11 August 2012

The secret to Sorcerers Safari's success

Almost sixteen years ago, armed only with the idea of making magic more accessible to kids who want to learn magic, "Magic Mike" Segal opened the doors to Sorcerers Safari magic camp.  Flash forward to 2011 to see how far Segal's magic camp has come from its humble beginnings.  Sorcerers Safari is Canada's only sleep away magic camp, hosting up to 150 campers a year.
What is the secret to this Canadian magic camp success story?  I spent 24 hours at camp in August 2011 and here's what I discovered.


For the last ten years Sorcerers Safari has been located in the picturesque Haliburton Highlands in central Ontario, at Camp White Pine.  The air was fresh, the private lake was inviting and the cabins were spacious.  The camp boasts a fantastic Mess Hall and has facilities for things like swimming, miniature golf, and volleyball for campers to enjoy.
The location is the perfect place to "wash away the city" as Segal puts it.  He believes the natural setting is integral to the camp's success.  "Removed from their day-to-day distractions, everyone is able to relate to each other in a different way than would otherwise be possible," observed Segal.


Each day, campers participated in card or coin classes.  In beginner card classes campers learned the patter and workings of simple scripted routines. Techniques such as the biddle grip were taught.  Handling tips were passed along, like placing a deck on top of a card box to make it easier to pick up with one hand.  During beginner coin classes, basic coin sleights such as The French Drop were introduced.  Beginner classes had children of all ages, including many of the younger campers.  For the younger children especially, this type of instructor lead teaching is often more effective than self-directed learning via books and DVDs.
There was an increase in the average age in the intermediate card and coin classes.  More advanced techniques and presentations were demonstrated and absorbed.  Campers were eager to show their skills to their peers.  The advantages of learning in this setting were made obvious when during a coin class Steven Kline said, "Here's what people do wrong."  He showed an open empty palm where in the spectator's mind a coin should have been.  Kline, an instructor at Sorcerers Safari for eleven years, quickly followed with "And here's how to fix it."  He then shaped his hands to conceal the secret of the coinless hand. 
Lee Asher had the campers in the advanced card workshop present routines of their choice.  The spectators then offered their comments and impressions.  While method and technique were sometimes discussed, the bulk of the conversations focused on artistic presentation, pacing, respecting the moments, and upping the stakes of the effect.  "What can you do to increase the impact of the divination?" encouraged Asher.  In addition to providing a fabulous way for the campers to workshop and get feedback on their routines, Asher was also teaching the valuable skill of respectfully offering and responding to constructive criticism.  To one of the participants, Asher said, "It's awesome the way the originator did it.  Now make it yours, which can only make it more awesome."  He finished the session with this thought, "You need the feedback of others to finesse your performance.  You can't finesse it at home by yourself."
Ryan Heiner, an 18 year old restaurant magician from Wisconsin, found his tips increase significantly after implementing suggestions made by Shawn Farquhar at camp in 2010.  Heiner now pays his own way for camp.
At the "Pinetages Theatre" Kline hosted one of many Performance Workshops.  At these sessions, campers perform on stage in front of their peers. The focus of this particular session was "presentation skills," something common to the stage, close-up and restaurant performer.  Volunteers were asked to enter stage right, walk down stage, and address the audience with their name and the generic opening remark: "You're in for a fantastic show!"  Campers took to the stage and were provided with observations about their posture, articulation, as well as physical and verbal habits.  Positive comments flowed from their peers and suggestions for improvement were politely presented.  Not only do the campers get to learn from each other, but they also experienced being on both sides of a peer review.  This type of exercise helps them better appreciate an audience's point of view as it relates to their own performance. 
Respect is a common thread throughout the camp experience.  Kline offered that, "Everyone is deserving of your respect."  Respect for one's peers, naturally.  Also important is respect for all of the people that support you, including the sound technician and the janitor at the community centre where you're performing.  
On top of the mandatory classes, campers had an opportunity to take advantage of a wide breadth of electives such as juggling, show tech (lighting and sound), straight jacket escape, dancing cane, marketing, balloon twisting, linking rings and many more!
With all of these fabulous classes and electives, one could get the impression that Sorcerers Safari is structured to churn out professional magicians.  "Camp isn't about being a magician," insisted Segal.  Sorcerers Safari helps young people "appreciate magic as a performance art.  It helps develop public speaking skills, problem solving skills, critiquing skills.  It gives them the skills to be a discerning audience for theatre," said Segal.  At magic camp, self-confidence is boosted every time campers master something new.  He believes that being at a sleep away camp provides children with a huge opportunity for personal growth and independence, while being in a safe and nurturing environment.

