“Breaking Magic” With Billy Kidd – Magic Meets Science On The Discovery Channel
February 14, 2014
Last year I was fortunate to catch a few episodes of a new show on the Discovery Channel, “The Magic of Science” also known as “Breaking Magic.” The nine-part series follows a team of magicians as they perform street magic in New York, Warsaw, and London.
Street magic is nothing new on our television screens. What makes Breaking Magic different is the discussion of scientific concepts and the use of physics, chemistry and psychology in making magic fun and intellectually stimulating. Whether it’s showing how sound waves can trick you into believing in telekinesis or the chemistry behind a liquid lie detector, the overall concept is both unique and visually appealing.
The series is returning for a second season in 2014, and I caught up with one of the team members, Canadian performer Billy Kidd (the others in the show are Australian James Galea, American Wayne Houchin, and Briton Ben Hanlin).
Billy Kidd was born Gia Anne-Marie Felicitas in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and has been involved in the performing arts from a young age, working as an actor in theatre, film and television. In her late teens, she got into magic and has now performed around the world as a magician, including Japan, UK, London, Canada, and Portugal.
Billy: I am a late bloomer you could say. I got into magic quite late. I got into it, maybe about seven years ago? I probably saw my first trick and then saw my first magician. That magician told me what books to read and that was that.
I got into it quite late, not like most magicians. Probably about seven years I saw my first magician and he told me what book to read and where to study. I kind of went from there. I think I've got a bit of a different story in the sense that I was never a kid learning magic in my room for years. I started practicing and performing it kind of all at the same time. I kind of spread up the process a little bit.
Kylie: What were you doing before then? Were you always interested in performing?
Billy: Actually, yes. I worked professionally as an actress since I was about twelve years old. That was my only job up until I became a magician. I think that's kind of helped me. When I decided to become a magician, I already had the performing experience. I just needed all the technical part of it, which I think is why I had no fear of just going out and doing it right away.
Kylie: The confidence in that would definitely be a big help. How would you describe the kind of magic that you do?
Billy: There are different categories of magic. I do a lot of close‑up magic, which is a lot of cards and stuff and more intimate kinds of magic, if you know what I mean, like things that happen in people's hands. I also do a stage show, which is not like big illusions as such but more of a stand‑up comedy magic, parlor type of show.
Those are the different types of magic that I do. I would say my style is kind of hard to explain. I've never really put myself in a style before. I like to play with the audience a lot, so I improvise quite a bit. I don't take it too seriously when I'm up on stage. I guess that's not my style, you could say!
Kylie: I first saw you performing at the Royal Institute of Science's Christmas lectures— they are online—in 2011 with Professor Bruce Hood. You’ve performed all around the world with your act. But what's it like as a magician in a tech savvy world where people will Google what's going on and go, “I know what's going on. That's done this way…”? What's it like in modern times?
Billy: Wherever I'm performing, I think that, “Oh, someone is going to look this up…” is the last thing that's on my mind. But yes I've had people say to me, “You know what? I'm going to look that up on YouTube after.”
I kind of take it with a grain of salt and I'm going, “Yes, they might,” which is unfortunate that the information is that accessible, but personally I don't think it's ruined anything for me as far as being a magician or performer because if they do figure it out, I just lie to them anyways because that's my job!
It's very rare that someone is going to go onto the Internet. They might figure out how it's done, but they'll never be able to do it. They'll never be able to go and perform it, unless they're a magician and they know how to do it or what to do.
I think it has pros and cons. I think the advantages of it being that accessible is that there are a lot of new younger magicians who are able to learn more quickly. Back in the day—maybe even ten years ago—there used to be a lot of brick-and-mortar magic shops which is kind of how I learned, going into a shop and seeing a magician show me a trick. It was very old school whereas now a lot of it's just online.
Kylie: I love still going into magic shops. It's one of my favorite things.
Billy: Me too! I love that atmosphere and it's a shame that not a lot of people get to experience that, but I do find that adds a whole other element to becoming a magician or learning about magic. It's going into that shop with all that stuff and going, “What is this?”
Kylie: And of course the dazzle of the show is great. It's never quite the same I guess in terms of being able to work it out for yourself.
Are there any particular challenges as a woman who's a magician? I mean, usually the stereotype is the assistant in the gorgeous, sparkly leotard on the side. Yet, Isla Fisher, the Australian actress, played a magician in the film, Now You See Me, and that was really popular. Is there a gap in the market in that regard? Have you ever faced any issues in that way?
