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Illusionist puts passion into performance

By Billy Rafael
On November 12, 2012

Wednesday, Miami University's Performing Arts Series is taking a unique twist with its presentation of Kevin Spencer's "Theatre of Illusion."

"When people think of a magic show they either think of the birthday party guy or of a Las Vegas kind of show," Spencer said. "Rarely do they think of magic as a performing art, and I totally get that, but I truly believe the art of illusion has the ability to move an audience emotionally and intellectually the same way as great music or theater or dance can."

Spencer's show has been on the road for fifteen years, and while it is always changing, the name never has.

"It's called 'Theatre of Illusion' because it combines my love for theater and for magic," Spencer said. "We take all the elements of a Broadway production - the lights, the scenery, the movement - and wrap it around some pretty incredible illusions that were created for our show."

Most of Spencer's illusions are designed by Jim Steinmeyer, the man behind all of the magic on Broadway, including Mary Poppins, Into the Woods and Beauty and the Beast. In keeping with a motif that Miami students have become very familiar with, Wednesday Spencer will walk through a brick wall. According to Spencer, it is a trick originally performed by Houdini in the early 1900's that was only performed on the stages of Broadway and only for a short time. Houdini, for unknown reason, suddenly stopped performing it and, until recently, no other magician has attempted it.

"As people enter in the theater on the front of the stage will be eight solid concrete cinder blocks, and people will have the opportunity to see that they are real," Spencer said. "They will stay there so there is no way they are switched out. While they are stacked onto steel beams to keep them in place, an audience member will hold onto the wall while I visibly walk through one side of the concrete and out the other. It's a great piece of magic but a beautiful piece of theater."

Spencer saw his first magician on TV when he was 5 years old and told his mother right then he was going to be a magician.

"I know you don't really make career decisions at five but I was just so captivated by what I saw," Spencer said. "Because I grew up in a rural part of Indiana, it wasn't until I was a junior in college that I had the chance to see my first live magic show. I remember sitting in that seat at eighteen and feeling exactly how I did at five in front of that television set."

Spencer's parents bought him his first magic set at 7 and from there he went on to work his way through college doing magic while he majored in clinical psychology.

"I finished school and I had to make a decision," Spencer said. "I had to decide if I wanted to help people's minds or mess with their minds, and I chose to mess with them."

Spencer's success in career choice most likely stems from the incredible passion to he harbors for what he does.

"One of my favorite parts of the performance is afterwards in the lobby talking to the audience and hearing what they liked," Spencer said. "Often they'll be the inspiration for the new illusions we come up with."

Spencer has also applied this passion into several philanthropies he is a part of, including a program he started, called Healing of Magic, that integrates magic tricks into therapy. The program got started out of a personal experience in which Spencer was involved in a car accident.

"The car I was in was rear ended by a tractor trailer," Spencer said. "When I woke up I was in neurological intensive care with a closed brain injury and lower spinal cord injury. I spent a year in the hospital and physical and occupational therapy just trying to get all those skills back that you lose from such a traumatic event."

Once he was finished there he approached the director of the rehab with an idea to integrate magic into the process to make it more efficient and fun.

"Long-term therapy is incredibly boring, so we sat down and started to look for 50-60 simple magic tricks that could accomplish the same therapeutic goals you accomplish with traditional therapy by learning how to perform them," Spencer said. "We started working with stroke patients first and they started benefitting very quickly. We found that they were reaching goals in 8-10 weeks that would normally take 20-24 weeks of traditional therapy to reach."

Healing of Magic is in 2,500 hospitals and rehab centers in 30 countries across the world. Spencer serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Alabama in Birmingham in the Occupational Therapy Department, and even though he is never on campus he continues his research. It was through this research that he started working with a lot special needs children, particularly kids with autism spectrum disorder and emotional disturbances. He has even written an 11-week magic trick-based curriculum in which every week you learn a different magic trick and there is a language arts, math or science component that goes with it.

"It's pretty amazing to watch these kids respond the way they do," Spencer said. "It builds their self confidence and self esteem and it also helps them with cognitive skills, perceptual skills and social skills. When you can give a person who has been labeled the ability to do something a normal able-bodied person can't do, something like a magic trick, it is such a tremendous boost that it really does motivate them in so many other areas of their life."

Spencer spent Monday talking with several special education classes at Miami and will be visiting school districts in the area to meet with special needs children on Tuesday.

Between touring and his philanthropies Spencer doesn't have much free time. He spends 10 months a year on the road and the other two he is dedicated to his work. After his last show in June he goes to Canada for several workshops for occupational therapists, from there he is keynoting a special education conference in Trinidad, then he is off to Ireland where he is setting up an undergraduate program for occupational therapy.

"It's exciting as an artist to know that what you do really has the ability to positively impact someone's life," Spencer said. "Advocates of the arts talk about how arts have the ability to inspire and transform and challenge and build community, but if we really believe that, it's our responsibility to do these things, it's not just a privilege."`

"Theatre of Illusion" will take place 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Hall Auditorium. Tickets are $9 for students and $18 for adults and are available at the Shriver Box Office.

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