Britain's top comedy mind reader talks about quitting the 9–5, using his 'powers' and the challenges of audience interaction
Doug Segal. Former ad-man, professional mind reader and according to Time Out, the UK’s 'best kept entertainment secret.' For those acutely aware of the advertising industry’s Artful Dodgering, the leap may not seem too fanciful; but just how does the director of a succesful agency wind up on stage teaching someone to read minds, for a living?
The Skinny: Assuming we’ve been living under a rock, what is mentalism?
Doug Segal: It's the technical term for what I do. It has the same relationship with magic that say jazz has with opera. It borrows most of its techniques from psychology and the trickery 'psychics' and 'mediums' use to fool people into thinking they have mystic abilities. Where magic is 'sleight of hand,' mentalism is largely 'sleight of mind.' There's nothing psychic or spooky about it; all I'm doing is using skills from my background in psychology and advertising – statistics, persuasion techniques, sometimes I'm using subliminal influence and I'm coupling that with two key advertising skills of CHEATING AND LYING to create the illusion of mind reading and mind control.
What got you interested in it?
When I was studying psychology, I realised I could take the principles I was being taught and subvert them into party pieces, if I'm honest, to win bar bets and impress women. After uni I went into advertising and learned more about statistics, persuasion and subliminal influence so my 'party pieces' became more impressive.
When did you first perform?
I started doing mind tricks at lunches with clients to liven up dull meetings. One of my clients, a major German car manufacturer, really liked it and basically bullied me into doing an after dinner show for his sales conference in Munich. I look back and cringe, but people seemed to really like it, so, fuelled by a ridiculous hubris, I booked two weeks at The Baron's Court Theatre and somehow managed to sell that out.
It opened a lot of doors for me. A producer from the BBC came and gave me two five minute spots into and out of the chimes on the BBC One New Year's Eve Live show. A Dutch TV presenter, Robert Jensen, happened to see it and got me onto his show in Holland. I found myself thinking “Well I'll never make as much money doing this as I am as a director of a major ad agency; but I could make a living, have fun and get my soul back,” so I chucked it in and turned pro. I've been really lucky since; I've had more TV, sell-out runs at the Fringe, won a couple of awards and got picked up by Eddie Izzard's promoters.
Mentalism is often seen as quite serious in magicians circles, though your show seems to subvert that. Do you feel that comedy has been a natural marriage to it?
Yeah. Most mentalists want to come across as all-powerful, mysterious, Mephistophelian beings. I'm not interested in that. That makes their shows into “Look how awesome I am!” I'm more interested in how awesome my audiences are.
I'm taking mentalism shows somewhere new. There have been mentalism shows that are funny; but never ones that include elements of stand-up and sketch comedy the way I Can Make You A Mentalist does and certainly never ones where all the mind tricks are performed by random audience members.
I'm kinda exploring uncharted territory here. And that's nice, it means I'm really breaking new ground and blurring the boundaries between two genres.
Obviously with that sort of ‘power’ comes responsibility; do you ever use your skills outside of performing?
Hahaha! That's the question I get asked most often in interviews and by using the Spiderman quote you've taken away the stock phrase I use to dodge the question.
Do people often assume you’re reading them?
It's odd – it's only people who feel they've got something to hide that ever say “I bet you're reading me right now,” which, ironically, is the only reason I know they've got something to hide.
This show takes audience interaction to a new level; where did the idea come from?
The last show, How To Read Minds & Influence People (I'd do a mind trick and then show the audience how I did it) ended with a random audience member onstage reading the minds of the audience. That was the single most talked about part of the show. At the end of that tour I thought “Wouldn't it be great if the whole show was like that? No one's ever done it before – I think because their egos won't allow someone else to be the star rather than them.” That thought alone was enough to make me want to do it.
Did you know it would work?
I had no idea. The thing about mentalism and comedy, unlike magic and acting, is the only way to see if stuff works is to do it with an audience. In the first five previews I had something minor go wrong beyond recovery twice, but now, thirty-ish shows in, it all works properly. That's not to say stuff can't ever go wrong – that's always going to be a possibility – but there's always a way back now.
What are the challenges of working with just one audience member?
I have zero control over who it is and the... I don't know... flavour? Texture maybe, of the show really depends on what they are like. I have to improvise around them a lot; if they are over enthusiastic I have to manage things so they settle down and don't derail the narrative. If they’re too shy I have to build it up so that the audience are willing them on and cheering. Every show's unique and has different challenges. It's exciting!
How do you go from an idea to a fully realised show?
It's hard because I'm effectively writing two different, interlocking, shows in tandem – a comedy show and a mentalism show. It has to stand up as one even if the other wasn't there. I usually start with a broad concept and what effects would fit well with that idea, then work out how to do them. Simultaneously I start writing lots of comedy material about the theme. Once I get to the rehearsal stage I usually have to throw about half of each away because they don't quite gel and the two have to appear seamless.
A lot of the best gags present themselves during performance so it changes during the tour. In this show I realised early on that it would need sketches woven into the narrative to make it work, and I'd not written sketch comedy before so I drafted in James Hamilton from Casual Violence and Guy Kelly from The Beta Males to help me. I'm really proud that many of the sketches would work as standalone pieces.
At this point I have a germ of an idea and a title for the 2015 show: I Can Make You Feel Good. I really love the idea of writing a show designed from the ground up to produce euphoria.
Because this tour doesn't finish until the middle of June I've not got time to write a new show so I'm having the obligatory 'fourth year off' from the Fringe.The plan was to not come at all, which was eating away at me, but I'm glad to say I've recently been offered a week of appearances in a variety show at one of the big venues so I'll be up for the final week.