery' and see a full show there, and just walk around the building too! Maskelyne & Cooke's playlets featuring illusions such as the decapitation and automata like Pyscho & Zoe would be fascinating to see. Actually - if I set my time machine to the right date, I could watch Bautier De Kolta - that would be a real treat.
Magic Seats - It is such a shame that the Egyptian Hall building no longer exists. Unfortunately, theatre is now also currently under threat in these modern times. What needs to be done to save theatre for our ourselves, our children, and future generations?
Tony Middleton - Well I think we just have to ride out the storm - there's no magic bullet. I predict (and I hope I'm wrong), that it will be a long slow recovery for the theatre industry and live magic shows. There will be less innovation and everyone will have to pull back to some extent. Until international travel becomes normal again, and people feel confident to travel within their own country, audiences will be significantly diminished. Let's hope it's not too long, but it could be several years. Virtual shows will help generate some awareness and following, and some may find that's a good platform in the short term - but I don't think it will last forever. As soon as things gradually open up people will forget virtual shows and return to pubs, restaurants, bars, outdoor events first, and theatre will be at the bottom of the list. Maybe people will be keener to go to the theatre than I think - let's see. I don't think we can do anything other than gradually build up again - we've been knocked back significantly. The only thing you can do to help is buy a ticket and support live theatre - whether that be your local playhouse, West End / Broadway, fringe theatre, or magic show. The smaller shows may suffer most - go and help them. Spread the word about a show you see, and eventually it will make a difference. 90% of booking comes from personal recommendation, so it's a powerful tool.
Magic Seats - I agree that word of mouth is a powerful tool. Personally, I cannot wait to get to a time when we can see shows live again. You have of course also adapted to online successfully as well.
Your website offers many online services beyond Zoom shows which includes your “Magic School” and “Magic Masterclass” for those who want to learn magic. How did you get into coaching/training, as that is an art in itself?
Tony Middleton - I was in charge of the acts at Maskelyne & Cooke Magic Bar in Piccadilly Circus. We ran an in person 'Magic Masterclass' there for beginners, which was really popular. When COVID hit, I decided to put a significant chunk of my time into delivering the Magic Masterclass online - which has been very popular with corporate companies, and also those looking for a different 'date night' idea.
For those who are getting into magic more, or wanting to take it further, there's the Magic School. It has 100s of videos, and more uploaded each week. It's an every growing resource of techniques and routines. The difficult thing when learning magic is knowing how to see the wood from the trees, and how to structure your learning. Magic School does this all for you in a progressive way. You start with the really basic stuff, and then progress onto full routines and more complex sleight of hand. It's like have a personal magic teacher and logical sequence of courses. Members can book a short one-to-one lesson with me every so often to help get tips. To find out more go to www.magichourshow.com/magic-school.
Magic Seats - The online learning is an excellent idea. Many such sites are US based, so good to have a UK knowledge base for instruction.
What are your future plans - anything that you can share? (Any more books in the works!)
Tony Middleton - Well actually I have four books I'm writing at the moment. Two of them are on my experiences as a director/producer/performer over my career to date.
One volume is about my work with Chris Dugdale, and the other is about my own shows. Then there's one book on the history of magic, and another about a specific theatrical technique that I've used a lot in the past. Sorry I can't reveal more as I don't want anyone pinching my ideas (!)
Everything seems to take longer than you expect, but they will reach the magic market in good time. I'm well aware that my last publication was 10 years ago, and I've learned so much more since then.
Magic Seats - That's great news to hear about all the books. Can’t wait to start reading some of these works once published as they all sound of great interest. I will be keeping an eye out for their release.
Thank you Tony for your time today.
For more information, visit Tony's "The Magic Hour" website and also see below for videos on Magic Masterclass and Virtually Impossible.
For further reading on the history of The Egyptian Hall and London's House of Mystery that Tony references in our chat, read up here.