Relevance

I read a critic’s thoughts recently that formed the basis for this essay. Long story short, they were convinced that mentalism was no longer relevant and it wasn’t going to be around much longer.

Now, dear readers, for those of you who aren’t fully immersed in the dark arts like I am, let me explain what mentalism is. According to Wikipedia, mentalism is the branch of magic that deals with highly advanced mental abilities.

Clearly, as a mind reader this critic’s viewpoint really frustrated me.

After I read their opinion I fumed for an entire day. (It wasn't even about my show! I just can't stop thinking about things sometimes.) I was furious that someone thought my art form was becoming irrelevant. I happened to be traveling that day so I spent much of the afternoon alone in my room, pacing and playing a round of “if I was talking to that critic in person what would I say”. 

(Side note: I won that round.)

Then, something amazing happened. I heard a ping from my laptop across the room and walked over to discover a perfectly timed message waiting for me in my inbox. 

The e-mail was from an audience member who attended a recent show. I’ve redacted any personal information but here’s the body of the e-mail so you can read for yourself:

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This e-mail made my day.

See, the key to being relevant has nothing to do with your art form and everything to do with what you're trying to say. I'm constantly trying to share a part of me onstage - it just happens that mentalism is my vehicle for doing so.

I used to think I needed to tackle some big, lofty concepts in order to be an artist. I thought if I could somehow be smarter and more profound then that would help me fully relate to my audiences. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. The more personal and honest you make your performances, the more relevant they become.

It's like when a comedian makes a clever, observational joke about something really mundane and you laugh to yourself, thinking "That's so true!"

It's because deep down we all have the same personal experiences. We have the same hopes and fears and dreams and thoughts about life. We're all just doing our best to get through the day and sometimes we need art to remind us of that.

I can't speak for that "critic" but I can tell you what my audience is saying. I know because I listen to them after my shows.

They're moved and changed, inspired and enlightened, amazed and delighted. According to them, what I do is more relevant than ever.

According to them, that critic is wrong.

Triad

Everyone always loved Jessica. For as long as she could remember people told her she was going to be famous.

She was a standout onstage. A poised dancer, a beautiful singer. Her talents were equally matched by her simple beauty. She was always the leading lady, always the soloist, always the star.

Thanks to the constant encouragement and support of people around her, she blossomed at a young age. Her mentors had been grooming her for years and by the time she was 18 she had "made it".

She skipped college and went straight to Broadway. She dazzled the critics eight shows a week, earning rave reviews and nonstop praise.

"A prodigy!" they exclaimed and threw roses to the stage. Occasionally the show would take a break so she could shoot a movie or TV project, but even when the show was dark her name was still in lights. All of her dreams were coming true and she still had her whole life ahead of her.

Then, there was Stephen. He was born in the wrong time. His favorite singers were long gone and he would tell everyone he met that "they don't make movies like they used to."

But no one really paid attention to Stephen. It took months for his professors to remember his name and even longer to earn their respect. He struggled to decide what he wanted out of life.

He loved playing guitar but there was also creative writing and painting. He sang in an a cappella group and took pictures. There were so many things he wanted to do and not enough time.

Exhausted from wearing so many hats, Stephen closed off from the world for years. He wouldn't pursue a project for fear of something better coming along. Scared of wasting time doing something, he did nothing.

Then, Stephen had a lucky break. A friend of a friend passed one of his short films along to a festival. The reviews were glowing. Stephen didn't know it yet but he was about to make a big leap forward. He was a filmmaker, screenwriter, and composer now. All of his talents had come together in a strange, unforeseeable way.

And then there was Charles. By the time Charles could talk he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.

"I want to be a rock star!" he'd say to family and friends. "I'm going to be famous!"

No one took Charles seriously, but he didn't care. He didn't have time for negativity because he was too busy working on his music. He'd pack out his mom's two car garage for a Saturday night concert and sell his album in the subway. With laser focus, he never lost sight of his dream.

Decades passed and Charles kept working, making small incremental progress towards his dreams. His albums sales slowly increased and his fan base grew. He paid his dues over and over and over again. Several hundred concerts later and he found himself seated on the couch next to Jessica and Stephen.

The host walked out, told a few jokes, then introduced the guests.

"Let's find out how you three ended up here tonight!" the host said.

Jessica, Stephen, and Charles shrugged. It didn't really matter how they'd gotten here. They were all in the same place now.

Work

I’m in the business of creating moments. Moments of wonder. Moments of amazement. Moments of truth. Moments of mystery.

Let’s assume there’s no such thing as real magic (there isn’t) and I can’t really read your mind (I can’t). Then what’s the point of coming to my show?

Those moments.

The goal of my show isn’t to trick people into thinking I have psychic powers. It’s not about claiming supernatural abilities. The goal is to leave  the audience with a beautiful mystery.

Simple as that.

All of my free time is spent thinking about making something out of those moments. On the treadmill, in the shower, stuck in traffic, waiting in line at the airport - that’s all I’m thinking about.

It usually starts with a question:

How do I give my audience the most incredible mystery possible?

The ideas start as a far-fetched pipe dream then morph into a more realistic, real world version. That evolution takes a long time.

Then, I have to build the idea and rehearse it. I have to find the words and let them become part of me.

Finally, after months (or years) of preparation I have to bite the bullet and try it out onstage. That’s the only way to truly discover if the idea is any good. 

That’s when the “real work” begins. The script gets torn apart and reassembled. The blocking starts to make sense. The idea gets better.

The “real work” takes forever. FOREVER. It’s a slow process, with constant roadblocks and distractions. But, I can speed it up slightly if I’m willing to listen.

I have to:
• Listen to myself and trust in my ideas.
• Listen to my peers.
• Most importantly, listen to my audience.

Are they bored? Are they paying attention? Do they care about the mystery as much as I do?

It’s a lot of work.

And that’s only the work the audience gets to see. There’s plenty of work that goes on behind the scenes. Creating mysteries is all about being willing to work harder than anyone could possibly dream of. If the audience’s only solution for my performance is a NASA-level-Rube-Goldberg-style-machine-that-could-only-exist-in-an-MC-Escher-world then people stop trying to work it out and simply enjoy the mystery.

A couple years ago I overheard two performers talking after a show. One performer explained the preparation and practice he had put into his show in great detail. He was proud of the time he spent crafting the moment and happily shared his behind-the-scenes POV.

“Oh I could never do that,” the other performer responded, “that’s too much work.”

TOO MUCH WORK?

Get the fuck out of here.

I get it. Work isn’t fun. It can be agonizing and downright boring. But if mastering your craft is too much work for you then find a 9-to-5 and settle in. Work isn’t easy - it’s not supposed to be.

That’s what makes it worthwhile. I go the extra mile (and then some) so my audience can experience something jaw-dropping and unforgettable.

Enough said. Time to get back to work.