Relating to Performance

Few things make me more livid than insultingly bad theatre of any sort. Conversely, perfectly realised and exquisitely elegant performance can move me deeply and reduce me to sobbing like a big girh. Seeing for the first time good actor friends, whom I already respect and love, act in something where they excel invariably moves me deeply. I have insufferably high standards as regards these things, and when people whom I know go out and meet those standards, 1 am always transported. in all other walks of life, I am very difficult to affect in this way. (Although I was happy to weep stinging tears at Sunset Beach every morning when it graced my little electric television set. Now it is no more, and performers like us must find some other reason to get out of bed.)

Seeing Tommy Wonder perform for the first time brought a lump to my throat. The moment that the birdcage lifted was so exquisite that tears came to my eyes. That is the onhy time that magic has ever really moved me. It was a perfectly realised moment in a beautiful routine.

Tommy, as with all very good performers, has a love for the art in himself. The other option, and the one that I wish to warn against, is to love oneself too much in the ad. This distinction, made by Stanlislavsky, is very much worth discussing in relation to magic.

I remember accompanying a friend to see a small show in London. Part of the entertainment consisted of the attempts of an effeminate man to sing and act his side of a love story. It was dreadful. He could neither sing nor act to any worthwhile degree, and his attempts to do either were deeply embarrassing. Yet throughout it was the clear sense that he absolutely loved the fact that he was doing it. When he received applause at the end of a number, he seemed to visibly swell as he absorbed it. The performance would have been far more honest, and equally revolting, if he had climbed up on stage and masturbated for an hour.

Afterwards, I went backstage to meet the other half of the duo that comprised the show: a talented comedienne who had performed professionally and wonderfully. While chatting with friends after the performance, I saw the camp would-be-music-theatre-luvvie flounce into the room and collapse onto a sofa demanding a Martini. I watched and listened as all his Mends told him how great he had been. He offered transparent ob~ections to their flattery: 'Dh no, I was dreadful tonight... really I was awful.." while they were quite happy to lie to his face and tell him just how strong he was. How great and how hysterical.

I stood, fuming. Not only had this man insulted us with a terrible evening's entertainment, but he was clearly wanting only to hear how good he was. His whole reason for performing was self-gratification. He loved himself as an actor, and that was why he did it.

Personally, when I have finished a public performance, my priority is to first of all go away a bit on my own and mull over how I felt it went, and to have some moments to adjust before joining any friends. When I do join people I respect after a performance, I am really only interested in knowing what could be better. What worked but what, more importantly, didn't. If I have performed badly and have people lie to me and tell me I was good, then I am being encouraged to atrophy: to stop moving forward and developing what I do.

Anybody who performs should love the art in himself, and be very wary of loving himself in the art. The difference is clear when we watch a performer who clearly thinks he's great but has no connection with the audience. There are plenty of them, and many think they perform magic.

One problem with magic is that too often, people are polite in their responses, and we think we are getting away with methods when we simply are not. I hope you have had the experience of overhearing a spectator correctly guess exactly the method you used to achieve an effect that you have honed and worked on for years. In such situations you wonder how often this happens and you sImply don't hear. But there are enough dreadful magicians around for us to know how easy it is to perform magic badly and not get any feedback. Where, after all, could that feedback come from? Not from the public, who would in most cases pretend to be fooled out of sheer pity. Not from other magicians, who will be generally unlikely to be able to offer a layman's reaction. For an art that relies entirely on the experiences of the spectators, it is remarkably difficult to find out what those experiences are We cannot finish an effect and then immediately have the audience dissect their experience of it to provide us with useful information. Yet that is exactly what we need.

The only answer is to seek criticism humbly and greedily. This can be done without compromising your vision. Yet sometimes the experiences of your audiences would surprise you, if only you knew them. When I heard that a spectator in my restaurant found it vaguely distasteful that I placed my foot on the table and had her remove her ring from my sock, I was embarrassed by how obviously inappropriate behaviour that had been. Yet I probably would have continued, for the revelation of the ring was a very good one for all sorts of other reasons.

If you find yourself automatically defending a routine when it is criticised, then I believe you stop moving forward. This does not mean that you have to accept every criticism and adapt accordingly; for then you would be a poor artist indeed. Instead, you must learn how to react to criticism in a productive way: and this is a skill that extends far past performance into life.

