Make Believe with Stage Illusionist Paul Kieve

SPOILER ALERT: No illusions are explained in the making of this story but some plot details and special effects are described so if you want to go to see Ghost the Musical without knowing anything about it, avert your eyes.

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve has collaborated with director Matthew Warchus on a number of projects over the last 20 years including Ghost the Musical, Matilda the Musical and Tim Minchin’s forthcoming musical Groundhog Day.

Paul Kieve

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve. Photo: supplied

“I’ve worked with him many times and I always say to him, ‘Matthew, if you want to do great stuff, you’ve got to put the magic in really early,’” says London-born Kieve.

That was certainly the case with Ghost the Musical. In fact, the entire set design was built around the show’s most famous illusion, which sees the deceased Sam Wheat walk through a closed door.

“It’s one moment in the story. It lasts 45 seconds in our version but although you wouldn’t know it, everything about the set was dictated by it,” says Kieve.

“We had to put that in first and work everything else backwards. It’s very unusual for the design to be worked out backwards. And to be worked out backwards from an illusion is almost unheard of. It was a long and not always easy process. As the original set designer Rob Howell – who also did the West End and Broadway productions – said at the time, normally as a designer you want your best ideas on show and in this, in some respects, the best ideas are hidden because there is all this other stuff going on that you don’t know about.”

Based on the blockbuster 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical premiered in Manchester in 2011 then moved to the West End and Broadway. It was redesigned for a UK tour, and it is that touring version, which is now being used in Australia where the show arrives in Sydney this week after seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne.

“There’s no difference to what you see, it’s just some of the technical side and some of the engineering is reduced but it looks the same,” says Kieve.

Kieve’s mother was an actor so he was taken to the theatre regularly from a young age. He began doing magic as a 10-year old when he was given a magic set as a birthday present and by his teens was performing as a professional magician.

“Then a local theatre – the Theatre Royal, Stratford East where Joan Littlewood started out – asked me to work on The Invisible Man, which had never been done on stage before. I was slightly terrified and threw myself in the deep end and worked on it for four months. We did all these daft things like bicycles cycling about by themselves and the Invisible Man unwrapping the bandages from around his head and smoking a cigarette. They became quite famous effects and the show went into the West End and launched me into that side of things. Before I knew it people were asking me to do other stage effects so I pretty much learned on the job,” says Kieve.

He first worked with Warchus in 1995 on a production of Peter Pan for West Yorkshire Playhouse and is now an associate artist at the Old Vic where Warchus is artistic director. They are currently collaborating on Groundhog Day: The Musical, which previews at the Old Vic from July. Kieve’s many other credits include the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Kate Bush’s 2014 tour Before the Dawn.

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Wendy Mae Brown as Oda Mae Brown, Rob Mills as Sam Wheat and Jemma Rix as Molly Jensen in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Kan Nakanishi

For anyone who doesn’t know about Ghost, it’s a supernatural love story between high-flying banker Sam Wheat and his artist girlfriend Molly Jensen. They have just found their dream loft apartment in Manhattan. Walking home from a restaurant, Sam is killed in a street mugging. However, his spirit is trapped between this world and the next as he attempts to save Molly from mortal danger by communicating through a shyster psychic called Oda Mae Brown, who to her astonishment can actually hear Sam from beyond the grave.

“When Ghost came along, Matthew wanted it to be this beautiful love story but he also wanted to have this juxtaposition of the beautiful soft story and a bit of a rock concert feel to some of the lighting,” says Kieve.

“He also wanted it to be like a magic show and for the magic to be really central to it. We didn’t really know if it was going to work but there was something about this story that completely lends itself to illusion because I suppose it’s asking the audience to believe – and magic questions what you believe and what you’re seeing.

“The reason I think the magic works very well in it – and I’m not talking myself up, I’m talking about the actual context and why an audience enjoys the magic in it – is because the whole story you’re wanting Molly to believe that Oda Mae really is in contact with Sam. You want Molly to listen to Sam from beyond (the grave). You want that moment to happen, so I think that whenever anything magical happens you are on the side of it happening,” says Kieve.

