I had a discussion about magic props with my mother recently that completely caught me by surprise.
"I'm trying to find an old Ouija Board." (which, by the way, has a super-interesting history.)
"Are you out of your @#~!% mind?" was the response from my mom. (She probably didn’t ACTUALLY say that, but imagining a 72-year-old woman telling me I'm "out of my @#~!% mind" is hilarious, so we're gonna go with it. Sorry Mom.)
My family isn’t big into the supernatural. I would classify my family as barely religious, maybe mildly superstitious, but that's about it. Ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and the like were always more-or-less dismissed as nonsense used to scare kids or entertain adults. So, I was surprised when my mom started to take a guarded interest in me searching out a Ouija board.
Of course, I started to ask questions. My mom told me that when she was younger, she was at a sleepover with some girls from school, and one of them had brought a "talking board” with her.
Of course, the teenage girls attempted to see if they could make contact with...well, something. Mom said that they had some garbled half-words appear, but for the most part, it was a very uneventful teenage seance.
But after, when my mom started telling her family about the board (and how boring it was), things got weird. My mom’s aunt lectured them on how Ouija Boards are evil and they're vehicles for demons to take hold of you and use you for their bidding against the Holy Lord and Saviour. I realized that, as my mom told this story, this reaction from her aunt was more disturbing to her than the actual board itself.
She told me this story as a warning: not so much against the evils of the Ouija Board itself, but the responses from people when you associate yourself with one. But this reaction is understandable, right? Because a lot of people think Ouija boards can be used to receive messages from the Great Beyond.
But do Ouija boards actually send you messages?
Well, in a way, yes. But they don’t come from the spirit world.
Heads up. This might be a little gruesome for some.
Something that could’ve been much worse than it wound up being, but nonetheless caused me panic and anxiety.
I cut my thumb.
Now a few of you might be sitting there thinking, “That’s it? All this build-up for a cut on his thumb? What kind of wimp is this guy?”
But the truth is, it was a relatively deep cut that required a trip to the ER. And while I had the option of stitches, I opted for a quick glue-job to hold it together. Why? Because in less than twenty-four hours, I had a show to do and I didn’t want stitches, bandages, or any other medical paraphernalia getting in my way. So, a quick dab of surgical glue and a doctor’s warning of “this will probably leave a scar” later, I was all sealed up and sent on my merry way.
How’d it happen? Well, I was digging through the garage looking for all the tools needed to swap over my winter tires to the summer treads in preparation for my upcoming summer Fringe schedule. I came across a broken mason jar which promptly fell on my thumb, slicing me good. Luckily it was a pretty clean (albeit deep) cut, so it was already starting to heal together on the way to the hospital. But there was a sense of urgency and fear the whole trip there.
Recently, my fiance and I were sitting with in my living room with a magically-inclined friend of mine. We had spent the afternoon discussing a few projects we all had on the go, and like these discussions usually do, we all went off on our unique tangents into stories, Youtube videos, and archival photos in our various social media profiles. You know what that’s like, right? Of course you do.
Now despite this wizard-friend knowing me for at least two or three years, she was unaware of my previous lives that have led me to the current magic-and-mentalism-based career I’ve chosen. Just to catch you up, before I was a professional mentalist, I was a baseball player, a bartender, an undergraduate scientist, an actor, and improviser, and of all things, a poster-child for the University of Lethbridge (which, in fact, was the direct result of my combined expertise in the “scientist” and “baseball player” fields...Maybe I’ll tell that story at a later date, but for now, back to the original story).
But, as we carried on our discussions about all things magic-related, I realized how the process of making magic and the process of scientific discovery are basically the same. (Well, at least to me.) The tools I used to carry out research as an undergrad at the U of L were more or less the same steps I had been using to create the magic that had been put into my shows for the past six(ish) years. So, in an effort to help us all be better magicians (or scientists...or both?) I’m going to outline how the famous (cue bold, dramatic voice-over) SCIENTIFIC METHOD shapes everything I do to get my magic on stage.
