The College of Magic

IMAGINE A LITTLE MAGIC IN CAPE TOWN!

Issue No.112011

Words: Flavio Alagia

The Victorian house in Claremont has been hosting the College of Magic since 1992 and two years ago the school was able to purchase it.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic

On a Saturday morning, through the College of Magic’s entrance door, in vibrant double-story Victorian era house situated in Lansdowne Road in Claremont, Cape Town, trying to resist the excitement is useless. Little magicians dressed in suits and ties, some even with flashy bow-ties, rush up and down the stairs with their suitcases filled with who-knows-what mysteries and there are even jugglers exercising among the tables in the common area. Teachers, half scientists and half ‘wizards’, more intriguing and fascinating than JK Rowling (author of Harry Potter) could ever depict. Everything is meant to torment the visitor’s imagination. At the College of Magic reality takes a break, dreams come true in front of visitor’s eyes, magicians realise the impossible and a passionate director fills the gap between social classes and ethnic groups.

The Magic Shop, one of the most interesting rooms in the building. Here a ‘wizard’ will find the necessary tools for his performance.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic

In the late 1970s David Gore studied law at the University of Cape Town (UCT), earning a living with a fellow student, Jonathan Proctor, by entertaining young audiences with magic and illusionism performances. The two UCT students noticed their audience’s great desire to learn how magic was done, so they discussed the possibilities of teaching these young people. Soon, they formulated a plan to give lessons, they settled their entertainment business in a small place, enlisted some extra help, and started to make dreams come true.

On 23 February 1980 the College of Magic opened its doors to their first few students. Marion Williamson soon joined David and Jonathan as a member of staff and it wasn’t long before more teachers joined this fascinating place. Although a little organisation at the time, the college began attracting a fair amount of attention and before he knew it, David Gore had set aside the legal profession and took up a permanent position as director of this unique scholastic institution.

Magic allows doors to open

The demand to learn the art of magic increased and so did the number of eager magic students, with that said, the need for a bigger environment led to a beautiful Victorian house in Claremont, Cape Town, and became known as the Magical Arts Centre.

Moved by their passion and enthusiasm, 25 volunteers became part of the staff body of the college and now teach around 180 keen part-time students. Early on a Saturday morning and on other scheduled weekdays, exciting classes take place and once a student has successfully completed a six year course they will achieve an enchanting diploma in magical arts and become a qualified magician.

“Magic is a wonderful media that opens the mind to a different perception of the world and the sciences.”

Students as young as six years old to adults of all ages, most of them who are in love with the history of dark arts, attend the many different courses that the college has to offer. Such courses include a variety of: sleight of hand, illusionism, juggling, drama, mime and clowning, puppetry, ventriloquism and theatre production. Therefore, this diverse learning path not only creates fine magicians, but also skilled entertainers!

‘Each student is nurtured, encouraged and equipped to find their unique style,’ said juggling teacher and science professor Michael Barta, ‘we not only form an expert illusionist, we develop a character. People sometimes arrive here with a confused perspective about magic, linking it mostly to birthday parties and cheap tricks. Magic is a wonderful media that opens the mind to a different perception of the world and the sciences.’

Magic for the community

Professor Micheal Barta, juggling teacher at the College of Magic, is posing in front of the award-winning documentary Make Believe poster.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic

The College of Magic compassionately goes beyond the tricks and the illusions, by reaching out to the poorer communities in a concrete and practical way. As anyone who has entered the Victorian residence in Lansdowne Road, will have noticed the incredible way the college unites members from any kind of culture, ethnic group, or townships, even from the upper class suburbs. What’s more, is that David and the college overcomes social division and racism, and gives everybody great hope to change their life and the lives in many communities.

‘Our school has been multiracial since the beginning,’ told David Gore, ‘we gave an opportunity to people to get involved in different races during apartheid. Diversity is a strong force for transformation which South Africa deeply needs... In 2000 the “Magic in the Community Project” was formally established and we started looking for help to fund the students who could not afford our fees. Through the years we received support from several sponsors, and professional entertainers in the arts of magic who are overseas – such as world famous Siegfried & Roy– who often contribute to our fundraising.’

Therefore, the project helped David to gather more and more members from disadvantaged communities, in an effort to expand the cultural diversity in the college and as a way of providing opportunities for students living in poorer communities.

‘The most important contribution,’ continued David, ‘comes from people supporting a specific student. Many of our graduated students, for example, choose to contribute to the growth of the school working here as volunteer-teachers and paying for the education of another student.’ As in the case of a past student, Guy Van Der Walt, who after completing his compulsory six year course signed up as a part-time volunteer instructor and chose to sponsor, Phumile Dyasi, on a monthly basis and closely followed his growth within the organisation in a ‘student to mentor’ relationship.

Some of the ‘evil-henchmen’ who perfromed in the show Imagine at the Artscape.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic

Phumile lived with his family in Khayelitsha, a large township in Cape Town and, during his years at the College of Magic, benefitted from the practical skills on professionalism, confidence and personal growth which each magician at the college should uphold. Sadly, Phumile was faced with many life challenges throughout his childhood. Yet, it was due to the support and solid foundation which he received from the College of Magic that made him rise above his troubled home life.

