Marc Salem: Master of Magic Mind Games
Marc Salem, who has a new show in London, insists that all he does is pay attention to the potential of the mind. He plays tricks with Paul Morley.
As I'm introduced to the mind-blowing New York mind-reader Marc Salem in a small, cosy hotel near the British Museum, I seem to be suffering from pre-mentalist tension.
Marc Salem regularly advises the CIA and FBI - 'My training and intuition are pretty powerful.'
But then, with his skills at reading body language in ways that can seem positively psychic, I guess he knows that already. Seeing him on stage, as he blends sharp insight into the human mind with a wily reinvention of traditional magic techniques, it's easy to believe there is something superhuman about his abilities.
He dramatises the unusual powers of the mind, mixing the slick, hustling showmanship of the legendary Amazing Kreskin with a dose of the heavier, more contemporary hanky-panky of Derren Brown, where the possibility of something genuinely spiritual and truly strange wafts elusively through the proceedings.
He stops his own pulse, he moves the hands on a watch forward an hour, he knows where people have been on holiday; not even four layers of tape sticking coins to his eyes can stop him knowing the serial number on a banknote he's never seen before. It's what he calls "paying attention" to abilities most people have lost, or never had.
That's what's troubling me. That he knows so much about me just from the way I've entered the hotel, from the fact I'm 10 minutes late, the language I use when I apologise.
This is someone who has claimed that the first impressions he has about someone are usually pretty accurate. My first impressions of him - well, to play him in a film it would need a combination of Danny DeVito for size, Rob Reiner for kosher ebullience, and Billy Crystal for seductive power of the mouth. Plus a little bit of Umberto Eco, for intellectual mischief.
He's dressed in black, with a trim, slightly exotic beard, and although he's not twinkling and mugging as much as he does on stage, he's still extremely avuncular.
I'm also concerned that this genial looking genie of the mind might want me to think of a number, think of one shape inside another, and that by getting it right, he will knock my miserly suspicion about such antics for a very un-American six.
He might get it wrong, and I'll then wonder if there's something wrong with me - usually when he does this with journalists, he guesses correctly, or correctly enough for the journalist to shake his head in awe.
I decide to try and get through the interview without him doing any kind of "think of a number" demonstration, just to be on the safe side. I pull my tape-recorder out of the small black bag that I hope doesn't brand me in any way as unstable, although Salem seems to be sizing me up as if I might be a tricky customer.
He must have deduced that I in fact consider him to be a tricky customer, or perhaps the 10-minutes-late thing puts me on a list of potential troublemakers. No wonder his act is called Mind Games.
I already know, because I've looked it up, that he is a 53-year-old father of three, with four grandchildren. He looks the disarming part, and he also looks the son of the Rabbi that he is, although I don't detect any obvious signs of his pharmacist mom.
His father died at 41, having worried himself to death caring for those who came to him for help. "It taught me not to turn other people's problems into your own. I do no counselling. No personal guidance. I look after pain and discomfort only for my family."
Has he trivialised his sensitivity, his undeniably uncanny reading of personality, by turning it into frivolous entertainment?
He dismisses the thought. "I like to think of my entertainment as something that gives you pleasure, but also makes you think of the potential of the mind."
Born Moshe Botwinick, as a young boy he was hypersensitive to his surroundings, keen to predict what would happen next in the world around him. Fascinated by Marshall McLuhan's ideas and intuitions and by the sociologist Erving Goffman's use of non-scientific observation to explain contemporary life, he became an academic.
A long career lecturing in psychology and organisational behaviour in various universities led to research work on Sesame Street, ensuring that the show made psychological sense around the world. He worked on jury selection - eventually helping in the O.J. Simspon case - and regularly advises the CIA and the FBI.
"I train them to learn certain non-verbal skills, and when they put my training with their own intuition they have a very powerful tool."
I squirm in my chair.
Always using various mind games and corny gags as a lecturer - he loves puns, Johnny Carson and Monty Python - he presented lively corporate seminars on dry subjects such as the dynamics of the memory and leadership qualities.
