A Conversation with Amélie van Tass & Jinger Leigh-Kalin
Until recently, when someone mentions “Magician” and “Women” in the same sentence, the images that immediately come to mind are perhaps the illusionists in hit movies like Now You See Me or the image of the “Magician and his Lovely Assistant.” But, if one dives into the history of the art and performance of magic, you will discover a rich history of spectacle, performance. Skill and theatrics that, in its prime, had a fair share of female powerhouses. So, why can’t we name any of them? Magic, like any other industry, may have a gender equity problem, but talented stars like Amélie van Tass (of The Clairvoyants) and Jinger Leigh-Kalin take center stage as an artful mentalist and elegant conjuress in the third incarnation of Broadway’s best magic show. Jinger and Amélie shine in The Illusionists: Turn of the Century, which pays homage to the golden age of magic in one spellbinding performance that is not to be missed.
Alicia Carroll: I’m curious, neither you or Jinger are a stranger to performing in front of large crowds, but how do you like Broadway?
Amélie van Tass: Broadway, for a performer, is probably the huge-est thing ever, next to maybe The Sydney Opera House which we did in December last year. It’s amazing. We love the theater; this theater has a lot of history. Houdini, The Greatest Cape Artist, performed here 100 years ago, and we are standing on this very stage right now, and this is like a very big dream come true for us.
We are very happy that people appreciate our show being here because it’s so different; it’s not a normal magic show. There is a lot of history in this show and it’s very theatrical – the costumes, the stage itself, everything is in turn-of-the-century style. And throughout the show, performers will also get a little into history detail, so the audience goes home with some new information about the history.
AC: That’s amazing. Did you research the craft and history before coming into the profession as a mentalist? Was it always something you were interested in?
AVT: I was always interested in the history concerning performance, and a hundred years ago, magicians were the rockstars. When they entered the stage, people would come, and they would scream and cheer and… the girls would go crazy for Houdini, for example. You can imagine nowadays, it was very similar. And I think there were some very golden times of magic too, but I think now is a new time and it’s coming back anew – although it’s an old thing the show presents it in a different way. And people are very excited about it, and magic is coming back – differently.
AC: What about the modern presentation of magic, in your opinion, is reinvigorating it with audiences and performance artists?
AVT: I think it is very interesting to them – and also there are female positions too. It’s not always the magician and his assistant which we have too in the show, which is completely fine and they do an amazing job. Females come more in the spotlight, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. In the whole world, there are male and female positions and especially in show business and then especially in magic. It’s very important that females are coming back into the spotlight. And also what Thommy [Ten] and I do – the Clairvoyance style, Mentalism – we perform onstage and every night is different. And people always ask us, Is there ever a chance of failure? Are there mistakes happening? And we say, “Of course,” because we are all human and humans make mistakes. And that is very interesting for the audience too so they feel, Okay, performers make mistakes so that I can make mistakes too in my life. I like the relationship between the audience and us in our performance.
Jinger Leigh-Kalin: Magic goes through cycles. I think we are back to a cycle of pure magic; that is very parallel to the Golden Age. There are some really good performers out there now, and that’s how it was in the Golden Age where there was this healthy competition going on that was forcing a certain amount of innovation and forcing people to be creative and make new things as opposed to recycling old things. In this show, we sort of pay homage to the classic things, but there is a very imaginative aspect to some of it.
AC: You spoke about the tradition of the magician and his assistant and how, historically, it’s all very gendered, but you and Thommy are very much on equal footing, which I love. When you got started in the industry, was it a deliberate decision that you wanted to be equal partners?
AVT: Both of us wanted it. We are equal partners onstage – and I forgot to mention in the Golden Age of magic, a hundred years ago, there were some female rockstars – clairvoyant rockstars – so there was this time when women were in the spotlight. It was clear to us from the beginning, since our style is very different and it’s all about the connection between Thommy and myself, so it just works with the two of us. It’s never I do something alone, or he does something alone. We have a very good connection and we want to present that connection to the audience, and then we can work together. And it is very difficult sometimes, still, although we always present ourselves like that, there are still people who will say, “Great job Thommy Ten and your assistant was great too.” We have to mention it over and over, and I don’t know if it will ever stop. And it’s okay; it’s the cliché that there’s the magician and his beautiful assistant who is fine, but we want to be equal partners on stage. We mention it over and over; we will probably do that for the next 20 years and we have to work on it.
AC: So what brought you to mentalism?
AVT: I am interested in doing magic without any props. And in mentalism we have – in this show, for example – we don’t have any props. In our main act, we have a blindfold, and that’s it. We work with the audience, their minds, and what they have in their handbags. Every night it’s different, and that’s what I enjoy. Never will there be a show that will be the same. It’s always different and it’s always challenging for us. I think what I love about it so much is the challenge, and that it will never get boring. Because I have to be very aware and Thommy has to be aware, and the connection has to be good – only then it works.
AC: Between mentalism and the other acts in this shows, do you think there is a major difference between the different sects within magic?