“There’s that famous scene in the movie where Demi Moore dances with Whoopi Goldberg (who played Oda Mae) and then Demi Moore closes her eyes and feels Sam there. The show is a lot about that. It’s about what people are feeling and what they are sensing – and at its best, magic encourages that. It should be about a sense of wonder, a sense of astonishment, a sense of amazement. So it’s a great vehicle because it is asking these very profound questions about if someone dies will you ever see them again?

“I saw it in Adelaide and there was a woman in front of me who was absolutely sobbing (when they dance) and I think it’s because it’s such a beautiful idea that comes true; that in the end Molly does believe and she does see Sam.”

The show contains various illusions besides Sam passing through a solid door including subway passengers being thrown through the air and spirits leaving dead bodies. It also features dynamic video projections.

“Technically it’s a very interesting piece because it really was a collaboration between the video and the movement and the acting and the storytelling,” adds Kieve. “Bruce Joel Rubin (who wrote the original Academy Award-winning screenplay and the book and lyrics for the musical) was around and he wrote parts of the script to help make the illusions work because we had to set things up without (the audience) knowing.”

Kieve cites the sequence in the subway with a poltergeist as a good example of how all the various departments collaborated, with choreography, illusion and video all playing their part.

“It’s really inventive. It’s like you are looking through the train like an X-ray and you see what’s going on inside it and you see it from different perspectives. At one point you are looking down the train as if you are standing at one end of the carriage and then it’s as if you are seeing through the side of it and it keeps shifting perspective,” says Kieve.

The show also uses a lot of imagery around shadows to suggest the spirit world. “Even in the opening scene in (the song) Here Right Now, Sam and Molly are dancing and there’s a shadow of them dancing in the air almost. It’s not just to make it look pretty. It’s the idea that all the time there is this other world, a secondary ghost world going on,” says Kieve.

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Wendy Mae Brown and ensemble cast in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Jeff Busby

Though Kieve is hardly going to reveal how any of the illusions work, he admit that state-of-the-art lighting is crucial to some of it – though many of the effects use time-honoured magic techniques.

“I love the history of illusion and some of the effects that appear to be state-of-the-art are drawing on techniques that are over 100 years old. We are combining them with modern lighting, and the way that we can get into the and out of them so precisely, and the way they can be cued by computers – but the essence of some of them are ideas that have been around a long time.

“I’m also using psychological techniques – (guiding) where you are looking and where your eye is drawn,” says Kieve.

One of his favourite illusions in the show is also one of the least flashy. “It’s simply a letter that Molly reads. Sam has written it to her but the medium can somehow read it because Sam is reading it to her and then the letter just folds itself up in Molly’s hands. It’s really the pivotal moment when she realises that Sam is really there. It’s such an important moment because it’s the moment that she does believe. It’s not really a technological moment but it’s where the story and the effects combine and that’s when you get this gold dust when magic carries the weight of the story behind it.”

Casting his mind back over a career spent creating illusions, Kieve says that “it’s fun but it can be extraordinarily frustrating as well and you can get things wrong. You don’t always know if it will work, especially with something that hasn’t been done before like walking through the door.

“I can remember very distinctly being quite anxious about it because it was so audacious. You go, ‘what happens if (it doesn’t work)? But then you go, ‘we’re not brain surgeons. What happens if? You find another way to tell that part of the story.’ It’s risky but playfully risky as long as you’ve got a director who’s got the nerve and trusts you. I have to say that 99 percent of the time I find a way.

“In Ghost some of the trickiest moments were when someone dies and the spirit splits from the physical body. We’d worked it out and had got to the last death – of Carl – and we realised we couldn’t do it in the same way just because the body couldn’t be left in the middle of the stage. So we had to restage it in about five minutes – and that’s the version we use. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.”

Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, March 18 – May 14 and at the Crown Theatre, Perth, May 21 – June 12. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

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