Illusionist Chris Fisher explains how he got into the business and his work on Titus Andronicus.

How did you become a theatre illusionist?

I started performing magic when I was a kid after being given a magic set for my fourth birthday. I got hooked with the magic bug, and have performed and practised magic ever since. I have also spent a huge part of my career working backstage in stage and company management. About five or six years ago, the opportunity arose to combine the two which meant I got to work on both of my loves - theatre and magic!

What exactly is an illusionist?

An illusion consultant is often brought in to create a special moment, or moments, in a show whereby something potentially and seemingly impossible or unexplained happens. This isn't always necessarily presented as a 'magic trick' but more often than not is presented as part of the storytelling. The story or script might have stage directions; for example, 'someone vanishes' or 'someone has their head cut off'. Whilst we know that these things aren't physically possible, it's an illusionist's job to try to show through stagecraft that things can be made to look like they are possible!

What do you need to become an illusionist?

An interest and knowledge of magic and its various forms is essential as a lot of what you are asked to do draws on many different elements of the art. What I have found is just as essential, though, is an understanding of theatre and all the various technical elements. Quite often a magic effect will need input and help from a variety of different departments. Just one effect might need help from props, set, lighting, sound and costume so it's important to know what you're talking about.

How do you work with the rest of the creative team?

The director will often be the person that comes to you first to ask for a specific effect or moment within a play, which is what happened for Titus. After that you have to try and realise that effect for them. This often means consulting with the designer about what you can do in terms of keeping with the design. Sometimes if you're there at the start of the process you can have an input into how something is designed too. I will go away and put a design together as to how something will work and then have meetings with the various departments that are going to assist me with creating the effect. This will, more often than not, be the relevant supervisors: for example, on Titus I worked very closely with the props and costume supervisors. We make prototypes of an effect to try out in the rehearsal room with the actors and then use these to feedback into the final design.

Two nurses hold down Titus as they prepare to cut off his hand. A man looks on, horrified.
The infamous removal of Titus' hand.
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

Does the Royal Shakespeare Theatre pose a challenge due to the thrust stage and proximity of the audience?

It most definitely is a big challenge. Illusions are so much easier to stage if you have distance and a proscenium arch, so having people being able to look down, behind and up-close is not easy. On saying that, this is the second show I've designed for the RSC now (I've just worked on The Hypocrite too) and once you know the challenges you just have to keep them in your mind when designing something. The hardest part is in rehearsals as you need to get the actors to perform the effect multiple times whilst you watch it from all angles to ensure that it is working correctly and remains elusive wherever you sit.

What’s been your greatest challenge with Titus Andronicus?

My main focus has been on the moment Titus gets his hand cut off. The design of the show has really developed over the weeks but making the effect elusive from all sides has been really tricky. Even in rehearsals we've had to change the positions of actors or add in elements of misdirection to ensure the secret to how we're doing something is not revealed.

What moment in the production are you most excited about audiences experiencing?

As gruesome as it sounds, I am looking forward to seeing the audience's reactions to some of the graphic moments in the show. I feel there are some moments, including the cutting off of the hand, that are really going to be quite horrifying to watch and it will be interesting to see how people react to them.

Titus Andronicus plays at the Barbican in London until 19 January 2018. 

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