Canadian magician Billy Kidd wants her work to speak for itself

December 1, 2017

Billy Kidd started working as an actor at age eleven, and for most of her life she only had eyes for acting. “All I’ve known since I was really, really young was that I was going to be an actor,” Kidd tells GeniiOnline. “I was fortunate enough that was the only job I ever had, and I somehow survived as an actor, so I never really gave magic any time.” She earned a BFA in acting in her hometown of Edmonton at the University of Alberta, through a conservatory program that accepts only twelve student actors each year. Magic wasn’t even on Kidd’s radar, until, all of a sudden, it was.

The first magic trick Kidd ever saw was a month before starting her four-year BFA program. A friend (who was not a magician) showed her what Kidd describes as “some eight-year-old little trick”, and she was amused but not inspired. What she didn’t know at the time was that magic was about to book-end her acting training and send her in an entirely new direction. After graduation, one of the first acting gigs Kidd booked was at a street performance festival, where she stumbled upon Nick Nicholas doing street magic.

“I was really impressed by the fact that out of nothing, in the middle of the park, he could gather a crowd, create a piece of theater, and then make people pay him at the end of the show. I gave Nick all my money all summer. I watched him, every single show, all summer—I got super obsessed.” Kidd was hooked. Two years after that summer watching Nicholas in Edmonton, Canada, she decided to do magic full-time.

Card magic is Kidd’s first love, and her focus on sleight of hand may have something to do with the card sleights and cups-and-balls classics she learned from Nicholas that first summer of her magic life. But the magic Kidd performs today takes many different forms and requires a certain sense of strategy. “On the street, you’ve got to pick your tricks specifically to that environment,” Kidd explains. “People need to be able to join in halfway through and still be involved, and on the streets you’re going to be asking them for money at the end.”

Many of Kidd’s fans in the US first discovered her on magic television shows, including Wizard Wars, Breaking Magic, and Masters of Illusion. Of course, performing magic for a recorded TV program is an entirely different animal. “First of all, you have to really think of the frame of the camera, in the sense that you can’t really misdirect a camera,” Kidd says. “Performing live, you’re more in control of the environment and the audience.” And while plenty of magicians play the secrets of their TV performances close to the vest, Kidd says she prefers everyone on the crew to know exactly how her tricks work. “I want all the cameramen to know exactly what’s happening so they don’t film the wrong thing,” she says.

Kidd believes that the recent explosion of magic on television is a positive thing for the magic world. “It exposes more magic to the lay public and hopefully puts it in a different light where it can be even more respected than it was.”

But the way Kidd sees it, not all exposure has to be good exposure. When she first got into magic, Kidd says she would watch everything she could find. Aiming to learn as much as she could as fast as she could, Kidd exposed herself to all types of magic and a range of quality. “I will seek out the worst magic show possible just because I think I learn so much from the worst performers and the worst shows.”

It’s easy to trace Kidd’s high standards to her more structured acting training. “The first magic convention I ever went to, I knew nothing about magic. I was so new, but I instantly knew what was good and what was bad,” Kidd says. She felt she could recognize a quality performance regardless of her ability to identify the methods or the moves as a newcomer to magic. At the competition portion of that first trip to the Las Vegas Magic Seminar, Kidd says it felt like watching amateur actors.

“At that point in my life, I wasn’t used to watching amateurs anymore. I felt like I was taking five steps back as a performer, but one step forward as a magician,” she says. Kidd’s BFA training and work as a pro actor had conditioned her to a certain quality of performance, and she grew to apply those same standards to the magic world.

Those standards also make it hard for Kidd to get her head around the quick hit, viral video culture building up around magic these days. When it comes to young magicians, new magicians, or even female magicians, Kidd wishes we would prioritize the quality of their magic over everything else. “We’re putting them in front of the spotlight way too early,” Kidd says. “You have to put that time and that amount of practice in before we should give anyone any attention.”

To Kidd, the question of women in magic is a source of frustration. She’s not convinced that the lay audience is even aware that there are fewer female magicians out there, and she’s not sure she cares. “It’s never affected my career, it’s never affected me getting gigs, it’s never affected my audience,” Kidd said. Meanwhile, she does take issue with the push to turn non-magical pretty women into magicians for nothing more than the money-making novelty of putting a female on the bill. “I sometimes think I’m sexist against my own sex,” she admits.

Kidd doesn’t promote herself as a female magician—she is a magician, what else is there to talk about? “Take anyone who’s not a performer and make them famous because of that one little gimmick, their ego will completely explode. And it hurts the people who do put all that time and effort in, because they deserve it. They deserve the spotlight more in that regard,” Kidd says. She believes that sexism is more a fabric of our society today than it is specific affliction in the magic community, and she’d rather not draw so much attention to the topic. “The whole topic just segregates us even more. If your magic is strong enough, your magic should speak for itself.”

Whether it’s magic or acting, a stage show or a street performance, Kidd is all about quality. For her, the hardest thing about the transition from straight acting to magic has been working as a mostly solo show. “Not working with people is a really hard thing for me right now,” she says. She had become accustomed to creating and inventing in a collaborative environment with other actors, riffing off ideas and critiquing each other’s work: “more brains in the room is always better.” Now, Kidd says she doesn’t know if her new material is good or bad until she gets in front of an audience. And the etiquette to constructive criticism she learned in the acting community isn’t typically the way magicians communicate. “It’s a different mindset,” Kidd says.

These days Kidd is based in Bath, England. She says she moved there for the weather, which is ironic enough to reek of misdirection. Kidd runs the Krowd Keepers Magic Theatre alongside fellow magicians Tim Stracey and Gazzo every Friday and Saturday night, in an intimate space at a local pub in Bath. In searching for new talent to spotlight at Krowd Keepers, Kidd was shocked to find how few magicians are ready with a one-hour stage show. Of course that often means more stage time for her, and plenty of opportunities to test out new material, earn her chops, and most of all, to play.

“I think what is missing the most in magic is the element of play. The older you get, the less you play, but playing is so important. Get on your feet and improvise. Talk to yourself. I’ve seen magicians who will script everything, every single word, with no freedom. That’s when I feel like I’m watching an amateur actor on stage because it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel natural. And that’s what we’re all trying to achieve on stage as magicians. Just being natural.”