AVT: The great thing about the show is there are very different acts – everyone in the show, the whole cast are masters in what they do, and they are the best people in the world. We have great illusionists, great slight-of-hand magicians, great comedy magicians. It’s a great mixture. I love being part of it; I am very thankful. And since it’s such a mixture, you learn a lot from the others. And I think only the mixture makes it good. And everyone does their best, and together we create this cool production.
AC: And, Jinger, what brought you to stage magic?
JL: Well, I started in show business in song and dance. I started taking dance lessons when I was four, and I started doing it seriously around 11 and got my first professional job when I was about 14. Then I did a lot of dinner theater and stuff that was really performance based, not just chorus based or choir based. That’s what inspired me and what I was passionate about. I met my husband Mark. I had seen some magic, and this was 25 years ago, so there wasn’t a lot of magic. I was working on the same show as him – it was a Las Vegas Style review show called American Glitz – it was the sister show to Follie Bergère. Anyway, he was the variety act in the show we were performing in, and my contract was coming to a close – I was gonna go back to LA and work and I watched the magic from the front, and I was very impressed. I was impressed with his performance, however, it was the connection to the audience in the performances that convinced me that there was a different utensil – a different tool there – to connect to the audience and that’s what I loved.
So I went backstage during the show and said, “If you ever want anyone to work with, I would love to give it a shot,” and he took me up on my offer and brought me back to work with him like three months later or something like that. And within the first month of working together, I realized that it was what I was meant to do. And he allowed me to turn everything upside down and restructure the act and add the skills that I had to bring to it. And from that day forward, we were a team.
AC: And the two of you still perform together as a team?
JL: We still mostly perform together, and we would work some separate shows as well. In this show, I do some of my things, and I’ve been focused on that for maybe five or six years. But even when we’re performing together, like in our full-length shows, I’ve always had independent things.
AC: There’s a lot of messaging from a young age that maybe in magic – unless you’re a magician’s assistant – there may not be a place for you, so how did you forge your path and discover your place in it?
AVT: When we first started working together, I was always interested in magic. But I never did it to the people; I was in the audience and experiencing it. So when I started performing it and getting more into the whole theme, I realized how much I could do with people and how happy I can make them and how people feel enchanted, and they can just feel this magical experience. And for me, this is a great feeling; I stand there onstage and do something and people will sit there with open mouths and open eyes and just don’t believe what they are seeing. And then I started to realize what I do when I am onstage, and I wanted to make it better and work on it. And now we are on tour worldwide, and I’m very thankful for that and also the huge acknowledgment from the people we get.
AC: For both of you, when you decided that this was what you wanted to do, what was your first step? How did you develop your craft?
AVT: I think it’s very important never to lose – since I started late, I was 21 years old–
JL: –that’s not late!
AVT: The boys all started at like 5 or 6 years–
JL: –yeah, well, it’s a process; it’s a journey. You learn a lot from your audience. You learn a lot from preparing to a certain extent because you want to have respect for your audience and be well prepared, but you also want to be open to how they respond and so you know it’s a constant learning process. So refining our craft, you know, you let one mistake lead to an improvement and then the next day an improvement on top of that and after you get a few thousand shows under your belt you go, “Okay,” but you have to enjoy the process as well. You can’t just say, “One day, I’ll be great,” you have to enjoy and appreciate it as you go. But the audience will let you know how you’re doing and then you take that and figure out how to make this magical for them. There’s so much psychology that goes into it.
AC: In what way?
JL: For the stuff that I do, and for the stuff that Amélie does with the predictions and mind reading, you have to create a picture for the audience. You have to let their imaginations fill in some of the blanks. Stage magic is a different thing; sometimes there is a certain timing to things, a certain amount of space that has to be involved. A certain amount of what they call “convincers’ or “verifications” – something that lets people forget that it’s a puzzle,lets them go past that and they simply experience the magic. So that’s our job, and that’s a pretty hard job. You have to think how is their brain reacting and how is their brain reacting to tell their heart – and did I give them too much time or did I give them just the right amount of time to feel that rather than to think it.
AC: That’s so interesting because I am an audience member that tends to overthink things.
JL: But if you see the good magic, you shouldn’t have time to think about it, and then you should go and think about it afterward and go, “Hmmm,” and that’s what I mean about psychology. There’s a psychology not just to the staging, but the structure of magic. And when you see good magic, the audience doesn’t realize how much work went into that or how much psychology went into that. All they realize is that was “good” or that was “not so good.”
AVT: I had a very naive point of view in how I saw magic, so when Thommy asked me what I wanted to do I said, “I want to fly through the room and everything and I want to levitate.”And he was like, “Well, let’s see,” because I didn’t know how anything was done. I was crazy; I had so many ideas and some of them we could realize and some of them not, but we are still working on it. And I think you should never lose sight of how the audience is seeing what they see so that they are fascinated, and they can’t explain how it’s done. You should always keep that in mind: they are seeing it for the first time and they don’t know how anything is done.
Also it’s so important to believe in yourself and to believe in what you do. If I don’t believe in what I do–
JL: –they won’t–
AVT: –they won’t believe it, the audience feels it.
JL: That’s 100% true.
AC: To talk a bit about the representation of women in the industry, how do you think the representation of women in magic affects who becomes a performance artist?
