Problem with a lot of mentalism

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by boychestermagic, May 11, 2020.

  1. So, some time ago I went to see a magic show, featuring several magicians, one of which was a mentalist. He performed a question and answer routine that seemed flawless. Not only did he divine the questions sealed in envelopes, he went further to reveal personal information and even a prediction.

    I have no idea how it was done, and it was interesting, but it also represents my main problem with mentalism. I felt like the magic happened only in the mind of the few spectators chosen out of the crowd to have their mind read, and of course there is the possibility that they were stooges. So, for the rest of the audience, it's amazing but it relies on trusting these three random people, and assuming they are really 'random people'.

    When you see magic done with participants, it's still magic, because the actual effect is usually impossible because it seems to go against our firm beliefs and assumptions e.g. making something disappear. The participants and audience often add something to the trick, but one doesn't need to be onstage to experience the magic. However, with a lot of mentalism I've seen, the impossibility of the effect relies on the assumption that the participants are not stooges, and no matter how many times the mentalist assures the audience 'no stooges or plants were involved', it still feels like a possibility. It may very well be true that there are no stooges, and in fact an ingenious method that relies on the skill of the performer, but there is no way of convincing the audience that this is true.

    Not all mentalists are like this of course. I'd like to point out Derren Brown, who's shows are always entertaining and engaging, and who often incorporates other mentalism ideas that don't seem to rely on stooges.

    To be clear, I hardly perform mentalism (for several reasons, this being one of them), and I'm not trying to have a go at mentalists. I'm just trying to point out a problem that I've seen a lot, from the layman's point of view.

    So, thoughts?
  2. Is this a local show or a national touring show? How big was the audience? Was that the only effect performed?

    There is no need for stooges to perform a flawless Q&A. I suspect that part of the problem was the reveal of the "personal information." People are willing to accept a demonstration of psychic powers in a controlled environment (knowing what is written in an envelope and who wrote it) but will challenge something powerful like being able to reveal personal information. Part of the problem is that it doesn't fit with the performer's character -- if they can just pick thoughts out of someone's mind, all of the rest of the steps (selecting a card, writing something down, etc.) in other effects is unnecessary. Simply put, it is too powerful an effect to believe. I suspect the performer thought that would make the routine stronger (which it does for the volunteer) but it cracks the illusion for others in the audience.

    That may be influencing your perception. Just like a person who had a stripper deck or Svengali deck as a kid thinks every magic trick is done using a trick deck because they don't have a deep understanding of magic methods, you may be attributing the effect to stooges because you don't have a deep understanding of mentalism methods.

    I think part of this perception was influenced by your belief that there could be stooges (as reflected several times in your post). If you assume there are not stooges, does it become more impressive?

    With that point aside, much mentalism (and magic for that matter) is better suited for close-up and smaller groups as opposed to stage or parlor. Take a demonstration in palmistry or tarot reading -- those are difficult to make "play big", especially if the person having the reading doesn't react properly. Generally, a Q&A does play big in a parlor setting because you have four people up on stage out of say 30 people. With the smaller group, you can see the family members they are sitting with and their reactions. How many performers would have four stooges plus some family members with them (total of 8 to 12people) "in" on the trick and able to act as if they aren't? But four people out of four hundred has a different feel, especially if you aren't sitting next to any of them.

    A good stage mentalism act will draw the audience in. One method is to have the audience know what the spectator selected where the mentalist doesn't. That puts them in the place of the spectator on stage. Another method is to involve the audience. In Steve Cohen's show (formerly at the Waldorf Astoria in New York), everyone in the audience writes down something personal about them for one effect, in an other five spectators spread throughout the audience select a card from the deck and Steve identifies that card and in another, everyone writes down the name of a drink for his Think-A-Drink routine.

    This is a pet peeve of mine in both magic and mentalism. First off, mentioning a method by trying to eliminate it doesn't work -- either because it raises suspicion of that method (human nature is to challenge what we hear) or it makes the audience realize that there is some method. Take the "I have a normal deck" or the "we've never met before" lines. The first reaction is to question if the deck is normal (whatever that means to a layperson) or if they really have met before (why would the performer say that if they hadn't met before?). Second, this is telling rather than showing. People don't believe what they are told, they believe what they see. If you handle a deck normally, spread it to show the cards ("52 cards, 13 each of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs") give it a shuffle (without telling them you are shuffling them -- because they then challenge is you are really shuffling), and then continue to handle the deck openly, the audience will assume it is a normal deck. If a mentalist has a random selection procedure to select someone (a ball thrown in the audience, darts thrown by a spectator at a seating chart, etc.), introduces him or herself to the spectator ("I'm David, what's your name?" "John" "It is a pleasure to meet you John, can we give John a big round of applause") and asks them questions about themselves ("John, where are you from?" "Cincinnati" "Are you a Bengals fan?" "Yes" "I'm sorry.... Who are you here with tonight?" "My wife and daughter Alexis" "Wave to them and give them a shout out"), he or she is showing the audience that they don't know each other. Also, the where are you from question reinforces that the person is local (or a tourist if you are seeing a show on vacation).

    Arguably, this is a false set of choices. The goal of the mentalist is to encourage belief (either in their powers or the possibility of such powers), not to encourage "he must have had some good methods to do this."
  3. This isn't a problem with "mentalism" it's a problem with "mentalists".