In 2009 he received a bursary from UCT to study film, media and journalism after completing his teaching training to help the new generation of magicians. Nowadays, he also sponsors a student who had the same potential as him, but lacked the opportunities. Perhaps this child, will also learn the values that Phumile learnt.

In David’s opinion this side of his work is of utmost importance. ‘Today out of 180 students 108 come from townships. The mentoring offered by the volunteers can really make a difference, by providing them with a role model and bringing a very positive force in their life,’ said David. But even after the changes and the development that the college went through, the number of places for new students is limited. Therefore, in order to make the best possible choice, the college interacts with life orientation teachers from schools to help identify students who may gain necessary advantages from their project. What they do is invite these learners to attend lessons at the college and during their first six weeks the college will teach them the basics and in the same time test their attitude, reliability and all-in-all potential. From that point, the benefits these students will gain go far beyond the skills to become just an illusionist-performer, as this type of art may turn out to be a source of income for themselves and perhaps their families.

“Today out of 180 students 108 come from townships. The mentoring offered by the volunteers can really make a difference, by providing them with a role model and bringing a very positive force in their life.”

‘The children,’ explained Marian, ‘develop self-esteem and start to believe in their dreams. For many of them this is their first experience in a well-organised and resourced school. They interact with many other different children, often from different origin and culture.’ And Marian is not the only one to value the positive aspects of this project, as in an executive summary, compiled by Jean and Phyllis Baxen from UCT, states that the magic course has a vast range of benefits. In such a multi-racial situation, for example, ‘the upshot is that stereotypes have been shattered on both sides of the divide’. With that said, academic benefits involve an increase of curiosity and creativity, improved reading competency and ability to find solutions to problems. When someone comes from a community that often speaks only their tribal language, they will learn the magical arts and in doing so pupils improve their English and their communication skills and public speaking.

Professor Barta as he supervises the juggling students from the college.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic

Furthermore, many magic tricks are formed when there is an understanding and basic skill in mathematics or science concepts and therefore, the students enjoy learning new concepts in a new and creative way. Additionally, maths and sciences are also taught through an extended project in their community service, called the Magic Classroom. Here Michael Barta and Marian Williamson used magic to ‘provide inspiration and sew seeds needed by learners and educators alike’, in the director’s words. The Magic Classroom is now five years old and has seen more than 15,000 learners from pre-school and primary school attend its lessons. It is held during school time, on weekdays, and the students from poorer areas are provided with transport in the college’s minibus, which was also donated by their sponsors.

Therefore, it seems obvious that the teaching of magic is a concrete resource for any community or individual, but the list of the benefits brought by the College of Magic would never be complete without naming the many students that give selflessly their time at numerous charity performances, like the Children’s Magic Festival that is held by the school itself.

Wonderful international opportunities

The goals of the college and the opportunities for its student go far beyond the school’s local existence. Every year international guests are invited to perform and interact with the students, and last year the students had a special meeting with world renowned magician Joshua Jay accompanied by stand-up comedian Maxwell Murphy, who also wrote about the college in his blog: ‘One of the coolest things about College of Magic is that the teachers are pretty much all former students. This is a group of some of the nicest guys and girls you could meet. They love the college so much they’ve come back to teach and contribute after they’ve graduated.’

Two of the 25 volunteers who help with the running the college, their love and enthusiasm are the school’s most important resource.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic

Through the school’s cooperation with other protagonists of show-business, the most deserving students are involved in projects of international relevance. Last year the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, Nevada, saw the attendance of five of the college’s students. Olwethu Dyantyi, who was among them, said that, ‘Vegas meant a lot to me, because now I know I can start a career in magic. Performing on stage with other good magicians from other countries shows that I can do it too.’ In April he made his appearance in the American theatres Make Believe, an award winning documentary about the experience of six adolescent outsiders magician. Among the protagonists of the movie were Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana from the College of Magic.

Imagine

To end the account of only a selection of the most important events of the last few years, in April 2010 the college produced Imagine, to celebrate their 30 year anniversary. An amazing live show, which involved over 70 performers, nearly 100 costumes, 20 large-scale illusions, more than 150 backstage technicians, builders, parents and artists and of course a lot of magic! ‘Pulling off such a massive undertaking on a barely existing budget, with never enough time and incredible pressure, sometimes the show is more thrilling backstage than on,’ described Marian.

“Love and magic have a great deal in common. They enrich the soul, delight the heart. And they both take practice.”

The College of Magic never turned down a challenge, never stopped in front of the difficulties. David Gore and his extraordinary staff have kept working for their students and their community for 31 years now, no matter how ambitious the goal was or how perilous the path.

As author Nora Roberts said, probably not in the same context, but never mind, ‘Love and magic have a great deal in common. They enrich the soul, delight the heart. And they both take practice.’

Most of the College’s teachers are former students, who are also a positive role model for the pupils coming from poorer areas.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic

The inside of the school building in Claremont is a dream come true for every Harry Potter fan, with its bustling activity, charming décor, colourful walls and of course all the magicians that work there.Photo: Flavio Alagia & courtesty of the College of Magic