MILTON — The two dozen or so teenagers and preteens filling a room at St. Mary of the Hills School in Milton all had stories about why they were there. Some had received a magic-trick kit for a birthday and wanted to learn more. Others have parents who are professional performers. Some just wanted a place to hang out with youths a little like themselves — sometimes quiet, a bit goofy, but always at home on a stage.
The students are part of the Society of Young Magicians, a youth arm of the Society of American Magicians, with about 60 local assemblies around the world including in Bermuda and South Africa. The group, which has met in various Boston-area locations but is currently based in Milton, gathers once a month with many members traveling from all over New England to learn performance techniques and build skills and confidence.
“Of course, it’s possible to learn magic on your own — especially these days with the Internet — but we have a student-mentor relationship, the way magic has been shared for centuries,” said David Oliver, the group’s adult leader and a professional magician. “There aren’t many places where an 8-year-old can sit and teach or learn from an 18-year-old.”
Under Oliver’s direction, the group has grown from three to 50 members since its inception in 1987. Several members have won local or national awards, including the Kleinmann Incentive Award for Most Promising Young Entertainer given out by the Society of American Magicians.
The group works on performances throughout the year for local audiences and raises money for charitable organizations through a student-run show called “Magic More.” Each summer, some members will travel to the International Brotherhood of Magicians national convention and others will attend a Society of American Magicians camp.
But at the monthly meetings in Milton, it’s more about learning to work as a group and supporting one another.
Meetings start with the group gathering in the back of the room where one member teaches the rest a small trick. It is a chance for new members to get to know the others and where the student-to-student mentoring begins.
“Most of our kids come in here with a basic interest in magic,” Oliver said. “Maybe they’ve seen it in a show, maybe on television, or they were given a kit for their birthday, but here they learn that it’s a performance.”
Parents, who fill the rest of the seats in the room, sit quietly, sometimes reading or talking among themselves. Many say they enjoy attending the meetings almost as much as their children because it means watching them grow as performers and individuals.
“He used to be very bashful and would just sit right here with us, never talking to a soul,” said Estelle Gold, of Rhode Island, about her grandson Andrew Colannino, now an officer in the group. “But this is his world, and now since coming, he doesn’t want anything to do with us and is leading workshops.”
Several other adults also said they have watched shy children change over the years into boisterous and confident young magicians.
“I can’t really pinpoint what it is — I guess it’s magical,” parent Walter Wickersham, of Wellesley, said. “But really, I think that by allowing the kids to push themselves in a really safe environment, [Oliver] helps instill this sense of confidence.”
And it is that transformation that is most important about what the group is doing, said Cambridge-based professional magician Bob Riordan, who gave a presentation about how to host a birthday party at a recent meeting.
“There is so much more to magic than just learning magic,” Riordan said. “There are life lessons that performing at a young age teaches — learning how to learn from critiques, adapting to new situations, how to market yourself.”
After the informal show-and-tell gathering and student officers going through normal business procedures such as approving meeting minutes or discussing upcoming events, three or four students are selected as “chosen ones” to perform. To varying degrees of success, the young performers try out a trick they’ve been working on. Members of the audience, including Oliver, give their reviews of what was done well and what could be improved.
“It’s a safe haven to try things out, and no one should feel like they’ve messed up, because we’ve all messed up,” member Alejandra Doherty, 16, of Boston, said. “Nobody says ‘you’re weird’ because here we’re all weird and we’re all doing magic.”
The meeting concludes with pizza and a final activity, such as a performance by a professional or creating audition tapes to help students land future gigs. At a recent meeting, the parents tried their hand at performing, swapping roles with their children.
As the night comes to a close, the young magicians filter out slowly, some still carrying props from their performances. Laughter and excited voices fill the room as they continue to talk in small groups about what’s next or how much fun they always have.
“I’ve always loved magic for what it was — doing the impossible,” member Kira Schwartz, of Medway, 14, said. “But here I get to share that with people, you make friends, you learn, and you laugh.”