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Marc Salem

Published 17 April 2008

Marc Salem calls himself a Mentalist, but he is not dangerous in any way. His world-famous show Mind Games, where he showcases his unique abilities and some truly glorious puns opened at the Tricycle Theatre this week. Tom Bowtell gave him a bell before he left New York (where the show is also in the middle of a run) and tried to confuse him by not picking number seven and drawing the most unpigeon-like-pigeon that there has ever been.

Marc Salem answers extremely perkily when I call him. “It’s nine in the morning over here, that’s almost the end of the day for me!” He doesn’t expand on this cryptic statement and at this early stage I briefly worry that he is expecting me to read his mind. Luckily, when I ask him to tell me a bit more about Mind Games, he is much more forthcoming and far less odd: “Mind Games is an audience participation programme where I guide and influence and even pick up the thoughts of audience members. It’s a lot of fun, very funny, and also kind of mind boggling”.

This is Salem’s third trip to London, after previous successful visits to the Hampstead and New Ambassadors which elicited the following excitement from a British theatre press which is usually pretty sniffy about mere conjurors: "*****…so amazing. I have seldom experienced such wonder in a theatre" – (The Guardian), "The king of the mind readers" – (Time Out), "It's a rare show you come out of thinking you have to tell all your friends about" (The Observer), "Prepare to be amazed" – (Evening Standard), "Astonishing, takes your breath away… leaves the audience scratching their heads and retrieving their jaws from the floor" – (Daily Telegraph).

"When my mother left a hat in a box, I knew what box it was in."

Salem is just about the only person who is not jaw-droppingly stunned-to-bits about his abilities – but then he has had six senses ever since he can remember. “Even as a child the mind fascinated me, I had a certain facility with the mind – I was able to guess when my parents were taking us on holiday. And when my mother left a hat in a box I knew what box it was in.”

This natural talent lead Salem first into a career as a psychologist and then as a college lecturer. He has short shrift for anyone who suggests he has sold out by joining the entertainment industry. “As Marshall McLuhan once said, 'anyone who thinks there’s a difference between education and entertainment doesn’t know a thing about either'. So I always felt that the classroom was a place for me to experiment with theatrical approaches to thing.” As well as his academic successes, Salem also dabbled in seminar events for corporations and it was after one of these that he was approached by a producer: “he asked if I could do this eight nights a week and in 1997 the first off-Broadway show was mounted and ran for ten weeks was a monster hit and from there the show’s gone round the world – I’ve been to Sydney Opera House and I’ve just got back from the Esplanade on the bay in Singapore and now I’m on Broadway.”

Having performed the same show in front of people of all over the world does Salem feel that some nationalities are harder to read than others (are, for example, the notoriously repressed British utterly inscrutable while their American cousins can be read like a picture book?) “The most delightful thing that I find is that people are people and there are some basic non-verbals which are universal – such as surprise, anger, fear and also I think that people are interested in the same sort of things and they even laugh at the same sort of things. On the other hand, the cultural elements make it something that is always a learning experience. The show is very audience friendly. Nothing embarrassing ever happens on stage, no-one’s ever forced to come up but I do find that when I’m at the Edinburgh Festival, everyone is desperate to get up on stage [that’s because they’re drunk, Marc] but when I’m in London there’s a bit more reticence. In Australia it’s more gung-ho and in America it depends on the city. London has a tradition of Musical Halls and Pubs and Hypnotists that were embarrassing people, so I think that people need to have a sense very early on that they’re going to be safe and that nothing untoward is going to happen to them. My show’s about light and laughter not about dark, sinister, or embarrassing situations. Any joke that’s made is aimed at me.”

"This has nothing to do with anything psychic, supernatural, spiritual."

Marc doesn’t like his mind control talents to be described as a gift: “that carries with it some sort of emotional luggage”. So can anybody learn to do what he does? “Look, anyone can learn to draw, but not everyone can be an artist, anyone can learn to pass a sentence, but not everyone can be a journalist. Everyone can learn to read other people better, but there is an element of this that is hereditary.” He is equally dismissive of those who credit him with any supernatural abilities: “I eschew those things, this has nothing to do with psychic, supernatural, spiritual or anything along those lines. This is psychological and theatrical.”

With his fantastic Brooklyn accent, it is clear that Marc can talk the talk, but can he, err, think the think – down a phone line? First, the disclaimer: “It’s among the most difficult things to do – not only do you have no non-verbal signals, but also there’s also the electronic restructuring of the voice.” having said this, he gives it a try:

“I get the sense that you don’t have a pencil there, you just have a pen.” He’s right. But it could be a fluke.

Then he adds “I’d like you to pick up that sheet of yellow paper on your right hand side that the pen’s resting on”

“It’s pinky” I point out, but everything else was spot on.

Marc then proceeds to ask me to choose a number between 1 and 10, to draw one shape inside another shape, and then to chose a number between 1 and 99. I’ve got to be honest here: what happened next wasn’t exactly mind-blowing: “I’m getting a sense of a number above five, an odd number, and I suspect it’s a seven or a nine – probably a seven?” The number was eight. Salem rolls with the blow “OK, alright, that tells me a lot about you. It tells me that you like closure, you don’t like leaving things open ended because an 8 is literally two ends that are closed. This means that one of the shapes you chose is a circle while the other is more of a square than a triangle.” I have drawn a triangle inside a square. “OK. That shows that you like closure and angularity. That takes me onto the third number, and given what I know about you so far, it’s probably something like a 22” This time it’s a 21, which is good enough for me. Salem goes on to guess that the appalling disturbed pigeon that I’ve drawn is a “collection of grey ovals” which, in all fairness, it is.

