"Teller [of magic duo Penn & Teller] says that a magic trick is a fight between your eyes and what you know to be true," says Geoff Sobelle. "It’s a fight you have to enjoy losing."
Colin Cloud continues in the same vein: "You can be watching a piece he’s probably performed more than any magician has performed, and still feel you’re watching the art happen in that moment."
Colin Cloud and Geoff Sobelle are not magicians, but they make magic happen and, it seems, both admire the legendary magician Teller. They also claim never to have met before this interview, although they are illusionists and therefore not to be trusted.
"We might have been plotting this behind your back the entire time," comments Cloud, slightly disconcertingly. But despite their works being seemingly at far ends of some sort of magical spectrum—with Robert Lepage at one end and the "Paul Daniels magic set" that first turned Cloud onto comedy and mesmerism at the other—they share a similar conceptual space.
In physical theatre piece Home at the International Festival, Sobelle "uses the shit out of illusion". Not just in creating a house out of thin air but in creating a sense of home, something with "illusionary qualities we buy into but are not actually as concrete as we like to think".
Cloud’s Psycho(Logical) at the Pleasance, has more of the accoutrements expected of a magic show: mind reading, reveals and a dapper frock coat. Plus, as Cloud points out, he’s been on the telly, which sets up a level of expectation.
"From an artistic point of view, it’s a careful balance," he says, seeking to bring the dazzle of his performance on America’s Got Talent but also to create something he's proud of. Because Cloud doesn’t want to trick us: "I don’t want the deception to be the thing that the audience takes away. I want them to think about the message, the relevance to themselves and how they fit into the world."
There’s a point in each of these shows where Sobelle and Cloud hand over to their audiences. Expanding the limits of what’s possible requires crossing the boundary between spectator and performer. Cloud, for instance, endows an audience member with his extraordinary insightfulness by making them "feel as relaxed and as comfortable" as possible, so they'll behave as he needs them too.
Sobelle agrees that "trust is crucial". In Home, the house that Sobelle builds is taken over by an invading audience. "Generally, I hate audience participation," says Sobelle. "That is why I wanted to try it – precisely because it's so difficult. The whole show builds to the moment where the audience comes up – they feel that they are safe, that they can cross that threshold."
"That’s the beauty of what we do," Cloud goes on. "It can be completely immersive for those watching and have real, positive impacts on their thinking. That’s what I want to create, not show how clever I am just by showing trick after trick."
Cloud and Sobelle’s shows are very clever, but also labour intensive. "I love the films of Jacques Tati, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Keaton, and magicians like Robert-Houdin, who would go to insane lengths to pull off a magic trick," says Sobelle. "It’s an act of love and devotion. I really hope that audiences see that care was put into the work, that they enjoy it and feel they are in good hands but also they’re like, ‘Jesus Christ – how long did that take?’"
Cloud agrees: "When you watch a magician, you should leave feeling astounded. But I don’t really want that – I want what Geoff said, when you feel like you have watched someone work, that there is a skill and a level of understanding. To feel astonished is to put it outside of the realm of belief or possibility. I want the audience to feel that that is obtainable to them and relevant to them – to me that is crucial."
Home and Psycho(Logical) occupy what Sobelle describes as "psychological, invisible spaces of memory", spaces are made "more tangible" as they're "occupied" by both performer and audience. Making the impossible possible—whether that be a wall appearing from nowhere in Home or Cloud deducing your profession in one Sherlockian glare—has the potential to open our minds.
"That’s a nice thing, a noble thing," ponders Sobelle. "Just to try and make the world bigger for a few people."