Being onstage is my favorite thing to do for fun.
Mind reading shows are inherently interactive. The show is not about me, it’s about you — the audience. Without you there are no minds to read, no thoughts to gather, no laughter, no applause.
My show is improvisational by design. The script has peaks and valleys that lead to an inexplicable dénouement.
The peaks are set-in-stone. Exposition and dialogue, crafted to move the narrative forward. The words must be clear and concise, engaging and interesting. And, in the process, a character must emerge. A fully-formed, three dimensional, onstage persona. Self-deprecating but smart, funny without trying too hard. In control, but not intimidating. Easier said than done.
Then we reach the mountaintop. The next peak is visible, mere minutes of dialogue away, but I have to cross the valley of improvisation to get there.
Going downhill isn’t bad in this scenario. Going downhill means building momentum. Every word and action that brought us here has led us to this place. And that’s when it gets fun.
I don’t know what I’ll say in this moment. It’s based on audience responses. The thoughts and ideas brought onstage each night are different, with each leading to a new path through my “Choose-Your-Own-Mind-Reading-Adventure” show.
Sometimes, when I’m rehearsing, I think of the valleys and they scare me. There’s a big, intimidating gap in the script that never gets filled in until that exact moment onstage.
Will I remember their name? Will they be helpful? Will I respond with something clever? Or will I fall flat on my face and stumble over my words? Will I completely blank and fail to come up with a witty ad-lib?
I watch other performers improvising onstage and think to myself “Wow, they’re good. That was such a fast response. I’m no where near that quick.”
Then the show comes and something happens. I’m in the moment, listening and responding in real-time, but it feels like I’m on auto-pilot. It’s as if all of my years of theatre and improv training take over for a few seconds, saying “Don’t worry. We’ve got this!”
The words are there. The jokes are crafted in the moment, like last week:
“Name a city in the world that you’ve been to before and would like to return to again.”
“Who would want to go back to Tampa?”
Or the night before, when a middle-aged woman kept voicing her thoughts (unprompted) from the front row:
“You don’t have to say every single thing that comes to mind! You’re like a typical boomer on Facebook, oversharing and unaware. Am I right, Millenials?!”
Those may not read as good as they sounded but believe me, after winning an audience over for the first 20 minutes of my show — those ad-libbed responses brought the house down.
The goal is to encourage this interaction, not squash it. There’s no fourth wall. The audience is the cast, the thoughts are my props, and your mind is my stage. It’s not a one-man show. We’re all in this together.
When volunteers come onstage I have a series of three questions I ask to get to know them a little better.
- Where are you from?
- What do you do for a living?
- What’s your favorite thing to do for fun?
Knowing where someone is from is very telling and a career choice is certain to reveal something about a person that wasn’t obvious before, but my favorite question is the final one: What’s your favorite thing to do for fun?
95% of my volunteers don’t have an answer for that question. They hesitate, unsure of how to respond, then awkwardly say the first thing they think of. Typically, it’s answers like “Drink”, “Go out with friends”, “Party”, and so on.
If my participants had a script, this moment would be their “valley of improvisation”. This is the one question that gives them the biggest chance to express themself, to open up and say something personal. Yet, so few ever know how to respond.
It’s as if the things that define us today are no longer our passions. The things that should take priority — our interests, frivolous pursuits, and more — have taken the backseat to the things that society deems more important. We have become defined by where we’re from and what we do, not where we’re headed and what we want to be doing.
However, every once in a while I do get an interesting answer onstage.
This is the 5% of the audience that interests me the most. These people have a clear idea of what defines them and how they choose to spend their time. They aren’t boxed in by anyone else’s presuppositions about modern-day life. They are fully themselves and not ashamed to admit it in front of a roomful of strangers. These are my people.
I was watching a documentary recently called “Particle Fever”. It’s about a group of scientists working on the Hadron Collider and studying the Higgs boson particle. (It’s a fascinating documentary if you’re into that sort of thing.) The closing line stuck with me:
“Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.
— Particle Fever
It’s not where you’re from and it’s not what you do for a living that defines you. It’s not what people tell you to say and how you say it. Staying on script can be awfully boring. The fun begins when you set off on your own, into uncharted territory. The fun starts when you give yourself permission to do what you’ve always wanted. The fun starts when you want it to.
So…what’s your favorite thing to do for fun?