The magic of Broadway’s Harry Potter and The Cursed Child can be as simple as a lightning-quick costume change, as startling as a bolt of fire sent blazing from a wizard’s wand and as spooky as the 100% convincing Dementors that float, wraith-like, over the audience at the Lyric Theatre.
None of it would work, of course, without the onstage magicians themselves – a cast led by the erstwhile (and grown-up) Harry himself, Jamie Parker. The British actor, who won an Olivier Award for his Potter portrayal on the London stage and is now Tony-nominated as lead actor in a play, is perhaps best known for his role as Scripps in both the play and film versions of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.
Or was, until Harry came along. Shape-shifting into a character assumed to forever belong to another actor – that Radcliffe kid – Parker pulls off a magic trick in and of itself by giving an entirely credible second life to The Boy Who Lived.
Deadline spoke to Parker about all things Cursed, including the illusions of the stage, learning new tricks and the responsibilities of breathing life into a generation’s touchstone character.
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: I have to confess, I’m not a Harry Potter person. I’ve never read any of the books, I’ve seen some of the movies, but I was drawn into your show right from its start.
Jamie Parker: Brilliant. I’m glad you feel that. I was starting from pretty much the same point of view. You know, I’m a convert myself. When I first got the call I was pretty much exactly where you were. I’d read one or two of the books, then I’d seen a few of the movies, and I’d soaked it up because it was such a cultural presence, but I wasn’t steeped in it until I was steeped in it professionally. Then it crossed the boundary into very much being something that I love very personally, just as people do love Harry Potter very personally.
Deadline: Give me a short rundown of how you came to be Harry Potter.
Parker: Well, like I said I knew nothing about the project, I didn’t even know it was being developed. I was working on another show and we were in out of town tryouts, just before we came into the West End. So I got this sort of in-principle phone call – Would you be interested? – and I had the same questions as everybody else. Is it a musical? Which part, because I didn’t know that the final book finished 19 years later [with Harry as an adult]. Then my interest was piqued because I saw the creative team and the producing team that were working on it. Very clearly they were a world class, crack team, and I saw [playwright Jack Thorne’s] name on the script and I thought, well, he’s written one of the best TV miniseries I’ve ever seen in my entire life, so hell yeah I’ll read the script.
So I came down from Birmingham and sat in [producer] Sonia Friedman’s office for about four or five hours and read 250 pages of an early draft and loved it. I went, Oh, no, now I really want to do this. And then I had one meeting with John Tiffany, the director, and that was taped and sent up to Edinburgh for approval, and I had one meeting with [movement director] Steven Hoggett to make sure I didn’t have two left feet, and that was it. I think because of the measure of security surrounding it they couldn’t just sort of throw the script around and cast the net very wide. I think they decided on their shortlist before putting it out.
Deadline: Security, I’m guessing, was tight.
Parker: There were carefully positioned ninjas around the city of London and New York so that if anybody doesn’t keep the secrets you get thrown in the back of a van.
Deadline: When you’re onstage can you tell which parts of the audience really know their Potter and which don’t? I’m wondering if there are lines in it that get a reaction to people who have a strong background in Potter.
Parker: Very clearly, most of the audience already knows and adores this world. Most of our audience are first generation Potter-heads and the rest of them are very excitable newbies. And then you’ve got the sort of necessary contingent of the more circumspect people who are coming along and swept away by that majority.
In London when we first started, obviously the script wasn’t published so those early shows, all the previews, there was this audible astonishment at the revelations of the script. Once the script was published it sort of found a level that was slightly less excitable line by line, but it meant that we could crack on with the play. Because New York is so much more front-footed, there seems to be this thing where people have either bought the script and willfully not read it or maybe they have read it and willfully forgotten parts of it, because those audible gasps are back. In fact, with a vengeance…And you get it from the special effects and the magic and that kind of uncanny wonder, which is just gold dust for us as performers.
But just as much it’s about the revelations of the things these people say, what these characters say to each other, the release of information, and the crises that the relationships are put under. The audience is just like a tangible, audible part of that and they get that they’re part of that conspiracy in New York in a really loud and bouncy way.
Deadline: You mentioned magic. Without giving the tricks away, what kind of training did you get? Magicians spend years studying this stuff.
Parker: We started with the thing Jamie [Harrison, magic and illusion designer] sort of drummed home to us on our first day working on the magic in London. We all stood in a circle and we learned element by element how to do the…You know how a grandfather will just take a coin and make it disappear in one hand and get the kid to blow on it and then produces it from behind their ear? That one. It’s very simple and a lot of people think they can do it, but when it’s broken down technically – in the language of the forensic psychology that went into the trick initially – you realize how complicated it is. There’s four or five elements before the trick that you have to learn has even been revealed.
And Jamie was saying, This is it, this is everything that we’re going to be doing in the show, this coin trick, it’s just we’re going to be doing it on a bigger scale. We had to adapt to making the coin disappear by using bigger equipment, if that makes any sense.
Deadline: It does.
Parker: But also, it’s just about getting it wrong a lot for a long time. It’s 100 days basically to get from day one of rehearsals to dress rehearsal in the theater, and a lot of that is just being really bad at it until you’re not anymore. That’s what rehearsals are. Just practice. And especially in Part One [of Harry Potter] there’s a lot of illusion work, it’s all story driven but it’s all there, and then in Part Two the illusions are less front and center and it’s more the relationships that take the reins.
