There Is Some Magic in Cape Town!

In the late 1970s David Gore was studying law at the University of Cape Town, earning his living by entertaining young audiences with his performances of magic and illusionism. With him, his fellow student and entertainer Jonathan Proctor.

The two UCT students noticed a great desire for learning how to ‘do magic’ among the youth and discussed the possibilities of teaching these young people by way of small formal classes. They formulated a structure for lessons,  town of entertainment settled in a couple of rooms in their entertainment business premises, enlisted some extra help, and started to make a dream come true.

On 23 February 1980 the ‘College of Magic’ opened its doors to the first students, thirty-four. To David and Jonathan was added Marian Williamson, taking to teachers body up to three elements, but the numbers were fated to grow very fast.

It was apparent that this little organisation was attracting a fair amount of attention, and before long David Gore had set aside the legal profession and taken up the position of Director of this world unique scholastic institution.

Growing fast

The demand and number of students grew, and the need for a bigger home led to a beautiful Victorian house in Claremont, Cape Town, where they established the Magical Arts Centre. The twenty-five volunteers that enriched the staff body moved only by their passion and enthusiasm now teach to 180 part-time students. Lessons are every Saturday and a few arranged weekdays. The classes ranges through a six years program that leads to a degree in magical arts. Students’ age goes from six years old kids to adults freshly enamoured in the dark arts. Many different courses are offered and the variety of skills taught includes sleight of hand, illusionism, juggling, drama, mime and clowning, puppetry, ventriloquism and theatre production. A learning path which takes the pupils to become not only expert magicians but moreover complete and 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.’

Yet, the most wonderful feat of the College of Magic has still to be said. It is a wonder that goes beyond the tricks and the illusions, and reaches the marginalized area of the community in a concrete and practical way. It is in front of the eyes of everybody who entered at least once the Victorian residence in Lansdowne Road. It is the incredible way the school reunites members from any kind of culture and ethnic group, from the townships as well as from the upper class suburbs. It is the way David and his staff win every day over marginalisation and racism, giving everybody a hope to change theirs life and the life in their community.

‘Our school has been multiracial since the beginning – told us Director 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.’

Magic for the community

‘In 2000 – year when the ‘Magic in the Community Project’ was formally established – 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 oversees – world famous Siegfried & Roy among them – often contribute to our fundraising.’

The Project helped David to gather more and more members from disadvantaged communities, in an effort to expand the cultural diversity of the participants and as a way of providing opportunities for students living in those communities.

‘The most important contribute – 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 Guy van der Walt, who after completing the six years course at the school signed up as a part-time volunteer instructor. He also chose to sponsor Phumile Dyasi on a monthly basis and closely followed his growth within the organisation from student to mentor. Phumile lived with his family in Khayelitsha and during his time at the College of Magic benefitted from the practical skills he was taught as well as the social development that would equip him to bring about his own change later on.

Phumile came from a background where he was faced with many life challenges and through the support and solid foundation he received from the College of Magic has risen above his troubled origin. In 2009 he received a bursary from the University of Cape Town to study Film, Media and Journalism. After completing his teacher training and instructing a new generation of magicians, he has begun to sponsor a student of his own.

In David’s opinion this side of his work is of outmost importance. ‘Today out of 180 students 108 come from townships. The younger mentoring the kids can really do the difference, providing them with a role model, bringing a very positive force in their life.’

But even after the changes and the development the College went through, the number of places for new students is limited. In order to make the best possible choice, the College interacts with life orientation teachers from schools to identify those students who may gain more advantage from the Project. They invite them to attend the College’s lessons and during the first six weeks they teach them the basics and in the same time test their attitude and reliability.

The benefits these students will gain go far beyond the skills to become an illusionist-performer, which still may turn out to be a source of income for themselves and their families.

‘The children – explained Marian Williamson – develop self-esteem and start to believe in their dreams. For many of them this is  Temperature Gauge  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 impact of this project. An executive summary compiled by Jean and Phyllis Baxen from the University of Cape Town states that the teaching of magic spreads 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’.

Academic benefits involve an increase of curiosity and creativity, improved reading competency and ability to find solutions to problems. Coming from a community that often speaks only their tribal language, while learning the magical arts the pupils improve their English and their communicative skills.

Moreover, many magic tricks depend on understanding the underlying mathematics or science concepts and the kids enjoy learning this concepts in a funny new way. And maths and sciences are also taught through another project of community service, the Magic Classroom. Here Michael Barta and Marian Williamson used magic to ‘provide inspiration and sews seeds so needed by learners and educators alike’, as 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, in weekdays, and the students from marginalized areas are provided of bus transport by the College through its sponsors.

The teaching of magic is a concrete resource for the community, 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 performance, as in the Children’s Magic Festival held by the school itself.

Oversea opportunities

The goals of the College and the opportunities for its student go far beyond the school’s local reality. 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 wrote about the college in his blog: ‘One of the coolest thing 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.’

Through the school’s cooperation with other protagonists of the show-business, the most deserving students are involved in projects of international relevance. Last year 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 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.

To end the account of only a selection of the most important events of the last years, in April 2010 the school produced Imagine!, 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.

‘Pulling off such a massive undertaking – as in the words of Marian Williamson – on a barely existing budget, with never enough time and incredible pressure, sometimes the show is more thrilling backstage than on!’

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 since 31 years now, no matter how ambitious the goal was or how perilous the path.

As in the best tradition, the show must go on!

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