    I believe all forms of entertainment have unique challenges in regards to making a performance interesting and engaging - for mentalism those challenges generally revolve around taking something that is based around the mind and getting a large audience to engage with the demonstrations. Bob Cassidy had the ideas of minor and major effects - a minor effect happened in one person's mind, a major effect happened in the entire audience's minds. It's important to have both in a show.

    What I think a lot of mentalists do wrong is they approach the show with the mentality of a magician. They are wanting big 'ta da' moments and that is hard to do well with mentalism. There's also the lack of character discipline. A mentalist is presenting certain abilities as if they are real - whether that's science based or psychic doesn't matter, it has to be played like it's really happening or it doesn't work. Performers who start with magic and then switch to mentalism often have the issue where they don't have a defined character with specific abilities because they never needed that before. A magician can just do seemingly impossible things and they rarely worry about defining their powers other than "magic". So you get what David referred to above - someone who starts with one ability and then switches to another halfway through the routine and doesn't even realize it.

    What it comes down is that mentalism requires a specific theatrical approach and many people who call themselves mentalists haven't put the time and work into developing that approach properly.
  4. It was the Illusionists, which overall was a great show. The mentalist in question was Chris Cox.
    I know it probably wasn't with stooges. My problem is that there is often the possibility with mentalism that stooges were used, and for laypeople, this seems the obvious option. The first thing laypeople say whenever we watch mentalism in shows, TV, etc. is 'how do you know they're not in on it?'. It's always the first thing to come up and is never dismissed, so for laypeople it seems so obvious and easy that it must be how it was done.
    Completely agree. I've seen tricks that would have fooled me if the magician hadn't done some unnecessary false display or 'convincer' that actually draws attention to the method. Saying there were no stooges, or pleading that the audience 'talk them after the show, make sure they're real people' doesn't do anything to convince the audience.
    I think you hit the nail on the head there. An engaging, not cheesy premise seems to make mentalism a lot better. It happens that the performance at the show lacked this - the mentalist claimed he could read minds by tasting water that people had spat into. It was meant to be funny, apparently.

    Thanks for your answers!
  5. You know, I don't think I've ever heard an actual layman say they thought a mentalism performance was done by stooges. It's something I hear magicians say very frequently, but I don't think it actually holds true for non-performers. Kind of like how laymen supposedly will think any deck of cards that isn't Bicycle Rider Back will automatically be thought of as a trick deck.

    I think this is mostly things that magicians tell each other.

    When shows are well created they will not cause people to think of solutions at all. It will be more satisfying to simply experience the show, rather than trying to figure out how the person on stage did what they did.
  6. You state that Derren Brown is very good yet while reading your description of the mentalism act that was done (Q&A routine) the forst name that came to mind was mr Brown himself as he's done this. Let me simply tell you this as others have mentioned as well. It does not require stooges and agreed that it should not be mentioned but rather demonstrated that the two do not know each other (throwing ball to random spectator. ) Although the reason this is often not done is because it slows and impedes on time to make the effect work . If you knew the method (i suggest reading 13 steps to mentalism as it covers this, albeit under a different context) you would be just as dissapointed in the method as if it were to be using stooges...just like with any magic trick right?

    On this i leave you with a question that may inspire you and others into methods that i personnally am working on the moment...

    If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it fall does it make noise?

    If a stooge dosent know he is a stooge, is he a stooge?
  7. "Several MAGICIANS, one of which was a MENTALIST."

    All mentalists: *TRIGGERED*

    Regardless, I feel Derren Brown did that for mentalism (though I'm not sure if he loves that title) what David Blaine did for magic in general. Kudos to him for that.

    But then if we start on the journey of disbelief or assuming that volunteers maybe stooges, how is magic exempt? Magic videos can be cut, any reactions may be directed, volunteers may have been planted, coached, paid, during a stage illusion being telecast on TV the cameraman might be in on 'it' and manipulate the angles. Everything is possible. I think the only way to enjoy magic or mentalism (or any similar art form which is shown as pure entertainment and not as if the 'performer' is the All Powerful) is for the audience to just believe some of the things a magician says. Magic, being a performance art, is largely a product of the general connection between the magician and the audience and there has to be some fundamental belief on the part of the audience.

    This means that it is alright for them to not believe me if I say the deck is shuffled.
    But they will believe if I pass the deck to somebody and have them shuffle.
  8. I think this demonstrates some of the risks of combining mentalism with magic. Now, I consider a Q&A to be mentalism and not mental magic. One part of the problem is that the mentalist doesn't have the ability to build credibility with the audience. The other part of the problem is that the effect and reveals are compared with the magic effects and reveals. Magic effects have methods, therefore it is assumed within the same show that the person playing the mentalist uses a method. Mentalism is best present when it fosters belief rather than disbelief (e.g. I wonder how he did that?). As for the reveals, as @WitchDocIsIn likes to say, mentalism doesn't have "ta da" moments like magic, but instead has "hmmmm" moments. In a true mentalism show, those "hmmmm" moments accumulate throughout the show and collectively contribute to the impossibility.

    In a situation like this (and similar situations where magicians are tempted to use mentalism in a show), I think the better course is to use mental magic. It has the same feel as the rest of the show, doesn't get denigrated by the existence of methods and has a "ta da" moment.
    WitchDocIsIn likes this.

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