The best virtual experiences are the ones that make you forget you’re staring at a screen. That’s illusionist Scott Silven’s latest trick. His new show—full of mind-reading and charismatic storytelling—is an immersive and intimate performance that takes you to the windswept hills of his Scottish homeland, even as you sit at home on your quarantine couch.
The Journey is on a U.S. national theater “tour” — currently at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California, through November 15 — although Silven, 28, performs live from a studio at home in Glasgow. That location turns out to be a mere launching pad for a wander (via technology) into verdant countryside full of bleating sheep and crashing waves.
Audience members are part of the theatrics, too. Rather than sitting passively in ho-hum Zoom boxes, each of the 30 attendees (individuals or households) are projected onto the virtual set and occasionally spotlighted as they would be on a real stage when summoned to volunteer.
The inventive livestream is Silven’s follow-up to last year’s acclaimed in-the-flesh performance of At the Illusionist’s Table, which included a run at the McKittrick Hotel in New York and notable for a trick culminating with a slice of cake.
The Journey is equally atmospheric. Directed by Allie Winton Butler, the show blends live mentalism with prerecorded scenes: cinematic overheads, gorgeous natural lighting, vast open heaths. Here’s the look:
I spoke to Silven about the show’s origins, how the pandemic is changing his art, and what happens when audience members forget they’re on camera—because forgetting the camera is the whole point of the show.
What went into putting The Journey together?
Scott Silven: A lot of impressive technology. Jeff Sugg is the visual designer and he figured out a way to project beautiful multi-camera images onto the performance space. It’s a way of conjuring an environment similar to the one I grew up in. We then pair that with really compelling audio by Gareth Fry, who’s best known for his work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. We encourage the audience to wear headphones so they can truly lose themselves in the experience. I want people to feel like this is an escape.
What were you doing right before the pandemic?
Scott Silven: I was in the middle of a world tour for At the Illusionist’s Table. I’d just finished playing in Sydney and went to Seattle to start my run there. And that’s when it really hit. I flew back home to Scotland to see family for what I thought would be a couple of weeks…
And here we are in October.
Scott Silven: Here we are in October, yes. A quick vacation turned, within the space of a week, into me canceling 500 shows through 2021. It’s been devastating for the entertainment industry and challenging just from a creative process. But there was something serendipitous about coming back to the place that influenced everything that I do today, and I thought, why not do a show from Scotland? It’s the power of home, and that speaks to what we’re all experiencing. We’re all homebound. We’re all disconnected. What if we could connect through the veil somehow?
Audience members pop up as ghostly visages on the walls of the house during the show. Any awkward moments so far?
Scott Silven: People love to drive and watch the show, which I find really intriguing. Mostly it’s delightful audience members sitting at home under great lighting. But I did have a participant just a few days ago who was at a McDonald’s drive-through placing her order. And she was also speaking to me on screen. I’m not precious about how I want my audience to interact with the experience, but it really is a completely new landscape.
What else is entertaining you during the pandemic?
Scott Silven: Plymouth Point is an immersive, interactive performance from the imaginative people associated with Punch Drunk and Swamp Motel. It’s all in the spirit of Sleep No More and other things at The McKittrick, where I had my first run of New York shows. They’ve created a really interesting experience that I hesitate to call a murder mystery. That sounds hokey. Plymouth Point is more like you and a group of friends show up to investigate a person who’s gone missing. There are prerecorded pieces that connect with the live show, the way we do as part of our illusions. It really breaks the mold for what theater can be. And if I have a daily mantra, it’s tuning into David Lynch on YouTube and his daily weather reports or watch him choosing numbers from a jar. It’s a strange time and it’s great to see someone like David plugging away and going about his mysterious business. It’s reassuring somehow.
You’re a mindreader. What else do you see in your future?
Scott Silven: Normal sleep, maybe. I’m working across time zones. Since we’re right now we’re in LA, that’s eight hours behind Scotland. So I sleep all day and wake up at 6:00 PM Scottish time. I haven’t seen daylight for the past few weeks. But I think that adds to the mystery. In terms of the future for the show, we’re going to be touring it for the foreseeable future, but I also think there’s an interesting future for having both an online audience and a live audience interacting in the same space together. It’s one of the benefits of the pandemic, actually. I think we’re finding new forms of creative expressions for how audiences engage with experience, and as long as the audience is willing, I’m happy and eager to experiment.
Tickets to The Journey can be purchased at thebroadstage.org.