The bad effeminate actor mentioned earlier would have taken criticism impossibly personally, because the reactions that he gets from performing give him a sense of who he is. He needs the reaction of a crowd to feel worthwhile, Insecurity amongst performers is not uncommon, but if it hinders your art (rather than causes you to pursue it relentlessly) then it can only be detrimental. His focus was entirely upon himself, and therefore any issues or questions arising instantly became personal. However, where your focus is on the development of the art within yourself, or on the growth of the performance piece as a separate thing from you, then there is no personal threat involved in criticism.

Paul Daniels once said to me "If criticism is constructive, listen to it. If it's not, ignore it." That, and something about name-dropping. This is an easy slogan, but I am unsure of it. If were to attract a lot of personal, unconstructive criticism from people who had seem my performance, it would do me well to listen to it and try and get behind the insults to see what was going wrong. Often people are just rude, but their reasons for being so may be of relevance.

People who can take criticism well simply stand back from whatever is said, and think in dissociated terms as they run the information through in their minds. Those who get upset and cannot deal with it, and therefore never learn, turn criticism into a personal issue the moment that they hear it.

Here is a simple exercise, if you feel that you find criticism difficult to deal with. Think back to the last time you were told something that would count as critical, and which upset you. Hear the words being said to you (presuming that they were spoken) and see what they trigger. Generally they will trigger a feeling and mental images, and a need to fight back with something.

Now realise that in order to be the best you can be, you will sometimes need an outsider's perspective on how your life or performance looks. Sometimes this can be of immense value, and it is certainly very useful as regards magic. Think back again to the criticism, but instead of hearing it being said at you, imagine a film of the incident that shows both you and the critic in conversation, or however the incident happened. See this mental film in black and white, on a small screen at arm's length. This is the opposite of the way you would represent memories of things that move or upset you. To react emotionally to something, you have to represent it in an associated manner: i.e. as you experienced it at the time. By seeing yourself in the picture and running it from a third-person perspective, you literally gain distance from the incident and a more detached perspective from it. Now see the version of you in the picture mulling over the criticism offered. See him make his own detached mind-film in the same way, a film in which he sees his behaviour from the point of view of the critic, and ascertains whether the criticism would have been reasonable to that critic at that tune. Let that version of you decide whether or not change would be worthwhile: let him run films that show different ways of behaving, and see if any could work better.

This way of thinking is absolutely vital. If somebody criticises your performance, you n:ust instantly be able to see the performance from a detached perspective, ascertain why the criticism might have been felt, and what, if anything, could be done to change things for the better.

This is not to compromise our vision, it is to help us reach it. As a performer, you should see criticism as a positive thing. Clearly you want it from people whom you respect, and people who understand what you are trying to achieve. As long as you know what you are trying to achieve, you will, by practising this detachment, see whether you are getting closer to your goals or not. Decent, intelligent criticism is pure gold to us: value it highly and seek it out where you can.

Cold and Nasty

As magicians, we manipulate. Manipulation is generally seen as a dirty word, but it is not. Tit is a dirty word, and to trombone somebody is also an unsavoury expression. Manipulation, however, is a neutral expression. Teachers manipulate their pupils. Therapists manipulate their clients (although therapists are the very cock-cheese of Satan and anything they do is as dirty as dirty can be). We all manipulate each other and play out gentle power-struggles in our everyday conversations.

Magic, in fact, depends upon an ability to deftly manipulate an audience into experiencing the impossible. Correctly done, this manipulation will elevate the spectators, for wonder is a delightful thing. Often mentalists prefer to provoke awe at their powers, for mentalism is, as I have said, too often about showing off an imaginary skill rather thaji creating a moment of wonder outside of oneself. I am all for provoking awe at my imaginary powers, understand me. But I feel this can be done subtly and indirectly, and in a way that captures the imagination of the audience, rather than patronises them.

The manipulation that we aim to achieve is one that brings our audiences to a lovely place where they can experience something that magic exclusively offers. Witnessing the impossible. Quite in contradiction to this would be the kind of manipulation that lessens the spectator's sense of self, and limits her understanding of herself to an arbitrary vision imposed by the manipulator. Surely it would be anathema to us as artists of wonder to cause her to see her limits rather than transcend them.

