Ian Harman is a mystery man of Illusion whose charms you may have experienced without even realising. His act is impressive – born and raised on a dairy farm in small town Eketahuna - you may not even notice Ian go about his business in Palmerston North. He fits in, is polite, smiles and nods and disappears into the crowd. But as I mentioned, Ian is a master of Illusion, if you get the chance to look closely you’ll see a magic twinkle in his eye.
Ian Harman is a treasure that Palmerston North is lucky to have in its midst. If you’ve attended the many theatre shows that have played in this city over the years, you’re likely to have unwittingly experienced his magic. From acting, to costume design, set design and directing, Ian has had a hand in creating some of the best shows Palmerston North has ever seen. He extends his reach into the Wellington theatre scene where his skills are sought after too, but you wouldn’t know about it unless you ask – he is mysterious and humble.
So how did he go about pulling this magical creative rabbit out of his hat? That is a story that has a wonderful beginning. When a young super cute Ian started school at the age of five, the Christmas pantomime was already in rehearsal. It had a nursery rhyme theme and Ian got a last minute line tacked on for him. With a wonderful prop his crafty Mother made him, Ian got to play Little Jack Horner and say ‘and what a good boy am I’ while sticking his thumb in a pie and pulling out a plum. His delivery must have been endearing because the crowd responded in a way that gave an impressionable Ian such a moment of joy that he was never to forget it, inspiring him ever since to find that moment of pleasure again.
Isolated rural life didn’t provide much opportunity to indulge Ian’s love of drama but a magic set given to him at the age of seven years old cast a spell over him. Ian reveals that he had plenty of time on his hands to indulge in perfecting the art of magic in the sleepy little town of Eketahuna and achieved great success at his first Magic Competition in Hamilton at the age of fourteen where he gained third place in New Zealand and went on to become a teenage champion and national champion. Ian enjoyed entertaining, but doing magic in front of magicians was an intimidating experience – he knew his act relied on him being entertaining, not just magical so he entertained magically!
After a brief stint training as a graphic designer Ian followed his passion for entertaining and pursued a career in the entertainment industry. Managing to enchant Dance Encore Productions he was picked up for his magician abilities and taken overseas to Sydney where he worked as a backing singer, backing dancer and magician. Dance Encore Productions also whisked Ian away on a contract to Japan where he became lead singer and magician in shows. Ian credits Dance Encore Productions with sharing their wealth of experience with him, showing him the etiquette and professionalism he needed in the industry. He made the most of all the opportunities that came his way, quietly watching and learning, getting stuck in and assisting with things like ironing costumes and setting up stages so that he could see how it all worked and build his craft.
When Ian was hired by Art Orient Entertainment in Taiwan in 2015 he worked entertaining in a theme park as well as turning his hand to costume design and construction, illusion design, and magic consultant roles.
After stuffing as many tricks in his suitcase as possible Ian returned to New Zealand for a brief stint, but found his heart kept him here. Because Ian’s work in Palmerston North has been both extensive and award winning I’ve revealed a summary at the end of this article since there are simply too much to slot in here – I am no magician.
Ian transformed his experience from overseas and from the companies he’d worked for and created his own company in Palmerston North ‘Stagestruck Productions’. After auditioning for parts, Ian conjured up delightful floor shows in various styles such as Rock ‘n’ Roll, Latin, Jungle, Rocky Horror, and French inspired creating a new one up to every three weeks which were performed in hotels and resorts throughout New Zealand.
In 2007 Ian’s vision of producing a burlesque show came to fruition with the creation of the ‘Boom Boom Room’ a production company that brought arty burlesque to Palmerston North before it had come back into fashion. Ian’s passion for producing, high quality, classy burlesque is not restricted to image alone. His sensitivity to the process of not only being physically nude but naked in the performer’s vulnerability has been a key to making not only the performers feel comfortable but also ensuring the audience’s experience was enjoyable. ‘The Boom Boom Room’ enjoyed a schedule which took them all the way to Queenstown to perform.
Pushing past his own vulnerability enabled Ian to find a part to play that he had never seen himself doing, and which at first he was not comfortable with. After taking advice from a choreographer friend who suggested that he also needed to do burlesque – dressed as a half man half woman - Ian balked at the idea, he did not want to do it, but he also did not want to give the part away. Enter Mr Lola Illusion, a darling, tender and vulnerable character who sings, dances, and weaves his way into audience’s hearts with his magic and illusion tricks. It was as Lola that Ian felt again that moment of joy when an enchanted audience member yelled out ‘Oh, will someone just give him a hug’ he knew he’d really touched some hearts.
Never meaning for Lola to be a political figure, Ian likes how Lola has become a vehicle for some important issues. Lola, is not about gender issues, or sexuality but about the true human experience of love and loss, sadness and joy, that we all have our turn at feeling. Lola transcends the outer experience and journeys deep into the vulnerable heart – perhaps a trick only possible by a magician.
With a plethora of directing, set design, and costume design awards under his belt Ian is an artist of theatre who conjures amazing stories into a visual feast. It can be a tough industry but Ian credits his parent’s steadfast support and excellent role modelling for his resilience and hard work ethic. A genuine love and loyalty to his family is one of the things that keeps him here in Palmerston North, as well as a belief that Palmy deserves good theatre too, so why not do it here.
When queried about whether he is a perfectionist Ian does what perfectionists often do, he acts like he might be a little bit, but it’s because he has a reason. Ian’s reason is that ‘he cares’. He cares about doing things right, in fact I think he possibly agonises about it – from behind the scenes.
Shattering Ian’s Illusions
Ian is a master at making things invisible. I’ve remedied the use of his invisible ink and can reveal here the vast extent of Ian’s work in theatre, although even this is summarised to simply notable achievements:
Abbey Theatre - Directed, choreographed, set design, and costumes (9 shows)
Leader of the pack 2010 Manawatu Theatre Award – Best Direction & Best Production
Sweet Charity 2012 Manawatu Theatre Awards – Costume Design
Hairspray 2013 Manawatu Theatre Awards – Best Choreography & Best Direction
The Best Little 2013 Manawatu Theatre Awards - Best Production of the
Whorehouse in Texas Year
Centrepoint Theatre - Costume designer 2005-present (25 Shows)
Circa Theatre - Wellington
The Mystery of 2015 Wellington Theatre Award- Costume designer of the year
Ache 2015 Wellington Theatre Award – Set designer of the year
La Casa Azul 2016 Wellington Theatre Award- nominated costume 2017
You can experience the Mr Lola illusion show at the Wellington Fringe Festival from the 16th-19th of February at Bats Theatre. To book phone 04 802 4175 or book online at bats.co.nz