Stage Hypnosis — Leaving the Stale and Grubby Old Format Behind and Embracing the Fascinating Genre Anew

“The genre [of hypnotism] was a victim of its own success. As the artform started taking off, magicians and variety hosts quickly added ‘hypnotist’ to their list of skills in an attempt to get on the money. However, these people didn’t have the required experience or skill, so the shows they put on were poor and audiences started associating hypnotism with a cheap and tacky and generally disappointing night out.” British Comedy Guide

Hypnotism is a subject that fascinates many people, but when you think of stage hypnotism, a stalwart of 70s 80s and 90s live entertainment … it can really sound a bit … well a bit grubby

Over time, the main associations came to be unsuspecting punters eating onions as if they were apples, clucking like a chicken, or worse airing embarrassing dirty laundry.

While popular for a short time for their shock tactics, most people found that in the end, they wanted to laugh with, not at the people they were watching on stage, they didn’t like watching other people’s discomfort or humiliation.

And so these associations caused the format to fall from grace — and little wonder.

But popular forms of entertainment come in cycles… and as a form of entertainment hypnosis is a fascinating one. The recent appearance of shows like ‘You’re Back in the Room’ The ITV show, which focused on contestants, joined by celebrity guests, experiencing deep hypnosis by Irish Magician Keith Barry and then attempting to perform what would usually be simple tasks whilst being ‘hindered’ by their hypnotic suggestions; demonstrated that people are clearly once more interested in the concept of hypnosis as a commercial form of entertainment … but no one has quite managed to get the format right — yet.

To begin with the show did well in the ratings, topping more than four million in its first episode. But making people do things ‘against their will’ or hindering them from doing something they want to do whilst hypnotised (in this case win money) is questionable under the parameters and ethics of hypnosis itself and some question whether that’s even entirely possible. Viewing figures fell by the second series, and producers found it harder and harder to find enough contestants and celebrities who were willing to make a fool of themselves on primetime telly.

And there’s that point again “make a fool of themselves“ — that idea sets my teeth on edge. Because there is absolutely no reason why a show focussed around audience hypnotism should have to make a fool of anyone. Audiences should laugh with the volunteers on stage, not at them. The fact that stage hypnosis doesn’t need to disgrace anyone seems to be a concept that few hypnotic performers have thought of.

Of course there were exceptions — while he sometimes made people look a little bit silly, Paul McKenna with his TV show — which was basically a live stage hypnosis show on TV — using hypnotised celebrities and members of the public alongside clever sketches, gave the entertainment industry a passion for hypnosis. But because McKenna was such a skilled performer and presenter, he was able to be far more inclusive and considerate of his audiences than many other performers — and to generate a likeable rapport with them — which is essential. In this case — (in a stark contrast to ‘You’re Back in the Room’) the presenter and the hypnotist were one and the same — the hypnotist was not purely just the ‘puppet master’ — which I believe makes a huge difference to the audience’s ability to relate to, engage with and enjoy their time with the hypnotist on screen.

But that popularity generated by McKenna became both a blessing and a curse. Suddenly every bedroom magician started to add “hypnotist” to their CV,

But being a compelling Stage Hypnotist isn’t something everyone can do — even if they learn the basics of crowd hypnotism, being able to perform, present and entertain is as difficult as it is in any other performance genre. And what’s the easiest thing to fall back on if you’re not that good an entertainer? Making a fool of your volunteers.

And from here on the grubby image really set in. Poorly trained ‘Hypnotists’ from a diverse range of backgrounds were taking something popular from the television and transferring it to pubs and clubs for minimal fees — and doing it mortifyingly badly.

On top of this people were also trying to cash in on the craze by teaching hypnosis. As well as the few legitimate, skilled and established people who had been teaching hypnosis for a long time — a plethora of new ‘Hypnosis Trainers’ appeared — offering cheap (and often low quality) courses via video on how to hypnotise people — making it seem like anybody and everybody can do it. But these wannabe stage hypnotists who emerged from home-taught courses were not only lacking in technical hypnosis skill, they were equally lacking in performance ability.

Taking to the stage and robotically doing what they had been taught to do, their shows all followed a very samey set structure — ironically lacking imagination (the staple ingredient of all hypnosis) with minimal variation and diversity. And when audiences experience something over and over again — delivered badly in the first place — they pretty much learn that they don’t want to go and see that thing never again.

And so hypnotists became aware that they needed to diversify — but instead of doing something clever — they attempted to outdo each other regarding who could perform the crudest and most ‘outrageous’ show These shows became focussed on generating as much humiliation as possible.

A recent subreddit asked if anyone had any experiences (good and bad) of stage hypnotism. Here were some of the answers:

“I was hypnotised on a cruise ship a few years ago and ended up trying to masturbate on stage”

“One of my friends standing grabbing our asses … long story short, the hypnotist basically made us his personal puppets”

“My friend unintentionally came out of the closet in front of the whole graduating class”

Not pleasant eh? And once the shock value wears off … not particularly entertaining even for those people who don’t mind seeing their peers uncomfortable and embarrassed.

And with that, the negative associations, low expectations and “not for me” attitude towards Stage hypnosis was born.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. Stage hypnosis is a fascinating phenomenon. The potential of hypnosis is almost limitless, so I will never understand why most performers feel the need to limit their shows to such a base level. If the genre wants to survive it’s time to get much fresher and more modern.

I very firmly believe that if the humour comes from the interaction between the volunteers and from their adventures on their hypnotic journey, then you can make a very distinct departure from ‘traditional’ comedy hypnotism, moving away from the disreputable shows of old, adding high level production values and bringing a wealth of knowledge, skills and sense of humour in order to create a fresh new, innovative, interactive and of course, hypnotic form of entertainment.

And even more importantly it’s time to move towards a far warmer and inclusive form of performing; the best hypnosis show is one that’s is entirely void of volunteers being degraded or made to feel totally embarrassed. It can still be hilariously funny. The audience can laugh guilt-free rather than cringe. And the volunteers can still have fun on stage — without being humiliated — in fact they can have more fun. They can fondly look back at their actions and laugh and smile at their comedic hypnotic experience which gave them their 90 minutes of fame. And at those times when they may have been doing something a little more ‘silly’ — it’s important that above and beyond that, they find what they did funny. They should come away feeling empowered. It has to be “I think it’s amazing I did that” — rather than “I wish I’d never done that”. The best shows are when everyone on stage is there because they want to be — when nobody is ever coerced to get up — and interestingly when you present a show in that way, you find that there is never a shortage of willing volunteers.

It’s time for something new to be done with the genre — something bigger and more immersive, something that helps audiences realise that hypnosis can be an amazingly engaging entertainment medium. For those that like to be the centre of attention, it’s pretty much the only format where they can take part in and be the stars themselves. And for those who couldn’t think of anything worse, they should be able to attend a show safe in the knowledge that it’s ok to sit back, relax and enjoy the experience as a spectator.

If everyone involved followed these rules then hypnotism’s popularity will rise again. Stage Hypnosis shows just have to start being better — and we’re aiming to be the pioneer for that.

Simon Warner performs Viva Hypnosis at Leicester Square Theatre 19th & 20th December 2016 at 9:30pm Booking: 020 7734 2222// Leicester Square Theatre