Meant To Be

“Does it ever go wrong?”

People ask me that all the time. They want to know if I’m ever wrong onstage or if something ever backfires. Of all the questions I receive on a daily basis this is one of my favorites.

The answer, of course, is yes.

The more shows I do the more likely I am to have a mishap. Sometimes they’re huge dilemmas that derail my performance: I’ve had props break mid-show, batteries die in my mic pack, left my pants unzipped for the entire show, and more. When something obvious goes awry you have to comment on it, fix it to the best of your ability, and try to move on.

But most of the time they’re tiny mistakes that I deal with in the moment. For me, the little things that go wrong on a nightly basis are a fascinating part of my work. Things happen all the time that are completely unexpected. While I’m doing the show I’m simultaneously thinking ahead and problem-solving. Typically, I invent a new path forward during the show and, if all goes well, the audience is none the wiser.

Once I did a show at a mansion in Beverly Hills. I arrived early to set up, with plenty of time to schmooze with the guests. When the show began, I realized I’d forgotten a very important prop in my car which was parked two blocks away. I’d had so much time on my hands early in the night that I got too comfortable and forgot to do a thorough once-over of my gear. On the spot, I created a brand new ten minute piece that didn’t rely on the forgotten prop. Needless to say, that was an interesting night.

The great thing about my work is that the audience doesn’t know what to expect. What lies ahead is a mystery. If something goes wrong and I’m forced to change direction the audiences thinks that’s where we were meant to be all along. What’s funny is that sometimes the new path I take during a show ends up being even more exciting than the path I originally intended.

The same holds true for my career…

Ten years ago, if you had asked me what I would be doing now, I probably would have pictured a completely different path forward.

I didn’t even know about fringe festivals back then, corporate gigs seemed untouchable, and I was just barely starting to zero in on my work as a mentalist. Honestly, I never even considered moving to Chicago.

Over time, I was open to new options and new directions for my craft. I embraced new opportunities and pursued any work that presented itself. We moved to Chicago on a whim and it ended up being a perfect fit for what I do.

It’s easy to feel like a failure when you end up somewhere you never planned to be. It’s easy to feel like you let yourself down and gave up somewhere along the way. But don’t let yourself fall into that trap.

Maybe you’re choosing the path less travelled or making a sudden switch in careers. Maybe you moved to the big city but decided it wasn’t for you. Or maybe you set out to achieve a goal, got burned out, and now you’re searching for something new. None of that makes you a failure.

Remember: no one knows where you’re going except for you. So wherever you end up is the place you’re meant to be.

Connection

Something I struggle with a lot is where my chosen profession fits in the world. At best it seems entertaining and at worst it feels silly and trite. But there’s one thing I keep coming back to that keeps me from quitting. 

Connection.

The key to my success as an entertainer has been finding a way to connect with my audiences. I’m not talking about laughter or applause. That’s definitely important and I want those things, too, but I’m talking about something more specific.

When I connect with an audience member it means that they saw themselves in my work. It means they found some kind of underlying message or truth that resonated with them more than any mind reading demonstration ever could.

It’s taken me years to realize this, but once I did I’ve felt more fulfilled and more successful in my career than I ever did before.

Think about it. I bet that your favorite movie or book or song probably connects with you in an utterly profound and personal way. It may have a beautiful melody or a hilarious plot, but the truth is you probably found yourself saying “That is so true!” or “I thought I was the only person who felt that way!”

That’s what connection is all about.

The best inspiration for what I do never comes from within the confines of my art. Rather, I look outside my discipline to find people (much smarter than myself) with ideas that apply to my chosen art form, too. The great thing about seeking inspiration is that the answers you seek are already there - you just have to keep looking.

And I’ve been looking in some really unique places.

Legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham has a great interview where she talks about connection. It’s worth a watch just to hear her perfectly sum up why art matters and is so important.

“There is always one person to whom you speak in the audience. One.” she says.

In an interview with Seth Meyers, tennis icon Billie Jean King compares being on the tennis court to being onstage in a theatre. I’d never thought about it that way before.

“It’s about the audience,” she comments. “My job is to connect with them, so they go home at night and say ’That was unbelievable!' They connected and they want to go back.”

When I feel especially low or wonder if what I do really matters, it always helps to think of those quotes and remind myself that it can be very important, as long as I connect with others.

Anything I do onstage has one main set of criteria: it has to be about other people. It’s all about the audience. When your work is in service to other people you can’t go wrong.

When I set out to write this blog I wasn’t sure what shape it would take. Originally, I had two goals - to be positive and to post every week - but, over time, a third goal emerged. 

Somehow I found a way to make the experiences of being a mind reader about more than just performing. Now my main goal is to take what I do and find a way to connect it with you.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have written me to say “Wow, I read your blog post today and it really spoke to me! I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately and really appreciated your thoughts.”

That’s the connection I seek and, I feel, the secret to being successful in anything you do.

Move On

Fact: The more you put yourself out there, the more criticism you will receive.

Some of that criticism will be useful. It will be helpful and needed. It will make you think and make you work harder. It will make you better.

But the other criticism? That will be nothing but negativity. It will be from people who don’t get what you’re doing and make no attempts to try. Call them haters, naysayers, your parents, whatever. They will knock you down because they can and nothing you do will ever please them.

Not all criticism is useful. I’ve had bad reviews, poor feedback, and negative comments that bothered me for days.  I didn’t learn anything from them. They didn’t help me improve my craft. They didn’t inspire me to better myself. If anything, they just made me feel horrible.

Once I was even greeted by a reviewer before the show who was very clearly not excited to be attending.

“I hate magic shows,” they told me.

I was on edge for the entire performance, worried they were going to give me a horrible review. Luckily they were kind with the write-up, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

One reviewer wrote that “Mark Toland is at the top of his game” and my show is a “MUST SEE” only to give me 4 out of 5 stars. It was good to know that when I’m at my best, it’s still only an 80%.

Honestly, I don’t care about the reviews. It’s nice to have a pull-quote or an award or a five star rating to add to the poster, but that’s not why I’m onstage.

I’m doing a show for other people. It’s entertainment. I want people to be completely enthralled for my entire performance. I don’t want them looking at their watch or texting their friends. I don’t want them coughing or shifting in their seats. I want their undivided attention so I can transport them somewhere else for an hour.

That’s not to say that a below-average review doesn’t affect me. It absolutely does! But I’ve learned how to deal with criticism so I can move forward and keep progressing in my career.

Negative feedback is expected and uncontrollable. The more you put yourself out there, the more you forge your own path; the more criticism you should expect to receive.

If you’re doing it right then you’re going to stir the pot. You’re going to provoke a wide range of reactions. The best thing you can do is to not respond.

No matter what happens, don’t acknowledge your criticism. Don’t complain, don’t argue, don’t fight fire with fire. There’s no need to go on a tweetstorm or write a long rant on your fan page. That looks petty and unprofessional.

I’ve faced more rejections than I can remember, been turned down on more projects than I can name. For every gig I’m booked for, another 20 events go in a different direction. But I refuse to let those failures keep me from succeeding.

Ignore the criticism. Shake it off or find someone you can vent to in private. Then move on and get back to work.