Discovery

Last night a man approached me before my performance with one of the stranger comments I’ve heard in a while.

“I just wanted to let you know,” he said, “that I’m going to be sitting in the front row so I can take notes during your show. Hopefully it won’t distract you too much.”

I’m not making this up.

He told me he had an interest in mentalism and was hoping to learn more about it from watching me. I kindly explained to him that it would, in fact, be extremely distracting and asked him to wait until intermission to write down anything he had learned. 

Then, the show began. I took the stage and there was this man, sitting in the front row with a notebook and pen ready to go, completely ignoring my pre-show request.

So I tried to involve this man as much as I could. I gave him tasks and made eye contact. Over time, he wrote less and watched more.

What was I supposed to do?

I couldn’t scold the man in front of the audience. I didn’t want to lose 99% of the audience by being slightly rude to one person. When you’re onstage you learn to pick your battles.

You learn everything onstage.

When I first started performing I had no clue how to do a full show. I knew I needed a solid hour but it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. So I went in search of answers.

I devoured everything on YouTube and TV. I drove long hours to watch other performers. After their shows, I’d sit in the car with my wife and discuss everything we’d just seen: pacing, scripting, choreography, music, promo, merchandise, audience management, showmanship, choice of material, etc.

Back then, those were big discoveries that helped shape my act. But you can only learn so much offstage. I needed to do as many shows as possible.

That's how I learned to put an act together and what it feels like to spend an hour onstage. I discovered how to present to different audiences and how to make something truly entertaining.

After a while, the discoveries get smaller. Once you have a show in place, you start working on the small, precise details. You figure out how to motivate your actions and eliminate the “uh’s” and “um’s”.  You insert a joke here and edit out the other one.  Ironically, the smaller the discovery is, the bigger a difference it starts to make.

A week ago I realized that I had been delivering a joke completely wrong. I was placing emphasis on this word instead of that word. Onstage, I made the choice to deliver it in a new way and, lo and behold, I discovered a better way of doing it.

Eureka!

It takes hundreds of shows to get to that point. You need time to trip over your words and misplace your props first. Then, over time, the show gets better and you start to work on the details. There’s no shortcut here - it just takes time.

I love knowing that something may go wrong tonight and I’ll need to learn how to fix it on the fly. Or maybe the audience doesn’t care about my opening story so it’s time to get rid of it.

There’s always something something left to discover. That’s part of the joy of live theater. That’s why I love doing this so much.

In the last week alone I restructured the first act of my show, fixed a joke, and changed my blocking during the finale. I even know what to do now if someone ever wants to take notes in the front row again.

I can’t wait to see what discoveries await me tonight.

Rave Reviews At Orlando Fringe

I'm halfway through my run at the Orlando Fringe Festival and my shows have been SELLING OUT. I'm thrilled with the reception the show has been getting.

Here are a few of the quotes I've gotten so far:

It may be the oddest — and most mysterious — end to a Fringe show I’ve ever seen. Mark Toland’s show just might freak you out.
— Orlando Sentinel
Toland brilliantly combines comedy, magic, and even a splash of philosophy into this must-see performance.
— Theme Park University
That totally freaked me out!
— FOX 35 Orlando

Plus, I've met some amazing people during the festival and they've all had really nice things to say about the show. Here are a few of my favorites:

If you're in Orlando and want to see the show there are still tickets left for my remaining performances! Click below to reserve your seats now.

7 Ways To Be Great At Small Talk

A great deal of my time is spent chatting with people before or after my shows. I used to dread making small talk but over the years I’ve been working at it and now I actually really enjoy it.

Half of my time is spent doing “strolling” performances, where I have to literally interrupt strangers and perform for them up close. Over time, I’ve developed some techniques to keep the conversation going and make sure it never gets awkward.

You don’t need to be an extroverted performer like myself to be good at talking to people. Without any further ado, here are “7 Ways To Be Great At Small Talk”:

  1. Let Them Speak - People love to talk about themselves, so let them! Smile, nod, and make eye contact so they know you’re really listening. (Don’t forget to remember their name!)
  2. Elevator Pitch - If you keep getting asked the same questions over and over then you can prepare your “elevator pitch” in advance. The questions I get asked the most are “How do you do that?” or “When did you get started?” I have funny and interesting replies ready for those moments, so I’ll never be at a loss for what to say.
  3. Find Something In Common - If you’re really listening to someone (see #1) then it won’t be long until you discover something you have in common. Jump on it and capitalize on the chance to talk about something other than the weather.
  4. Ask About Numbers - I got this tip from an episode of “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” when Jerry Seinfeld was talking about how he handles speaking with fans. The idea is to ask a question where the answer is a number. “How long have you lived her?”, “How many kids do you have?”, “When did you start working there?”, and so on. For some reason, numerical answers lead to interesting dialogue.
  5. Follow Up Questions - Don’t just ask “Where are you from?” - follow it up with “What was it like living in a small town?” or “What made you move away?” Build on the other person’s answers and let them speak.
  6. Give Detailed Answers - When you answer a question don't give short one or two word answers. For example, when I get asked how long I’ve been doing this I could say “ 25 years” but that doesn’t help at all. Instead, I say “I’ve been doing this over 25 years. I started doing magic, then theater, and eventually paid my way through school doing gigs. Now, I do corporate events full time around the world. Crazy, right?!” Notice how I’m setting them up to ask more questions and lead the conversation to more interesting places. If they’re into theater we can talk about that. Or maybe they like to travel. It pays to give a longer, more interesting answer.
  7. Listen/Watch Interviews - I love talk shows and podcasts. The more I watch, the better I get at speaking with people. Watch Stephen Colbert, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel, and more. Listen to “This American Life” or “WTF”. Notice how people tell stories and stay engaged with the people they’re talking to. I watch bite-sized clips on YouTube while I’m at the airport. If you devote a few minutes to studying each day then you’ll start getting better in no time.

As with anything else, practice makes perfect! Talk to the barista or your bartender. Talk with your co-workers or your neighbor in the elevator. Use each opportunity as a chance to work on something new. Before long, you’ll find that making small talk doesn’t have to be painful. It can be fun and interesting and, when you’re doing it right, it can actually be about something important.


THINK LIKE A MIND READER is a blog series about how you can put Mark Toland’s incredible skills to use in the real world.