By Carissa Shale

Magicians and magic-lovers around Australia were devastated when the annual Melbourne Magic Festival was cancelled due to COVID-19. The two-week magical extravaganza is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, bringing together 75 magicians from around the globe to perform over 300 magic shows. This year was set to be the festival’s biggest year yet, with more than 17,000 spectators expected to attend.

Tim Ellis, the President of the Australian Institute of Magic and the founder of the Melbourne Magic Festival, usually spends most of his spare time between gigs eagerly organising the two-week festival. When faced with the prospect of having no work, no magic festival to plan and perform in, and being stuck at home indefinitely, Tim Ellis decided to take his magic online.

Since theatres went dark in March, Ellis has performed and hosted over 20 Zoom magic shows entertaining a total of almost 1,000 guests. From private magic shows for friends and family, to massive gala performances with 100 viewers, he has even managed to reach interstate and international audiences saying that around 10% of his online audiences are not from Victoria.

Ellis’ regular Zoom shows are giving local magicians an opportunity to continue doing what they love best, while also creating valuable connections between performers and audiences in a very isolating time. Unlike other forms of entertainment, magic relies heavily on audience participation, which has been both a challenge, and a blessing during this difficult period. Unlike Netflix or Stan, when you’re watching an online magic show, you have to be prepared to get involved, pick a card and have your mind blown.

“If you want to be a participant… to actually socialise and escape the very unsocial environment of lockdown, then magic is one of the few art forms that delivers that experience.”

Ellis has spent hours trying to master online platforms such as Zoom and Facebook Live, and continues to search for the best ways of handling audience participation.

“This aspect is constantly evolving as we experiment with different ideas. Do we leave people muted or unmuted? Do we insist you turn your video on or leave it off? Do we try to recreate the “in person” experience or accept that this is going to be something different?”

In most of his shows, Ellis now uses a second person, who acts as a “host” or stage manager and can call on volunteers, and handle the technological side of the performance.

The constraints of online magic have forced Ellis to be creative with new tricks that suit the medium, while also allowing him to observe audience reactions and self-direct at a level he has never done before. Ellis has endeavoured to find the silver lining in this unique situation, a sentiment which is now more important than ever as Melbourne endures a second lockdown.

“Zoom is reiterating the importance of connections and the power of stories. When a trick and a story are seamlessly blended, you see the art elevated to a whole new level. Not only are they left astonished, but you can see you’ve given them something to think about that’s more than simply “How did he do that?””

Tim Ellis is performing Zoom magic shows every Friday night of lockdown via The Laneway Theatre. More information about Ellis’ upcoming shows can be found here;