The healing of Magic

Published 12:01 pm Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spencers2By the time Kevin and Cindy Spencer take the stage for their “Theatre of Illusion” show at the Paramount Theatre at 7 p.m. Thursday, a big part of their mission will already be complete.

Before Thursday’s show, the Virginia-based illusionists will spend Monday and Tuesday working with special needs students at I.J. Holton Intermediate School.

Kevin will bring his 11-week, magic-based Hocus Focus curriculum for students with autism and developmental disabilities to Austin.

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The curriculum uses magic to teach students an array of skills, and Kevin described it as an empowering program.

“The success that we see is pretty dramatic and pretty instantaneous,” Kevin said.

 A new direction

An illusionist working with school curriculum happened by accident — literally.

“Never in a million years did I see my career taking this turn,” Kevin said.

In the late 1980s as Kevin’s magic career was getting underway, he was in a car accident and was hospitalized with brain and spinal chord injuries. He spent about a year in rehabilitation but the rehab exercises and techniques can become monotonous. That’s when he got the idea to use magic techniques as a form of rehabilitation.

“It becomes a much more engaging activity for them,” he said.

Spencer is the founder of the Healing of Magic project and is one of the leading authorities on the therapeutic use of magic tricks in physical and psychosocial rehabilitation.

He is also an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham in the occupational therapy department. Kevin is rarely on campus, but he works to expand on magic as physical therapy.

He has conducted several workshops around the world for therapists, psychologist, physician and rehabilitation specialists, and has spoken at several conferences. Several health journals have featured his work, and the American Medical Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association approved his “magic therapy” techniques.

His techniques are now being used in 2,500 hospitals and 30 countries.

Kevin eventually expanded the program to the educational field with Hocus Focus.

The act of learning a magic trick boosts students’ self-esteem, and it helps them improve concentration, memory, following directions and other skills.

Magic empowers students with creativity, and Kevin said it also eases the pressure to find a correct answer. Creativity can help boost children’s problem solving and grit, along with other skills.

In the education business, Kevin realizes anecdotal evidence is rarely enough. That’s why he’s done extensive research on the impact that learning to perform magic can have on the skills, determination and cognitive skills for the students.

Kevin is currently working with the Kansas State University on a program to gauge the impact of learning magic on executive functions, and he’s working with the University of Nebraska to study the effect on verbalization and social skills.

“This is groundbreaking, cutting edge research,” Kevin said.

The Spencers’ work at I.J. Holton is being funded by the Austin Area Commission for the Arts and by grants from the Arts Midwest Touring Fund and the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council via the Legacy Fund.

Late last year, Paramount Executive Director Jennie Knoebel said the theater would scale back the number of Performance Series shows this year, while ramping up outreach in the community. The Spencers’ show is right in line with that goal.

“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It’s definitely a direction we’d like to go with our programming.”

Knoebel said she hopes similar outreach opportunities continue in future years.

 The performance

When it comes to magic, people often think of the razzle-dazzle of Las Vegas-style shows or performers at birthday parties. “Theatre of Illusion” is a family-friendly production that Kevin said blends the theatrical elements of a broadway-style production with the high energy of a rock concert.

“It’s a combination of my love for theater and my love for magic,” he said.

The Spencers mix in magic with theatrical elements like music, lighting and sound effects that Kevin hopes will build a relationship with the audience and — like all good art — strike a deeper chord.

“There’s an emotional and an intellectual challenge to everything that we do,” he said.

The Spencers mix in stories to engage the audience. For example, Kevin plans to perform a trick where he walks through a wall. However, the story adds to the trick. The trick is based on one performed by Harry Houdini in 1914 that was only done at a few shows and, according to Kevin, hasn’t been replicated since.

“The story is what I think makes it even better,” he said.

Kevin also said it’s fantastic to perform with Cindy, his wife, as they’re on opposite ends of the creative spectrum and compliment each other in shows.

It’s just Kevin and Cindy, as the duo uses a team of inventors and creators to help build the show, along with a touring staff to pull them off.

“We are the largest theatrical touring illusion show in the United States,” Kevin said.

Tickets to the show are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Knoebel said she hopes the show will attract more families since it’s starting earlier than other Paramount shows. As with all Performance Series shows this year, adults buying a ticket will get a free pass for a child age 12 or younger.