Billy: Yeah, there's a huge gap. It's not one that I could... I don't really know why there is. People have asked me, “How come there's not a lot of female magicians?” I have no idea. I think there are some things, like you have to be a certain type of personality to be a magician in the first place. I don't know if maybe that's just not as common in women.
I also think I think historically in just in society in general, the role of the female‑there's never been that option to go, “Oh, I can be a magician when I grow up.” When I talk to a lot of male magicians, the usual story that I hear is, “Oh, I got a magic kit when I was eight or nine years old.” I don't think giving a young eight- or nine‑year‑old girl a magic kit is very popular. I don't know. I was never given that. I never saw any magic till I was eighteen, basically.
I think exposure is one thing for sure. Women aren't just exposed to it as men are, or encouraged to do something like that. The female magicians that I know or have come across, they had their own specific journey. Some of them had started out as assistants before they got into actual magic. Yeah, there is definite gap in it.
As far as challenges go, there are some challenges that creep up that I was never aware of before. Clothing, for one thing. Women's clothing has the worst pockets in the world, I find. It's so hard for me to shop for clothes with pockets, just to put something in. That's really frustrating, so I end up customizing a lot of my own clothing. Other little weird secret things that can affect things, like how our buttons go on the other side of a shirt. That can affect things, without revealing too many secrets. Every magic book you read is always geared toward men. It's always, “When you're wearing your suit and tie, put it in your inside pocket, do this,” or whatever it may be.
In fact, someone told me they had a book, and old magic book from, I don't know, I think the 1900s. There was reference to female magicians as an actual magician. In the tricks they would say, “If you're a woman, do this. If you're a man, do that.” That was from the early 1900s, and I've never come across a book that had any references if you were a woman.
I don't think that's very encouraging if you're a female you want to learn magic. There's no relationship for you. Also, because there are so few female magicians, I don't think we have too many influences to point to. There are no role models to look up to as well, which I think might affect things. It's a mystery to me!
Kylie: Well, there's certainly a gap in the market there. Having more women appear, and maybe even writing books, and—as you demonstrate yourself with your work— appearing on television.
You're in a show called “Breaking Magic,” which is funny, as I first saw you in a science show, and suddenly, here you are in a science show with magic. How did it start, and how did you become involved?
Billy: Someone had told me that they were looking for magicians for this new magic science show, and it's produced over here in London. I basically called the production company and asked them, “…Is it all right if I'm Canadian?” because you never know, right? I'm the one that doesn't belong over here! But they're like, “No, that's totally fine.”
I just basically called them and asked if I could audition, and that was pretty much it. It was a weird process, a long process. There were a couple of auditions and we had to do some science tricks. Then we did a fake pilot for the channel. They picked which magicians they wanted, and we went from there.
Kylie: What's it like working with the other magicians? Do you ever tag team in terms of, “Oh, I want to do this? You do that. Let's share on this.” What's it like?
Billy: All the other magicians on the show, they're fantastic. They're great. We all really get along. We're really good friends even though we live all over the world. Everyone's really supportive.
I prefer the opening links, the opening sequence of the show. That's the last thing that we film once all the magic tricks are done and we have a lot of fun doing that because we get to play around with the different tricks for the opening scene. It's just like a big collaborative process, basically.
Kylie: What's it like combining the science and the magic? I mean obviously you had already dipped your toes in the water from your time with the Royal Institute. How do you incorporate it? What's it like?
Billy: It's really, really hard. It's very difficult!
First of all, the other magicians in the show and I, none of us are scientists whatsoever. Honestly, science was my worst subject at school—I cheated my way through it, and that's the only way I graduated!
It’s very difficult, because there are so many variables that you're dealing with. As a magician, when you're performing your routines on stage or what not, you are very much in control of every circumstance possible. If something goes wrong, you know another way of fixing it through your magical knowledge.
With science, it's black and white, but it's also not. It's a gray area in some respects. For example, we could be doing tricks with, I don't know, chemicals, let's say. If the temperature outside or if the temperature in the room changes, it could ruin the whole effect. It's very not reliable. That's one of the biggest challenges of filming that show; we're dealing with all these variables that can affect things. When you're performing them, it's extra embarrassing if they don't work! It's a good challenge; it's fun!
