A little bit about Mentalism.

jon_stetsonI thought it might be an interesting topic to discuss the huge expansion of mentalism as a commercial form in the last few years. It has been quite a phenomenon here in the United States and it appears that this is also a worldwide trend. It doesn’t seem so long ago that mentalism was (always wrongly so) considered something of the unloved orphan child of the magic world.

As a magician some of whose favorite tricks and performers come from the world of mentalism I am very excited by this development. Much of my early enthusiasm for magic was generated by my exposure to Chan Canasta, Maurice Fogel and Al Koran. I have always proudly featured the occasional strong mental effect in my comedy magic show and appreciate the texture that they have added to my performance. A good mentalism effect can be really great entertainment.

I remember the antipathy that bordered on antagonism that was often showered upon mentalists at the Magic Castle back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was once in the old Palace showroom, in the wine cellar, and witnessed a magician wait till Maurice Fogel turned his back on the audience, and then mime the actions of writing with his thumb to the crowd. I was shocked and appalled. When I asked him after the show why he did it, he replied, “Well, mentalists just try and fool people.” Yeah, unlike magicians!

I can totally understand the huge growth in popularity of mentalism in the United Kingdom and can explain it in two words — 1415055005-jay-alexander-magic-920Darren Brown. Brown was the perfect persona, at the perfect time to become a giant star in England. I have been a little surprised that Darren decided not to pursue his British success in the United States. I suspect his approach to the art would quickly establish him in the USA as a very big star. (Since writing this in 2015 Darren has indeed been seen in a Broadway theater show and Netflix specials. While being very well received he has not yet become even a shadow of the celebrity he remains in England.)

The interesting thing in America is the total lack of a major breakout mentalist star on television in the USA. The huge growth in mentalism here has been with corporate entertainment. This field has become a major new market for the psychic entertainer, some of whom are great and some who are less than stellar. In fact there are so many new corporate mentalists that I jokingly tell agents that I am the magician who doesnt read minds.

The two mentalists who have really done the most to energize this new income/workstream in recent years are Jon Stetson and Jay Alexander. Both of these performers deliver shows that are high energy and just plain good entertainment. Some recent converts to the art of presenting mentalism get a little to hung up on being serious. This can have a tendency to make them seem a little too slow and precious, or dare I say it, pretentious. (since wring this Jay has established a very successful spot to showcase his talents with The Marrakech Magic Theater in San Francisco.

hqdefaultI was chatting with Jon Stetson earlier today (Since James Brown passed on, Jon is now officially known as the hardest working man in show business,) and as always was impressed by his total grasp of the realities of being a performer. Stetson made a point that I think is well worth repeating here, “I never forget that it is a mind-reading show, and I never, ever forget to give them the show.” Wise words Mr. Stetson, very wise words.

Recently there has been quite a wave of magicians presenting mentalism in the cruise market and to my joy, I sometimes get to work with them onboard cruise ships. It has allowed me to see some of the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the workplace. I recently worked with a rather highly regarded mentalist from “down under” who performed a show that completely underwhelmed the audience. He made a very simple error by featuring several effects that involved giving some very complex instructions to his onstage assistants. Sadly he did so in such a hurried and muddled fashion that his assistants had any no idea of what to do, or even what was going on onstage. I caught his early show and was really embarrassed by the reaction, it was a total disaster. The next day when we met each other he asked me if I had caught his show. I replied that I had. He said, “Early or late show?” “Early,” I responded. “Oh, that is good,” he quickly rejoined, “The late show was a disaster.”  Scary, very scary!

Clarity is of the utmost importance when performing to an international audience. While the previously described performer used a lot of words (actually Psignway, too many) his actual meaning got lost in the shuffle. Just like comedy magicians, it is an easy way for mentalists to improve their shows by physically writing down their scripts and then taking the time to edit out any extra words that do nothing to strengthen or add to their performance. With very few exceptions saying something in ten words is a much better performing tactic than using twenty. Any hint of being verbose doesn’t add credibility to a performance; it just slows down the proceedings and frequently smacks of self-importance. Sometimes performers are not only in love with their own voices but also their own words.

I certainly look forward to seeing more mentalism performed for audiences, however, it might be a good thing for some of the “newbies” to check out the two performers I referenced above. They would also do well to study other masters of the genre such as Max Maven and Ross Johnson. There are many subtleties they could absorb to help them on their journey.


~ by Nick Lewin on July 24, 2015.

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