Recently I’ve watched some performance mentalists and although I don’t perform this type of entertainment, I have some “Thoughts On Thought Reading or Mentalism”; that is the art of presenting seemingly paranormal effects in an entertaining manner. Its essence lies in the performer’s ability to successfully suspend the disbelief of his audience. Fortunately, there is already substantial belief among the public in psychic and other paranormal phenomena, but it is a large mistake to assume that simple public acceptance of the possibility of E.S.P. is sufficient to carry a successful performance of mentalism. Such a view has been the cause of many a bad act. And, believe me, there are plenty of bad mentalism acts around today.
So what is it that makes a mentalism act good? There are many factors, of course, but the main thing is that the performance must be entertaining. Anyone who thinks otherwise and has the nerve to perform a standup act in a theatrical selling is a fool-and probably an egotistical fool to boot. If a performer really thinks that the mechanical performance of technically flawless mental effects will cause an audience to sit in awe of his “powers” and bring him success, he is sadly mistaken. Now, obviously, entertainment value alone does not make a mental act. But it is very difficult to be entertaining if the audience doesn’t like you and whatever it is that you’re doing. So we arrive at a very simple rule-to succeed you have got to do everything in your power to be likeable. So many mentalists that I’ve seen try to affect a threatening, superman-type image. That sort of thing may intrigue people for a while, but in the long run it puts them off-they may like to go to freak shows on occasion, but they go there to gawk, not to interact. And if a mentalist cannot get people to interact- i.e., to volunteer, to participate he doesn’t have an act.
I have frequently heard from mentalists that I’ve talked to say, “I just can’t seem to get people to volunteer.” Those who have that problem would do well to look at their image. Are they presenting likeable personalities, or do they pose a threat to their audience? Or, worse yet, are they coming on so strong that people just don’t want to be seen on the same stage with them? And that’s one of the reasons that mentalism is so difficult to do well. Reading people’s minds is inherently threatening. Do people really want to have their minds read? Would you like to have your mind read? For real? Suppose you really could read minds and reveal people’s innermost thoughts. Do you think they would like you? Do you think they’d volunteer once they were convinced that you could really do it? Of course not! They’d get away from you as fast as possible, or they’d kill you. But as a mentalist you can’t come right out and say you’re just doing tricks. Then the act is just a puzzle. The inherent fascination is gone.
The resolution is really pretty simple-you’ve got to create the impression that you can only do this stuff sometimes. That it doesn’t always work. That it’s not minds that you can read, just very clearly defined thoughts- thoughts which a volunteer must focus on to the exclusion of everything else. That’s why they must write things down, or make selections within clearly defined parameters. In one stroke you’ve eliminated the threat and made the secret work of mentalism both possible and plausible.
So some basic rules flow naturally from the above premises- rules that form the core of effective mentalism and are the foundation of its best effects.
- Never use any materials that were obviously purchased at a magic shop, even from me. If you use them people will assume you are a magician and you will have destroyed the basic premise of the art- the suspension of disbelief in a paranormal format. In no way do I mean to put down the fine art of magic. Most mentalists, have a deep love for good conjuring. But it’s a different art form. It creates a different impression. If you want to do magic tricks, do fancy and impressive magic. “Mental magic tricks” may be fancy, but they’re not very impressive. More often than not, they are simply boring. For the same reason it is generally wise to avoid any mental effects which have become popular with magicians who are in the public eye.
- You should strive to use an absolute minimum in the way of visible props. It is the performer who should dominate the stage. Don’t misunderstand me on this point. I am not talking about visual aids, which focus attention on what the performer is doing (and very often provide the modus operandi for a given effect.) I am referring to table loads of props which too often dominate the performing area. You just can’t give the impression that you really need all of that stuff to do mentalism.
- All effects must be clean, direct, and as brief as possible. Your purpose is to entertain, not to bore. Even intelligent audiences don’t want to strain to understand what a performer is doing. While they may like to think that what they are seeing is educational, they didn’t come to see you with the idea of really getting educated.
- Avoid effects which require the audience to do mathematics, counting lines in books, etc. The reason should be obvious. More than likely they will make a mistake. People tend to get nervous when doing even the simplest tasks before a large group. Always make things as easy as possible for your volunteers. Carefully phrase all instructions to avoid any ambiguity.
- Always understand the effect you are doing or you shouldn’t be doing it. I’m not referring to methods or effect from the performer’s point of view. Rather I am concerned with the effect as it is perceived by the audience. Failure to understand that can result in audience realization that what they are seeing is merely a trick. Too often the performer will simply create the impression that he is able to discover the owners of various personal objects which have been sealed in envelopes. Presented in that manner, it is all too easy for an audience to accidentally stumble onto the actual method employed-marked envelopes. You can’t be convincing in this business unless you have some plausible theory to explain what you are doing.
- Don’t claim too much. How many times have you seen mental acts presented in a format where the performer explains all of the various forms of paranormal phenomena and then proceeds to demonstrate each one of them? It’s what Michael Webber calls Swiss Army Knife Mentalism and it doesn’t work. You may get them to believe that you are clairvoyant, or that you are telepathic, or that you are precognitive, or that you can move objects with your mind-but not that you can really do all of these things. Your claims must have consistency. There must be an inner logic behind what you are doing.
It is very important, therefore, that you carefully examine the claims you make during an act. What is it that you are doing and how do you do it? Given the abilities you claim to possess, are your effects consistent with the claim?
I am not advocating that you come right out and make any claims at all to paranormal abilities in your shows, at least not verbally. But the performance of successful mentalism creates implied claims and those claims must be consistent. If I were to create the impression that I can receive thoughts if properly projected, I would want to sometimes make you do things by projecting a thought into your mind. I wouldn’t want to claim the ability to predict the future, it’s just too hard to sustain. So if I am apparently able to predict a spectator’s actions-what name he will select from a phone book or what time he will set on a watch-I give the impression that I have mentally caused him to make the selection I wanted him to make-that I have given him a subconscious mental command. It’s entirely consistent with the abilities I have implied. No more and no less. At a different show I could demonstrate a few other abilities, such as super memory or apparent PK, but I would never exhibit more than a few mental faculties in any given show. It’s just too hard for an audience to swallow-they are likely to conclude that there is trickery at work.
- Use humor effectively. Believe it or not, even a mentalist is allowed to smile and make humorous remarks. As I’ve already indicated, the humorless superman approach is entertaining. It’s important, I think, that you don’t create the impression of taking yourself too seriously. When an audience can laugh with you (not at you, as is likely if you refuse to accept the fact that you are primarily an entertainer) they start to like you and feel comfortable with you. When that happens you start to become commercial-and when you’ve done that you’re on the verge of being a successful entertainer. Using humor does not mean that you should try to be a standup comic.
- Finally make sure that you can be seen and heard. This means that you must learn to use a microphone and be sure your lighting is adequate. Regardless of how well you can project, audiences are no longer accustomed to traditional unamplified stage delivery. There are still performers of the old school, of course, who are convinced that microphones are crutches and should be shunned. They have rarely, if ever, performed in nightclub or lounge settings.
Proper mic technique gives the performer a much greater range for intonation and inflection, thus creating a feeling of intimacy that is nearly impossible to achieve otherwise. One needs only to see the manner in which mentalist Ken Weber, for example, can use a whisper to maximum effect. I talked about Ken’s great book in my blog on Maximum Entertainment. So go out and amaze us all with your mental magic, work these 8 mental techniques into your performance, make the audience suspend their disbelief successfully.