In their own words:

Given the chance to talk about their experiences at Sorcerers Safari, here's a smattering of what staff and campers had to say:
  • "[Sorcerers Safari has a] different atmosphere than any other social group" said 15 year old Rob Lewin, from Thornhill.  "It's a life changing experience.  It's nice to spend time with people here who are just like me."  This was Lewin's sixth year at magic camp. He was recently accepted into the Toronto Second City conservatory."
  • Jeff Hinchliffe, when asked what keeps bringing him back replied "what doesn't?  The location out of the city is beautiful.  Being with kids passionate about magic reminds me of myself when I was a kid.  It truly is a level playing field where everyone is treated as an equal.  The staff and instructors are equally as passionate as the campers.  Everyone knows why they are here."
  • Eric Leclerc said, "There's a synergistic effect of the energy of the campers with the energy of the instructors that leads to a really great overall energy."  He finds the experience personally rewarding.  What does he love about camp?  "Seeing kids return having mastered skills they learned last summer," enthused LeClerc. 
  • Seventeen year old Matt Wiliamson, came to Sorcerers Safari as the 2010 winner of the Dr. Jeffrey Jay Memorial Scholarship. "Camp lets kids share skills and be rewarded for their efforts," said Williamson.  "It shows kids where to find courage, strength and knowledge."  The staff and the nurturing environment brought him back this year.
  • First time attendees and scholarship winners 12 year old Jack Grady from Ohio (winner of the Dr. Jeffrey Jay Memorial Scholarship) and 13 year old Mario Seki from California (SAM winner) both said that camp exceeded their expectations.  "The people are awesome," said Grady.  "It's nice to be learning with people my same age. I knew I was going to have fun.  I didn't know I was going to learn so much!"  Seki concurred, "The people are awesome.  Professionals are teaching their own effects to kids!  This wouldn't happen anywhere else." 
  • Lee Asher, in his eleventh consecutive year as staff, thinks that one of the best things about magic camp is "Being able to immerse yourself into an environment designed to help improve your performance, technique, and showmanship skills."  In his opinion, Sorcerers Safari is "The World's Premiere Magic Camp."  What kind of impact has Sorcerers Safari had on his life?  Asher beamed, "I met my wife at Sorcerers Safari Magic Camp." 
  • Chad Juros, a full time college student from New Jersey is spending his sixth year at camp.  He said, "[he] loves being with kids who are so excited about magic.  It [Sorcerers Safari] is a very nurturing environment that fosters personal growth and minimizes competition between campers while emphasising peer respect." Juros is also the founder of the "Spread the Magic Foundation" whose mission is "to spread hope and inspiration to children battling cancer through the power of magic."


The atmosphere at camp was very inclusive.  I went to magic camp expecting to be a spectator looking in at the events.  Instead, I felt like I belonged there just as much as the campers, counsellors and instructors.  Apparently you can't be an outsider looking in at magic camp.  You can only be a part of magic camp.
Kline encouraged campers to maximize their learning by asking questions.  "The worst question is the one you don't ask," he advised.  And it was true.  At magic camp, no question was too big or too small.  Every voice was heard.  Kline said, "Every professional that's here is an open book."  He reiterated the oft heard refrain that at Sorcerers Safari "egos are checked at the front gate." 
A genuine camaraderie develops among campers, among instructors, and between campers and instructors.  In a profession where who you know is often as important as what you know, Segal thinks that the opportunity for campers to create a rapport with the staff, gives the campers a tremendous leg up on networking.
Alumnus Rosemary Reid said, "My first true magic teachers are people who still attend camp, and many of my jobs as an adult have come from the connections I made at camp."


