The Illusionists: Colin Cloud … it’s all in his mind … and yours

Colin Cloud.

“Yes, I have a turn both for observation and for deduction. The theories which I have expressed there, and which appear to you to be so chimerical are really extremely practical—so practical that I depend upon them for my bread and cheese.”

— Sherlock Holmes from The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Colin McLeod, too, depends on the power of observation and deduction for his bread and cheese.

Known as Colin Cloud on stage with the touring magic show called The Illusionists (in Ottawa next week), McLeod started on the road to his current calling in Edinburgh, Scotland, his hometown and the birthplace in 1859 of Conan Doyle. Must be something in the water of the Scottish capital.

“I was fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a kid and reading the books. Everything in my life stems very much from that. I was definitely inspired by that. Now it has come full circle. Credit to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because that’s where it all started for me,” he said by phone from Seattle, Washington.

McLeod is a mind reader, or a mentalist if you prefer. He adds the word forensic but really what he does is observe and describe what he sees in his performance.

“Hopefully it looks like the closest thing you’ll see to real mind-reading, but it’s very much based on observing people, watching people and being able to influence people face to face.”

And it’s all face to face. It has to be.

“I need to see the person. It’s all based on that.”

The Illusionists features five performers all offering a different version of the mystery that is illusion. Along with Cloud are the daredevil Jonathan Goodwin, the inventor Kevin James, the manipulator An Ah Lim and the trickster Jeff Hobson.

McLeod’s part of the show involves audience members picked at random and then who are picked apart by Colin Cloud.

“Whoever gets picked from the audience I can decide what will be best track can go down for benefit of the audience,” he says.

In a nod to the great detective he says, “we throw a deer stalker hat and pick people at random every night. I never know what I’m going to get. Every show is more or less different.

“With all these things, even with big illusions, we all have honed skills. My job is to make it look like mind-reading but the skills behind that create the illusion.

“Magicians need to understand how to make an illusion. The stuff I do is so personal and engages people so much and is so intimate, it can feel more invasive to some people while others find it fun. I always feel that a true skill will leave people impressed and a real ability will leave people amazed. As long as we hit one of those two, impressed or amazed we have succeeded.”

He is aware of the impact on his subjects unlike Holmes who was clinical in the extreme.

“Since I’m on stage, I’m aware of the people. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, because that reflects on me and the show and the audience at large will feel it. As performers our job is to make people feel as good as possible about their experience on stage. No one will be embarrassed on stage. They almost become stars of the show because of the roles that they are given.

“I always think that people might see show once. Want to make sure it’s best possible version we can get.”

That trust is very important, he says.

McLeod’s ability has been developed over many years.

He says it is a combination of all these things. Holmes is a fictional character but he is very much starting point. McLeod is taking in a subject’s clothing, appearance and body language and any micro-expressions. It’s psychology and deduction mixed together.

He studied forensic investigation with an eye on being a crime scene investigator.

“I have very much taken the techniques I learned there to apply them to the entertainment milieu. There is certainly solid sound science there. Those cues, tells and revelations are from the reptilian brain that lies inside all humans. There is no real conscious control over that for the most part. As a result you can analyse and draw realistic conclusions from it.”

McLeod enrolled in university at 16 where he quickly realized there might be another use for his deductive skills — one that was more appealing. He saw that standup comedians were great observers of life and people.

“Public speaking is one of the most stressful things for human beings.  The fact that these people chose to put themselves into that environment fascinated me.

“Being able to reach an entire audience of people and almost be able to conduct them pick up on things happening in the room, make it entertaining, quickly under pressure, that for me was amazing.

“I wanted to learn how to do that and the only way was to get up there and do it. It was a mindset I wanted to have.”

His favourite comic in those early days was Stewart Lee who not only cracks jokes but also explains them.

“It worked for him in a way that makes it 10 times as funny. For me that was insightful.”

McLeod has been touring with The Illusionists for four years. The show has criss-crossed North America. So far he hasn’t detected a difference between Americans and Canadians.

“People in North America are very open and accepting of what we do.”

The tour isn’t his only gig. He does a lot of television and has live solo shows in his repertoire. He’s got no time to slow down — he’s too busy reading your mind.

Broadway Across Canada presents The Illusionists
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 27 to April 1
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.