MagicFest: 'We see magic as the art of the impossible'

As Edinburgh’s MagicFest approaches its ninth year, moving to May for the first time, The Skinny chats to festival founders Kevin and Svetlana McMahon about the festival, the nature of magic and why this is a theatrical art form

Feature by Amy Taylor | 08 May 2018
  • Kevin 'Kevin Quantumn' McMahon

Founded in 2010 by the husband and wife team of Kevin McMahon – former scientist turned magician, known professionally as Kevin Quantum – and arts festival producer Svetlana McMahon, the Edinburgh International Magic Festival is about to celebrate its ninth anniversary, with a new programme, and beginning a month earlier than usual, in May.

“Our festival promotes the art of magic,” Kevin explains. “Magic is a branch of theatre, we programme artists and companies that use their form of self-expression to create wonder and other emotions in our audience.”

“We see magic as the art of the impossible,” begins Svetlana. “It shows you the world in a wonderfully diverse way and challenges you to see things differently. We live in a world where mystery rarely exists, where every question can be answered with a couple of swipes and a click (thanks Google!), but magic brings back that childhood sense of wonder, that joy of witnessing something so impossible that you start questioning other things around you.” 

The 2018 MagicFest programme boasts a number of performers, disciplines and firsts for the festival. From solo shows from magicians such as Lewis Barlow, Vincent Gambini and Billy Reid, to ensemble pieces such as the MagicFest Gala, featuring Card Ninja from New Zealand and Magus Utopia from the Netherlands. Magicians and companies from around the world will descend on the capital to share their tricks and promote the art of magic in some world firsts. This year, the festival plays host to the first ever Wizard World Gathering, a night out with tricks, drinks, chocolate frogs and much more, as well as The Secret Room, an event taking place at Lauriston Castle and the Writers Museum which sees these ancient buildings brought to life through the mysteries that they conceal.

The promotion of magic is key, especially for Kevin, MagicFest’s creative spine and self-described “magician scientist hybrid.” He came to magic after a career as a scientist and an appearance on Channel 4’s now-defunct reality show Faking It, where he trained with Penn & Teller and has since gone on to wow audiences around the world. Most recently at the 2018 Adelaide Fringe, where he was awarded the coveted Best Magic Award for his show, Kevin Quantum: Anti-Gravity.

But while the festival undoubtedly has much to celebrate, both Kevin and Svetlana believe that magic has not achieved the same respect or standing as other, similar art forms, such as theatre and dance, which is something they are trying to change. So, what do they think when people don’t believe that magic is an art form?

“Magic can of course be an art form,” explains Kevin. “It can also be a craft, or a puzzle, depending on where you’re viewing it from.”

Svetlana agrees: “I think the whole debate whether it should be called an art form or not came from the fact that there are a lot of amateur magicians and hobbyists in the industry who unfortunately take shortcuts and do not always give magic the justice it deserves. As a result, a lot of people say they don’t like magic because they saw someone performing it badly or didn’t like a particular magician, which is a little odd because you wouldn’t say you don’t like music because you heard a musician playing and you didn’t like the tune. There are so many music genres, composers, singers… it’s the same in magic. We just need to raise awareness of this.”

“It’s likely they’ve only experienced magic in very narrow terms and that’s fine,” adds Kevin. “But there is so much more when you take the opportunity to explore. You can’t listen to a Miley Cyrus track and then judge all of music. The same with magic. If someone once showed you a terrible card trick in a pub a couple of years ago, that’s not representative of what we do. So, take a chance.”

MagicFest is keen to raise awareness of how much magic can benefit the arts as well as people. One way it does this, as Kevin explains, is through collaborations between theatre companies and magicians, who are often called upon to help create effects that are used in some of the UK’s biggest, and most successful, theatre shows. “So many of the top West End productions or UK touring productions employ magic consultants in their companies because they value the skills of a magician,” he says. “So, if you’ve seen Wicked or The Cursed Child or Mary Poppins, the moment when your jaw drops when you see something amazing – that moment was probably created by a magician.”

One of the genre’s strengths, aside from the obvious, is that it can be fused so easily with other artforms to create something totally new and never-seen-before on the stage. “There are a lot of interesting fusions now between magic and other art forms – circus, storytelling, dance. Some of the biggest touring live music productions also work with magicians to create visual spectacles on stage. So, whether you realise it or not, you’re probably appreciating the work of a magician in various forms in many art forms,” explains Kevin.

Like the art of magic itself, MagicFest has undoubtedly changed and grown since the first event in 2010, and Svetlana is confident that the festival has not only found its feet, but is also helping showcase magicians from around the world to Scotland, making it the only event of its kind in a country that is well-known for its arts festivals. “The Festival has been developing and evolving every year,” she says. Over the last few years the couple have experimented, experiencing a number of successes and a few things that didn’t work, but it has helped them shape the festival and all its future events and made them better for acts as well as audiences.

“We had ups and downs, great successes and risks that didn’t pay off,” she continues. “What it has been doing steadily over the past nine years is growing. And long may that continue. We are supporting Scottish artists, we are bringing the most amazing and cutting-edge acts from around the world and we are doing our best to promote magic as an art form – this won’t change.”

“It’s the best in magic from around the world coming to Scotland,” says Kevin, who believes that a visit to the festival will allow audiences to experience something they might not have otherwise seen. “You’ll get to see the state of the art. And discover something new and interesting and surprising. There’s currently no other opportunity to see these artists because we’re the only ones doing this kind of event.”

Edinburgh International Magic Festival runs from 11-19 May. Full details at