My concern here is the practice of cold-reading. Mentalists pride themselves on their skills in this area and often preach its efficacy with an evangelical fervour. It seems acceptable for a hired entertainer to sit someone down and make personal statements that are seductive and believable to the credulous, or at worst even offer messages of reassurance from loved ones beyond the grave. I know of one mentalist who, while mingling at an event, took it upon himself to offer a message of love from a miscarried baby to a still- grieving woman. His defence was that she found the words comforting.

I am unsure what sort of person would comfortably offer such a message, let alone when working outside of a therapeutic environment. But even without sinking to those depths, it is undoubtedly common practice for menta.lists to play on the common insecurities from which most people suffer. I'm thinking of statements like, "You enjoy company and like to present quite a tough exterior, and one which people respect you for. Rut when you come away from such gatherings you tend to replay conversations in your head, wondering what impression you made on people and what so-and-so meant when he made a certain comment. This sensitivity and worry is in contrast to the laid-back and secure veneer that you present. You know when you're just putting on a show of confidence, and how shallow it can be."

Surely this is a fantastically unpleasant thing to say to anyone. True, many cold-readers say only brief and flattering things, but how convincing are they? Ironically, unless you are supposedly uncovering the insecurities of the sitter, you will not give the impression of knowing her at all.

Now, the ideas behind cold-reading do fascinate me, and I know from having practised it in the past that I am good at it. There is no doubting the strength of its effect when it is done well. I now feel that I have arrived at a solution to my dilemma that allows me to produce the powerful illusion that cold-reading offers but without a hint of the unpleasantness that is in the very roots of the common variety.

It began a while back in the lounge-bar of Byzantium Restaurant in Bristol, where I have my residency. I had asked a spectator to call a friend and have him name a playing card. I had a card face-down on the table and it was my task to manipulate the friend, through the phrasing of the spectator's instructions, into choosing that very one. But in between the termination of the telephone call, and my telling the spectator to turn over the card, I paused to give a description of the friend just called. I began with a few vague statements, but as they began to hit, I kept going. It made the entire effect genuinely astounding, and the final revelation of the card miraculous.

The spectator in the restaurant was a white male aged in his mid- twenties, with shoulder-length dark hair. He was dressed casually and wore sandals, and I could see that he smoked roll-ups. When he called his friend, his opening words were, "Hi — Verne, it's Chris." When 1 began to give instructions, I told Chris not to give me any clues about his friend; in particular not to say his name (obviously he already had but I knew that would pass as forgotten).

I gave the following description, after Chris had hung up the 'phone;

"Now let me get an image of your friend in my mind. I'm seeing a male, in his mid-twenties.., in fact quite a good friend of yours. You have known him for a few years... but he has moved away recently and you don't see him as often. He lives in Birmingham now, I believe. IThis was correct, and provoked some interest. I based this only on the fact that I had seen the friend's number come up on his mobile 'phone and recognised the dialling code.J He has hair lighter than yours but shorter, and is musically inclined. He plays the guitar, though he has also dabbled with keyboard and electronic music. He also has particular notions about spirituality, or at least self-awareness, which you kind of share II was generally describing my impressions of Chris here and watching for positive reactionsj. You two talk a lot about women and relationships. Ah, now he comes from, I think, a fairly wealthy family, is that right? [The name 'Verne,' short for 'Vernon,' certainly has class associations, This was correct, which gave me more clues]. He is, however, very cynical about his parents, and has spoken to you at length about that. Quite strong political views too. I'm getting a name, an odd one, begins with a 'V'.. 'Victor?' 'Vernon?' (I used the full name so that it wouldn't sound too familiar)..."

And so on. Afterwards, I reflected upon what had happened. The brief 'reading' secured me a booking there and then — I was invited to perform at Chris' birthday party the next week. Verne, interestingly was there. I was in a dilemma: I did not like cold- reading yet had not felt bad giving that one. The response it got made me want to work more frequently with this tool, yet I usually felt a genuine distaste for it.

The answer, of course, became clear. This reading had not concerned the spectator. It had not been about Chris. It did not limit Chris' perception of himself and make him view his life according to my arbitrary vision. It was about someone else, and had all the strength of a good reading without the moral problems that bothered me.

