Tom Cassani: Testing the Strange

In September 2023, Tom Cassani undertook our TEST residency: On Circus, the first of Lancaster Arts’ residencies under the new name, TEST, reflecting our aim to offer artists the opportunity to explore and ‘test’ their practice in a range of spaces and with a range of partners.  Tom is an artist living in Ilkley, Yorkshire and working in circus, magic and live art. He spent a week with us exploring how he might expand the form in which ‘circus-sideshow’ acts are performed. With the support of contemporary circus mentor, Flick Ferdinando, Tom asked: ‘What can an audience and I gain from exposing/revealing/performing the ritualistic training and learning of new magic and circus skills? What are the existing unacknowledged ‘rules’/dos and don’ts of my magic, circus and live art practice?  What tactics can I develop to help streamline my practical research?’  

Tom shares some of his thoughts and findings from his residency below.     


I have been researching and training in strange performance skills, such as sword swallowing, magic and hair suspension, for as long as I can remember. Over the last seven years I have been exploring how to incorporate these techniques into a unique performance practice. I use the skills of deceit as an artistic framework to explore truth, honesty, manipulation, and fabrication.   

In my time at Lancaster Arts, I spent a week in the theatre figuring out how to do new things and how to articulate the ways I already make decisions.   

I tested methods for making objects balance impossibly.  

I tried to turn sword swallowing into an act of self-reflection.  

I tried to hide how hair hanging works whilst making sure people know how hard it really is.   

A man tying his hair up

The week also turned out to be an exploration of the paradoxes in magic and circus -sideshow. I talked to my mentor for the residency, Flick Ferdinando, about how often these practices invite audiences to imagine the training undertaken to achieve a spectacle but without having to put them through that hard work.  A lot of our chats ended up focusing on this contradiction and how this tells us interesting things about the exchange between performer and audience.  

I played the same music a lot.  I wrote lists of different versions of acts/things/tricks/routines, and I tried them all out.  

A sword swallowing act   
-       As a clown act  
-       As a lecture  
-       As a joke  
-       As performance art  
-       As something cleverer than it really is  

Hair hanging  
-       As a magic act   
-       As a dream  
-       As a storm   
-       As a contemporary dance  
-       As a rehearsal  

I explored these lists, these iterations, to almost exorcise all the possibilities of what the skills I’ve learned could be. In some instances, to discover the new but in some just to get them out of the way and out of my head. Trawling through the infinite potential of these strange skills allowed me to get just a little closer to the core of what I find interesting about sticking a 19-inch stainless steel blade down my throat in front of people.  

a glass of water some wipes and a bottle of listerine on a table

I sat in the dark a lot.  

I half wrote a manifesto:     

Tom must be always Tom or at least a version of himself (whatever that means).  
There are likely black latex gloves nearby.  
Tom may be in danger or maybe we all are.   
There’s a specific intensity to everything. 
As the performance builds it should take itself apart at the same time. This is very important.   
Tom is confident even if something goes wrong. It feels like it could be part of the show and it just might be.  
There are always lists.  
Tom isn’t a magician.  

I wrote a list of rituals:  

The get in   
The lunch  
The waiting for that guy to find that thing  
The accepting that someone might figure it out  
The introducing yourself   
The outroducing yourself  
The coming  
The going   
The doing it just one last time before they open the doors  

  I refined the process in which I make decisions for the performances I do. Apparently, I have strict rules which are only beginning to be articulated.  I chose to mash some ideas together and to make some simpler. I chose to spend hours with some ideas and minutes on others. I thought about what they made me want to do next.  

At the centre of all the different ways in which I deal with the skills I have is the need to foreground a particular conversation with the audience. A conversation that centres on the mechanics of performing near-impossible actions. I’m a performer working with skills that look like magic, but I also need to constantly remind viewers that I don’t actually have magic powers and for me that’s important to remember.   

About Tom  

Tom Cassani is a performance maker working in theatre, cabaret, Live Art and circus. His ongoing artistic exploration draws on an expanded approach to magic. He uses strategies of Live Art, techniques of circus-sideshow and methods of illusion to create almost impossible images. Using his body as a site of deception, Tom hangs from his hair, swallows swords, crawls through broken glass and performs almost-miracles with everyday objects. Tom also works internationally as a consultant and dramaturg specialising in inter-disciplinary deceptive practices. 

Posted on 6th Dec, 2023