During his freshman year at Carnegie Mellon, Michael Gutenplan wandered into a magic shop. That visit on a whim changed the course of his life. He began with close-up magic but eventually dabbled in mentalism. “I started to learn about mentalism and reading minds and, not in a boring procedural way, but using my education, using my experience in theater, in a very theatrical way,” says Gutenplan. “And what I discovered is: My show, rather than it being about me and my experience, it's an opportunity to allow me to unlock your psychic potential.
“The best example I can give you is, in my show, I predict the lottery. And the way most magicians or psychic entertainers would do it is [to say], 'I have a lottery ticket. I made a prediction.' I kind of turn that on its head. And I say, ‘I'm thinking of a number—because I know what's on that lottery ticket already. I'm going to send you that number, and I want you to know what I'm thinking of. Really trust your instincts.’ And if all the people [I say that to] get it, those numbers match the full ticket that I have. And it's not because you in some sort of tricky way knew what the number was. It's because you trusted your instincts, you unlocked your psychic potential.”
Don’t believe it? On July 30 at 8PM ET, Gutenplan brings his show Magic & Mentalism With Michael Gutenplan to 92Y’s virtual programming. Below, Gutenplan reveals why you should see it for yourself. Click here for tickets.
I attended the Geffen Playhouse’s production of The Present, a phenomenal magic show by Helder Guimarães, that plays live over Zoom. And it was surprisingly an incredible way to watch magic. Why does this virtual medium favor magic and mentalism?
There are two reasons why I think it's working. Magic, in itself, doesn't work when it's a recording. Three days later, there's something weird about it. When you re-watch something, it loses that wholeness that makes the live moment, the interactiveness special. In the world of magic, the unknown is what keeps you interested, right? Where is this going? What's gonna happen next? And I actually think it plays really well with this Zoom media because, unlike watching it in a seat at a theatre—especially for close-up magic—I am performing just for you. Right now. And I am performing as close as I can be. The reason it works really well is because when else are you going to get that? And that reaction, right? When you see magic, because you need to [be the one to] pick the card etc., you and your energy are part of the show.
Deren Brown: Secret debuted on Broadway this past season. He is very clear that he’s not a mind reader, but that he reads behavioral cues. Is your approach the same?
I love Derren Brown. If you had to ask me who my favorite performers were, forget about mentalist or magicians or whatever, Derren Brown would be near the top. My scripting is about unlocking the door, the psychic potential. Derren is what we would call a psychological mentalist. He's focusing on your tiny movements. It’s become very popular to use those. But I ask you to lead in my live show. I do read body language and I do readings. He’s not reading your mind because in his shows, you're not thinking of something and he's not necessarily knowing what you were thinking.
For your 92Y show, how will it work logistically?
Great question. So I can have up to 1,000 sign-ons and I can see every single one of those 1,000 sign-ons. I have a set-up with monitors and all that kind of stuff. The biggest group I've had was about 620 sign-ins, which, each sign-on is about two or three people per family. During the show, my eyes are darting around a little bit because what I'm doing is I'm treating it as close as when they attend a live experience. So I am interacting with everybody throughout the show, and I want every single person that shows up to feel that their participation is not only valued but necessary. So the entire show I'm talking to people and commenting on what they're doing. “Oh my gosh, Bob really liked that. And Joan is rolling her eyes. And Jim can't believe that.” And by going around the room and giving everybody a moment of a little spotlight, I'm saying to them: Your participation is vital and see? You really are here. We may be separated by a camera and a laptop, but we are technically, psychically in the same space watching the same thing. I have a tech team almost like a TV show, so the sound is high tech with the music and the microphones. We have a lighting set up, but the actual use of Zoom is simple.
How do you choose your audience volunteers?
The room opens up about 15 minutes before the show and I'm standing in front of a computer, watching people come in. I'm seeing how they're living their lives. I am using those psychological health and cues to know who am I looking for this routine? Who's a little more compliant? Who was really excited to be here that they showed up 15 minutes early?
I think we've missed interpersonal communication. The New York Times did an article about live theater on Zoom and it talks about spontaneity and the vitality of not having a recorded show, but having something live and the reason Zoom and all these kind of things work is because anything can happen. The sound can stop working. There could be a mistake. The doorbell could ring. And isn't that fun? Isn’t that what theatre in the purest sense should be? When was the last time that we went to the theatre and truly felt that this moment was special? That's what magic and mentalism and a lot of these Zoom shows are giving us.
It sounds like there are a lot of pluses to the virtual shows. Are there any challenges with the virtual shows that make it more difficult to do what you usually do?
The biggest issues that I have to get over, it's two things. The first is the assumption of someone thinking they know what this is going to be and being so surprised that it's not. Just like in real life, drawing an audience to a Zoom show to see a mind-reading show, you kind of roll your eyes. A lot of times what happens is parents put their young kids in front of the TV and go, “Watch the magic show.” This is not for the kids. This is for them. What really separated my show and made it so great for anybody watching is a 10-year-old's having that experience. You've never seen them light up as much as they do when they get something right in my show. And an 80-year-old has that same reaction of, I can't believe this just happened.
I think the other hurdle is the assumption of what does Zoom showcase. By this point, we are four or five months into this pandemic. Every single one of us has been on a deadly bad Zoom or Google meeting with horrible boredom, the dog is barking in the background. My biggest hurdle is explaining to someone that's not what this is. This is a professionally produced live experience. I will read your mind, predict the future, and give you, personally, an incredible experience that you will never have again.
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