Disclaimer: What follows is grossly oversimplified, both from a “making magic” standpoint, as well as “this is how science works” standpoint (after all, my goal is to entertain you with internet ramblings). If you want more about the scientific method, there’s a great video here.
When most people see or hear about what I do, there's a batch of inevitable questions that I expect to encounter from curious audience members. They have different variations, but they're all usually based in one of the following:
"How did you do that?!"
Can't tell you. If I did, not only would I be an absolutely terrible mentalist, but I can guarantee you'd be utterly disappointed.
"Tell me: does what you do give you an edge with the ladies?"
Nope. I'm just as scared of women and rejection as the next guy. (Luckily, I've managed to trick one into thinking I'm awesome, so I don't have to worry about it anymore.)
"But really though, do you have, like, intuition, or something?"
No. Although every once in a while, I manage to know exactly what the aforementioned lady wants for dinner before she says anything.
"How did you get into doing this? How does one become a mentalist?"
I like to think that the answer they're expecting is something like, "Well, I was an ambitious student at the Institute Of Magick And Mind-Reading in London where I spent unfathomable time and tuition dollars on honing this particular craft. Once I graduated, I decided to break my oath to keep my powers a secret in order to come here, tonight, and entertain you." The inquirer usually has a look of disappointment when I tell them that I learned how to do what I do by simply reading and research, rather than some fantastic story about attending a special school, being born with childhood "powers," or running away to join a circus and befriend a psychic gypsy-lady. From a distance, becoming a mentalist or magician looks an awful lot like getting a college degree. Research, read everything you find, practice what you've learned, and go back and re-learn when you make a mistake. While "I learned it from a book," is a very simplified explanation, it's basically how it is. At least, that's how I acquired the skills to be a mentalist. But, the steps that lead me there are far more interesting.
After hearing this question a bit more than usual lately, I began to think about it a little more thoroughly. So, I've decided to give you, dear reader, a step-by-step guide of how Jeff Newman: Mentalist came to be.
When I wrap up a show, I like to talk to my audience. I like stick around the venue, thank the people who hired me, the people I involved in the show, and generally try and have as many conversations as I can with people from the crowd.
I do this for a few reasons. I always ask if people enjoyed the experience, and truly listen to their compliments and criticisms. I also like to stick around and help maintain the fun atmosphere I just spent so much time and energy to create. But mostly, I like to show my audience that I'm a real, live, approachable human. It's not unusual to have people approach me with a sideways glance and say something like "Wow, you really freak me out," or "do you have...you know...a 'gift'?" after a show. While it's not a regular thing, it does happen from time to time. But, I tell them it's all just a show, they laugh, we have ourselves a merry little time and, for the most part, it stops there.
I say "for the most part" because every once in a while, I get something a little more unusual. I've had people voice their concerns about how what I do is...well, not looked upon well in some religious circles. I'm aware that people who do what I do traditionally had that spooky, occult-ish connotation about them, but things have changed a little since the Days of Yore. Now, instead of spirits, ghosts, or other oogie-boogies being claimed as the "source of someone's power," it's psychology, or neuro-linguistic programming, or suggestion, or even just something as simple as luck. I myself say that everything I do is through "science, suggestion, and good old-fashioned trickery." I'm simply deceiving you. The reality I'm presenting you with is a false one; I've left out a few steps to make my silly little tricks seem a little more impossible. (This idea of having a 'disclaimer' in a mentalism act isn't a new one...but we'll touch on this at a later date, mm-kay? Mm-kay.)
For the most part, this explanation puts those concerned for my eternal soul at ease. They realize that I'm doing what I do through entirely natural and not-evil means, and that my only goal is to make sure everyone enjoys themselves.
There's that pesky "for the most part," again. Why is it there? Because, one night, after doing a public show, a patron handed me a mess of paper. I hastily jammed it into my pocket and cleared my stage. When I finally looked at it, I was, shall we say, surprised.
Yep. That right there, is two pages from the Bible (from Luke, more specifically) and a index card reading:
"Did you call your Mother? Evil will not win. Love is stronger. I pray for your eternal soul, Jeff Newman. You were born a human being. Do not return here. I will bring others."