Scott Silven’s magical dinner experience at the McKittrick Hotel may be one of the hardest reservations to come by this winter season. The 12-week run of his immersive dinner-and-a-show “At the Illusionist’s Table” sold out quickly; additional shows were added and those sold out as well.
A scout from the New York performing arts venue recruited the 28-year-old for the New York residency after encountering his popular show during the annual Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, where he’s performed the intimate show for several years. Silven, who was born and raised in Scotland, fits perfectly into the McKittrick’s apparitional Scottish themed offerings, which also include the Macbethian “Sleep No More” and rooftop bar Gallow Green, named for the 15th-century Paisley witch trials. Sprawling and lush in the summertime, Gallow Green recently transformed into the wintertime rooftop cocktail bar The Lodge at Gallow Green, constructed to resemble the interior of a Scottish hunting lodge, complete with all of the accoutrements. In a cozy book-lined back room, a chess set is out on a table and primed for play. Based on Silven’s skill set — mentalism — he doesn’t seem like the best person to challenge in a game of chess. Turns out, he doesn’t know how to play.
“Isn’t that pathetic?” offers the unassuming raven-haired performer. “That’s what I thought I’d be quite good at, but I just went a different route and focused on magic, unfortunately.”
What’s made Silven’s performances so appealing to his audiences? “It’s about having that authentic connection with an audience,” he says. “It’s always been, ‘how will this make my audience feel, or what do I want to share, or why are we in this moment together right now.’ It’s always been about transcending just the magic, about it being something deeper. All illusion is metaphor in some way.”
He’s infused the concept of storytelling into his dinner show, serving the crowd illusion and stories of his childhood simultaneously with a three-course dinner and whisky pairings. Silven’s interest in the world of magic performance began when he was four years old; his grandfather showed him a card trick, and he’s been hooked ever since.
“He always had a great air of mystery about him. I still don’t know where he got those tricks from. But he was in the army, and I think he picked it up there,” says Silven of his grandfather. “There was something so alluring, the idea of performing something that at once seemed so simple and so profound, and even at a young age that sense of mystery stuck with me.”
He built his expertise through a mix of studying past performers and working with mentors such as Roy Walton, who owns the decades-old Glasgow magic shop Tam Shepherds.
“Magic is a very open sort of craft, where magicians are really wonderful in sharing ideas with each other and sharing their passions and things they’re working on,” says Silven. “There’s a real sense of collaboration and sharing. I’m using things in my shows that are maybe 200 or 300 years old and at the same time I’m using stuff that I’ve created myself, and mixing those things together.”
In addition to historical and traditional influences, Silven’s toolbox of magic is padded with human psychology, which he began studying as a teenager.
“I found the idea of creating magic without props, with just using someone’s thoughts and feelings and memories the most interesting,” he says. “Then when I was 15 — I didn’t tell my mom — but I went to Milan and did a hypnosis course.” The course was less glamorous than it sounds — it took place in a conference center next to a bus station. Topics included how to find a good subject, someone susceptible to hypnosis. The first criteria is a receptiveness to being hypnotized, naturally, as well as someone who is creative and imaginative.
“And then they really threw you into the deep end by asking you to go into the street and approach someone, ask if they wanted to be hypnotized and then do that on the street,” Silven adds of completing the course. “And it worked, which was the most interesting thing.”
He went on to study theater in university and after graduation decided to weave together the concepts of performance art with traditional illusion, hypnosis and theater to create his immersive experiences.
“The type of illusion I do, mentalism, it’s the idea of connecting with an audience, connecting with a participant on one of the deepest levels possible,” he says. “I began thinking about the idea of sense, and how sense can be manipulated and how senses are so important in terms of what I do and the best way you can manipulate the senses is through food and drink. The idea of an emotional memory attached to food, attached to drink in that way. So I began weaving those ideas together — food and drink, and bringing audiences together around a table, of me having an authentic experience with them — and then the best way to approach that, I thought, was to tell a story from my past. Something that defined me as a child, something that inspired what I do today. And I would share the story around the table whilst these people are enjoying a meal that relates to that story, enjoying the whisky that I was brought up with as a kid.”
When creating “The Illusionist’s Table” in Edinburgh, he linked up with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which at the time owned the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in the city’s New Town. “I collaborated with them on a few projects, and that sort of began the involvement with this show of tying whisky with the experience,” he says. “And the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a very cool place, LVMH was all about crafting that unique luxurious experience, which really tied into the SMWS and sort of ties into my work as well.”
He also collaborated with Chanel when the brand staged a show at Linlithgow Palace in Scotland. “That was my ‘in’ initially, carefully choosing the brands and companies that I wanted to work with, brands that inspired me in some way, and then from there using that to springboard and develop my own experience,” he adds.
So: does everyone hound him for his secrets?
“I’d never really want to call it a magic show….it’s never been about that, or equally defining, ‘oh this is a magic trick, and now we’re going to do another magic trick,'” Silven says. “The really interesting thing about the type of stuff I do with mentalism is often no secret — that you’re doing what you’re saying you’re doing when you ask people to think of something and you’re going through a process together in revealing that,” he continues.
“But you often hope that people will leave the experience completely not even thinking, ‘oh I wonder how he did it.’ To transcend the experience of it just being a puzzle, to it being something much more interesting and profound. It’s like looking at a really great piece of art, you’re hopefully not considering it going, ‘Oh, I wonder what type of paintbrush he used,’ or ‘I wonder what the color palette was here,'” he adds. “Of course, you’re always going to get people who are desperate to know how it’s done.”
While Silven has been calling Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood home since September, after the show’s conclusion in mid-January he’ll start a world tour of his stage show. And, like magic, he’ll be back at the McKittrick next fall — booking for the show’s next run in September is already open. “Fingers crossed. We’ve sold out in record time, which has been such a lovely thing to have,” he says. “I’m really keen to come back and see what else we can do.”