A Real World Hogwarts
Insights into Tom Stone’s Conjuring
By Alyx Hilshey
Imagine the masses of people who have read and lived into the fantasy of Hogwarts and its associated literary world. I wager to guess that no reader of the “HP” saga has ever escaped these books without thinking… “damn, it would be cool to go to Hogwarts.”
What if a real world Hogwarts existed? What if I told you I’ve been there. Perhaps there was no potions class nor mail delivering owls, but my experience at a school for wizards and witches (or at the least, magicians) was quite the real one. Consider that it left such an impression on me that I would make the above comparison, not just for some literary “catch,” but because I was moved to do so.
This “school” is aptly called Conjuring, and it is the brainchild of Tom Stone, known for his strong misdirection, layered deception and delightfully constructed plots. He is the creator of classics in the likes of “Of Dice and Men” (the, “hug,” “kill,” “kill,”… routine). What many do not know is that he is also a gifted teacher and the creator of a remarkable teaching program.
Imagine this. Thirty or so passionate and diversified magicians, “trollkarlar” as we are called in Sweden, from around the world descend upon the quaint little town of Sigtuna, Sweden, with its narrow winding pedestrian streets and picturesque little shops. Through the weeklong Conjuring course, we are here to become students in the truest sense of the word.
We come from many countries. There are Ukrainians, Dutch, Fins, (many) Swedes, an American expat who now hails from Prague, Czecks, Swiss, Irish, Americans and more. United by a desire to improve our craft, to create new magic, to enhance our deception and our theatricality – most of all to enhance our art. Some magicians argue that magic is not an artform. Many might suggest that most magic is not art. What occurs and comes out of the Conjuring workshop is truly Art. It is also mind awakening in a way that I’ve never experienced in my own thirty year association with magic.
The course takes place at an incredibly lovely campus called the Sigtuna Folk Highschool. The architecture is even reminiscent of a castle – one building has a feature that could totally be described as a turret. We each have our own dorm room – mine has a balcony overlooking a beautiful, large lake, surrounded by large pitch pines, apple trees, and a generally beautiful setting.
First we gather for a large and delicious breakfast. We eat outside, the sun warming our backs, the air fresh and crisp. We are together, getting to know our fellow students. We drink coffee and the food is delectable with abundant variety. It is also very classically Swedish from what I can tell. Then it is off to class. I feel like I am in college, but soon I will realize it is more than that – it is akin to the most wonderful and enriching graduate school program.
There are two sections. One is for those who are new to Conjuring. The other is the advanced class for those who have studied here before. Some return year after year. One such student, whom you surely know (he fooled Penn & Teller three times), tells us that he returns every year, as the course fuels and excites his creative process for his entire year to come.
Then we split. We go to our respective classrooms. Each is large and perfect for the movement and space required for theatrical and magical study.
Tom is our teacher in the mornings. As a person who comes from both a college and homeschooling educator background (my previous lives before magicianhood), I am enamored with the effectiveness of Tom’s pedagogical methods.
During a one on one conversation, Tom tells me that it is his strongest desire to not create clones of his own style. Tom does not wish to do the work for you, as many teachers of magic might be inclined to do – as it is the obvious way to learn. It is the classic, “this is how I do it, and now I teach you how to do it,” that he tries to avoid. Tom explains that his fear is that if he teaches this way, when we leave the course, we will not know how to continue our creative process without him there by our side.
So what is his teaching style? Each morning is structured a bit the same. Tom presents a lecture on advanced topics. One might be the concept of “change blindness,” which is the science of cognitive and visual “blindspots” that we unknowingly create many thousands of times each day. Perhaps he will lecture on the concept of motion vectors and how Slydini used the concept to create deception right in front of an onlooker. Maybe he will discuss an algebraic formula (more or less) that can be used as the basis and framework for quickly and easily creating a new dramatic routine. Perhaps it is something more familiar like the Slydini concept of crossing the gaze, popularized by Juan Tamariz. There are so many wonderful and advanced topics.
Once our brains are full from this wonderful dissertation on theory, it is time for a break. With a twinkle in his eye, Tom announces, “and now we will have ‘Fika.’” I look around at a wave of smiles and excitement, several are repeating the word “Fika” as an excited child might. Fika (pronounced “fee-kah”) is a coffee break, but it is much more. We return to the dining hall and the breakfast spread has been replaced with decadent danishes, cookies, cakes, biscuits, and more. We fill our plates, grab a coffee, and head for the sun on the flagstone balcony.
Fika is over, and now the fun really starts. With a tiny, impish half smile, Tom says something like, “OK find a partner, find a space, create a routine using the concept we just covered. To interweave drama into the structure, the routine must express the theme “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” (as an example). Then develop the method, rehearse and be ready to perform it in front of us.”
Then he adds the thing that breaks our minds.
“You have 25 minutes.”
What??? In the past I have spent 7 hours a day and 6 days a week for weeks to create what Tom is asking for. Twenty five minutes? This will be… interesting, but Tom keeps the energy light hearted so no one feels intimidated nor pressured.
And ya know what? We did it. We all created and performed an entertaining (and often very deceptive) routine that we could be proud of. Who knew this was even possible? I for one did not, and this would occur once or twice a day for the entire week. We created so much magic, and the beautiful side effect was that we were all entreated to a wonderful and delightfully unique magic show each day.
Then it was lunch, one as delectable as the breakfast. We are becoming friends, we are creating global relationships that will last a lifetime. This is its own kind of magic.