When asked if it's hard for new comers to feel at home at a camp that boasts an impressive return rate – roughly 70 percent of the campers were returning campers – nine year counsellor Jeff Hinchliffe said, "by the second day, everyone is a part of camp." He also said that there is "very little homesickness and there have never been any major discipline issues."
The first timers said that everyone is welcoming and they quickly made new friends.  On the bus ride up to camp, everyone showed each other magic they'd learned or improved on since last summer.  The enthusiasm was infectious.  Campers came from across Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.  Camp alumni have come from as far away as Spain, France, Germany and Japan.
"Since I live in Alberta, Sorcerers Safari provided me a great opportunity to meet magicians from Ontario.  I made many friends at camp and stay in touch with many of those magicians to this day."  -- Sheldon Casavant
The campers were personable, passionate, energetic sponges for information.  Take for example thirteen year old "Garnett The Great" Schmidt from Toronto.  A three year camp veteran, Schmidt didn't waste any time once he identified me as an untapped audience.  He approached with confidence and earnestly showed me a wonderful three card monte routine freshly mastered from his elective with Trevor Watters.  His presentation was charming and his technique was solid.  It is no surprise that Schmidt has been pursuing magic as a business for three years now.
One of the things campers universally love about Sorcerers Safari is that it brings together other young people with whom they can share their interest in magic.  Not all cities have a magic club, let alone one that encourages youth members.  Here the campers are grouped into cabins based on their ages and experience.
In the girls' cabin there was a wider range in age (10 to 17 years), because of the smaller percentage of girls at camp.  What they lacked in numbers, however, they made up for in their dedication to Sorcerers Safari. "Tricky Niki" Runnalls, a 17 year old counsellor in training (CIT), was in her fourth year at camp.  Runnalls said she "will never miss a coming year."  Of the nine girls, all but one was a repeat camper.  Each of the other girls had previously spent between three and ten years at magic camp.  While the girls were well aware they were in the minority at camp, none of them bought into the notion that magic is a masculine art form.  The cabin was unanimous.  If you're a girl and you like to do magic, "Just do it!"


Sorcerers Safari was bursting with skilled instructors who are who are beyond passionate about magic.   The line up included:  Asher, Kline, Hinchliffe, Watters, Dick Joiner, Eric Leclerc, Mike D'Urzo, Shawn Farquhar, Chris Pilsworth, David Mitchell, Ben Train, Dan Weibe, Craig Douglas, Jason Palter, Wayne HouchinChad Juros, Mark Chalmers, Carey Lauder, special guest Eric Jones and many more!
"It [Sorcerers Safari] enabled me to be confident, to meet professionals in my field (friends too!). It allowed me to believe in myself that this is something I could do every single day for the rest of my life."  --Keith Brown
Counsellors and instructors alike volunteer their time and pay their own way to magic camp.  Many of them have been known to turn down the opportunity to do shows in order to attend.  Sorcerers Safari is a not-for-profit organization which runs under the umbrella of the registered Canadian charity, Magic Unlimited Theatre Productions Ontario.

While it's obvious that everyone at camp has a passion for the art of magic, a large part of what makes the camp successful is that so many of the instructors also have a passion for teaching children. 
For example:
  • Lauder, who has taught at Sorcerers Safari for 13 years, is a Winnipeg high school teacher.  He is also an executive member of the Winnipeg Society of Young Magicians (SYM) which is the youth program (7-16yo) for the Society of American Magicians.  He's been involved with the SYM for 17 years.
  • Weibe, also from Winnipeg, has been an instructor with Sorcerers Safari for three years and "would come back in a flash."  His son Graham spent seven years at camp.  Weibe has also been an instructor with the Winnipeg SYM for 10 years.
  • A ten year veteran of magic camp, Douglas from Toronto also teaches with "Scientists in Schools," and taught in over 120 schools last year.  Douglas' children have each spent eleven years at camp.
  • LeClerc, an Ottawa area magician, is in his seventh year of organizing summer day camp magic lessons for Ottawa area children.  This was LeClerc's second year of instructing at Sorcerers Safari.
  • Hinchliffe and Segal also teach magic in a summer day camp setting throughout the Greater Toronto Area.  In addition, Hinchliffe can also be found teaching card clinic classes out of a local magic shop.


Each night campers were treated to a show by instructors, counsellors and guest performers at the Pinetages Theatre.  The show I saw had the tech flawlessly run by Asher and Kline.  The line-up showcased Segal, Jones, Greg Frewin (assisted by the bound and gagged Houchin), Douglas, and was closed by Trevor and Lorena Watters
On the final night at camp, it's the campers' turn to dazzle the audience with what they'd learned and polished during the week.  The entire show is camper run, including the emcees, tech (light and sound), and stagehands.  Running their own show demands leadership skills, peer trust, peer respect and is the highlight for many at camp.  Experiences like this are tremendous confidence builders.