With about 3500 miles between us, the odd slip-up from Salem is understandable and I can confirm that in his live show, he does things which people just shouldn’t do. But perhaps just as impressive as his ability to recount in intimate detail what audience members are thinking “Jane, are you thinking about the time you met Sam at sunset on St Catherine’s dock?” Is the good-natured way Salem reacts to the rare occasions he gets things wrong – making a joke out of a potentially embarrassing situation before bounding back by doing something even more amazing that the amazing thing he has just failed to do.

"Derren Brown is the consummate showman, I'm the professorial uncle."

Marc Salem is returning to London shortly after one of his fellow psychological conjurors, Derren Brown, concluded his own show at the Palace. Salem has an obvious, if slightly grudging, respect for this young British pretender: “I’ve dined with Derren, yes.” And what happened? Were the two of them constantly reading each other’s minds and ordering for each other? “That reminds me of the old joke about two psychiatrist’s meeting in a bar – one says to the other ‘you’re fine, how am I?’ I enjoy his company, but what I do is turn this thing off. Otherwise I’d get exhausted from reading people all the time. So Derren and I talked about other things. He’s a bright, intelligent and quite a witty gentleman.”

Salem is keen to point out the differences between his show and Derren’s: “Derren is the consummate showman while I’m the professorial uncle” he guffaws. Salem, one senses, sees himself as a slightly purer performer, whereas Derren Brown has been banned from most of the world’s casinos, Marc points out that “I don’t gamble, I don’t do anything with playing cards and I don’t touch members of my audience – it’s far more on a pure mental level, as opposed to so many of the wonderful things that Derren does.” He pauses, and using my nascent non-verbal identification skills I get the impression that he’s about to attempt a polite criticism of Brown’s work, but in the end he merely adds “It’s different”.

While I’m not exactly sure what he is intimating when he points out that he never touches his audience, Salem is keen to stress that his shows are devoid of stress for the audience. Salem believes that this is why he has, by and large, avoided lynching and ribald accusations of witchcraft and the suchlike when he has performed in front of more traditionally minded audiences: “That has happened rarely because I work so hard to make the audience feel comfortable and safe and I try to demystify what I do and put it firmly within the realm of psychology and other influences. I’ve just spent three months in South Africa, where there’s an enormous amount of superstition, and I never ran into any problems. I’ve also toured the Bible Belt in America, and everything was fine. I clearly disavow the supernatural and I think that all these things make it a family show: grandparents can bring grandchildren and it’s also a great date.”

Before Marc slips into his entire sales-pitch I ask him about the role live theatre plays in his life: “I’m a huge fan of theatre. Like academia, it’s a creative process. Live theatre provides you with something you can’t get in any other media: interaction, spontaneity – and my show uses that. I’ve always been a theatre fan and a theatre freak.” Being so susceptible to non-verbal signals, I wonder if Marc can sometimes find the theatre something of an ordeal – watching an actor saying “To be or not to be” while being aware that what they’re actually thinking is “I think I’ll have lasagne for tea tonight” must be an agonising experience. “Fortunately I can turn my reception off! But over the years I’ve worked with a lot of actors at the Actors’ Studio in New York. Arthur Miller has become a very close friend of mine and I do train actors how they can convey a thought to an audience through non-verbal behaviour.”

Fascinatingly, Salem finds that method actors become almost impossible to ‘read’ using his techniques. “Let’s take the late Marlon Brando. He is very difficult to read because he literally becomes the other person and once they become possessed by the characters they play, they are that person, and that is a very powerful way to convey those feelings to an audience because it borders on pathological. By all accounts, it can be very difficult for people backstage or off set because they don’t come out of character: they are that character.” With all his copious knowledge of body language and non verbal speaking, and his natural stage presence, surely Marc himself is a talented actor? “No, I’m awful”.

"All in all my first impressions are pretty spot on."

When it is applied to real life situations, the ability to know instantly what someone is thinking and when they are lying may be something of a mixed blessing. Do we really want to know that our bum really does look big in that? If I were Salem, I think I’d have serious problems trusting anybody: “It’s not that I don’t trust people, it’s just that all of us have stopped listening to that little voice called intuition: I’m very intuitive so sometimes I’ll trust people who others don’t trust. So I think all of us should listen to that little voice a bit more. All in all though, my first impressions tend to be pretty right on.”

Salem does concede that being intuitive can be exhausting: “When I was younger I couldn’t shut if off, but now I’ve learned how – I had to. My Dad was the same way. He was a Clergyman. Because of his intuition he became so wound up in other people’s lives that he died a very young man. Because of that I’ve never had a patient and I never will take a patient. I don’t want that level of emotional empathy: it would be destructive to me.”

Finally, does Marc have any tips for everyday folk to tap into their own intuition – perhaps allowing them to excel in job interviews and tell when door-to-door salesmen are selling genuinely high-quality products? “I think the most important thing is to listen. We live in an age which I call the tyranny of the visual. We think that everything falls within the realm of what we see. I mean what do we call a group of people in the theatre? An audience. We don’t call them a vidience. We have forgotten how to listen; if we spent more time listening. hearing the tones, the cadence, the pitch of people’s voices I think we’d understand each other a lot better.”

“Well that was my last question” I say.
“I know” says Marc, mysteriously.
“Well I’m looking forward to the show” I say.
“You’ll enjoy it” says Marc.

And I did. Creepy.

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