Kylie: You do street magic as well. One of my favorite episodes had you doing mentalist tricks out on the street with people. What's that like? Are those your favorite episodes? What really gets you involved in the show?
Billy: Yeah, I enjoy doing street magic, because it's just a nice setting to be outside—if it's not raining—over here in London. We also did a lot of big stunts indoors, especially for the upcoming series. I like doing both, actually. Yeah, it's just a lot of fun to film outside, and inside and different weird places.
Kylie: What's a typical day like filming? Do you have to get up really early and go to locations and stuff?
Billy: There are some very early days where you have to get up early. Sometimes you don't start until the afternoon, especially if it's street magic or if it's outdoors, because you're dealing with sunlight. You're racing the sun, so time is of the essence. There may be issues with the weather, as well, and with finding the right people.
If we're doing street magic, we're doing some casting off the street, so it’s just pulling people going, “Hey, do you want to come see this trick? You mind if we film you?” Sometimes you get good audiences, and sometimes they’re not the greatest! You keep filming to get that good hit.
Kylie: Did you have a particular favorite episode, something that you enjoyed doing?
Billy: For season one or season two?
Kylie: Oh, season one. Then if you can give us a spoiler for season two, that would be extra special.
Billy: Okay, if I think back to season one—I think probably one of my favorite things to film was actually a hidden camera episode with me and another magician where I was playing a waiter, spilling wine on someone's jacket. I think that was my favorite episode to film, or one of them, because it was all hidden camera. It's a lot of pressure when there’s a hidden camera, because nobody knows what's going on. There's no expectation, which makes the reaction pretty genuine, which is interesting!
Also, because I've never been a server in my life! It's terrifying for me to do anything like that, because just asking them what they want for a drink, I was so nervous! That was a lot of fun to film, because it was just a lot of chaos. I think that was probably one of my favorite tricks to do, actually.
Kylie: How about season two? Are you able to tell us much?
Billy: I haven't been informed if I'm allowed any spoiler alerts! I can say this: it's going to be bigger. It's going to be better, some amazing stunts that we did this season.
Also, I think they're going to be putting in some non‑science magic that we're not going to expose, of course, but some “real” magic. Our own material that we magicians do, so there's going to be some of that, which I think is going to be better for the show overall. Viewers can say “Oh, that's science, and that's magic‑magic,” if that makes sense!
Kylie: I guess that raises the question, what do you do about the magician's code? There are trade secrets involved in magic—how do you compromise if people are saying, “Oh, don't tell too much?” What happens?
Billy: Yeah, well, I think that's a common misconception with all of us magicians, which is that we're constantly having to battle about the show. The only reason why we agreed to do it is because the tricks that we're doing on the show are all purely science. They're not material that many magicians do, if I could say!
It's all the science stuff that we do which is so impractical. I don't know what magician in their right mind would want to do it as far as we do for the show! Instead of having scientists doing science demonstrations, Discovery has magicians performing the science, making it look more interesting and entertaining in an educational way. That's the goal of the show: trying to get viewers more into science by looking at what we can disguise it as. None of the stuff that we do is what magicians actually do. We're not actually exposing magic secrets—we're just exposing science in a cooler way.
Season two: we've filmed a lot of us doing our own personal magic that's not science, and it's not going to be exposed. That's going to be clearer to the viewer going, “Oh, that's what magicians do, and that's science.” We're just putting a new spin on the science, if that makes sense.
It can be deceiving, because I have had people thinking, oh, so that's how magicians do all their tricks. They just use these chemicals all the time—I'm like, no, that's not how we do it! That's ridiculous. We could do it if we wanted to, but that's way too much work. That's a lot of set‑up!
Kylie: You'd have to bring your own lab and your own Erlenmeyer flasks to every single show…
Billy: Oh gosh, and yeah, our own chemist standing by just in case! Where do you even get all of this science material? As far as the magician’s code, yeah, there are some magicians who don't get the show. I'm sure there's some who think that's what we're doing. I can honestly tell you that is not our intention whatsoever.
Kylie: What can we expect for the new season? I know that it's happening soon and it’s going to be worldwide…
Billy: It is! I don't know when it's going out in Australia. I know in the UK, I've been told it’s March 12, the first episode of season two, which is exciting. I think it's going to be starting very soon—I'm just waiting myself!