Similarly, the cold-reading technique can be applied to situations and incidents without causing the kind of moral difficulties which would otherwise concern me. For example, I was recently demonstrating mind-reading at a presentation given by an advertising company in Swindon. (For

American readers who may not know Swindon, it is a beautiful old rural English piece of paradise and well worth a visit if you come to England. It is kept secret, so you will not find it in all the touristy travel guides: just get on a train and go.) The chap next to me, one of the advertising group who had hired me, opened his diary to write something in it. I saw that he had marked against the following Tuesday, "Dental Appt." and underneath that had written the name (one Dr. Garten) and full address and telephone number of the surgery. That was all the information I had, but later on was able to give quite an expansive reading based on the glimpsed information:

"Nick, I was looking at you earlier on, and I saw — this sounds odd — a garden in your mouth. [I was leaving him to find the connection with the dentist's name] I don't know what that means. I thought about it and I feel that your teeth are callin.g out. I see you visiting a dentist — a specialist in some area, but it's not a major job like a root canal. [He had written 'Dental Appt.,' not whatever the surgery was to achieve. I imagine that if it was for root canal work, you wouldn't write something as bland as 'Appt.'] This is a new dentist, not one you've seen before [he had written the address: why would he if he knew the place?] and its not near where you live, it's a bit of a journey. [He had written the area code along with the rest of the telephone number, which again would have been unnecessary if it had been a local surgeryl. You're not particularly bothered about going, which is good — you don't get nervous like some people. [He had written in large, confident handwriting, which, without getting into the nonsenses of graphology, didn't suggest to me apprehension about the appointment.]"

I waited for a reaction. He said, "I know you looked in my diary."

Bugger.

All I could say was, "Diary? I swear to God I did not see your diary."

Further examples come from a routine I perform where I have a person think of a childhood memory. This can be revealed and elaborated on through a mixture of cold-reading and billet or pm- show technique. This routine particularly good for using this form of reading.. ['he last time I performed this routine, it was for a student at a party, and the glimpsed information read. "Pecan pie at the collage." You might want to give yourself a moment to see what you can deduce from that brief phrase. My reading went as follows:

"Now, picture in your mind the scene, whatever it is. IPause...] Oh, that's interesting. It's a little older than people usually choose: this is a memory from seven or eight, is that right? [She was eight. After all, you wouldn't want to eat pecan pie much younger than that.] And there's you, and... some other kids? This is a group thing, isn't it? [Well, pecan pie takes some effort, so I guessed that there'd be a few people there.] And, oh, that's odd., you're at home, but you're not at home. What does that mean? [The cottage, note. Neither Grandma's nor anyone else's. It had to be theirs, and it had to be a holiday homel I see Summer outside, and plenty of greenery. Maybe some water close by, but definitely woodland. And this is somewhere that you regularly visited with your family. Alt.. it's a treat, isn't it. Something your mother made... she's very creative, as are you:

that's something you've picked up from her. You don't study English, do you? [A gamble, but she looked the type. And my phrasing of the question would have given me a way out. But I was right]. She is an excellent cook. Ah, is this something to do with cooking? Is it a tasty treat? You all used to get together and have this, and it was something of a Summer treat in this lovely place. What was it?"

I didn't mention 'pecan pie,' and I didn't ever say 'cottage.' In fact, I asked her to tell me what the treat was. In my mind, I was seeing her picture. Rather that describe what she had written, I began to describe the picture that she was seeing: which was far more impressive. She was visibly shaking and really freaked out by this piece of mind-reading. I don't think I could have performed anything stronger, and the strength came from making certain deductions from a small piece of information.