JL: I think more and more to any art form or sport – you know there are a lot of female basketball teams now and world cup soccer players, so women are coming up now in so many mostly male-dominated fields. Magic is no different; however, it’s not necessarily – you know men dominate magic, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been successful women in magic in the past. In fact, there was more so in the history of magic – in the Golden Age – there were female headliners, there were illusionists and magicians at the time. They may have come to magic in a slightly different way – they may not have studied since they were five or six years old in their room practicing sleight of hand things. For me, I mean I do a few slight of hand things, but that’s not my area. My area is a presentation for the stage, you know? That’s how I perform; that’s my area of specialty. I don’t think it’s a sleight on women. I just think women will find their own, and there is a place. Absolutely. 100%.
AVT: Also the other way around, I think it’s important nowadays that people allow men to be weak, or to be another part and not be the powerful person on stage and also off stage. Men can also cook and–
JL: –and be nurses and do all those things–
AVT: –exactly, so I think it’s a good age for things like that, and it’s changing. It’s changing.
JL: I think for women, it’s important to be true to yourself, you know? Just like in anything. You don’t have to wear slacks and a tuxedo and behave “like a man;” you can be a woman and still be popular on stage and do magic. You can.
AC: Are there any challenges you’ve faced in your career? And how did you overcome them as you were growing as performers?
JL: You know, women in magic it’s a difficult thing. For me, it’s been a constant struggle. So, for instance, when I perform with my husband, we do a wide variety of material. In this show, we are only doing a few things, so it’s very important to choose what we are doing – it’s unfortunate that when a woman gets inside a box, it’s perceived that she’s the helper and she’s not doing the magic. So we have struggled very hard to counteract that stereotype and say one wouldn’t happen without the other, and that the magic is a partnership. And it’s essential that both the performers be strong in what they’re doing. That’s kind of always been a battle. That’s why sometimes if that’s in the show, then something else of mine, solo, is on the show just to give me credibility. So we have had to be careful of that because it’s stereotype; people will believe what they believe. You can say it all you want – that the magic happens equally – but it is what it is.
And a side note on that – this is the funny story I tell with this because females are perceived most often as “the Magician’s Assistant” in this day and age, however, all magician’s assistants in history before the Golden Age of magic were men. So it was sawing a man in half and it was always the men, because women’s costume and wardrobe didn’t allow itself to be placed on tables and things, so it wasn’t until the Golden Age in 1921 when P. T. Selbit was getting ready to do the sawing a man in half did he suggest – because it was an unspoken political, violent act because women were going for the vote – that he decided he would get better headlines and better crowd draw if he would saw a woman in half. And from that moment on, most of the magicians realized that…women made better assistants [laughs]. So you constantly fight that, constantly.
AVT: Also in our case, we still have to always remind people that we are equal partners on stage, and it still happens that people come after the show and tell Thommy how great he was and, yes, “His assistant was great too,” and he has to remind them and I remind them until things change.
JL: And you’ll do that for 25 more years like me! [Laughs]
AVT: Probably. That’s what I said before; I will do it for the next 25 years!
JL: The Clairvoyants are a really good example of the choice of material. Working in teams is the same thing – when you do intelligent magic, and there’s a perceived skill from the female it’s hard to deny, and I would not think that anybody would deny Amélie that there’s a skill involved in being smart enough to perform in the way she performs.
Jinger Leigh’s unique blend of elegance and theatricality have redefined the role of the magician. A modern conjuress in a very ancient art, Jinger has earned fans around the world and was recently featured in the touring show, “Masters of Illusion Live!” She began her professional career as a dancer when she was fifteen years old. She was one of the “Young Americans,” and toured for companies like Disney, appeared on Fuji Television, and starred in Southern California dinner theater productions. She also toured with artists like The Beach Boys, Tony Bennett and Cab Callaway. It was while working as a dancer in Guam that Jinger first met magician Mark Kalin. The results were magical, in every sense of the word, combining the arts of dance and illusion. Working together, as Kalin and Jinger, they appeared in their award-winning shows, Carnival of Wonders and Before Your Very Eyes, in their own Reno Theatre, “Magic Underground”.
Amélie van Tass and Thommy Ten are “The Clairvoyants.” They were both born and raised in Austria and now reside in Austria and America. When they met in October 2011, they began to develop their “second sight” act, and two months later brought it on stage for the first time. Within a year they had developed a full length show. Shortly thereafter, they started touring Europe. The Clairvoyants have traveled the world as part of the touring company of The Illusionists with The Illusionists 1903, The Illusionists 2.0, and The Illusionists-Live from Broadway. In 2016, they decided to take part in the biggest talent show in the world, “America’s Got Talent.” After four months, six different performances and over 100.000 contestants, America voted them second place. In October 2016 they will appear, together with winner Grace Vanderwaal, at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Being part of this show was another major step in the evolution of their career. Van Tass and Ten were awarded “The German Champions of Mentalism,” “Magicians of the Year 2015,” and, also in 2015, were enthusiastically chosen as the “World Champions of Mentalism,” a prize that hasn’t been awarded in 30 years.