Before Paul McKenna became hypnotism's Siegfried & Roy, he was a radio broadcaster for England's Capitol Radio and BBC's Radio 1. After interviewing a local hypnotist, McKenna, 34, began studying the medium. Twelve years later, he brings his show Paul McKenna's Hypnotic World -- A Comedy of the Mind to Broadway's Roundabout Theatre on March 8 for seven performances (Sundays and Mondays only through March 29) after playing London's West End -- where McKenna was the second hypnotist to appear there in 40 years.
McKenna, whose first TV show, "The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna," aired in England in 1993, and whose subsequent TV performances have been watched in over 40 countries, including an ABC special aired in the U.S. in 1997, initially taught himself hypnosis through books. "I would practice on my friends - getting them to stop smoking, lose weight and get through exams, and it worked incredibly well," he said. He began performing in 1986, first amusing friends at parties with his skills. "I realized it was great entertainment," said McKenna, "and a good way of demonstrating to people that hypnotism wasn't a trick -- it was for real."
In 1989 McKenna obtained a license from the Westminster City Council to publicly perform hypnotism in London theatres. "I always felt it should be theatre entertainment," he said. "I felt the whole ambiance of the night club was wrong for stage hypnosis. McKenna soon developed a cult following and eventually ended up selling out London's Royal Albert Hall.
McKenna's show juxtaposes hypnotism with spectacular staging, music and humor. "When I started, many stage hypnotists were ridiculing people and having them do things that were just demeaning or unkind," said McKenna. "They all had little goatee beards and swinging watches. But I thought the real stars here were the participants."
At each show McKenna selects audience members to undergo hypnosis. The entertainment comes from their responses. His suggestions make accountants moonwalk like Michael Jackson and convince groups to act as if they're Martians taking part in a game show.
McKenna usually gets a rush of potential volunteers, which he reduces to ten or so after asking a few questions and testing their potential for hypnosis. He determines this by monitoring their skin color, breathing patterns and eye movements. "When I hypnotize them, I might tell them they're on a beach and it's getting hotter. Some of them actually perspire. I've hypnotized many people, and the actors tend to look too good. You can tell."
Only once did he cancel a show -- in London for a group of estate agents 10 years ago -- because of a lack of volunteers. "I'm not forcing people to be hypnotized. If people come onstage, they're telling me they're open to the idea. I don't mind if people are skeptical. Most of the people I hypnotize don't believe or expect they're going to be hypnotized, but they're open to the possibility of it." McKenna, who also teaches hypnosis and does motivational hypnotherapy for clients like Sarah Ferguson, Jerry Hall and heavyweight champ Frank Bruno, believes his show is the only one that someone can go to and end up starring in. Afterward audience participants receive tickets to see the show they missed. "Well, they didn't really miss it," said McKenna. "They just saw it from a unique perspective."