In the afternoons, the marvelous director and very talented magician Leif Olberius, who co-teaches the course with Tom, joins us. Leif has been with the students in the other group all morning. Now we focus on theatrics. Perhaps we will learn about the concept of “think face,” how we show our audience that we are in thought. We learn how to engage our audience with our gaze. There are delightful acting exercises where we pace the large classroom with wooden sticks, throwing them forcefully with a dragonbreath yell (my term – but think martial arts) to a waiting fellow pacer within the room. Transferring our energy with force and precision! It’s a sight and it’s fun!
Half way through this, it is Fika again. Further shocked that Swedish people maintain their stereotypically gorgeous physiques despite the hearty meals and multiple Fikas, I let my puzzlement go and indulge.
We finish the classroom portion of the day with Leif as he guides us through more applications of theory. It is wonderful. Afterwards we retire to our dorms for a moment of downtime and then it is dinner. Picture a feast – no lesser word describes it. A spread that just goes on and on. So much food, and it is so rich! So many choices. So delicious, all of it.
The wonderful thing about all of the Fika and the three meals is that we play a bit of musical chairs. There are twenty eight students this year, plus Leif and Tom. There are many people to get to know, and this part is one of the most wonderful of the whole week.
What I have described to you is one day in Conjuring. This goes on for an entire week. Plus many evenings have special programming. Ondřej Pšenička gave us a marvelous lecture on the Butterfly Deck, of which he distributes a deck to each of us (did you pick up that he is the one I mentioned about fooling P&T?) – in fact we learn some of the exact routines that he used to fool the big Vegas duo.
One evening is devoted to the women to share and to network with each other. Tom points out to me that Conjuring has always made an effort to support and to promote women in magic. There are four women in Conjuring while I am there, though I’m told in 2023, the women to men ratio is a remarkable 50:50. I cannot help but wonder if there has ever been such a ratio at any magical event. Tom feels that magic as an artform can only reach its potential when nearly half of the population (i.e. women) are not excluded from participation.
A major evening highlight is a talk by Håkan Berg who speaks on what it takes to go to the top in magic and talent competitions. Perhaps because this group becomes so tight knit, Håkan speaks on the most personal and heartfelt level. It is quite emotional, but also incredibly inspiring. He spends time on the concept that “you are your own best friend.” I think many magicians are hard on ourselves; perhaps that is an understatement. What better advice could be given to a performing magician? It is advice that I have called upon nearly every week since taking the course a year ago.
Tom and Leif also host a wonderful, formal evening magic show. It is open to the public of Sigtuna, and Swedish magic royalty and friends are invited. There are some very big names in attendance! And who are the performers? It is us! The students of Conjuring!
Imagine a performance with allstars such as Nikola Arkane, Håkan Berg, Ondřej Pšenička, Mikayla Oz, the legendary Galina Hayes, and of course Tom and Leif. There are other incredibly solid heavy hitters, many of whom have performed on hit talent TV shows, run their own theaters or who have placed in national magic competitions. This show is a treat, and not one piece is like anything you’ve ever seen before. The creativity and talent is through the roof.
Of course I must mention that there are jam sessions that last long into the night. Though I cannot elaborate, not because it’s a secret, but because unfortunately I did not attend due to a bit of illness and jet lag. That said, I am told by my cohort that they are world class jam sessions.
Now the week is coming to a close. There is one more very important event. It is the culmination of all of the work we have done. We will create a final performance piece that uses many of the concepts we have learned. We spend hours developing it, working with a partner. Tom and Leif mill around, curious, excited, and encouraging. On the last day. We present.
The presentations are, in general, breathtaking, marvelous, or insanely deceptive – sometimes all three. An interesting theme emerges (one which Tom and Leif hoped we would experience). None of us set out to be original. We set out to make a routine, and through doing the “work,” through applying the tools… we all developed something that is utterly unique, wonderful, and creative. Creativity and originality is the byproduct of the work, Tom tells us.
Then it is time to go. It is emotional, as people pack up and begin to depart. They will take trains, buses, autos, and planes. All heading in different directions. A few of us have opted to spend an extra night. We enjoy a quiet outdoor dinner in Sigtuna and reflect on the magic of the week.
It has exceeded our expectations by leaps and bounds.
It is not a magic school. It transcends a magic school.
It is a place where we learn to be conjurors.
Tom Stone – Main instructor
Leif Olberius – instructor
Ondřej Pšenička – Introduction to the Butterfly
Håkan Berg – Passion & responsibility
Marc Herren (Schweiz)
Fritz Alkemade (Holland)
Joonas Puhto (Finland)
Elmo Huovila (Finland)
Martin Cederbom (Sweden)
Magnus Råberg (Sweden)
Galina Hayes (Germany)
Vilgot Michelin (Sweden)
Göran Calås (Sweden)
Toomas Pitkänen (Finland)
Kjell Ljunggren (Sweden)
Kristian Backman (Finland)
Adrian Videla (Sweden)
Alyx Hilshey (USA)
Mikayla Oz (USA)
Damian Odess-Gillett (Czech Republic)
Daniel Tegnander (Norway)
Markus Tervo (Finland)
Further Conjuring 2022
Anders Fox (Denmark)
Nikola Arkane (Northern Ireland)
Botond Kelle (Hungary)
Martin Nilsson (Sweden)
Göran Sjöberg (Sweden)
Jörgen Sondell (Sweden)
Håkan Berg (Sweden)
Per Johan Råsmark (Sweden)
Ondřej Pšenička (Czech Republic)
Roger Isberg (Sweden)
Kalle Nilsson (Sweden)