When Shane Gillen went to the Hawk Well Theatre in Sligo to perform, fans were treated to a tanatalising slice of real magic.
A small brown envelope is waiting for me upon my arrival at the Hawk Well Theatre. I am instructed to keep it closed until the end of the impending show. When I finally cut it open, there is only one word written in clear, capital letters on a small piece of paper: ARSE.
Having travelled all the way from Dublin to Sligo to see the magician and mentalist Mr. Gillen perform his Arrow in Time show I should be insulted to receive such a terse missive. Except I’m not.
It’s the last in a series of skillful magic tricks that Gillen has performed over the course of two hours. In fact everyone in the audience is in a similar position: like me they were asked to open a sealed envelope they’ve been carrying from the start of the show. Gillen asks us to stand up if the word written inside the envelope is the same as any of the words hanging from a clothesline on the stage and we all do just that. Yet the words on the stage were not written by him or his crew, but by members of the audience a few minutes earlier. Magic?!
Magic, trickery, legerdemain, call it what you like. Shane Gillen does not claim to be a psychic or mind-reader – phew! – and maintains that Irish audiences don’t believe in this kind of stuff either. Then what are all these people doing in a packed theatre, applauding a 23-year old who is guessing their thoughts?
“Irish audiences seem to be more happy with the fact that they’ve just been fooled – and that’s enough”, says Shane. “While American audiences often freak out even with card tricks, the Irish automatically know the trick. They’re much more cynical. But I’d like people to believe maybe there is something else.”
When it comes to playing mind tricks, Gillen knows his game. During the course of the show, a woman lends him her wedding ring only to find it minutes later inside a magic kinder, which is inside a box, which is inside a bigger box, which is inside a locked chest, which...well you know the kind of drill. You’d have to say that it’s bloody impressive.
People always come up to Shane after the show with different theories on how he managed to trick them. And what if they guess it right?
“That’s part of the challenge,” he smiles. “Everyone in the audience is trying to work it out – you go on stage knowing that, so I have to give them some sort of misdirection. I’ll never tell them if they’re right or wrong.”
The ones who usually get it right are the kids.
“I love kids, but they are such a difficult audience – they will catch you out so quickly! Once I performed at a big family festival and after the show a kid came up to me and blatantly told me how I did some tricks.”
Shane is a master of card tricks: among others, he immediately and successfully hits a royal flush with cards that have been randomly picked by a spectator. Isn’t he tempted to cheat his way through a poker championship and get loaded? He admits he was once ‘banned’ from gambling in a casino because the owner had seen him perform his magic a few hours before...
“I was in San Fransisco and I had no money at all when I came across an ad looking for a psychic to go to a party,” he recalls. “I wrote up a big fake CV and rang them. I did a little effect on the phone, and told her – this is really bad – the colour of her front door which I actually got from Google street view and she was like, ‘Oh my God!’ So I went down and even bought these weird glasses to make myself look a little quirkier. It was a really posh party in a huge mansion and they set me up at the back on a table with a cloth and everything. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing.”
Still, he earned $500 for his efforts. He did a trick, during which the name of a deceased person appears on some tarot cards: one of the guests got so emotionally charged that she started crying. “It was terrible, I know. They’re probably still Googling ‘psychic Shane’.”
It all started in the US, where a 19-year old Shane Gillen decided to work in a magic shop to earn some money. A week later he was sacked but the damage had been done. He became a protégé of Joe Pon, who has trained some of the biggest names in the industry, including David Copperfield – and in no time was making his way into Hollywood stars’ houses. Denzel Washington’s wife asked him to perform for them and soon afterwards he was invited to a celebrity party thrown by Samuel L. Jackson. Yet he acknowledges that everything he has done so far has been luck.
Coming back to Ireland, Shane kept things relatively straight. He was too busy mounting his first stage show and performing backstage at massive gigs – for Lady Gaga, Faithless and 50 Cent to mention but three. Name a big event and he’s probably going to be there: the Meteor Awards, or more recently the Electric Picnic.
So what’s next? Will he make the Spire disappear or cut someone in pieces?
“A lot of American magicians use those big box illusions but that’s not me at all; for me that’s not really magic, that’s the box doing all the work and not the guy on the stage.”
Shane doesn’t like the David Copperfield kind of magic but deeply admires his friend Keith Barry. As for his greatest aspiration, apart from having his own TV show, he dreams of performing for ...Bono. “I have a U2 tattoo on my arm from the song ‘One’: ‘Carry each other’. He’s brilliant!”
Let me make things clear: I don’t believe in magic. When I first saw Uri Geller and his followers bending spoons the only thing that astonished me was that people were so willing to destroy their cutlery. But suspicious as I am, when Shane brings out a pack of magazine pieces and magically turns them into €20 notes right in front of my astonished eyes, I can’t help but admire the art of legerdemain.
That’s why Shane Gillen stands out. His magic is not about the paranormal, the dangerous, the spectacular. It’s about the funny, the dexterous and the genuinely puzzling. There’s no doubt that he’s deceiving us all and I’m dying to know how he does it. Especially the one with the royal flush...