Performing the same routine another time, for another chap in his twenties, the information read, 'Playing guitar." Not much upon which to elaborate there perhaps, but again I invite you to see what you would have made of it.

l want you to visuatise the memory for me. [Pause...) that's a difficult picture to see, because you're looking down at something quite close to you: there's not much to pick up on. Shift your view so that you cart see yourself in whatever the situation is. [Pause...] Ah, that's better. Oh, that's interesting: I said to choose a childhood memory but you've gone for something a little older: I can see you aged eight or nine. [He reacts very strongly to this. Tie was indeed nine years old]. Yes, that's very clear. Now this is a particular activity, as opposed to something more general like a holiday. In fact this is something that when you were doing it at that age, you had ambitions which have stilJ not been fulfilled. (If he is thinking of guitar playing as a memoiy, then I cart safely assume that he no longer plays. This gives me some scope.J This is something that you continued with for a while, and your interest peaked around age sixteen/seventeen.. Correct? [Another big reaction] And then you stopped. Now, I'm seeing you — well, either as an only child, or one with a big age difference between you and your... Ihe has not reacted to 'only child' so [keep going]... brother? Is it a brother? Yes, at least two or three years difference... (I am confidently backtracking on the age difference because he was clearly wondering about whether it was that large. But this was going nowhere. I was imagining a kid sitting in his room playing guitar a lot, and it suggested tct me something of a loner, with a lot of time to himself]... but this is something that you spent a lot of time alone with, and in fact I'm seeing you sat on your bed. That's odd... this never really went out of the confines of your room, though later on you involved a couple of friends.,, does it involve any kind of auto-erotic stimulation? I'm getting this kind of action... [I mime the strumming of a guitar with my right hand and he Iaughsl. Yes, it's something like playing a guitar but it's not a guitar... was it a banlo or something? Oh, it was a guitar..."

Again, I am concentrating on building up the picture, not getting to the information that I have glimpsed. In fact, I will often get the final details that correlate with the written information slightly wrong. Had it not been for the strumming joke, I would have probably identified the memory as keyboard playing. It is also far more convincing than a lot of cold-reading, or ways of revealing written information, because I am genuinely describing the picture as it occurs to me. I am doing exadly what I would be doing if I were actually genuine, except I have a few clues to start me off.

Using similar processes, I have told a girl who wrote "when we got Bouncer, our dog," that the dog in question was a spaniel. I did this Iirst of all by being aware of the social class of the girl, then dropping in earlier that she was thinking about the arrival of a friend at the house... a blond person? Her eyes widened at the mention of a friend arriving, but she didn't get anything from the mention of blond hair. That cut out golden-haired dogs. Thirdly, with a name Like 'Bouncer,' it was going to be neither a huge nor a slow dog. I made an educated guess and was right. More recently, a girl wrote "going away with my patents." Aside from this telling me that she was an only child at the time, (she writes 'parents,' not 'family') it didn't suggest to me a foreign trip, so I started to describe a summery scene and lots of greenery. It made sense that it would be the South of England, so I guessed Cornwall. It was correct. Both girls freaked out. The reactions are always enormous. The girl with the pecan pie spent the entire few minutes during the reading with her hands over her mouth, turning to her friends and saying, "How does he know? How does he know?" The chap with the guitar was absolutely stunned that I knew that he started playing at nine and gave up at seventeen.

I would recommend this type of 'reading' to anybody interested in performing powerful mental effects. I generally have tried to get the spectator talking about his experience of the reading afterwards, and the general response is one of being genuinely spooked.

These effects are very close to demonstrations of 'psychic' power, which I find a dull and unimaginative line to take. My reasoning is that the spectator wifi give me all the clues that I need, and I tell her as much. I make it clear that she is telling me everything I need to know, which in a way is true, apart from the fact that I was a step ahead of her. This kind of 'explanation' is far more interesting than the simple polemic of z- he real or fake?' Properly handled, it is plausible and far more involving for the spectators. It tells them something about how human beings communicate, and makes me far more intriguing rather than inviting suspicion.

If you are unsure about how effectively you think you can create the effect, the answer is to simply see what picture comes most readily to nthd when you read the information and see what you can deduce about such factors as the subject's age, environment, and the peripherals of the situation. Because you have the trump card handy to play - that is, you know what the memory is already — you can afford to meander around for a little while and bring it to an end if you don't feel it's getting anywhere. You are padding out and expanding on a theme, and after a while this extra material wilt become the routine itself, and the words on the paper incidental to the effect. And above all, you are able to practise and exercise these skills without overstepping the lines of propriety and taste.

Understanding Mind Control

Understanding Mind Control

This book is not about some crazed conspiracy thinkers manifesto. Its real information for real people who care about the sanctity of their own thoughts--the foundation of individual freedom.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment