Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

How to Create A Ghost: Theater, Magic, and Technology


How do you conjure a ghost? Fly a bird? Make a person disappear? And why? What is the appeal of magic, illusions, and technological tricks? This course will explore the history of magic through its theatrical history, exploring important relationships between culture, technological innovation, and illusion-making. From traps to lifts to sugar glass props, the stage has absorbed and utilized technological and scientific innovations to create its illusions, narratives, and stories. Techniques of magic and stagecraft have been used since the 16th century to imagine other worlds. In creating these illusions, the theatre also negotiated with emerging scientific theories and concepts. We will ask: What relationship does magic and theatre have to the stories we tell? What contribution did technological innovations have on illusion making? How did theatre makers develop and innovate using technological and scientific theories? What role does technological aesthetics play in understanding human culture? Together, we will explore early writing about performance magic, alchemy, sleight of hand, and theatrical stagecraft. We will read across diverse practices of magic and theatre across the globe, exploring the relationship of magic, culture, and performance. We will read treatises, novels, and plays that explore the nature and legacy of magic. The course will include discussion, performance exercises, and hands-on activities. At the end of the seminar, students will be able to recognize and discuss historical texts and relate cultural artifacts (plays and novels) to major themes (magic and illusion). The course includes work and writing from authors with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and orientations. All are welcome! 

Meet the Instructor(s)

Aileen Robinson

"I have always been interested in optical tricks and technological illusions. After seeing Peter Pan fly in an early production of the play, I wanted to explore the relationship of stage magic to performance magic and to investigate how illusions were made and why they were so fascinating. As a scholar, researcher, and professor, I engage with the history of magic as a cultural phenomenon, tracing the history of illusions, popular theatre practice, and technological innovations. I work on the history of technological objects such as microscopes, and I explore histories of science in drama and beyond. I am also a historian of race and technology, focused on questions of black identity, personhood, performance, and presence. I am always interested in having conversations about magic and technology, about our relationship to illusions and belief, and our desire to perform. My courses include a range of materials to examine, and we often go on field trips to enrich our understanding. I look forward to meeting you soon!"