"Always think good thoughts," is Marc Salem’s motto in life. You would be wise to do exactly that when going to see his show at the Tricycle in July because Salem is a mind reader. The cheerful American showman has been wowing London audiences for years now and returns to the North London venue from 10-29 July with his new show Mind Games Extra, which, he says, is a masterclass in how to read other people’s minds.
Salem is a professor of psychology, a leading expert on the human mind and a former director of research at the famous US children’s television show Sesame Street, where he led psychological research into how children can learn effectively. Luckily for us, Salem decided to lend his talents to the world of entertainment as well as academia, and his extraordinary mental shenanigans have been mystifying people around the world ever since. Last year the finely-tuned professor showed us he is the real deal by misreading a mind and unintentionally cutting his hand on a knife, live on stage. What on earth will Salem get up to this year? Unfortunately Caroline Bishop isn’t a mind reader, so she thought she would just ask him instead…
Are you looking forward to coming back to London?
Marc Salem: I love it. It’s become a part of my human life cycle. I love the people at the Tricycle and the audiences have always been such a great mix. I see people and the next day I see that they bring their parents and their children. It’s the type of theatre that you recognise faces. So it’s exciting.
How do you describe your talent for reading minds?
MS: Well, like any performance art it is far more in the performance than it is in the description. But what I do is I influence, guide, pick up things from people’s thoughts, always with respect and never falling into the realm of the occult or the supernatural. It’s a theatre entertainment with a strong basis in psychology and theatre and audience management.
When were you first aware of your talent?
MS: Even at the age of eight I knew that my mum was able to ask me questions about something that was misplaced, and under the right conditions I was able to know where it was. My parents certainly had a difficult time keeping secrets from me. On the other hand it is my express belief that, particularly in families, we are constantly reading each other, we know the body language of each other and we are picking up far more than we know how to articulate. I think mothers and sons really read each other very well but often the parent doesn’t wish to admit what they know.
How do you do it?
MS: Sometimes you’re picking up clues – there seems to be something out of whack in the way they are communicating with you and that is something you fill in; sometimes the very cycle of life means something similar happened before and it’s coming to you again; and sometimes you are intuitive about it, it reflects something in the past and you take a guess but you don’t exactly know what the source was.
The source is either them giving off some information on a level that you’re not consciously getting it, or perhaps you are influencing them, which is the other end of this sort of thing – to do what you’d like them to do, so you’re the one in control.
Did you train yourself or did it come naturally?
MS: I think it’s a combination. I think there is a 50% learning and schooling and psychology, and 50% is me. It’s just like no one has ever [taught] me how to do the timing and telling of a joke, it’s just part of me. On the other hand you could go to school to learn to tell a joke and if you don’t have that rhythm it can’t be done. Someone could try to teach me to dance for the rest of their life – it is a lost cause!
So could other people learn it to some extent?
MS: If you were to give somebody a choice of three candies and they’re sitting across from you, there are ways in which you could guide them to choose the candy that you want them to choose. If they are a right-handed person your chances are far better than one in three that they are going to choose the one on the extreme left, reach across the table and pick up that one. That’s a combination of probability and the way the candies are laid out.
I have a friend who is a dentist and he has a line of dentures. And he asked me, where do I place the dentures on a shelf so that my patients choose the most expensive set? And I told him where to place it, and in advertising that’s called positioning.
Our mind is constantly being manipulated. Let’s face it, even governments do it. Words will move you, will create pictures in the mind that motivate, and that’s what advertisers do and to some extent that’s what I do.
Do kids have more intuition than adults?
MS: I think they trust it more, they listen to it more. I think adults are not willing to listen to what they know; we ignore the little voice inside of us that says ‘this is wrong’ or ‘try this’. Children are far more willing to take the risk.
Is it very tiring having this gift?
MS: It is and I’ve learned to shut it off. You ever read the page of a book and as you’re reading it you get tired so you could read the page over and over again but you’re not making any meaning? That’s what it’s like. I put my head in a state of not making meaning. So I see things… but I’m not translating everything.
Is anyone ever suspicious of you because of your abilities?
MS: I think that over the decades my natural humour and un-intimidating presence has avoided that. I don’t tower above people, I don’t intensely do anything. I’ve always said if I have a sixth sense it’s my sense of humour and I think when people are laughing I am getting far more information than when people are wrapped up tight. It’s very important for people to feel comfortable around me and I think I do a very good job at that. I represent every man. I am you. I’m not a good looking matinee idol, I’m not a college professor with patches on his jacket, I’m only me, which is the first line of the show.
What do you enjoy about being on stage?
MS: It is the most exciting hour and a half possible. The adrenalin rushes. Unlike other performance arts where you just go and present, I am interacting with an audience, I am going to be meeting new people and I want them to feel comfortable. I never know what they have for me, I never know how I am going to turn that into something. I call them on stage and I don’t know who they are. I want to make sure they’re happy and the audience is happy. So doing that hour and a half gets the adrenalin going. My favourite part is when I get something wrong.
You got something wrong during last year’s opening night and hurt yourself…
MS: Yes, but it was very minor and on the other hand the show went on that evening and ran on for the rest of the run. It seemed far worse than it was, by the second night I wasn’t even wearing a band aid. Because I’m not an idiot, I’m not going to risk my life just for people’s pleasant evening’s entertainment.
Did it put you off your stride?
MS: Just for a minute. I find that as a performer one must be quick on your feet and one must be able to laugh off things. In thousands of performances I’ve only had three hecklers, which is amazing. This counts places like Edinburgh, Sydney, where you’d think that would be common. And what it is is, hey I’m one of you, I make fun of myself. So only three times and in one of those cases it was someone who was patently schizophrenic, and one was terribly drunk, and the other was a psychiatrist.
Ever had someone on stage whose mind you can’t read?
MS: Everybody is able to be read but there are certainly times where people are more reticent about opening up. I do find that the tighter they try to keep it, the easier it is to get to them. All sorts of body language of being twisted up in knots gives itself away. It is my job to make them feel comfortable so the mind does open up. So I do see people who are trying to hold on too tight, I usually find them ultimately to be the easiest.
Have you ever been surprised by a participant or an event during a show?
MS: Oh yes. The truth of the matter is every single evening I’m surprised. I’m surprised when I get things right, I’m surprised when I hear things. A woman comes up and says what’s inside my locket?, and I say I’m getting the numbers 4, 5 and two old photographs and she has a smile and a weepy look on her face, and she opens it up and it’s her husband and her – her husband just passed away and they were married in 1945.
So I think that the evenings are always full of surprises. There’s a part of the show where I identify things without seeing them. One evening a woman brought her cat’s tonsils. It becomes a game with the audience, particularly those who know me, they know at some point objects are going to be brought up and some get challenging…
Are people never reluctant to participate?
MS: No one is ever forced to. What I find is that by treating people gently after the first minute they see how safe it is, then everybody wants to volunteer. When I go to corporations sometimes they say don’t pick that table, because that’s the CEO and everything. And then within five minutes everyone on that table’s raising their hand, and they come to me afterwards and say why didn’t you pick anyone at our table?
Do you have a favourite mind game in this year’s show?
MS: This show has some real mind game stompers. Last year’s show was the most personal show. This year’s show is almost a master’s lesson in tuning up your mind. So while it’s not an academic demonstration I think by the end of the evening you’ll know that the person next to you, given a choice of four different colours, is probably going to be picking red.