But there are so many of these illusion tricks and, like I say, we work for a long time getting it really badly wrong, and then so much of this show is about not letting you guys see how it’s done. In the rehearsal everyone can see exactly how it’s done, but the first moment someone just really nails one of the tricks the whole room would just instantly turn into six year olds and go, “That was it. Oh my God. That was it.”
Deadline: Were any of these illusions dangerous? Without giving anything away, at least one involves fire. At least I assume it’s fire – maybe we can’t believe everything we see. But it looks like if it went wrong, it would go badly wrong.
Parker: I hear what you’re saying. But those kinds of things in the production are formed with the highest level of world class stage management, and I’ve never had reason to feel such confidence in a stage management team.
So the level of contingency that’s built into every element is such that you cannot but feel safe doing them. We’re weaving the illusion of danger, that’s the nature of the story, you have to give people the darkness and the danger. But as an actor, no. The only danger is sort of ongoing injury because it is such a heavily physical show. The ensemble work incredibly hard. So Steven Hoggett’s team of movement associates have to make sure that we’re all in good shape physically and that we’re warming up and warming down properly, so that those kind of ongoing injuries don’t happen over the course of a long year.
Deadline: I’m thinking now of those moving staircases. They’re like one of those cartoons where a character takes a step off a cliff but something just appears to carry him through. You’re not looking at those moving staircases, you’re just walking, and they’d better be there.
Parker: Collaboration is the name of the game, in theater perhaps more than any other medium, and there’s a lot of anonymous work that happens in the show. It’s about what you in the audience don’t see, and sometimes it’s about what you willfully don’t see, you know? You can nakedly see the mechanics of the theater, the theatricality being put together but you’re invited to choose as an audience member not to see that. Sometimes it’s literally about stuff in plain sight but we’ve made it so you can’t see it.
Trust is front and center in the working of this production, and it’s conceivable there is a harder working team of theater practitioners than the Cursed Child company, but if there are I’d like to meet them.
Deadline: The play is close to a musical in terms of the movement. Everyone on stage is working to create this one sort of movement, and if one person is even slightly out, it’s like a dance with everything thrown off. I’m not trying to make you nervous…
Parker: It is. And that’s what I said before, [in rehearsal it’s about] not getting it right, a lot. We know what that feels like. You come into work and you look around the room and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the actors or the set designers or the lighting team, you know, everywhere you look you’ve got someone exceptional, at the top of their game. So everyone has got this little voice in their head saying “I don’t want to be the one to drop the ball. I’ve got to up my game.”
Everyone is fully engaged with every other aspect of the production so you can talk to the music guys about an element of costume and they’ll have already thought about it and they’ll talk about how it’ll impact the work that they’re doing, and how they’ve got to change the work that they’re doing to come up and meet it. Costume and lighting and the actors have to be incredibly adaptable with each other in order to achieve what it is we’re trying to achieve. There’s this sort of blend of the arts and sciences going on with Cursed Child that I would dearly love to be able to give a TED Talk about if it weren’t for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to keep the secrets in the process.
Deadline: In some cases the costumes are the magic trick, becoming like a magician’s hat.
Parker: The magician’s cloak. Exactly. John and Steven said when they were starting out, cloaks and suitcases are sort of the bedrock of the production. Yes, we’ve got a lot of resources, but the feeling you get, as John alludes to, is rough magic. The idea is that now that the script is published, you can imagine there are untold numbers of productions of Cursed Child happening in children’s living rooms – all you need is a battered suitcase and a cloak and you can use it as a table, as a train, as a chair. And that’s all theater is.
Deadline: It’s that sort of that classic diversion that makes the show so effective. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching someone doing all magic this via computer.
Parker: Don’t get me wrong, there are heavily technical and computer type things that happen in the production, but the flavor you’re left with is not something of, okay, well, that’s not really real, that’s just a sort of digital simulation of something. Even when digital elements in the production do come in it complements a tangibly real sort of physical baseline for the production.
Deadline: One last question. You mentioned you don’t want to be the one that screws up and lets down the cast. As Harry Potter, as this iconic character, what responsibility or burden do you feel to the fans that this franchise?
Parker: Well, for a start, I said already, it’s shared. Nothing I do is in isolation. Everything comes connected to every other element of the production, and if I thought that I was carrying everything on my own or if I thought that the team that had been put together wasn’t one that I’d have full confidence in as a collaborative team, not just as people who are world class in what they do but as people who can work together, then to be honest I wouldn’t have had anything to do with it. Why would you expose yourself like that with material that means so much to so many people? I do feel a sense of responsibility to it, because now I’m at the point that I’m personally invested in it too. I understand why people find it important. The pressure I feel is akin I think to the same thing that everybody feels in theater, that they really want this reality to take flight.
That’s something I’m very familiar with having spent however many years working in theater. You’re hoping for a play that’s got legs, that has its own momentum, that’s going to take flight, and you want to feel a sense of that happening in the room. And if you’re working on a play where that doesn’t happen, or in a company where that doesn’t happen, or with an audience that doesn’t want to buy tickets, it is exposing and it’s exhausting and it’s humiliating. So the fact that in this one we have a full house, literally and figuratively, the fact that we have all these elements in the production and an audience that’s hungry to make this reality fly, is delicate and precious.