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Theater Of The Mind by Barrie Richardson

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 1999)


Theater of the Mind

The new age of mentalism is upon us. Increasingly, successful conjurors are turning to mentalism to expand their repertories and professional opportunities. Curiously, a number of prominent close-up magicians number among the new mind-reading horde, and it is interesting to ponder the reasons why. Is it that close-up workers moving to larger venues wish to reach beyond a reliance on comedy (or boxes), and perhaps find that with mentalism they can achieve at a distance the kind of mystery and astonishment that good close-up magic can induce at intimate range? Or is it that the appeal of the paranormal is on the rise as we motor toward the millennium?

Whatever the reason, while there is no doubt that commercial success in mentalism is on the rise, whether there is commensurate interest among magical hobbyists remains unclear. It might bear mention at this point what one prominent mentalist recently commented to me: that my name is at present "anathema" among mentalists, a comment reflecting what is apparently a prevailing notion that I dislike mentalism as a form. Actually, I have a longstanding interest in mentalism, and have performed a fair amount of it throughout my life—hell, some of my best friends are mentalists! I confess however that I do think most mentalism is pretty awful—admittedly as is much of magic in general—and although it's difficult to know which conjuring category contains the higher percentage of sub-standard work, it's also true that the only thing worse than watching bad amateur card magic at a magic convention is watching bad mentalism. Hence one hopes that hobbyists will take note of this book, which, although of use to amateurs, will I think be of particular service to professionals—those who really know what it means to go out and entertain a high-paying (often corporate) audience with mentalism.

For the sake of both clarity and the record, it is true that oftentimes I do have ethical objections to the practices of many mentalists—especially the ones who seem to think that there are no ethical issues that mentalists are obliged to address, as well as those who think that all such obligations cease to be of concern once you have uttered the magic words, "It's all for entertainment," or worse still, "Everything I do is real," which represent disingenuous mis-uses of language that provide no genuine information—the difference, perhaps, between being accurate and being truthful. These issues are not particularly addressed in the book about to be examined; although on the one hand the author states unequivocally that he has always studiously avoided any claim of supernatural powers, he does occasionally sprinkle his presentations with suggestions that a pendulum can determine the sex of an un-hatched chicken, that the "atomic weight and molecular structure" of a piece of cord has something to do with why a gold ring can penetrate it, or the claim that a named science museum "had a display of metals with characteristics that were, to this time, inexplicable to contemporary scientists," whereupon he proceeds to do the old skeleton key rollover in the hand—examples of the kind of trivial palaver that, whether in the guise of magic or mentalism, makes me gag. Admittedly this may have less to do with the subject of ethics than with the question of at what point does one cross the line between poetic license and disinformation.

However, even these concerns, important as I find them, are secondary to the fact that most mentalism is just plain dull as dirt. If you have no personality then you have no business standing on stage and thinking that blathering on about mysteries of the mind is going to substitute for one, or do anything to cause me (or my friends) to be interested in you and the content-free area between your ears. Teller once said to me that the reason that mentalism is often so dreadfully boring is that it's primary concern is "the revelation and display of proper nouns—a job better left to museums." That is certainly true, and insightful at that—but just as often, mentalism is boring because it's done by boring people. That the same can be said of much of magic is self-evident—but I confess I'd still rather see a badly per-formed conjuring trick, perhaps containing some interesting point of method or technique or presentation, rather than an unrepentant misfit fascinated with the sound of his own voice doing 20 minutes about his mysterious psychic abilities, all built on the firmament of a Cut-Deeper Force.

Which brings me, at long last, to this refreshing new book of mentalism by Barrie Richardson. Although I have not had the pleasure of seeing the author perform, his bona fides are extensive: No less than Tim Conover, perhaps the nee plus ultra example of sleight-of-hand maestro-turned-mentalist and one of America's finest contemporary magicians, writes the enthusiastic introduction to Theater of the Mind. Mr. Richardson does seem to have a more interesting take on matters mental than the average enthusiast who's just discovered the one-ahead principle. He peppers his performances with stories, personal and historical anecdotes, and other provocative and compelling commentary that, combined with what comes across to the reader as a genteel and humane spirit, likely results in performances several cuts above the norm. Having read his book, I am now very curious to see him work in the flesh.

Mr. Richardson not only brings a distinctive presentational tone to his work, but also a particular taste in methodology. Whereas Ted Lesley's Paramiracles revealed its author to be willing at times to go to great lengths in the use of pre-pared props—from cleverly gimmicked envelopes to elaborate mechanisms—to achieve his stunning mental effects, Mr. Richardson, although by no means averse to the use of prepared props, nevertheless demonstrates a decided inclination toward simple properties combined with a preference for sometime elaborate mental gymnastics. This is by no means intended as criticism, but at least in some cases, putting this work to use will require memorization, calculation, mnemonics, and other such skills.

