NICHOLAS WALLACE is an illusionist, a practitioner of magic, and the star and co-creator of Séance, now playing at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille until October 11.
I walked into Séance not knowing what exactly I was walking into, other than a show about a séance. A perfect way to kick off October, season of spooks, on a lovely, warm Sunday afternoon. Without giving up its secrets, I can tell you, I’d like very much to tell you, that Séance is part theatre, part magic show, and part haunted house. That you, friend, do not merely watch this show, you participate in it. Perhaps you will be chosen for an experiment, or to actually be the Medium used to contact the dead. If you don’t chicken out before that, that is.
It’s a dark tale. Like, literally. When is the last time you sat in complete blackness? In a room full of strangers? This is part of it. As is multi-media presentations on death photography, spirit writing and a rather haunted chair. The show is designed to please believers and skeptics alike. And as a skeptic myself, I was wholly and completely entertained.
Walking out in the sunlight after, I wanted to tell all my Toronto friends to go see this show before it closes. Because for all the arts and activities around this month, you won’t find anything else quite like this. And so I tracked down Nicholas Wallace, who co-created Séance with director Luke Brown. I wanted to speak with him about his own experiences with the supernatural, with traversing the space between the dead and the living. And so we met at a Starbucks steps from the theatre, a refuge on a blustery, wet October day.
I soon realized that, being a magician, Nick’s art depends in great part on remaining a mystery. He is a man used to controlling the reveal of information, not spilling all the beans. And so I will keep some of his secrets, his more personal stories, out of the light. But I will share this conversation about his show, about his own skepticism in the face of ghosts, and the public’s need to believe.
What is a séance?
It’s a ritual to communicate with the dead.
When did you first encounter this concept?
I remember going to a Halloween party when I was really young. And that’s where I was first introduced to the Ouija board. But I was the guy pushing the planchette, moving it around and saying, “I’m not doing it!”
When did magic come into your life?
It was on/off all through my childhood. I grew up in Beamsville, Ontario (and recently moved back there). My grandfather was a really big gambler, and at one point I found his marked cards. I also remember my cousin making a match disappear and being blown away that you could do that. So I became the kid who got the Magic Kit for Christmas, and was doing close-up hand stuff for a long time. In high school, I started to take it more seriously. Yet I was determined to be an animator. So I went to film school, and studied to be a filmmaker. But I was still doing magic along the way. After I graduated, I decided I could go wrap cables for 16 hours a day or do card tricks. Card tricks won.
Were you ever curious about black magic? What do you know about necromancy?
All I know about that is what I’ve seen in Evil Dead movies. So not a lot! [laughs] For me, it’s all for entertainment sake.
In your show, you show examples of Victorian Death Photography. I was surprised how many people around me in the audience gasped. It reminded me that most people are unaware of this practice of taking portraits of the dead, posed as in life. How did you become aware of it?
We did a ton of research for the show, and came across a lot of weird things done during the Victorian era. What I found disturbing is if you look up those photos, most of them are kids. I have a three-year-old now, and a six-month old. When we started working on this, I had just a newborn baby, and I couldn’t look at those photos. Luke wanted to use one of the kid photos and I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until last week that we added one. When we started this run, we realized it had changed a lot, that there are other dead kids in the show, so we put one in. And it’s interesting, because people tend to chuckle at those photos. But when that one comes up, they don’t chuckle anymore.
The show also deals with spirit photography. You explain how back in its day it was revealed to be a hoax. And yet the practice continued afterwards. Even when people are told something supernatural is fake, why do they still believe?
Because we want to. Do you know James Randi, the Amazing Randi? He’s a die-hard skeptic, and there’s a documentary on him where he talks about that. How people don’t just want to believe, they need to believe.
Have you ever lost a loved one and wished you could contact them beyond the grave?
Yes. I think that’s the appeal of a séance. Haven’t we all?
People don’t just want to believe, they need to believe…
Do you believe in the supernatural?
When I was young, I always loved ghost stories. I believed our house was haunted, growing up. It was a very old house, and my parents would tell me stories about smelling bacon and eggs at night, or cigar smoke. I wanted it to be real. But then you realize how you can trick people…or rather, how people can trick themselves into seeing things that aren’t really there. I’m never going to say there is no such thing as ghosts, but for me…well, I guess you could say I could be convinced. But I haven’t been yet.
So nobody has ever really tried to convince you? Or they haven’t been very convincing….
I’ve never been utterly convinced, no. But I believe people when they tell me they are convinced. I have a good friend who came to the show, early on. He’s a complete believer, and he said, “Dude, be careful.” He kept telling me I should have a real medium in the room, just in case things go awry. I believe that he believes. But you know Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World? He talks about why people believe weird things. And one of the things he takes a look at is night terrors. Have you ever experienced that?
I’m pleased to say I haven’t.
I have. It’s terrifying. You wake up, but you can’t move. You feel this pressure, you feel this ominous fear in the room. Sagan says if you go through history, and look at any craze that was popular at the time, you’ll find that’s what people say was causing it. Ghosts at the foot of the bed at the height of spiritualism. Fairies sitting on your chest. Demons. Aliens. It goes in waves. For me, at least now when it happens I know what’s happening. It’s still a panic. You want to get up but you can’t. But I can imagine that if you had no idea what was going on, you could believe it was anything.
I’ve experienced night terrors. You wake up, but you can’t move. You want to get up, but you can’t. I can imagine that if you had no idea what was going on, you could believe it was anything.
Have you ever been frightened while doing the show? Have you ever felt that just maybe you had contacted the other side?
It’s always terrifying the first couple of times. But not because it’s about séances. There’s a big element of the unknown for me, because it’s dependent on people in the audience, people I don’t know. That’s very stressful for me. But I’m finally got into a groove now where there are times I can enjoy it. Sometimes I even forget I’m in a scary show until I see the audience react.
What’s the most you’ve ever scared someone?
Well, the fewer people assembled, the easier that is. I got hired to do a one-on-one thing for a TV person in a haunted house. They thought they were going to a Canada’s Wonderland type of thing. But it was an abandoned home, for a séance. She didn’t want to do it. But eventually she did. It was just her and I sitting in a room with a bell and candle. I barely had to do anything. She was so freaked out. We actually had to stop. I felt bad.
Has that situation ever been reversed? Where you were the scared one?
When I was [studying film] at Sheridan, we did a documentary on this paranormal company. They went to these ruins near Hamilton, with this big group of people. They wanted us all to sit in these dark rooms alone for 10 minutes. And I didn’t make it the 10 minutes. I know there was nothing there. But your imagination goes off. It was too freaky.
What’s the different between magic and hoax, to you?
If you’re trying to change someone’s worldview, to convince them, “ This is real,” that’s crossing the line. If they are aware they are being entertained, it’s OK.
When the lights come up and the audience leaves the theatre after Séance, what do you hope their reaction is?
I want them to say, “That was awesome. And I’m terrified.” I want people to have fun. But the most fun for me is those moments in the show where people freak out, when it feels really real for them. They know it’s a show, but…….
Will you continue to explore supernatural themes in your future work?
I do have another show in the works. It will be happy. And light-hearted. And not so many dead kids.
What do you think will happen to you when you die?
I don’t know. I don’t know how anyone could know. I guess for some people that’s upsetting. For me it’s exciting.