Non-magic activities

It's not all cards, coins and illusion at magic camp.  After breakfast campers participated in a camp stretch prior to a camp run.  After lunch there were camp-wide activities held such as "Capture The Flag" and "Survivor."  "Field activities give kids a chance to do non-magic things with magic 'legends' " said Juros, a second year counsellor.  "This helps to foster a relationship outside of the traditional student-teacher role."
Mid-afternoon, there was unstructured "free time" where campers can enjoy the many outdoor amenities that Camp White Pine has to offer.  During these breaks, many campers continued to work on their magic or seized opportunities to ask questions of the instructors.  It wasn't unusual to find Farquhar holding court with campers looking for tips on flourishes and forces, Leclerc bringing Rocky Racoon to life on the beach, campers juggling, Asher rocking his Continental Divide, and other campers showing each other what they learned during their electives.
Alumnus Rosemary Reid had a fabulous idea for a new camp-wide activity:  a Sorcerers Safari single-take lip dub. This was done to the song "Magic" by B.o.B featuring Rivers Cummo.  The youthful exuberance for both the project and magic is clearly evident in the video filmed by Mark Baluk, magician and third year York University film student. 

Penn and Teller had this to say about the lip dub:
Sorcerers Safari Alumni include:
  • Bilaal Rajan (2004-2005):
    - A  UNICEF Canada Child Representative since 2005.

  • Nathaniel Rankin (2002):
    - Recently performed in "Cirque Starlight" touring Switzerland for six months with over 180 shows.

  • Scott Hammel (2001 CIT, later returned as staff):
    - A motivational speaker and world record holder for the “World’s Highest Suspension Straight Jacket Escape.”

  • Daniel Steep (2007):
    - Recently performed his "Agri-Kidabra" show four times daily through the eighteen day run of the Canadian National Exhibition

  • Sheldon Casavant (2003, counsellor in 2004 and 2007)
    - Selected to perform at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and author of the illustrated children's book, "Morton the Magician and His Magnificent Magic Show."

  • Rosemary Reid (2001-2009, 2010 staff)
    - Won grand prize in "2010 Dalhousie's Got Talent."

  • Keith Brown, 19yo (2006 – 2009 CIT; counsellor in 2010)
    - Winner of the 2011 London (Ontario) Fringe Impresario (The Patron's Pick) award. Currently studying Communications in Jönköping Sweden (part of a Dramatic Art & Communications double major).
There were many traditions to look forward to: before show games, the dance, Gavin's Beach Party (formerly Steven Kline's Beach Party) and the Polar Bear Swim.  Everyone wants to return to camp next year.  Life-long friendships are formed at Sorcerers Safari. 
"My best friends in life are those that I met at camp. As a kid who didn't quite fit in when I was younger, magic camp was a second family where I was accepted each year no matter what awkward adolescent phase I was going through."  – Rosemary Reid
One question, however, proved difficult for campers to answer.  I fished for dirt asking, "What don't you like about magic camp?"  The campers looked at me completely dumbfounded.  No one had anything bad to say about magic camp.  A handful of campers took a few moments to dig deep.  The ones that did gave me the same response: "It's too short."


Back to the original question: "What is the secret to this Canadian magic camp success story?"
There is no one single thing that makes Sorcerers Safari so successful.  As Segal has often said, "it is more than the sum of its parts."  And he's right.  He's created, seemingly by alchemy, a unique opportunity for young magic enthusiasts to learn from and network with, professionals who are open and approachable.  When asked how he came by this elusive recipe, a modest Segal said, "I'm totally amazed.  This is the best trick I have ever pulled off in my life."
Farquhar has one outstanding question:  "When's magic camp for adults?" 

Disclosure: My family and I were guests of Sorcerers Safari for 24 hours last summer. The opinions expressed above are entirely my own. I did not receive compensation for the writing or the publishing of this article.


  1. Phil and I were guests at the magic camp a few years back and definitely concur with everything everyone said. We had a marvellous time. At one of the workshops on presentation, Phil as a member of the audience offered a suggestionand was promptly called up front to speak to the campers and answer their questions. After that wherever we went kids, young as well as teenagers, came over to us with note pads and asked questions and wrote down what he said. They were confident and enthusiastic, and respectful. Three cheers to Mike and Jan and all the magicians that give their time and knowledge. Keep up the good work!
    Evelyn (and Phil) Matlin

    1. Hi Evelyn,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective on camp. The kids that year were lucky to be able to pick Phil's brain!

      Oh to be a kid again...