Of course, the greatest methods available to mentalists are boldness and bluff, as I learned when I first saw Al Koran perform in my teens; the privilege of being personally taught his Nightclub Card Force during a memorable encounter was one of the great "ah-hah!" moments of my life in conjuring. Mr. Richardson seems an obvious master of these skills, blithely manipulating on-stage spectators in ways that are not even clear to them, much less the audience bearing witness. Hence, simple and stunningly direct methods, coupled with confident and masterly control of spectators and circumstances, consistently produce miracles in Mr. Richardson's hands. I confess that these demands—of subtlety and grace rather than ham-handedness or brute force—may prove too demanding for many readers—but you can dream.

There are 53 routines here provided in 10 segments, and the overwhelming majority are longtime features of the author's professional work. Several effects with a more conjuring than mental flavor are described, including the production of a glass of water (also used by mentalists such as Dunninger and Richard Osterlind); a signed-and-torn-corner Bill in Lemon; the ingenious and mysterious threading of three needles on a loop of unprepared thread; and a remarkable effect, that the author plays as a serious sort of mind-over-matter item, of the suspension of a glass of water around an inserted spoon—versions are provided for both close-up and platform, the latter accompanied by an evocative and offbeat presentation.

The usual effects of mentalism are represented, but always with a methodological and/or presentational spin that prevents any of this material from seeming like just another rehash of standards, and in many cases uniquely original plot ideas. I quickly found it important to carefully read the author's initial descriptions of each effect, done in elegant theatrical detail that not only helps the reader to imagine what an actual performance might be like, but also providing finesse and performance touches that will be invaluable to any working mentalist.

A number of routines in this volume—especially some of the card material—will fool you merely in the initial description, and it's worth trying to puzzle out some of Mr. Richardson's methods before barreling along too rapidly into the explanation. A good non-card example would be an excellent routine entitled "One in a Half Million," which consists of the prediction of a freely selected phone number drawn from an actually unprepared phone book under incredibly clean circumstances. I recommend you try this thought experiment yourself as you read the book, as it might well enhance your enjoyment in the reading, as well as your appreciation of the contents.

There's plenty of close-up and parlor material here, including a spread of playing cards mysteriously adhering to the mage's hands; a sort of close-up "Powers of Darkness" in which a marked coin mysteriously but repeatedly turns over in the spectator's hands; a kind of "Light and Heavy Chest" done with an ordinary pencil (that can or can-not be lifted from the performer's hand); a strong-man effect in which two spectators are unable to pull a pair of shoelaces from the mage's hands, despite the most minimal of grips; an incredible routine involving a series of both penetrations on and off a length of string combined with the linking and unlinking of borrowed finger rings, far different from the usual handling; a platform version of Curry's "Out of This World;" and a number of utterly impossible single and multiple card locations, each one complete with effective theatrical presentations.

The author provides two excellent versions (one for stage, the other close-up) of the trick that Al Koran called "Jackpot Coins" (my first exposure to it), in which the performer makes a number of predictions about the relation-ship between two random handfuls of coins, one being the spectator's and the other the magician's. Mr. Richardson has developed a second phase in which the performer takes his handful of coins first, an impossible feat if you only know the original version.

There is a prediction routine in which the prediction is isolated in an inflated balloon, held by a spectator until the revelation of no less than six predicted events. There are magazine tests, torn newspaper tests, a good Center Tear approach, and a clever and immensely practical close-up routine in which the performer divines a word written and sealed by one person and a drawing written and sealed by another. The penultimate chapter is devoted to three versions of the "Card at Any Number" problem (often associated with David Berglas)—at least two of these solutions are quite workable, but they do require some of the aforementioned mental gymnastics. And the final chapter includes several routines with watches, including a superb three-phase routine in which the performer and spectator each set their respective watches to a random time that turns out to be identical, then the per-former sets his watch to a time then freely named at random by the spectator, and finally the spectator's watch, held in her hand, mysteriously returns itself to the correct time.

The book concludes with a personal remembrance of two of the author's close and now deceased friends in magic, legendary British Magi Fred Robinson and Eric Mason. This personal commentary is a fitting close to a book that, refreshingly, maintains the presence of the author's clear personal voice throughout. The book suffers marginally from the illustrations of Kelly Lyle, whose work I find competent at best but never up to the level of design elegance to which we have grown accustomed from Hermetic Press, and this volume is no exception. A few more typos than usual are also noticeable here, which another round of proof-reading could have avoided, but considering that Hermetic has in recent years published three of the most important contemporary volumes of mentalism, including T.A. Waters' Mind, Myth & Magic, and Ted Lesley's Paramiracles, Barrie Richardson's Theater of the Mind is a fitting addition to that impressive catalog.

Theater of the Mind • Barrie Richardson • 7" x 10" hardcover • 320 pages • illustrated with approximately 150 line drawings • 1999

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