Salem says the audience is safe in his hands.
Eventually it turned into a kind of act, a theatre producer spotted him, and by 1997, at last, he'd arrived where he probably always wanted to be. Show business, Broadway, audiences marvelling at his good-natured sorcery.
I nag away sceptically, not quite sure why I'm being sceptical about this magician who does tricks but who freely, or deviously, admits that he does nothing supernatural, para-normal or miraculous.
He smiles with the self-assurance of one who easily eludes being pinned down, who's used to taking people the way he wants to go, who can see suspicion coming a mental mile away.
"I don't care how I'm described. If I'm asked what it is I do, I say I'm a purveyor of mind games. I don't use cards. I don't do levitation. I just care that people are entertained. I don't go to the dark side.
'There's no question of any humiliation. The audience is safe. I'm not going to upset them, I don't do the talking to the dead thing, I don't play on their superstitions, I don't hypnotise, I don't want people to leave the theatre in tears. I like to subvert logical thought but not with evil intent."
I question him about his stage name, which seems to contradict his deadpan claims that there's no mystical hocus-pocus going on.
"It's my wife's maiden name. She's Yemeni by birth. It's the name of peace. Quite a common name, short for Jerusalem. I'm comfortable with the connotations." He says his wife won't let the power he has over an audience go to his head. "At home, there's no Marc Salem."
No question I ask takes him by surprise; or at least, he knows how to make it seem like he's ready for anything. But he's not a mind-reader.
"I don't know what that is. It suggests you can go into a mind and pluck something out that the person is not thinking about. I can focus on a thought that someone is having. I can guide and influence thought, using the tricks of the conjuror, the tricks of advertising, of journalism, of comedy, even of singing. The only thing I don't do is use a stooge, a hidden assistant, or electronics. That would be cheating."
Perish the thought. Eventually, the moment comes. He gets out his pad. He's going to read my mind. He bristles when I point out that journalists always seem to ask for some proof of what he does, and I don't want to do that. He didn't see that coming. It insults him even more than my suggestion that he's a slightly more beguiling Uri Geller.
"Proof?" he snaps, more temperamental artist than upset uncle, "I don't have to prove anything… I don't have to prove I can entertain. That's all I'm doing. I don't have to undergo any kind of laboratory studies to prove one way or another what I do is authentic, because I never claim that it is or isn't."
I give in. He asks me to think of a number. He gets it wrong, but that's all part of the way he folds distracting vulnerability and modesty into his act, and learns about my way of thinking. He asks for a double-digit number. This he gets right. I've been delicately hoodwinked.
He asks for a shape within a shape. He guesses right. I'm so rubbish I said a circle within a triangle. It confirms my worst fears. I'm so predictable, I'm not as complex and interesting as I would like to be, I'm just part of some measly, ordered pattern of humanity.
"No, you should be pleased you're a straightforward human-being and you're not psychotic. The fact is, the smarter you are, the easier you are to work with. The people I find it hard to work with are the dumb, the drunk, the drug-addled, the paranoid, the very young, the people who can't hold a thought, the ones who think they can outwit me."
He asks for a number from one to four. He writes down a number.
I say two. He reveals what he wrote. It says, "All geniuses choose three." He explains that 90 per cent of people say three. Now I'm mortified that I'm not predictable. He chuckles, with just a hint of the sinister.
"I can't win," he shrugs. I decide that this just was his way of punishing me for being 10 minutes late.
So how does he do it ? I'm not sure if I find the whole thing totally entertaining because I'm always frustrated that it's all so secretive, as much an annoying con as something weird and wonderful.
"I don't want to cause anxiety or frustration. I try and dissipate that with humour. I don't want what I do to be a puzzle that gives you a headache. But I do think it's important that there is mystery in the world. I think we live in a world where we reveal too much. Mystery is good."
Marc Salem opens at the Tricycle Theatre (020 7328 1000) on Aug 31.