In the new Toronto stage show Séance, illusionist Nicholas Wallace takes the audience on an interactive tour of the Victorian occult, performing experiments in mind reading and Ouija before asking the crowd to participate in an actual séance. The result is one part horror and one part history, a look back at an era in which belief in ghosts was so widespread that séances became a popular form of entertainment for families on Friday night, as well as a modern exploration of the supernatural designed for skeptics and believers alike.
So is the séance real? That’s ultimately up to you. The show is co-created by Wallace and Director Luke Brown, and of the two, Wallace is the skeptic. However, he is well aware of the power of imagination. His goal is to create a ghostly atmosphere and set the mood for an entertaining evening of pre-Halloween theatre. Anything beyond that is purely in the mind of the beholder.
We had the opportunity to speak with Wallace about the show, and he shared his thoughts on the process and the appeal of a good ghost story.
Dork Shelf: Why did séances become so popular during the Victorian era? Why did they fall out of favor?
Nicholas Wallace: In the mid to late 1800’s, science was beginning to undermine more traditional religious ideas. There was a systematic and experimental approach to Spirit Mediumship. For many people it was a way of bridging the gap between the two worlds. It was something spiritual, but at the same time it was something you could see and touch. In other ways it was just a fad – sort of like making videos of dumping ice buckets on your head. It was just a cool thing to do.
DS: Why does the idea of a séance have such a strong pull on people’s imaginations?
NW: Because it is a possible answer to the biggest unanswerable question. What happens after we die? It’s exciting and mysterious and possibly a little dangerous.
DS: In modern popular culture, séances are usually associated with the horror genre. Was that always the case? Do séances lend themselves to other kinds of modern entertainment experiences?
NW: Some people did (and still do) take it very seriously. For a lot of people I think it was just something fun to do on a Saturday night. Before TV and radio, you had to entertain yourselves somehow.
DS: It’s easy to fact-check horror, but horror usually isn’t as much fun if the audience isn’t willing to buy into the experience. Do you find that people want to believe in the illusion when they come to a show like Séance?
NW: In the moment, yes. My goal as a magician is to make people invest in the moment. I don’t for a second expect an audience to believe I have any special powers, but like any good film or piece of theatre, in the moment I want them to believe. A willing suspension of disbelief. I think most people get it.
NW: We do a poll at the top of the show. I would say it is usually half and half.
DS: Do you believe in ghosts?
NW: No, not really.
DS: Was it difficult to construct a show that would be fun for believers and skeptics alike? What does the show offer if you’re unwilling to believe in the supernatural?
NW: It was a challenge. I am a skeptic, but the Director and co-creator of the show (Luke Brown) does believe in ghosts, so it made for interesting balance. I think the show really does cater to the skeptics. If we can win them over the rest is easy. No sense preaching to the choir.
DS: I know a magician never reveals his secrets, but how much of the illusion is produced through stagecraft? Do theatrical techniques and improv skills help construct the desired effect, especially when interacting with the audience?
NW: It’s all of the above. Our motto has always been “less is more.” If we set the stage right, and plant the right seeds in people’s brains, once the lights go out we don’t really need to do anything. The audience will scare themselves. It really is theatre of the mind.
DS: The show seems to rely on a certain degree of doubt, and in your press releases and trailers you avoid any definitive claims about whether you are or are not communicating with the dead during the séance. How important is that ambiguity? Are you hoping audiences will fill in the blanks for themselves?
NW: For this show to work, all an audience needs is a seed of believe, or a sliver of doubt. I want people to think, “I know this is just a show, but what if…”
DS: Do you get any religious or moral backlash about the show? Have you ever had someone tell you that what you’re doing is wrong or evil for whatever reason?
NW: Yes a couple of times. You can only say “it’s a show” so many times. Again, it is a bell curve. There are groups on either side of the spectrum that object to it.
DS: What do you want audiences to walk away with at the end of the evening? Does it matter if they believe in the occult?
NW: The goal really was always to create a show that we would want to go see. It is hopefully very scary and creepy, but it is also a lot of fun. I always say, regardless of what you believe, everyone loves a good ghost story.
Séance officially opens on Tuesday, September 29 at 7:30pm and runs for two weeks at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace in Toronto (tickets are available here, or you can enter our contest to win tickets here). It’s certainly the right time of year for a good scare, so be sure to check it out if you’re in the mood for something spooky.